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Grand Prize Writing: “Tasting Class”

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Grand Prize Photography: "The Wave" by Mike Barbee

Grand Prize Photography: “The Wave” by Mike Barbee

by Nicholas Gustavson

“It’s not the age of wine that matters,” Jack my wine tasting teacher was saying. “It’s how it ages. I bought all these Cabs back in ’84, a fine year for Napa. Some of these vintages will be accessible, and some will be . . . geriatric.”

We chuckled. We were gathered in the living room of Jack’s house in the Tree Section, a varied group of South Bay residents, a few “kids” like me—twentysomethings barely out of college, several middle-aged couples with mortgages and teenagers at Mira Costa, and a few old salts older than the Chevron oil refinery. We were united in our desire to drink the bottles Jack had unearthed from his private cellar.

I was sitting on a sofa, wedged between my girlfriend Hanna and Duffy Whipple, one of the old timers. Duffy was a local at Mermaids and had spent many years in France reporting on the vineyards for Wine Lover’s Magazine. Now it seemed he just sat around Hermosa Pier getting sauced. He had it out for Jack.

Jack didn’t give the best French translations, and Duffy lost no time explaining the difference between “vent” the French word forwind and the true term “vingt” for the twentieth chateaux of the Le Roi. Duffy loved correcting him, especially when the wine flowed, Jack’s wine.

Jack’s tasting class met once a week, each time at a different South Bay home, sort of a moveable feast of wine and cheese. The class wasn’t found in a brochure or magazine calendar section; you had to know Jack to get invited. My girlfriend attended regularly, and she insisted I come once she learned my idea of social drinking meant sharing a Shark Attack, the party bucket Sharkeez serves with a souvenir toy shark.

Each week Jack covered a different wine producing region. Last week he bored us to death with Barossa Valley Shiraz, so we were desperate for Cabernet night. And so the Cab flowed, acidic and magnificent, my glass so delicately poured at the evening’s

beginning, now splashing as I reached for the cheese, trading barbs with Duffy about aging. He’s got white whiskers and I can barely grow a mustache.

“Okay, last bottle,” Jack said, pouring the final Cabernet into our eager glasses. We were all tipsy by that time. The talk turned to music and we discovered Jack was also a huge punk fan. His eyes lit up as he talked about The Clash, and then he moved on to post-punk. He said music, like wine, fascinated him when it matured. He said Joy Division was a great example, and somewhere in his cellar he had a mint copy of their first EP “An Ideal for Living.”

I saw Hanna’s eyes light up, as she’d recently discovered vinyl. She asked him how he came by the record, and Jack waxed nostalgic about buying it back in 1978, a gift for a girl who rejected him and the record too. He said he’d never played it. I had a hard time imagining Jack, pining over a girl and getting denied. Now he seemed to have everything. The talk grew louder and Ned and Kirsten moved to the den and played darts. Hanna leaned closer to Jack and asked him about barrel tasting.

She’d seen barrel tasting photos on Instagram and she ached to try it. She laughed at something Jack said, and slapped my leg so hard I dropped my wine glass. My drunk classmates cried “Party Foul!” and Jack rushed in with a dustbin and told me not to worry. I made for the kitchen. Jack had one of those Spanish themed cocinas with chunky Mexican tile he’d purchased in Rosarito. I noticed the refrigerator door ajar and Polly Swindon leaning inside, her thin bohemian dress flowing behind her like a sash.

“I can’t find the maraschino cherries,” she said, wobbling on her heels. She rarely brought her husband to tasting class and I hadn’t seen him here tonight. Polly spent her days teaching yoga or shopping on Ocean Drive. At forty-five, she’d preserved her youthful body, and her face, if you didn’t mind Botox. I found the cherry jar, hidden behind the tapenade. Polly smiled and pointed over my shoulder.

“What’s that?” she gasped. I turned and saw something scurry along the backyard fence. Giggling, we pushed through Jack’s broken screen door to investigate. The summer night felt warm and Polly’s perfume smelled like vanilla. A possum popped through the hedge and hissed at us. Polly shrieked and I put my arms around her. She turned and popped a maraschino cherry in my mouth.

“There’s so much I could teach you, college boy,” she whispered. I wasn’t in college anymore, but it didn’t seem appropriate to correct her. She slipped me a cocktail napkin and tottered inside. I opened it and saw she’d written her Tinder username on it. I didn’t even have that app.

Duffy joined me outside, puffing on a pipe. “Hope Jack doesn’t mind the smoke.”

I shrugged.

“You think Hanna’s the one?”

“That’s such an old man question, Duffy.”

“That’s such a teenager response, kid.”

I thought about it, but I couldn’t get Polly’s cherry out of my mind.

“Maybe,” I said. “Where’s your one, old timer?”

Duffy told me about his French girl, the daughter of a vintner from the Loire Valley. She left him for a son of another vintner. I asked him how long ago, and he said the same year as Jack’s Cabernet. I told him to put a cork in it, and he told me

to fetch him another drink.

Later, I couldn’t find Hanna. Then I saw her and Jack emerge from a back hallway, laughing.

“You’ve been gone an hour,” I said. “Where were you?”

