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Messages In a Bottle: The Wine Comedy

Dante's hell by Botticelli

This afternoon I poured myself the last of a bottle that had been opened earlier in the week, and wandered to the back yard to relax a little. I must not have slept well the night before, because after a few sips and a few moments in the sun, my eyes became heavy, and their lids fell.

I awoke with a start, and found myself alone on a level plain of grey concrete stretching far and away into the distance. Alarmed, I gulped what was left of my tepid wine, presumably warmed by the sun which now seemed to recede high beyond a veil of haze.

I rubbed my eyes. I stood in a massive empty parking lot, hemmed in on all its distant sides by featureless buildings leaning at crazy angles away from the grainy expanse.

When I finally managed to turn away from this terrifying vista, I found myself nearly in the shadow of the largest superstore I could ever imagine, deserted as the parking lot I stood in, but emblazoned with four-story letters proclaiming “WINE-MART. Always Low Prices. Always.” I could make out through the glare of the windows that the store was stocked to the brim. My footsteps echoed dry and flat against the façade as I approached the doors.

Standing by the entrance, so still he had escaped my roving eye from a distance, stood a man clothed in medieval grey robes, over which he wore a blue vest festooned with various buttons of all shapes and sizes, which proclaimed pithy sayings like “Life is Cabernet,” and “Wine, madam, is God’s next best gift to man,” and which was also emblazoned with a smaller version of the sign towering overhead and a nametag, replete with a bright yellow smiley face and the letters to spell out this apparition’s purpose: Greeter: Dante Alighieri.

Knowing his name loosed my tongue from terror and I cried out: “Dire ghost, have pity on me. I am frightened, and know not how I have come to this place.”

“Yes, a ghost I am indeed,” he replied, “summoned forth to accompany you on a path down which alone you dare not go. A poet was I, but also a lover of the fruits of the vine, and now I bear witness for all eternity to the crimes committed against the soul of that ambrosia we call wine.”

And as he spoke the word “crimes,” his dark eyes flashed from underneath the thick mat of his black hair, and I shuddered as if a cold wind had struck me.

“Poet,” I said, “I hope you are not here to punish me for transgressions I have made. I have tried to love and learn about wine with an open heart and mind, yet I am sure I have scoffed too often at White Zinfandel.”

“That remains to be seen,” he said, and turned to enter the building, beckoning me to follow, which I could not help but do in terror.

Inside the massive edifice, I saw that it was not deserted as I first thought, but populated and thriving with apparitions and shades of varying substance, moving with alacrity through the aisles. Some pushed rickety carts burdened with large gallon jugs of Blue Nun, Thunderbird, and Night Train. Others labored on their feet, nearly crippled with stacks of the heavy boxes that I recognized from my grandfather’s refrigerator, each bearing insignias like Franzia, Sutter Home, and Carlo Rossi, while yet more similarly-burdened crowds waited on checkout lines stretching far into the distance. From each of their lips emerged such sounds of wailing torment, cries of woe, and gnashing of teeth that I cowered close to the grey robes of my guide.

“Master, who are these pitiable souls who rush here and there or stand interminably in torment?” I asked.

“This miserable sea of wretched souls are those who lived without knowledge of wine, nor such curiosity by which they might come by that knowledge. Some never sought to drink more than one kind of wine; others merely drank without notice that which was put before them in boxes and gallons. They are the unfortunates who never cared to damn themselves through snobbery, nor to uplift themselves in appreciation.” He walked on through the building.

“But what makes them lament so bitterly?” I inquired as I followed.

“Perhaps in their infinite confinement, they have realized what paradise they might have had in the exploration of what the world had to offer,” he said, turning to me as we reached a large black door in the rear of the huge space. “Do not concern yourself with this purgatory. There is little to learn here, and you will not share their fate. What you must know lies behind this door.” And with those words he thrust his way through into the inky space behind, and in my fear, despite the warning inscribed in the concrete above that read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” I followed him.

The space we entered was black as night and then blacker still, nearly solid in its darkness. It would have overwhelmed me but for a lamp shining dimly in its center, creating a gentle pool of light which, as we approached through the darkness, illuminated the hunch of a bearded man in a simple cassock next to the top of a quietly humming escalator.

Before I could inquire of my guide the nature of this figure, he called out to our approach, crying “Woe to you, the wicked! Hope not to ever see paradise, for your sins against wine bring you to me, and the very depths of thirst and agony wait for you below.” He pointed down the escalator, toward the red glow that crept over the quietly cascading metal stairs. At his words I shrunk behind the Poet, wondering if I had come this far to be cast down into some vat of boiling wine or other terrible fate.

“Accost us not, Dom Perignon,” said my guide to the baleful monk, “we merely require passage through the lower levels. I bring with me the Messenger.”

