THE WINE CRITIC
The Chairman had to clink his spoon against the glass several times before the chit-chat subsided.
“Err, ahem, I would like to thank you all for taking the time out from what I’m sure are your very busy days in order to attend this, umm, important tasting.”
The wine critic, whose name was Stanton and who was 42 years old, sat perfectly still, hands folded in his lap, shoulders properly squared. He crossed one leg over the other, straightened his pant crease and pretended to listen to the Chairman with fascinated interest. But his eyes busily scanned the room. There was Savarin — he would bray the loudest. Kellogg, too, not in as pompous a way, but quieter, more assured, as though he did not have to shove his bona fides down your throat.
And then there was dear Cassandra Carnova. It would be interesting to hear what she had to say, now that the news — and big news it was — was out.
The Chairman was thanking “our extra special guest, Monsieur, uhh, L’Entrecôte, who has come this great distance,” etc. The Chairman had a way of droning on and boring those unlucky enough to have to listen to him. One might have thought that over the course of a long and distinguished career, he would have learned to recognize his inability at public speaking and keep it to a minimum. But, the wine critic reflected, Chairmen need to demonstrate those special qualities of Chairmanship, which include making speeches ten times longer than they ought to be.
There were other dignitaries in the room, seated at the two big round tables, but the wine critic found them irrelevant. Savarin, Kellogg and Cassandra — these were the big sharks today. In the mortal combat of competitive wine tasting, they were the only ones who could hunt him down and destroy him.
True, these events were not supposed to be competitive. Theoretically, they were precisely the opposite: cordial gatherings of congenially-minded professionals, assembled together for the educational purpose of evaluating and discussing wine.
But if you believed that, there were certain bridges Stanton might sell you. For he had learned early on, in his career as a wine critic, that there was more one-upsmanship in his profession than most people knew. In the world of competitive winetasting, what was at stake was intangible, but precious: one’s reputation.
The one-upsmanship was subtle. Stanton recalled another tasting he had gone to, when Savarin had bested him. There had been a wine — the bottle was in a brown paper bag, no one knew what it was, that was the whole point. The unwritten rule was that if someone guessed the identity of that bottle, or even a few correct points about it, he would score in the estimation of the others, who would correspondingly be diminished in the collective esteem — the quantity of diminishment directly proportional to the wrongness of their guesses. Point-scoring versus diminishment, up versus down: these were the only possible outcomes of these gatherings.
Yes, one could decline to even try to identify the wine. One could pretend he was modest and humble — “Oh, I have no idea, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut.” But this ploy seldom worked. Since they all used it, it was easily seen through. Moreover, to decline was an admission of fear, an automatic guarantee of defeat. Thus, to guess or not to guess: That was the question. These tastings were zero-sum games, in which someone had to win, and everyone else lose.
And Stanton hated to lose. He had hated the vengefully gleeful look on Savarin’s face, when the latter emerged the victor at the aforementioned tasting. Afterward, Savarin had said to him, with an insincerity so blatant Stanton was in awe of it, “Good to spend some time with you, man!” One of the rules of the game was to congratulate whoever had won the blind tasting, and this Stanton now proceeded — reluctantly, but it had to be done — to do.
So “Great job, Sav, nailing that ‘95 Richebourg,” he said, actually squeezing Savarin’s elbow to reinforce the appearance of genuineness.
“Thanks. Wasn’t that the one you thought was a Shiraz?” He asked it simply, factually, but from Savarin’s eyes hurled nasty, venomous poisoned darts, barbed with malicious humor. Stanton had indeed mistaken the great Burgundy for cheap Australian plonk, and he knew that Savarin would make sure everyone heard the story, endlessly.
Kellogg was craftier, more slippery. He even possessed a sense of irony. Stanton would never have considered Kellogg a dangerous rival, were it not for the fact that he, Kellogg, was a notorious back-stabber, whose friendly smiles turned to frightful smears behind your back.
