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Rolfe Hanson

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A Shared Cellar

Posted: 04/11/2013 4:30 pm

It's a spring Friday night in north central Wisconsin -- Eau Claire -- to be exact, and I'm stationed near the checkout line at a busy, annual retail wine sale. The crowd is thirsty. Very thirsty. It's a pent-up group cutting loose, thrusting glasses at me with an intensity which recalls reporters swarming a media relations person during a moment of crisis. The only potential crisis here is whether I can pour fast enough, and I'm averting it. My featured wines are staples of our portfolio and of this retailer, fun wines to pour and to talk about. Thirst slaking wines across the board.

But there's a subplot development to this night which I hadn't anticipated. It arises at events like this, but only when couples approach and begin to speak about the wines they keep at home.

It's the seemingly small matter of the home cellar. Participants at these events routinely share stories of what they drink at home. Many divulge likes, dislikes, the size of their cellars, what they had the night before, and what they're opening when they get home. It's all rather personal and I don't prod.

On this night, there are rumblings in the air about divisions in the home cellars. All is not as serene as one might envision.

It begins rather innocently. The first couple comes by and politely asks for tastes, but not of the same wine. One of the pair volunteers that she loves Riesling; she can't get enough of it, keeps a few versions at home. That's all she tries at my table before moving along. The guy hones in on reds. He confides to me -- after his partner is gone -- that he can't stomach sweet wines. No big deal; I see this split in the tastes of couples all the time.

Then, glass poised with the current vintage of Fondreche Cotes du Ventoux rouge, the well-dressed, middled-aged man confides to me his cellar troubles at home. He glances around to see if anyone is approaching and begins to tell the story of how his wife has stockpiled so much Moscato and Riesling that he can barely inch around the wine room. I silently grant him credit for not calling it his wine room yet find myself in the grey zone of the nodding, understanding wine guy. It isn't my role to tell the man he might more easily maneuver through any wine-clogged space if he simply lost the extra wine-induced weight he's carrying. And as a wine sales guy, it's not my place to suggest he buy fewer bottles for home. I silently think to myself, what about all his red wine most likely crowding out the rest of the space. So I listen -- in the detached style of a bartender -- and pour him a taste of the next red, the latest Yalumba Y Shiraz.

As the time at my wine analyst's couch ticks to a close, the taster drops his voice to tell me that his wife needs to drink up a lot of sweet stuff before they can afford to stock any more wine. By this time she is almost back in earshot and he hurriedly finishes his sample. It's a reminder of the issues which percolate in our homes, spilling over into the wine cellar, or perhaps stemming from it.

I later spot the couple as they wind up the evening. He is carrying a basket, piled high with red wine.

There was another couple, a little younger, who stopped to try everything in one pass. They were kind, polite, had a few questions, and then asked me to help find other wines around the store. Later, I overheard a much more dismissive tone from the two, as I restocked near my tasting space. The man was bragging to an acquaintance -- in front of his wife -- about how he controlled all the wine purchases, while the woman countered that she was the one who always paid for the wine, and that she didn't like how she was being referred to. The conversation degraded and took on an insulting tone as I hustled back to my table and savory wines. Conflict had again arisen over the wine we share, emblematlc of something perhaps deeper than bottles we bring home and the places we put them.

It was with a quiet sigh of relief that one of the remaining couples of the night suddenly stood before me. After a few tastes and discussion, the men appeared to respectfully disagree with one another over which wines they liked instead of simply dismissing one another's tastes. How refreshing. The men were about 50, out at the end of a long week; I'd seen them together for years at these events. But the little things stood out about their "cellar." Like the way they listened to the other's opinions about the wines while avoiding rude cuts or interruptions. I liked the way -- while they conversed about wines with me -- that they made eye contact with each another, and with me. They didn't fawn over all of my wines, but they agreed on enough, and spiritedly announced the emerging dinner plan to go with the Barbera I poured them: it was to be sirloin on the grill, my recommendation. It was apparent they were buying wine for home, without rancor, with respect, and clearly with the spirit of sharing at the fore. I didn't much care about the rest: where they stored the wines, who payed, who had stockpiled the biggest stack of trophy wines. The positive vibe of sharing life's pleasures in the company of a loved one was plain enough to see, through the looking glass of an Italian red. This, I thought, was an inspiring finish to the event and one model of how couples can have -- and keep -- a great thing going in the shared wine room at home.

After all, isn't that what our cellars are really all about?

 
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