“Didn’t you see my Instagram?”

“We’re in the same house, why would I check Instagram?”

“Jack found his Joy Division record!” she said. “He let me take a selfie with it. I posted it—didn’t you see? He’s got an ottoman down there and an open bottle of ’82 Chateau Margaux. We had a drink while he searched for the record. God, what a house.”

I burned with jealousy. What did Jack have that I didn’t? Everything, actually. Except age. Hanna moved on to admiring Jack’s samurai collection. I topped off another glass.

The next morning at work, my forehead jackhammered and I had difficulty cutting up Mr. Ouellette’s Viagra pills. He insisted we half his pills to 25 mg when he picked up his prescription, claiming the full dosage made him too perky. Mr. Ouellette was eighty-five years old and the thought of him using the pills disgusted all the pharmacy techs, but he secretly impressed me, having passed his maturity date, uncorked but still drinkable.

I didn’t hear from Hanna after work. I crashed watching Game of Thrones and I woke up later, panicking from a bad dream about dwarves and Dornish wine. I checked my phone; 2 a.m. and Hanna hadn’t called. I checked her Instagram page. There was the selfie she’d taken in Jack’s cellar—her face beaming, holding up the record sleeve. Jack stood behind her, corkscrewing a bottle.

I tried zooming in on the label but the app wouldn’t let me. It didn’t matter; I already knew it was the ‘82 Margaux, and he’d opened it just for her.

We were scheduled to meet at Jack’s house the following week. Jack didn’t open his door when we knocked. We called him, texted him, Facebooked him, Tweeted him but he didn’t respond. Maybe he was running late. He still worked occasionally,

consulting mostly. The night felt warm, so most of us decided to wait for him outside. Duffy produced a bottle opener and Polly found some plastic cups in her car. Soon we were drinking Rosé on the curb. Polly wore a sundress and looked tanner than last week.

She sat down next to me, and Hanna didn’t seem to notice her resting her elbow on my shoulder. The sunlight faded and Jack didn’t turn up. Duffy suggested dinner, so we piled in our cars and hit up a new Italian place in the Riviera. After dinner, Ned suggested a night cap on the Redondo Pier. Polly begged off, saying she doesn’t do the Redondo Pier.

The rest of us found ourselves on top of Old Tony’s, drinking Mai Tais and listening to a one man band. I couldn’t believe their Mai Tais came with a free souvenir glass. Where the hell was Jack? We kept circling back to his absence. After an hour, I’d horded a collection of Mai Tai glasses under my seat.

“I’m gonna re-stock my cupboard!” I said. Hanna glared bullets.

Ned’s phone hummed and he reached for it and knocked it off the bar top. We laughed as he rooted around on the floor. He was red faced drunk, but when he stood up he looked whiter than Polly’s teeth. He showed us his phone—a text from one of the older classmates saying Jack was dead.

Fog wrapped Old Tony’s windows, trapping us inside. We shouted at Ned to stop messing with us. He shook his head and swore. Hanna ran out of the bar. I followed her down the steps, but I couldn’t find her in the fog. She’d driven us here, so I wandered over to the parking garage and her car was gone.

I Uber’d home. The driver talked too much, and I thought about downloading Tinder. I ended up texting Polly: “Okay, teach this college boy.” She didn’t text back.

We found out later Jack suffered a heart attack and died in his cellar. He’d been dead for three days before someone found him, the cold air preserving his body at proper wine storage temperature. The weird part is he was lying there undiscovered while we sat outside drinking wine on his curb.

They didn’t have enough chairs for us at the funeral. Afterwards, we passed around a bottle of Tempranillo in the parking lot. Someone asked if we should meet next week, but we knew it was over.

“I heard they found a whole crap load of Viagra in his system,” Ned’s wife was saying, “I didn’t realize he was so kinky.”

Hanna sat by herself, tears streaming down her face. She cleared her throat and said, “I didn’t realize he needed it.”

They all looked at me. I handed the bottle back to Duffy and walked off.

On my way home, Polly texted. “7 p.m. Mangiamo’s. School time.”

I drove home and checked myself in the mirror, and decided to put on a tie. Polly might like that. A touch of class. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Jack died. How much Viagra would it take to stop a man’s heart? I had figured at least 200 times Mr. Ouellette’s dosage, but I needed something potent to mask the taste, something with a decadent bouquet, like a ’82 Margaux. It’d be easy. The possum had already shown the way through Jack’s hedge, and if the broken screen door stood ajar, I could find the cellar with the half empty bottle still sitting there on the ottoman where he’d seduced my girlfriend. Jack must have thought it tasted strange, loaded with 5000 mg, but he drank it anyway, until his chest tightened like a wine press.

Behind me in the mirror I could see my new collector’s item hanging on the wall, a mint condition Joy Division first EP. I’d have to hide it soon, but I liked the way it looked. Maybe I’ll hang it up someday when I get my own cellar. Maybe I’ll hide it now in plain sight, buy a turntable, some records.

I’d have to take the vinyl out of the sleeve and play it a few times, but I wasn’t sure, maybe the grooves hadn’t matured well, maybe it would sound geriatric. B

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