Sunday, April 28, 2019

The wine that tried to kill me

Oh, how we’ve aggrandized wine to a beatific eminence. It is the alpha, the omega. It is sexy. It is alluring. It is dangerous. And it’s a killer. Or at least, on one occasion it tried to kill me. No, I’m not talking about excessive intake of alcohol, getting into a car and heading down the tollway, on the wrong side, at 2 AM. This attempt on my life was imbued with further nuance than that.

It was in a little town in southern Italy, a few years ago. I’d been traveling around the country for work and had some free time. I’d read about this recluse of a winemaker, whose name I cannot reveal, for a number of reasons, the first being I don’t want anyone else to know about this person or their wine. Consider it my way of potentially saving your life.

It was up in one of those hill towns famous in southern Italy, where there are brick structures, as old as time. The kind of place where little old ladies in black peer out from behind lace curtains, most likely ones they have woven themselves.

GPS was no help in finding the place. And there were no signs telling one which via one was on. You either had to know or you had to have faith. I didn’t know. I was blindly plunging ahead.

I dropped my rental car in a parking area by a café. The streets were getting smaller. This would be a search on foot.

Eventually, with the help of a local, who decided I looked southern Italian enough to respond to my vaguely familiar version of Italian (with liberal use of the more formal “lei” rather than the now more commonly used “tu”). An old fellow (really not much older than I was) led me to a door and pointed. “You can knock, but he rarely answers. You might think about it before you go through that door.” And he bid me a good day as he disappeared around a corner.

I poked my head inside the door and said my best, nonthreatening “buon giorno.” Nothing. I moved more of my body inside. No dogs. Good. And saw a little courtyard and what looked like, on the other side, a cellar door. So, I proceeded towards it. It was close to 1 PM. The sun overhead was bright and intense.

At the cellar door, I knocked and, again, chanted my friendliest “buon giorno.” At which time, an elderly (and yes, even for me, he was old) gentleman came to the call.

“I suppose you’ve come to taste my wine?” He was matter-of-fact about it. “Well, come on in, it’s much cooler inside.”

He took me to a small room with a few timeworn barrels, an amphora or two and a small row of concrete tanks that looked as if a roman garrison had poured them a few millennia back. A small table was placed in the center of the room, while a bare bulb provided the sole light. And on the table was one bottle, bare, no label, no cork, filled with wine.

“I have few rules, but you found me, so you may taste. But you may not talk or ask me incessant questions. I made the wine, as I have for nearly 50 years. I am not long for this world, and I’d rather spend the time drinking my wine rather than talking about it. If that’s not what you came for you know where the door is. Agreed?”

I was in no mood to debate the issue, and quite frankly I’d stretched what little I knew about the Italian language about as far as I could. And, being a visual person, not a talker, that was fine with me. And I told him so.

He seemed pleased. “You’re not like the others.” And he poured me a taste.

No notes, no camera and no discussion. An introvert’s dream. What happened next wasn’t exactly the bright side of what we’d call the dream world. But it definitely belonged to the realm of the world of dreams, just a bit darker. 

The first sip virtually took my breath away. And the lights dimmed above me. The silence was replaced by a whooshing sound, which I took for the sounds of waves hitting the shore, but which I found out later from the town doctor was the sound of my blood pulsing through my being.

I must have blacked out. When I revived in a spartan room, a doctor asked me a few questions. I don’t remember what they were, I barely remembered where I was. I was told that my heart rate reached 200, according to the instruments. And no, I hadn’t had a heart attack. I was in too good of a shape for that.

When he released me a few hours later, I stumbled out into the dusk light of the end of day, and reached for the keys to my car. But I thought I’d retrace my steps first, try and find the old man and his cellar and ask him a few questions.

When I got to the door that I remembered, I knocked. An old lady in black answered, with needle and lace in her hands. I asked about seeing the old man in his cellar.

She gave me the oddest look, as if I’d said something crazy. And then like that she simply said, “No man here, no wine here!” and shut the door with more force than I imagined she had. Nothing.

Later that night, in my room in the hotel by the sea, I contemplated what had happened. I wasn’t dead, I was very much alive. But I was for a moment, earlier in the day, somewhere between. As if I’d peered over into some open vat of abyss and stepped away.

As if the wine called me to the other side. And I stepped back, away. Not ready for that wine. The wine that tried to kill me. Not today.

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