And then there was Cassandra Carnova. She had been shut out of their little circle for years, an ambitious wannabe who longed to break in, to have the clout, the respect of the likes of Savarin, Kellogg and Stanton. But there were obstacles in her way. To begin with, she was a woman, in a profession that had been male-dominated for 300 years. (And even in liberal, urbane California, the male wine critics tended to circle their wagons.) Then, too, there was about her a bit of the dim-wit — the way she giggled (when there was nothing anyone else found amusing), the pompous phrases she used to describe wine (“polychromatic flourescence”), the affectation of dropping French terms into her conversations. The other wine critics — which is to say, the men — could afford to be dismissive of her, because she was not taken seriously by those who counted — namely, themselves.
Except, that is, for this latest bulletin: Cassandra had just been awarded the Master of Wine. The highest, most coveted honorific in the wine world, the M.W. automatically conferred a sort of royal sheen upon all who held it, which was not a high number of individuals: worldwide, no more than 80.
The galling thing — and neither Savarin nor Kellogg nor himself were M.W.s — was that he hadn’t even known Cassandra was trying for it. It was a classic case of “while the cat’s away.” While the men, who disdained (or pretended to disdain) the M.W. as something slightly fabricated, like a mail-order Doctor of Divinity degree, went about their rounds of restaurants and wine tastings, Cassandra Carnova had been the most diligent of pupils. Reading constantly, devouring every fact she could find about wine, she tasted, tasted, tasted — not just the great and famous wines of the world, the Champagnes, Burgundies, Riojas and Bordeaux, but the vin jaunes of the Jura, the Pinotages of South Africa, various Manzanillas and Proseccos and even humble Petite Sirahs from Mendocino. She had, it was said, visited vineyards in the Punjab, and consulted for a Sheikh in Abu Dhabi who was building a hydroponic vineyard. She could cite rainfall statistics in the Côte de Nuits going back 30 years, in inches or milliliters, vine yields at Harlan since 1986, and even the name of the winemaker at Daumas Gassac’s wife; and when it came to the crus of Argentinian Malbec, she took second seat to none. Cassandra Carnova had shared with no one that she was going for the M.W., so that when the news was announced that morning, in a trade publication they all read online, the shock of the men was all the greater.
* * *
The Chairman had mercifully ceased gabbling and sat down, shuffling through some papers. Meanwhile the servors, Mexican women in pale blue uniforms with starched aprons and little white bonnets, were pouring the wines from gloved hands. Each taster had, arrayed in a semi-circle on the table before him, six wine glasses of the finest crystal. The glasses sat on paper placemats, each within a black circle marked by a number.
The red wines they were about to taste were from the fabled Domaine de l’Intestine de la Maladie. The most expensive wines on Earth, they had been coveted by Kings, Popes and the scandalously rich for centuries; an older bottle might fetch $100,000. An opportunity to taste these wines was mandatory for any serious wine critic. Fortunately (since none of them could have afforded to buy them), that opportunity afforded itself once each year, when the company that imported the wines (of which the Chairman was leader) invited them to its headquarters, a faux replica of the Chateau Lafite, to sample the newly-arrived treasures.
This was a climactic tasting, made all the more eventful by its setting, Napa Valley. Money, power, romance and history always have mingled around certain bottles and places. Napoleon’s troops, passing the Clos de Vougeot, genuflected before its gate. Tsars were said to have been revived from their deathbeds with thimbles of Sauternes; Louis XIV himself, the Sun King, was rescued from the brink with a glass of La Tâche. Thomas Jefferson drank Lafite and Yquem in the still-unfinished White House; his distant successor, Richard Nixon, ordered his butler to serve him real Margaux wrapped in a white cloth napkin, while his guests suffered Bordeaux ordinaire. Even Julius Caesar had his own personal favorite, a red wine called Falernum. All these stories, and more, the wine critics knew. Savarin might have explained to you how civilization itself — well, the Greek and Roman kind, anyway — spread through and up the river valleys of Europe, where the vine could be cultivated. Kellogg would have been happy to treat you to a discourse on how the maturation of Madeira was accomplished in the holds of four-masters colonizing the New World on behalf of the Old. Cassandra Carnova presented herself as an expert on the role of women in the history of wine — an expertise the male critics ridiculed, since they knew that women’s role in the history of wine was practically non-existent (never mind that Cassandra had written a book on the subject that had sold a third of a million copies). Stanton himself had a healthy respect for wine’s place in the making and keeping of kingdoms, and for all the times he had visited Napa Valley — he lived just an hour away — he nonetheless always felt the same exalted rush, the same sense of walking on sanctified ground.
