Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sorry, I’ve never riesled

He is always in black, which matches his long, flowing hair, goatee and baritone voice. In a ’70s horror flick, he would have played the coven’s high priest—one who does not understand the director’s order of Cuuuut! Or that he is acting in a movie. “But the sacrifice is not yet complete! It is Walpurgis Night!”

Today, he sells wine at my neighborhood liquor store.

His gaze is penetrating as he describes the personality of any wine, and he probably knows all the spirits, too. (They’re the tenured faculty of the Wiccan seminary.) And he is coldly serious as he holds forth about each wine’s complexity, acidity, aromas and other characteristics. I learned this after my wife, Elena, stopped in to ask him to recommend a wine we could serve with a given dish to company. For some reason I cannot fathom, she added this challenge: “My husband won’t be happy if I come home with the wrong wine.” She later reported that he began to stare. Very intently.

All of which meant that when she brought me to him, a few days later, his spigot was open all the way. “I find this one très elegante, a full-bodied bouquet of blackberry, cherry and currant, with an intense yet delicate aroma of oak.” As he spoke, one hand was gesturing; in the other, he seemed to be holding and staring wistfully into a glass of the stuff.

“Uh huh,” I said with a nod, trying to play along. Elena wasn’t doing much better, but she wasn’t the one granted the imprimatur of expertise.

“Or perhaps this Chianti, medium-bodied yet full-flavored,” he added as if recalling the company of a long-ago friend. “The delicate nose speaks of berry jam with floral hints and country nuances.”

I thought to ask how that worked anatomically but decided to take instead what, for me, was the high road. “Which one costs less?”

To the country-club set living all around us, he must seem a high priest of wine. The trouble is that such pretensions are wasted on the likes of me. I enjoy a good glass of wine, but if I wanted to pretend I knew the difference between Chablis and Riesling I’d have applied to work at Wine Enthusiast magazine, which is walking distance from the house. Mostly I make fun of the seriousness of it all and, now and then, pick some random wine myself just to see his expression.

And though I’d never act on it, I’ve been plotting to ask him, with all seriousness, whether a Merlot or a Pinot noir would go better with Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Or in what proportions I should mix red and white wine to make rosé. If I ever indulge this fantasy, I’d better have someone hold the door open: He’s certain to be a good shot with a dagger.

On days I truly feel too intimidated to meet his withering gaze, I remind myself I have an alternative. Even closer to home is another liquor store where I can pick up a wine of some vague hue without feeling I’ll say the wrong thing and end up manacled to a wall in the basement. So I haven’t exactly been worrying about the guy.

To tell the truth—for once—something came over me one day that I passed the store, on the way to the supermarket. I hadn’t realized I was habitually looking in to see if he was there, as if I believed I would one day spot him doing something completely out of character, such as laughing or doing anything whatsoever with a cellphone. He would invariably be there, whatever the day or time, as long as the liquor store was open. But this time I saw someone else. The next time, too. Was the high priest gone?

Whatever his name was, I realized I had misjudged this fellow and decided the world needed more people like him. If everyone felt such pride on the job and strove for excellence, the world would be a better place.

I was still wishing him a job as a sommelier at some exclusive Manhattan restaurant when I learned that he didn’t need a new job at all. My revelation came when we decided to drive to a local restaurant for dinner, and neither car would start—and not just because they’re old. Their distributor wires were missing.

Strung to the front door were a lifeless bird and a sprig of woodbine.

And under the door was an invitation. A limousine would soon arrive to take me, alone, to an unspecified event at our local cemetery. Since I would be guest of honor, I suspect I know who sent the invitation.

I daresay he’s taught me a bit about wine, but I guess I’ve taught him something, too. I’m no virginal, nubile female, the usual candidate for human sacrifice. But as with wine, sometimes anyone will do.