The Beauty of Boxed Wine and Other Life Lessons
When in doubt be an arrogant nincompoop.
In the absence of anything else to be snooty about, I picked wine.
After graduating from college in San Diego, I moved north to Berkeley, California. Sure, I wanted a new adventure; but really it was to follow a boy, my first ‘real’ boyfriend. He was both an atheist and a bartender; I thought he was cool. So, I moved to Berkeley, lived with some roommates in a gorgeous old home, and looked for a job. But I didn’t look for a ‘real’ job. I wanted to write my important novel. Money, I figured, was only needed to feed, clothe, and house myself. I had waited tables in college, thus a job in a restaurant seemed the perfect choice. After some false starts, I found a pretty good one at a fancy place on the bay. That was where my snootiness began.
From the land of snoot
I’m from Orange County, California. Snootiness, you may think, comes with the zip code. In some ways, you’d be right. I did know someone with an elevator in her house, a tennis court, workout room, a huge pool, and an absurd amount of candy on hand for any occasion. But, as my parents often reminded my sister and I, money does not grow on trees. There’s no doubt I lived in a privileged world, with lots of advantages. However, we drove old cars, pinched pennies, clipped coupons, bought as much as we could on-sale or at Costco, and eschewed fancy things. My parents didn’t drink a lot of alcohol. but when they did, my mom drank a glass of Franzia’s finest white zinfandel, and my dad sipped a cold Coors Light.
They were not cool. Not to 22-year-old me anyway. I had a grown-up boyfriend, was living on my own, had a job, and was following my writing dream. Never mind that their fiscal responsibility and careful saving had meant I didn’t have any college debt to pay off. Never mind that they’d launched me — ungrateful me — into the world with as much generosity as any two people could possibly manage. I wasn’t mad at them. I wasn’t rebelling. The truth is, I wasn’t much of anything. The only thing I knew how to do at that moment in time was define myself by what I wasn’t. I wasn’t, for example, someone who would drink white zinfandel from a box.
Waiting and winning
The restaurant I worked at had white linen tablecloths and an excellent sunset view over the water. To motivate the servers to sell particular menu items, the management would often run contests. The prizes were trips to bed and breakfasts, expensive bottles of wine, or gift certificates to here or there. I won many of them. For whatever reason, I’m good at selling things. I have a knack for sounding like I know what I’m talking about. So when I recommended the halibut cheeks as the best thing on the menu, people believed me. They were happy. I was happy. And I took home a few really good bottles of wine.
But, here’s the problem with that. I don’t know if the wine was good or not. I just knew it was expensive. People who did know what they were talking about thought the wine was great. They were willing to pay big bucks for it. So, it must be good, right?
I remember a cold night, when my boyfriend and I set wood ablaze in the fireplace of the gorgeous old house, made soup, and opened a bottle of Opus One. I can’t describe to you what a $200 bottle of wine actually tastes like. But I can tell you I couldn’t get the cork out. Me, a waitress, failed to cleanly extract the cork. We had to push it into the bottle in order to drink it. (Wine connoisseurs are probably crying right now.) That is not how one should treat a good bottle of wine — a once-in-a-lifetime bottle of wine — but that’s what happened.
I knew a little, a very little, about wine. Enough to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I could tell you about varietals and what went better with fish or steak. But, beyond that, I had no expertise. But, I thought I did. I wanted to. I wanted to know something — anything. Mixed up, launched into the world, but filled with self-doubt, I needed to feel powerful in some way.
Snoot and a nincompoop
Sometime during these years, I visited my parent’s house. I must have made a face when my mom poured a glass of white zinfandel from the handy box. I probably said something like, “Pink wine . . . Really? From a box?” Convinced of my own superiority in this matter, I declined a glass. “No, thanks. I’ll have water,” I might have said. Meanwhile, I went to call the boyfriend from the bedroom just to make sure he knew how unhappy I was to be away from him.
With 20 years distance from this moment, I shake my head. What an idiot I was. What a conceited, ridiculous, ungrateful, nincompoop! Who was that girl? Who did she think she was looking down at her parents for any reason whatsoever? The truth is, I have no excuse — only youth, and insecurity, and broken visions of a shining adulthood swathed in success. I had no success to speak of. I’d achieved an internship with a magazine, and had some work published. I’d finished a (bad) novel. The boyfriend, I discovered after a few years, though still a bartender and still an atheist, wasn’t cool. When I’d had enough of figuring out who I was not, I left Berkeley and moved to San Diego to live with my grandmother.
But, it would take many years for the weight of the gratitude I owe my parents to sink into my thick skull. Twenty years later, as my mom sipped red wine, poured from the box I have in my own kitchen, I can’t help but be reminded of the jerk I was. Maybe it’s because every time my mom and I have a glass of wine together she says some version of, “You were such a snob about wine! No boxed wine for you back then.”
I try and explain, that was then; I was dumb. Clearly, I shouldn’t have said those things, shouldn’t have thought those things. But the truth is, wine was all I had. It was the only thing I knew that they didn’t, or so it seemed. Knowing a little bit about wine was the little bit of something I could cling to. It was a differentiator, a sign that I was my own person. As is so often the case, I didn’t know that until much later. Maybe it’s too late to make up for being a snot when I should have been grateful.
But, here I am today. Writer. Mother. Homeowner. Runner. Friend. Wife. Thought leader. Gratitude-practitioner. Box-wine-drinker. Reformed nincompoop. That’s me.