The bearded man with the diamond rings, who is nearly bursting the seams of his Armani tuxedo, grabs you around the shoulder with one hand and stuffs a wad of cash in your hands with the other, beaming proudly. The beautiful stranger in the midnight blue gown slips off her string of antique pearls and presses a few into your hand with a wink, saying, “let’s cash these in and have some fun tonight.” Even the doorman stopped you for a while on your way in, slyly telling you “I’ve been saving this up for a time like this,” and tossed you a small brick of gold bullion.
If you can’t remember the last time something like this happened to you, then it’s been too long since you’ve been to a dinner with a bunch of wine lovers. You’ve forgotten, or perhaps never experienced, how lacking the smallest provocation or suggestion, someone will whip out a dusty bottle of 1961 Palmer and pull the crumbly cork before you can even think to blurt, “oh, there’s no need to…”
Over the past few months, through several degrees of separation, or simply from people sending me unsolicited e-mails out of the blue, I have been invited into homes and restaurants to dine with people I barely knew. On these sorts of occasions where wine has been a stated feature of the gathering, one customarily brings a nice bottle, but while my nice bottle ends up being a small-production wine from the recent decade, many guests — and especially the hosts — invariably arrive armed with bottles that make my eyes bulge and my tongue hang out more than a little.
This generosity is a truly wonderful phenomenon, and one that cuts through the unusually wide range of personalities that make up the psychological topology of the wine-loving public, from the geeks to the enthusiastic beginners to the Barons. Even the biggest wine snobs in the world (the ones I edge out of the room to get away from, after a few minutes of conversation about how silly I am for thinking that the wines from Clape Cornas are better than Chave Ermitage) will delightedly pour me, a complete stranger, $600 worth of their ancient Sauternes, and we will close our eyes together and sigh. What’s up with that? It’s as if wine people operate like our early romanticized and ignorant visions of so-called primitive cultures, where the guest is given a lavish feast, a place to sleep, and the only blanket in the house.
There is something deeper than the ego boost that the secretive collector gets from a stranger’s wide eyed appreciation for his dusty bottle; something more fundamental than the sense of pedantry that the elitist gets from anyone’s sighs of delight while tasting his perfect 100 point wine; something more essential than the self-approbation that can accompany the presentation of a bottle from the world’s deepest cellar to a wine drinker of unequal means and experience. Sharing wine with strangers as well as friends is, notwithstanding the comfort of a bottle in times of loneliness, the essence of what drinking wine is about.
Everyone loves wine for different reasons, and everyone has a unique relationship to it, but at the end of the day I believe we share our wine because we share our humanity. Show me a culture that doesn’t celebrate the good things in this short life by gathering together to eat and drink, and I’ll show you the on-off switches hidden behind their ears.
The connection that wine makes between our hearts is not ours to control. Rather, we are compelled by something tangled inside wine, our ancient relationship to it, and the farming life that was our not-so-distant collective past.
At the end of each summer we repeat actions that have been carried out ever since we can remember, actions that still carry the seed of their original purpose: to take care of ourselves, our families, and those whom we are bound to by circumstance and serendipity. Starting last week, people all over the Northern Hemisphere are rising before dawn and returning to the fields to harvest the rewards of a season’s worth of work among the vines. This year’s vintage is being forged as we speak. While most of us, including yours truly, are as distant from that harvest as we are to the steers that supplied the nice rib-eye we seared last night, the bottles we have shoved above the refrigerator, under the stairs, or in the 2000 bottle walk-in cooling unit are part of a story that began before us, and which will continue as long as there is some small patch of ground that can support a vine.
So when that bottle appears from nowhere to be opened by unfamiliar hands, and when strangers come bearing gifts of early vintages, it is worth remembering how lucky we are to have discovered this thing we love called wine.
Everything tastes better when it is shared.
This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.