For all these reasons, then, to be here, at the center of the Chairman’s world, in Napa Valley, tasting the most expensive wines on earth, with this august group, was something that impressed Stanton very much. He not only felt awe, and a kind of moist gratitude that his life had turned out in such a favorable way, he felt determination, too — not to be bested by these mediocrities, including Cassandra Carnova, who was–
But the Chairman was back on his feet.
“We will have 30 minutes to complete our tasting. During that time, gentlemen — err, and ladies — I mean, lady — unnh, I will ask you to maintain silence. If you must speak, please keep your voice to a whisper. Scores will be according to the Davis 20-point system. Following the tasting, Bill, here, of our staff, will collect your, err, score sheets and tally the results. After that, we can have our discussion.”
And then it started. Wine tasting can be compared with church-going. There is the same pietistic solemnity, shrouded in silence, accompanied by the same self-consciousness on the part of the participants not to do or say anything that could get them in trouble (and thereby make them the subject of malicious gossip). Like being in church, also, is the sense of right and wrong, of unchanging verities: in this case, that to every wine attaches a unique Truth (not very different from the truths of the Bible). For example, this glass of wine is what it is. Although the taster may not know its identity, may in fact botch it completely, it cannot be other than itself. Continuing the ecclesiastical metaphor, one is expected to understand the wine in quite the same way as one understands the Lord — intimately; and if the wine moves in mysterious ways — if Richebourg can be mistaken for Shiraz — that is not the fault of the wine, but of the taster, who has fallen short.
Stanton affixed his eye on the six glasses before him. Each was red in color, with very slight variations — this one a deeper crimson, that one slashed with orange, while yet another glowed purplish red. Thus, his first task was to deduce what was what, based on the evidence of his eyes.
The important thing to understand was that the domaine’s vineyard was sub-divided into six parcels, or climats, each producing a different wine. It had been like that since very early times. The wines were constituted of the same grape, the Pinot Noir, but, due to very subtle differences of soil composition, or slope, or some mysterious “X” factor — who really knew? — they were different, just as, say, sextuplets will differ in subtle ways.
The wine critic made notes with his pen on the reviewing sheets. These were very preliminary notes, subject to change. He would revisit them, considering, re-considering, evaluating and re-evaluating, depending on his subsequent experiences smelling and tasting the wines. Eventually, of course, at the end, he was expected to identify each; they all were. He was expected to write his conclusions down on a piece of paper and submit them to the assistant, Bill, before the conversation started, so that no sleight-of-hand might be attempted after the fact. And this same Bill, a mild-mannered, innocuous man, as assistants to Chairmen frequently are, would be the bearer of the news later on: who had guessed right and would leave the chateau in triumph, and who had been utterly, shamefully humiliated.
* * *
He was finished with the last glass. Now, the wine critic sat back, like a patriarch brooding over his progeny. It is easy, it is obvious, I know these wines in my genes,” he reflected. “The only thing I can do to ruin myself is to overthink things. My brain has a tendency to get lost in the high grass of analysis. I know that the touchstone of truth is instinct. And my instinct is good.
Suddenly he had to pee. Excusing himself — no one else at the table acknowledged him, they were still gurgling and spitting and scribbling — he slid his chair back and rose. The room they were in was small, tasteful, overlooking a courtyard with ferns and a splashing fountain. The sole door inward led to the reception area and the restrooms. The female receptionist who had greeted him — Peggy? Priscilla? he couldn’t remember — was not there. The room was empty. He turned to the left, toward the restrooms, which were halfway down a hallway. Near the end of the hallway he saw a small stainless steel rolling cart, the kind often found in restaurants. Upon it were standing brown paper bags, whose tops someone’s hand — Bill’s? — had twisted shut. The bags were marked with the numbers “1” through “6,” in exactly the same way in which the six wine glasses sat at the wine critic’s place at the table.
