"I ain’t no connoisseur cat/Some kind of sewer rat.” ‘Red, Red Wine’ –The Replacements
Or so says Westerberg, or some other such irretrievable gibberish, which naturally lodged in my cerebral cortex at an impressionable age, and then became an insoluble personal reality. I should have chosen my heroes with more care, or at least some remote semblance of consequence. But that ship has long since sailed, and now I too am kind of like a sewer rat.
So: six of the finest words in the English language in succession: “free and open to the public.” A well-curated menu of events can provide an enterprising freeloader with a veritable banquet of elegant delights. But step lively! There are challenges — manifold and daunting — to the offer of free libations. One careless motion on this swaying high wire can carry the gravest of consequences. Don’t look down, friends! It’s a long fall, and do observe: there is no net.
All of this I discovered several weeks ago, when I resolved to undertake a brash, feral odyssey into the very racing heart of complimentary public drinking. Three wine tastings, three separate locales, one resolute stalwart with the bloodless constitution of a champion. I do not think it is any exaggeration to say that the wisdom I gained on that day carries with it the power to change lives. I share it all with you now, that you may better exert agency over your leisure.
An Unnamed West Chelsea Wine Store
The first thing that should be understood about wine tastings is that there are certain elements of false advertising, double dealing and even bait-and-switch to these events. The ostensible guarantee of gratis booze and snacks comes with multiple echelons of subtle gate-keeping. You may think the wine merchants want nothing more than to festoon every booze-addled miscreant who stumbles past their open doors with alcohol, but in fact many hidden measures are in place to avoid this. If it is your intention to get drunk for free at a wine tasting, you are going to need to pass yourself off as legitimate. For one thing, style of dress can be important. Regardless of the temperature, you absolutely always must wear a shirt.
I myself like to carry a very large black bag with me everywhere. That’s my personal decision. It weighs, at any given time, between 30 and 50 pounds and contains items of deep, intrinsic value to me, which I will not enumerate here in the interests of space and the preservation of mystique. But the point is, this is not the kind of thing you should bring to a wine tasting. There is a terrible, endemic suspicion of homelessness at these events. If it appears you are carrying most of your worldly possessions with you, then you’re angling for the short shrift. Don’t shoot the messenger; I don’t like it any better than you do.
I went to a wine and spirits store on Tenth Avenue in Chelsea. I was, I felt, very nattily attired for the occasion. Turtleneck, vest, pleated khakis, an argyle sash. The “tasting table” was assembled right by the entrance, three bottles spread across it: a Champagne, a Chardonnay and maybe some kind of Merlot. Manning it was a young, slightly bookish brunette with tortoise-shell glasses. She seemed a little bored, a touch melancholy and was — I felt — ripe for a dose of my special charm. Straightening my sash and centering my belt buckle, I approached, feigning nonchalance, although so extreme was my thirst at that moment that I would have happily dived into a treacherous, churning wave pool of rich Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Hmmm,” I offered, with a raised eyebrow, sly grin and insinuating nod towards the server, “doesn’t that look delectable!”
I could not have possibly looked and sounded more the part of a patrician aristocrat. I had practiced my accent for weeks. I was dressed like a 19th-century Swiss banker — practically spilling doubloons. They probably thought I was coming in to buy the place.
Except: then they saw my bag. That’s just exactly how delicate these situations are. The fact that something so minor as an enormous satchel overstuffed with year-old newspapers and half-disintegrated hand towels could totally scuttle so careful a ruse speaks volumes to the remarkable degree of difficulty inherent in such an operation.
I spotted my antagonist at once. He scuttled over cheerless and frowning. He wore an unpersuasive goatee and a nametag reading “Charles.”
“Can I help you?” Charles said, although it was pretty clear that he didn’t really mean to be of any help.
“Just here for the tasting,” I nonchalanted, glancing askance, hoping he would go away.
“That’s quite a bag!” he continued, awash in barely concealed condescension, getting to the heart of the matter, “May I take it for you?”
I should clarify at this point: I don’t let anyone touch my bag. That’s just my thing. Different individuals have different pathologies. Some people are hugely sensitive about other things — say, being shaved by a stranger. However, for the purposes of this story, I was prepared to let the matter go: professionalism is my watchword, and I will take any reasonable measure to vouchsafe Mother Journalism, who is my very wellspring and lifeblood. Sadly, however, the antagonism failed to stop at this juncture. With suspicion of my intentions fully aroused, I found myself on the business end of a probing inquisition: “What sort of thing can I help you find today?” sneered Charles.
Collecting myself, taking the man’s measure, I haughtily rejoined: “I would like an elegant wine with a pure and flowery nose. One perfect for a meal or aperitif.”
