An version of this piece first appeared in Small Winery Magazine.
Sitting on a winery’s patio, I hear someone at a nearby table ask her companions, “I just had a red. Now I want a white. Can I do that?”
The question says a great deal about some people’s anxiety when it comes to wine. What are they allowed to do? They know there are codes and ways of doing things, and they fear they might break them by acting on their desires. They also fear that someone will then correct them.
I didn’t hear the responses of the others at the table because I was remembering a story about my father.
At the end of a business dinner in a Paris restaurant, my father once asked for a glass of milk. The waiter refused to bring him one. “Milk is for babies,” he explained. Rather than intimidate my dad, this made him want a glass even more. He insisted; the waiter refused. They had something like the following argument.
“You do have milk, don’t you?”
“You would serve it to a child.”
“Pretend I’m a child.”
“But you are not.”
“I was once.”
“But you are not now.”
“If I had a child with me, you would give it to him.”
“Pretend that I do and bring me his.”
“But you do not, and I will not.”
“Do you serve café au lait?”
“It’s coffee with milk, right?”
“Would you serve me that?”
“Then bring me a café au lait and hold the café.”
Eventually, to the embarrassment of the Europeans at the table, my dad was brought a glass of milk which he proceeded to drink with great relish.
My father doesn’t believe that a restaurant’s staff gets to decide who should or shouldn’t be allowed to consume their products. Nor should they insist on how their dishes are to be eaten. If you want to have dessert first or fifteen appetizers or, as my dad sometimes does, a piece of apple pie with gravy or cheese on top, then that’s your choice. The servers and even the chef can make recommendations, but they should not issue commandments. The commands (in French “commander” or “to order”) come from the customer.
My father would never ask, “Can I do that?” He knows what he wants, and usually he knows the expected social behavior even when he chooses to ignore it. The woman on the patio was different. She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t know about the etiquette. She was afraid of doing something wrong and making a “mistake.”
Usually, people drink from white to red, light to heavy. There are good reasons to have wines in this sequence, but, if you don’t, the bottles won’t shatter, the glasses won’t fall off the bar, no one will be scandalized and call the police. And, if someone does become upset? If they absolutely insist on a certain order or code? Then the problem isn’t what you’re drinking, but who you are drinking with.
Wine snobs are much more rare than the stereotypes suggest, but they do exist. And, unfortunately, bad companions – those who condescend, or those who believe people need to be educated to appreciate the “right” wines-- leave much more of an unpleasant after-taste than bad wines. There is, however, an easy solution. Dump them and try tasting with someone else.
The answer to “Can I do that?” when you’re trying wine, should always be, “Sure, if you want.”