Memory is ever complicated, if you only press: my first encounter with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example. I’m 26 at the time, living in a beach house with five roommates in Santa Cruz, California, and I’m working toward a PhD in literature. Surfing takes up most of my free time, on the open coast north of town—birds and bees, strawberry farms and sea lions and kelp forests, and heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets seen from out in the cold water. When a wave stands tall to break, with the setting sun behind it, the wave face sinks into a jet black while the lip fringes a kind of molten gold. But my girlfriend at the time, SD, lived more for civilized pleasures, so when I received a few boxes of wine as a gift from my grandfather, we were both thrilled.
I was living on a teaching assistant’s salary—about $1,000 per month—so we usually stuck to Barefoot Cab bought in the big jugs. But then my grandfather, a wealthy lawyer, decided to move into a retirement community. He and his wife had already sold off their extra furniture and given everything else to charity, and only a few odds and ends remained in their palatial home. So they invited me up to grab whatever appealed. Visiting them was always vaguely awkward for me: They lived a very affluent, conservative life, and I was a penniless graduate student from a side of the family that was at odds with theirs in many ways. This was my mother’s father, and my own father couldn’t have been a more different man. So I didn’t ever feel quite at home with my grandfather, even though I admired him, and tried hard to maintain a relationship, to win his respect. I didn’t know quite what the problem was, why he never seemed to embrace my life, and so I did a lot of paranoid worrying about my choice of profession, my failure to pursue wealth, my leftist politics. I felt insecure around the old guy, that’s the upshot, and I felt vaguely resentful of his money and lifestyle in that graceless way that’s driven mostly by envy.
Anyway, I found a lot of old wine that day of rummaging—mostly Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and mostly from the mid-1960s, which made it about 30 years old. All I knew at the time was that old wine was meant to be great. I also liked the sound of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In other words, I had no clue, and I also had no intention of sitting on the stuff any longer. So as soon as I got home, SD and I started popping bottles and drinking them, night after night. Some were divine; some were thin, attenuated, and barely hanging on; some had long since collapsed. But it was fun, a game of chance.
Years later, on my honeymoon in Provence, I drank quite a lot of good Châteauneuf-du-Pape without spending more than about $10 a bottle (wine is cheap in France, and the dollar was strong at the time). And now I consider Rhône wines to be my most natural French go-to reds; something about being a Californian, I guess, and my climatic affinity to the South of France. But I also feel an awkward, anxious resonance every time I look back at that gift of wine from my grandfather. And here’s why: I’d learned later that my grandfather had taken all the good bottles with him, to his new home, and that my uncle had already cleared out anything that had any chance at all of not being awful. I had picked up dregs, in other words. And there’d been no conversation about this. Nothing wrong, here, in a way: I wasn’t entitled to more than dregs; my grandfather owed me nothing; my uncle was absolutely entitled to the whole collection; I was in my mid-20s and thus a kid by their measure; and I had a great experience with those dregs regardless, some of which were fine. It’s just that the memory carries the trace of something painful weaving its way through an otherwise warm thought about wine. Not sure what, exactly, but it has to do with my having imagined a shared experience where there wasn’t quite one; or perhaps it has to do with the communication that simply wasn’t there, and for which I ached—the idea, I suppose, that my grandfather cared enough about wine to collect old French bottles, and that I never came close to connecting with him on the subject. Someday it’ll come to me; someday I’ll know why my first encounter with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, when I think back on it, is colored more by bad feelings about myself than by distinct recollections of taste.