Four Narrow Escapes
John North Radway
Posted on March 18th, 2013
A bottle of wine (so I’m told) can be an escape from the bite of late winter, from the grind of a nine-to-five job, from any of life’s little woes. The lush sun itself can burst forth when the cork pops out of the bottle.
I am not here to tell you about those wines.
A weekday evening found me in the discount wine section of a local grocery store with twelve dollars to spend on morbid curiosity. My simple mission: find and purchase several bottles of wine so unforgivably foul that the sheer thrill of tasting each would outweigh any contingent suffering. At $3.99 apiece I walked away with specimens from Chile, Italy, Spain, and what I can only assume is a putrid and cat-infested back alley in Madera County, California.
(The following is a true account of what happened later that night. Brands and names of vineyards have been withheld to protect the innocent, if there are any.)
First, a Merlot from Chile’s Valle Central, 2012; the bottle sports a promising vineyard scene on its deceptively attractive label. Smelling this wine numbs the nostrils slightly, like a misplaced smear of mentholated lip balm. Its breath is dry, unripe, and convincingly alcoholic, with undertones of burning pasture and pillagers on horseback. These odors are cut short by an overpowering physical sensation akin to having a gust of winter air blow unexpectedly into one’s sinuses. In the mouth the wine is light at first, unobtrusive, almost as though it isn’t there at all. A second or two later the burning starts. The actual flavor can best be described as a small jar of spices kept in the back of the pantry since 1980 and then set on fire. Notes of decaying cork and damp cardboard balance the fumes, along with a dead, earthy flavor like a bag of sterilized potting soil and a salty attack that causes the salivary glands to curl up defensively. The finish is almost gummy, as though the roof of the mouth is clutching at the stuff to prevent it from reaching the stomach. Afterwards comes a painfully arid sensation, treatable only with another reluctant sip. A wine that drinks itself and drags you along for the ride. Not recommend for pairing with anything.
Second, a Tempranillo from the Cariñena region of Spain, 2011; a flying balloon pig decorates the label, signifying Spanish cuisine and the impossibility of getting to the bottom of the bottle. This liquid smells less like wine in the traditional sense, and more like what you’d expect overripe grapes to smell like if they were left outdoors in a metal bucket for several weeks. One can almost smell the bucket itself, as though acid had leached away copious mouthfuls of tin. In lieu of flavor it tingles upon first hitting the mouth, treating the sides of the tongue to a jarring pulse of electricity. The experience is reminiscent of stuffing one’s cheeks with nine-volt batteries. When sensation returns, the flavor is succulently purple and not unlike an unobjectionable fruit juice into which someone has stirred a generous teaspoon of baking soda. This impression is mercifully brief. The wine hardly leaves any aftertaste at all except for a vague, unpleasant stabbing sensation along the roof of the mouth, persisting for a long time as a sad memory coating the teeth. I am left feeling that it’s somehow all my fault.
Third, a Sangiovese from Puglia, 2011. Considering that this variety takes its name from the blood of a god, I am relieved to find that it smells rather like wine. Everything about the bottle signifies high class, from its gently slanting typeface to its gilded sunburst logo. Sadly this generous salesmanship doesn’t translate from the bottle to the mouth. The wine tingles noticeably upon first touching the lips, as though assaulting them with arrogant and microscopic bubbles. Curiously, this effervescence is only palpable outside the mouth. Around the tongue it plays more subtly, whispering hints of grandmother’s closet, floral and slightly stale. This subtlety is fleeting, replaced in turn by a loud burst of artificial cream and ambiguous fruitiness like an ill-conceived compote topped with Cool Whip. All the sweetness of corn syrup mingles with the irresistible suggestion of red dye and something that used to be milk, like a liquid reimagining of the short-lived strawberry Cream Saver. Throughout all this drama, a dry sucking sensation pries at the roof of the mouth as though trying to mark it permanently with new ridges. A meaty aftertaste inexplicably follows.
I have deliberately saved California’s “white table wine” for last. The grapes from which this was violently wrested are described only as “organic.” Leaning in to sniff the open bottle—morbid curiosity again—I am met halfway by a smell that at first reminds me of a green apple Jolly Rancher, until it takes on a certain savory depth and forces me to revise my opinion to something like a green apple Jolly Rancher dissolved in chicken stock. In the glass the wine has a chlorinated odor which soon gives way to a vague headache somewhere behind the eyeballs. I’m not sure I want to. When it hits the tip of the tongue it somehow incites small spasms in both cheeks. I swallow nervously and quickly. The memory it leaves me with is not of flavor but of pure terrifying sensation: a burning in the vulnerable region of the soft palate, as though I had imbibed an untested and impure medicine under duress. There is also some suggestion of extremely unripe plums, hard buds gnawed directly from the tree after a heavy application of pesticides. In spite of all its insipid acridity, the wine still has an unpleasant syrupy texture as it oozes from one end of the mouth to the other and back again, creeping like a half-cognizant slime or the nectar of some evil fruit from the furthest recesses of history. There is a slim possibility that it could be used to bring out the shine in old wooden furniture. Uniquely, the aftertaste seems to emanate not from the wine itself, but rather from the depths of my own gorge as I feel stomach acid rising to mingle with the viscous aftermath of the regrettable substance. A full five minutes after the final taste, the roof of the mouth suddenly feels as though it has been washed in spoiled, bacteria-ridden chicken consommé. Not recommended for casual consumption.