The bartender stares blankly at me. I am in the lobby bar of an old, downtown hotel in a medium sized city. The hotel has been beautifully renovated, rescued from its fate as a cheap residence to resume its role as an urban hub. People go to the restaurant for Sunday brunch; the bar is an after-work hotspot and a late-night romantic rendezvous. It is now, early on a Friday evening, packed with the city’s stylish folk. I have asked if the bar has any Sauvignon Blanc, and what I get in return is incomprehension.
I simplify my question, thinking the noise must make it hard for the bartender to hear: “What kind of white wine do you have?” I expect to be handed a list.
“Chardonnay,” she answers, and that is it. I have come out of a hot summer afternoon and do not want the kind of Chardonnay I am sure to get in a place where the answer to “what kind of white wine do you have?” is only “Chardonnay.” I order a beer. They have 21 varieities to choose from.
Two hours later, in a “nice” restaurant in the same small city, I am ordering dinner. It is a festive place, casually elegant. There are 12 wines on the list: 3 Chardonnays, 2 Pinot Grigios, 1 White Zinfandel, 3 Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 Merlot. I have been in restaurants with 12 wines on the list that stretched far enough that I didn’t feel deprived. Here, it’s like I have no selection at all. The multiples of the same variety are all expressions of brand loyalty rather than stylistic range.
I order a Pinot Grigio expecting not much. I get a small glass filled to the rim with rank wine that has been open in a refrigerator for a month.
I am not, you might gather, in wine country. I am, instead, in a place as removed from “wine culture” as it is possible to be without the application of Sharia Law. This is not a moral failing. It doesn’t mean the people surrounding me are stupid or provincial or inferior. It just means that wine has not reached them yet.
There is a theory of cosmology that posits that the expansion after the Big Bang has not been uniform, that the universe is not so much ever-expanding ball as it is inflating sponge, with invisible pockets of nothingness – no light, no matter, no time – contained within a web of what we can observe every day. The wine universe is like that, and I am in one of the invisible pockets. Forty miles to the east is one of the best wine stores I know. Fifty miles to the west is a larger city with a vibrant wine culture. Here between them is the cold darkness of the void.
I’m thinking: if I were a more adventurous soul, I would colonize this place. Open a small wine store and give tastings and lessons and co-host dinners with any restaurant that would have me. But I am not a more adventurous person. I don’ have the patience or passion to colonize new territory.
But someone will come along, and a few years from now this rare absence of wine culture will be gone, captured at last by the ever expanding universe of wine. For some reason, that makes me sad.