The ensuing silence was uncomfortable. The lordly snob Charles was impressed, even chastened, although he no doubt would have been even more so had I not been reading those words directly off a sign on the tasting table. But what could he do, really? Capitulating with a fey wave of the hand, my rival stood down. I had three smallish Dixie cups of some kind of wine with names I can’t pronounce. It was delicious, but the victory felt pyrrhic. But, like the reluctant warrior Achilles, I trudged onward, into the night.
Well Priced Wine in the East Village
Here’s something I didn’t know: some wine tastings have liquor! This was the first of many wondrous surprises which befell me at this veritable 90-proof Narnia of enchantments and spectacles both amazing and frightening in nature.
As I reflect on it now, I still cannot quite understand all the things that happened to me in there. Some of them seem like they must have been imaginary. Surely I did not purchase a bottle of Argentinean Shiraz and a corkscrew for $3.12. Or did I? Somewhere, deep in my pants, I still have the receipt to prove it.
Also: did that security guard really frisk me?! And why was his touch so… potent? So professional, so diligent, so — dare I say — meaningful?
I have nothing to prove that that part happened to me — nothing physical anyway — just the well-burnished memory and a lingering soreness.
This East Village hooch haven is like that. You come as a customer and leave as a patron. You enter thinking you know just what you’d like and that you’ll just ask where to find it. But soon — a reversal. Their well-trained staff will take you on a magical journey through the vast Western expanse of the sun-dappled Napa Valley, through the colors, scents, customs and geography of Chile, down to the exotic beauty of New Zealand and South Africa, and then have you home for dinner at the still-unsurpassed vineyards of Italy.
All of which is tremendously boring of course, if you are just there to get sozzled for free. Nevertheless, this sort of thing is sometimes required in order to conjure an air of legitimacy. Still suffering the sting of my philistine’s sanction in Chelsea, I came to this tasting armed with a few pertinent questions. Questions like this: “I had what was listed as a Pinot Noir on the wine list, but when I asked a local store to locate it they had difficulty. It was listed as Chateau de Premeaux: Pinot Noir, but the guy in the store said it was a Burgundy. Where should I look for this wine?”
Again, I was reading this off an index card, but I think a considerable effect was achieved. The mere fact of my demonstrable literacy seemed to convey a greater sense of currency then that which had been conferred upon me at my previous stop. In fact, I was looked upon with a kind of glowing favor by my tour guide, who mercifully wore neither nametag nor mustache. Also, by this point I had stashed my bag. I did this at one of several locations I prefer to keep secret, lest any wild-eyed chancer elect to take a run at touching it. So, with all the Is dotted and the Ts crossed, I could not but succeed in my ultimate agenda.
Having made a common cause and gained the confidence of my employee/inside man, I did suggest that the two of us take a short look over at the free tasting table in the middle of the cavernous room. He readily agreed that an individual of my formidable knowledge should sample their ample offerings and lend my opinion. This is where it became strange. They were tasting not wine but rum. I had not expected this and took measures to disguise my glee. I even frowned and allowed my body language to sag as we approached the table.
“Oh, what?” my inside man asked me. “Do you not like rum?”
Again I frowned: “Not my favorite,” I riposted sternly, although I would just as soon have immediately placed a rum IV directly into my arm with no qualified medical people present to preside.
“Well, maybe you’ll like this one?” my friend encouraged me, hopefully, pouring a cup of this week’s featured flavor and brand.
I drank. The rum was surpassingly fine. I wanted to buy every bottle, bring them all home, dress them in tiny clothes and tell them that they were all my children.
I said, however, that I wasn’t sold yet and asked for another. It was happily provided. I said I still couldn’t quite get a handle on its quality. So I had yet another. This went on for quite a long time, until eventually I rendered a decision in opposition to the rum and elected instead to buy the three-dollar wine that came with the corkscrew. My opinion was lauded by all present, and I feel I left the store reputed as a man with a working knowledge of wines and the common sense to know the value of a dollar. Still, I was frisked again on the way out.
Bargain Booze in Greenpoint
I just wanted to go home. Yes, I am the champion. I have now defeated every comer and while I can barely spell my name I will not soon be forgotten for the formidable nature of my achievements. Like a once-brilliant boxer, now slow of hand and foot but still only too willing a pugilist, I forge on toward my final destination. There are serious issues at stake. It is luckily just down the block from my home.
The genius of this bargain store is that there is always some kind of tasting going on. You walk in, there is a tasting table set up and employees gleefully swarm, entreating you with liquor. One might look just like Chaplin’s Little Tramp and they would carelessly booze you heartily, expecting nothing more in response than a crazy dance or perhaps a spasm of some kind.
I sometimes wonder if they are even selling anything here. I ask a question about wines and the genial merchants ply me with a special Polish gin said to have similar properties to a substance commonly used to tranquilize cougars. A follow-up inquiry, designed to sound persuasively knowledgeable, is accorded little credence. “Drink, my friend!” the merchant mirthfully assails me. Oh lord, stuck in old Greenpoint again!