At this, the monk’s gaze fell upon me, his fiery eyes bright, and he nodded assent, stepping back beneath the twisted iron and flickering flame of his street lamp, muttering what sounded like “Bubbles, bubbles, more bubbles…”

The escalator carried us down slowly, out of the dark reaches of that black space, away from the memory of the terrible aisles of Wine-Mart, and down through a series of levels; each a wide expanse to which I could not see an end, and each populated with sights horrible and ghastly to behold.

The first level consisted of an endless sea of wine barrels, each arranged next to one another with two large holes, much larger than the normal bung hole cut into the top. At each barrel stood a man or woman, who with one hand constantly fed garbage of the most vile sort (rotten fruit, mealy bread, charcoal, and worse) into the first hole in the barrel, and with the other scooped out cupfuls of the tainted wine to pour in the open mouth of the person next to him. Thus did each poor creature suffer the filth of his neighbor’s wine and yet inflict his own on the next in line. Those who turned away or spilled their wine were subjected to lashes from the whips of guards who swooped down from the air above on wings of red leathery skin.

“Are these all winemakers who suffer so?” I asked my guide.

“Indeed, they are those who in their ignorance and folly sought to ‘improve’ their wines not with wood or time, but with the addition of flavorings, juices, resins, and other unnatural substances.”

I thought to ask the Poet about wood chips, but by then we were already passing into the next level, and the sight of it caught my breath.

Here we found a great hall filled from top to bottom with dusty bottles of what looked like the most impressive wines — old great Bordeaux and Burgundies, moldy bottles of ancient Italian Barolos, wax-sealed carafes of Hungarian Tokay. The temperature seemed like a perfect 65 degrees Fahrenheit to me, yet the denizens of this hall stumbled about, sweating and tearing at their clothes as if lost in a desert. As they grabbed at the bottles in an attempt to slake their thirst, each proved to be filled with sand, or dust, or something of the sort that poured dry into their grasping hands and waiting mouths.

Seeing my horror at so many bottles of the world’s finest wines filled with dust, my guide explained, “These are the greedy, prideful souls who collected wines but never drank. They coveted and caressed each bottle, stored and carefully cellared them, but did not drink them nor share them with the people they loved, and in so doing, they betrayed the heart of wine.”

Wide-eyed, I quickly reviewed a list of wines in my head that I needed to drink if I ever made it out of this place.

The next level contained equally pitiable folk who wandered about in a maze of vineyards, each signpost clearly pointing to the exit from their madness. I tried to call out to them, thinking they may not have noticed, but Dante silenced me with a wave of his gloved hand. “They are the ones who forgot there was a time that they could not pronounce Vielles Vignes; the ones who could not remember there was a time when they too did not know whether Gevrey-Chambertin was a white wine or a red wine. They sneered and laughed into their sleeves as others, eager to learn, stumbled through labels and appellations. Now their ears and eyes betray them, and they cannot make proper sense of those signs, nor your attempts to help.”

On and on we descended, passing endless chamber after endless chamber, each filled with poor souls undergoing a myriad of torments. There was the level for the people who had declared privately and publicly that only Old World wine was any good, and who were forced to play a cruel game of Russian roulette using wine bottles filled with dynamite.

Eventually the tortured souls ceased to be wine drinkers and changed to a more widely varied sort. There was the level for the people who poured wine into the streets during prohibition, and now suffered an endless insomnia at the hands of screaming preachers; the room of distributors who claimed the youth of the world would descend in to alcoholism if wine was shipped across state lines, beset by flocks of crows who pecked at their eyes.

All of these levels were so numerous, and their punishments so varied, that they blur and merge in my frightened recollection of my descent into the bowels of that terrible building. Eventually though, we reached the bottom of the escalator. Here in a small room with two doors, my guide turned to me and spoke one final time:

“You are the Messenger, but that is a title that can only be chosen, not bestowed. You have seen the fate that awaits many whom you know and love, but you have not yet seen your own. Behind the door on your left,” he gestured, “lies one final level of torment. This plane is reserved for you and everyone else who puts pen to paper in the service of wine, yet fails to bring passion and pleasure to those for whom they write. The deepest levels of damnation are saved for the critics.”

As he said this, I thought I detected a small smile on his lips. “Behind the right,” he continued, “lies the world you came from, filled near to overflowing with souls waiting for the gift of wine. You can choose to satisfy your curiosity, or you can choose to return home.”

“But beware,” said the Poet. “Your choice is a perilous one. No man may know his own fate. Should you choose to learn of the punishments that reward failure as a critic, you will be stripped of your ability to earn them, and you will write no longer. Choose the other door, and your fate will remain unknown to you, but will still be yours to make.”

Still clutching my wineglass, long dry by now, I turned without hesitation and strode through the door on the right.

This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.

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