The delicate art of buying wine

… when everyone in town knows you’re gonna drink it alone.

By this stage, it’s no secret that I habitually enjoy a few glasses of wine (in front of me, simultaneously, as I dutifully finish the bottle) while in the privacy of my home after a long day of writing and the sadistic four foot commute from my desk to my couch. This regular wine consumption is one of those charming, some say ‘fruity’, habits that I brought home after living in Europe for almost four years, in addition to refusing to ever own a car again, coffee addiction and pronouncing words that are new to me using Latin vowel rules which is never right in English and just makes me sound pompous. I still cant seem to say ‘Conde Nast’ right.

When I buy wine at home, it is done with delightful anonymity at a wine/liquor store just a few blocks from my condo in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Though they are ever attentive and kind, even after a year of my frequent custom and well over a $1,000 in wine and Strongbow purchases, there’s nary a wee hint of familiarity when I heave my items onto the checkout counter. I love this, because that means there’s no probing chit-chat about the special occasion that calls for yet another case of Strongbow, only six days since I was last seen hauling a case out the door or how much my extended family must have loved those sale-priced Chiantis, when I return only days later to once again to buy as much as I can comfortably carry.

leifinactionI’m not overly concerned with appearances, as even a quick glance into my closet will confirm, but I found myself more than a little self-conscious on the morning of my departure from Montalcino, when I resolved to buy some can’t-say-no bargain Brunello di Montalcino in the main piazza. Drawing on my years of method actor training, I have resolutely assumed the quiet, rumpled dignity and unrelenting focus required of my guidebook writer persona – a ‘get a load of Rainman’ like manner that excuses me from acknowledging any trace of social embarrassment as I walk-trot from place to place with my Palm Pilot in one hand and my GPS-ready cell phone in the other amongst relaxing locals and vacationers. But I was feeling exceedingly self-conscious on this morning, after having been introduced to the whole of Montalcino the previous evening and they were all fully aware that I was quite alone and charged with writing detailed, accurate and, ideally, sober travel information about their town.

I’d taken drinks and dinner that night with Jena, an American expat and Montalcino resident of eight years, who I made mildly famous when I featured her as a ‘Local Voice’ in the current edition of Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria. Jena is, as we like to say in travel writing, a character. Lovely, warm, loud, passionate. She has taken on (or has always had, I can’t say for sure) all the stereotypical characteristics of a strong Italian woman – with a hair-raising zap of her own already robust enthusiasm. She is without a doubt a leading Montalcino personality. In a scorching two hours of rapid-fire banter, sometimes carrying on three concurrent conversations, we encountered and mingled with virtually all of Montalcino, who, in turn, met me and learned of my noble duty to report on all that is great in Tuscany.

The next day, I felt the eyes of the town on the back of my neck as I completed my research and, not wanting to pass up the cheapest Brunello prices in the world, decided that I would take away a bottle of liquid memories on my way to the car. Strangely, the overwhelmingly wine-focus Italians view drinking alone, even in moderation, as being somewhat eccentric. Even the dedicated winos do their drinking at their local café, where despite it just being them and the barista at 9:30 in the morning, they are nevertheless drinking in a social situation, so they’re exonerated. Knowing this, I was keenly aware of the implications and interpretations of marching through town, carrying a Brunello that all in attendance knew that I would drink single-handedly in a distant hotel room in the very near future.

A collective hush descend on four busy café terraces in the square as I entered the shop. I quickly made my purchase and hustled out the door carrying my bottle in a conspicuously large, cardboard carrying case that the cashier insisted on giving me, rather than permitting my carefully laid plan to shove it up my pant leg. Eyebrows on some 87 people arched, while they tracked my retreat down Montalcino’s main street. The usual smattering of little old ladies leaning out their windows, monitoring street goings on while their laundry dries, was unusually abundant as I made for the car, their expressionless faces slowly turning, staying fixed on me as I passed, judging, tutting, condemning.

I picked up the pace once I was in the parking lot on the edge of town, leaping and sliding across the hood of my car Dukes of Hazard style (which ain’t easy on the snub-nosed Fiat Panda), clamored into the driver’s seat and roared down the hill (which also ain’t easy in a Panda), taking a 15 kilometer detour around the city, rather than driving back through the center.

Years from now, they’ll still talking about the devilishly handsome, lonely, gringo that blew through town one day in 2009. Despite being a sad, closet drinker, his guidebook jottings saved everyone from financial ruin and indentured servitude to the evil mega-ranch owner, not to mention the 20 minute running gun fight with the rancher’s henchmen, where 4,246 rounds were fired from automatic weapons and all the henchmen were disarmed and captured without a single person getting shot. And then, like a one-man A-Team, he was suddenly gone.

Despite these heroics, I’ll have to decline the LP Tuscany job in 2011, since I can never set foot in Montalcino again, what with their long memories and legendary café gossip, repeating the tales of my alcoholism like historical legend, passed down orally from generation to generation as was the custom before there was mobile phone text messaging.

And yes, I opened that Brunello the very same evening, an exquisite, palette-humping 2004 (14% alcohol volume!), that cost a mere 18 euros or about US$24. Per the careful instructions I received in the shop, I opened it and waited for two of the longest hours of my life while it ‘breathed’ or ‘wheezed’ or whatever, then, after showering and putting on my best underwear, we climbed into bed together and made the kind of sweet love that only a man and a good bottle of wine can make. Well, if you wanna split hairs, I suppose there’s a second kind…

[PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Mardis]