It has often been remarked how many thoughts and scenarios can flood the mind within the briefest flash of time — one’s life passing before one’s eyes at the moment of death is the classic example. Now, opportunity had arrived to Stanton in the form of an empty hallway where he might do his work unobserved. The first scenario he conjured up was this: Stanton, revealed by Bill to have been the only one to have correctly identified all the wines, rises to his feet, a self-effacing smile playing on his lips. To a scattering of light applause, even a few “Bravos!”, he makes a little bow, clears his throat, then utters some impeccably modest and self-deprecating remarks, emphasizing how great a part luck plays in such things. Gazing magnanimously around the room, he sees, first, Savarin’s face, pale and frozen in sullen resentment. Then Kellogg’s eyes, mad and frightening to behold. The wine critic seeks out Cassandra Carnova. With her dazzling smile, she seems genuinely pleased. But who knows what she really thinks?
At any rate, that is scenario number one. It is immediately followed by another: the wine critic, having opened the bags and memorized the order of the wines, is crunching them shut again, when Peggy-Priscilla emerges from the women’s restroom. He looks up; she glances at him, then down to his fingers guiltily touching a bag, then back up to his eyes. Between them is the full measure of understanding. Stanton has been busted. His stomach churns. He might even be peeing his pants. She owes him nothing, will tell the Chairman, who will announce his villainy to the world.
These two scenarios, light and dark, good and evil, yin and yang, vie against each other in his mind. Who knows how a man will decide, under such circumstances? It is complicated. Anyway, all these considerations have occurred to him within the space of two seconds. There cannot be more than a few ticks of the clock before Peggy-Priscilla or one of the Mexican pourers shows up, sending opportunity fleeing.
The wine critic must decide, and decide now.
* * *
A few weeks later, he runs into Cassandra Carnova, at yet another wine tasting event. It is in a mansion in Pacific Heights. He wears his tux, she a shimmering, evanescent pink cloudlike piece of fluff which he believes to be expensive. Over canapés of lobster puff pastries served by handsome young men, he murmurs polite sounds of congratulations on the M.W., apologizes for being in such a hurry at the chateau, he’d meant to compliment her but feared the rush-hour traffic home… She understands, is gracious.
What she does not say, which puzzles him, is to congratulate him, in turn, for his own coup. Nailing all the red wines of the Domaine de l’Intestine de la Maladie! Incroyable! Not even Monsieur L’Entrecôte had been able to do that! Nor the Chairman, nor Savarin nor Kellogg nor herself nor anyone else! This, at any rate, is what she should say, regarding his legendary performance without a net that, under ordinary circumstances, would be bruited from San Francisco to Nuits.
But on this topic Cassandra Carnova is strangely, disturbingly mute. Stanton is thrown off balance. The room is crowded, filled with important, laughing people. Sooner or later, someone will whisk Cassandra away, and the moment will be gone. Should he say something? What? But Cassandra relieves him of the necessity of making a decision, for, stepping very close to him, so that her flowery perfume fills his nostrils, she says, “Cher ami, you should know, everyone thinks you cheated at the tasting.”
The wine critic is stunned, literally at a loss for words.
Taking his hand in hers, she says, with the most earnest look of sorrow, “Mon pauvre, one of the kitchen workers noticed you alone in the hallway, looking at the bags. After you went home, she told the Chairman. She said she didn’t actually see you open them, just look at them. But the Chairman decided, since the opportunity was there, and given the results, that you must have. We spoke about it around the table, and decided that it was sad, very sad. Savarin suggested no one should say anything, since no harm was actually done. Kellogg said how embarrassed he would be to see you again. I decided to share this with you, because you are my friend, and should know.”
Then she walks away.
The wine critic wants to scream after her but the words are strangled in his throat. He hadn’t looked inside the bags! He’d thought about it, but been too afraid! He had correctly identified the wines on his own! A stupendous feat, one that ought to have glorified his reputation forever!
Instead, his success has ruined him!