Demon Rum, Part II

by guest on March 15, 2010

winetastingby Deirdre Sinnott

It was a wine tasting party that discouraged spitting, and from my first glass, I knew I was in trouble. Not only could my stunted palate, numbed no doubt from its normal fare of Budweiser and bottom-shelf scotch, not discern the subtleties that others raved about, I was gulping.

Henri (pronounced the French way: Hon-ree, never Henry), a big, salty, son-of-the-Cajuns and a retired seaman, was the host of the event. The racist system of apartheid had fallen and he wanted to celebrate with a sampling of the South African vineyards.

His dining room table was arranged with scores of wine goblets, a case-worth of bottles, several cork screws, water for cleansing the mouth, but no wine spittoons. I asked him about it and he chuckled. I didn’t have to get instructions like that twice. A green light in my brain blinked on.

When Henri first mentioned that he was in a wine tasting club, I shook my head, trying to reconcile that information with what I already knew about him. He had regaled me with a lifetime of adventurous sea stories as we sat back-to-back in the office where I worked. He was famous on the merchant marine ships for having memorized the union contract, much to the chagrin of the shipping companies, and eventually became the vice president of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union. He was a serious supporter of progressive causes, boycotting South African products when the anti-apartheid movement called for it and volunteering at the social-justice center where I worked.

But he took his pleasures seriously, too. And while I loved to listen to him and was dying to be invited to a tasting party, I didn’t know him well enough to insinuate myself into one of his occasions. I have a slight knowledge of French wine. And one day I showed him a nice chateau merlot bottled in the maison that I intended to drink (all alone and to the last drop) that evening. He took the dark green bottle in his burly working-man’s hands and studied the label.

“Drank a lotta wine in France,” he said. “Let me know if it’s any good.”

“If I have any left over, I’ll bring you a sample,” I said.

“Leftovers? What’s that?” he said.

So when he slipped me an invitation to the wine tasting, saying, “Waited a long time to try these,” I was pleased that I’d finally made it. The flyer listed several wineries with strange, Dutch-looking names that were filled with hard consonants and double vowels.

At the tasting, I tried to keep up with the wine talk, but for the most part I was outclassed. Henri uncorked the first bottle and began pouring a splash into several goblets. A good-looking older gentleman in an African-print shirt took his glass and began examining the contents. “Henri,” he said, smiling, “how does an old union dog like yourself become a wine connoisseur?”

Henri held up a glass and began swirling the pale wine in it, studying the liquid as it slid down the sides. “Nothing is too good for the workers,” he said.

It always amazes me when I look back on the drinker I was. Despite knowing that I was faster than anyone else, despite having a sane little voice in my head telling me to slow down and chew the wine as others did, my impulse to swallow won out. It was wishful amnesia. At the beginning of the sip, I remembered my goal to sample reasonably, but by the time I had swished the wine over my tongue, I just wanted it to be inside of me. I forgot that I was not at home alone where there was nobody to see me stumble into a wall. I failed to consider the fact that the mornings after I brought wine home for dinner, my apartment would be in a shambles: bottle empty, dishes unwashed, clothing scattered across the floor (or still on my body). I did not recall the wine hangovers, the gagging during tooth brushing, and the pain in my back just around my liver.

Instead, I only saw the sparkling goblet filled with a liquid more delicious, more fragrant, more viscous, more delightful, more everything than water.

At Henri’s party, I successfully skirted around the sickening, evening-ending mouthful, the one where I would become unwell — until he pulled out the Cuban rum.cubanrum

I had gone from 1977 to 1994 without rum. (See “Demon Rum, Part I” to find out why.) Unlike every other alcoholic beverage, I turned down rum whenever offered. But this, this was a special bottle. Henri cradled it like it a newborn infant and when he held it up, everyone sighed. It was once-in-a-lifetime rum, personally smuggled into the country by Henri after a trade-union trip to Cuba. He had bluffed his way past US customs, no doubt employing a blinding combination of charm, bluster, and stealth. It was a rum bottle with history.

Tumblers were passed. The rum looked like honey, slow-moving and clingy. It was uncontaminated by cola. I rolled it over my tongue, trying to squeeze out every sticky taste until, boom. I swallowed one sip, then another and another. I decided that I wanted more and helped myself to another serving. I crossed into the misty territory of total drunkenness.

Nobody said anything to me when I crossed the room, concentrating on my path as if I was being examined by a platoon of cops with breathalyzers in hand. In the bedroom, I dug my coat out from the pile. Henri caught me at the apartment door.

“Leaving?” he sounded perplexed and a little disappointed. I was the first to be going.

“Air,” I said.

Henri rested his heavy hand on my shoulder. He smiled and nodded his head, and for a moment I knew what his shipmates must have known. Henri understood that sometimes you just had to leave and that while he may be able to drink for several more hours, you’d be better off elsewhere. I knew too that I hadn’t embarrassed him. We were mates and it was okay by him if I got drunk because that’s what we mates did sometimes. He patted my back and ushered me to the elevator.

“Get home safe,” he said. And I did. Though I did stop off at a lesbian bar for more rum and an embarrassing round of sloppy pool. In the morning when I woke up creaky, headachy, and feeling poisoned, I understood that I’d never be a life-long drinker like Henri. My long party would, one day, have to end. But, I secretly prayed to the Lord of rum and all alcohol: Not yet.

Deirdre Sinnott, a regular contributor to Drinking Diaries, is working on a memoir called Drunk Dreams. You can find more information about Deirdre on her website.

Photo Source wine tasting

Photo Source Cuban rum