I have a dear, dear friend. She is abundantly clever and endlessly empathetic. She is someone with whom I would always choose to spend time, because I’ve never been bored in her presence, because she reminds me to question the status quo, and because she makes me feel like my favorite version of myself.
We share a long and happy history of eating and — especially — drinking together. Our tastes have tended to be similar and simple. But it was always more about the company than about the stuff we consumed.
Lately, however, my friend (let us call her Margaux) was adopted by a wine cult, and events took a turn.
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At first, it was all fun and games and free booze. We would sit down to eat, she would take a random bottle of wine out of her tote bag, pour it into our glasses, and talk about its character. I encouraged her by nodding, saying, “Yes, yes, I can definitely detect a note of that thing you just said,” and holding out my glass for frequent refills. At some point, she would say, “This is good, isn’t it??” and I would agree, because it was wine, so.
Her burgeoning oenophilia remained on the periphery of my perception, even when she spoke about the tasting classes she was taking. Even when she started frequently using the word “somm,” as in, “One of the top three *somms* in the world ordered this when we had dinner here last week.” Even when I noticed that her sniff-n-swirl ritual started taking longer than it used to take her to drink half a glass, I remained oblivious to the deep shifts taking place in my friend. Until that one fateful night at Bibi’s Babaghanoush.
Bibi’s is a middle-brow local place, known for their delicious Middle Eastern comfort food served in a cozy, no-frills space. We had dined there many times in the past, generally washing down our dinner with a glass of whatever wine looked best (second-cheapest) on the limited wine list. We would finish off the evenings at a bar across the street, where they served the canned sour beer that Margaux had once loved. But this night was different from all the other nights.
I arrived about 15 minutes late and found Margaux sitting at a table, talking to a waitress and swirling a teaspoon amount of wine in a glass. There was a subtly furious quality to her swirling. As I looked at her face, I felt the kind of intuition that sailors develop after years of watching the sky. The forecast was: pissy, with a chance of drama.
“It’s O.K.,” Margaux was saying to the waitress, and I immediately knew that it was not O.K. My arrival had interrupted their conversation; the waitress dematerialized, Margaux gave me a hug. But I could feel the tightness in the atmosphere and the vague smell of ozone in the air, and I knew that something was coming.
“So, what’s going on?” I asked, carefully.
“WELL,” said Margaux. “The waitress said that they only have two of the red wines listed on their menu and neither of them are good, so I am kind of disappointed.”
“Looks like you picked one anyway, right?” I gestured to her glass.
“I had to make the best of it, didn’t I!” She replied with a brittle, bitter laugh.
The waitress came by to take our dinner orders. Somewhat unwillingly, she asked me what I wanted to drink. To her evident relief, I quickly picked out an unremarkable white wine.
As we shared news about work, life, etc., the touch of unhappiness around Margaux’s mouth began to dissipate. Looking forward to an evening with my friend, and to my predictably delicious warm dinner, I began to relax. Nobody’s night could be ruined by a faulty wine list, could it?
Just then, a child at a table across the small room began to make repetitive, irritating high-pitched noises. At almost the exact same time, a family with a toddler was seated right next to us; this particular one was quiet enough, but its tiny beardless nearness seemed to amplify the rhythmic, nasal yelps of its ruder peer. Margaux put her hand to her face and mouthed, “OH MY GOD.”
It was then that I suspected that I wouldn’t be enjoying a delicious bowl of homemade shakshuka that evening.
“Can we PLEASE get out of here?” she hissed.
“But — we just ordered. And where would we go?”
“I’m sure we can cancel our orders. Let’s go to the wine bar next door.”
The wine bar next door. Where the food was merely passable, the noise level high, and the seats uncomfortable. I never went there by choice, but the anguish on Margaux’s face convinced me to mutter acquiescence. Quickly, she flagged down the waitress to see if the food could be canceled. As it turned out, it could. We gathered our coats and made our way next door, where we were promptly seated on uncomfortably high stools at long tables. On either side of us, people were shouting loudly to one another. At least one of them had a manbun.
The waitress handed us a 14-inch-long 10-point-font wine list, and Margaux’s face lit up. “This is more like it!” she exclaimed, perusing it happily. “What would you like to drink?”
“I don’t know, sweetie,” I said, with perhaps a smidgen of impatience in my voice. “Why don’t you pick something for both of us.”
Margaux put the wine list down. “Look,” she said, “it isn’t asking too much to want to actually enjoy your Friday night dinner, with a NICE glass of wine, and without children screaming next to you.”
“Those children were a lot less noisy than this place. And if wine is so important to you, why would you even agree to go to Bibi’s for dinner? It’s not the kind of place that keeps a cellar. It’s never bothered you before.”
Margaux placed her hands on my hands and looked into my eyes. “I know that I took away your opportunity to eat your favorite food and that’s UNFORGIVABLE. I know. But I have come to the point where I just CAN’T have bad wine. There are so many good bottles that there is no excuse to ever drink a bad one. It would RUIN my night. Please try to understand. This is how I am now.”
Startled by her intensity, I tried to make a joke. “I understand. I’ll just wait for this phase to pass.”
She leaned back in her seat, her gaze taking on the smoky, knowing quality of a new initiate to the Illuminati. “That’s not how this works. With wine, you don’t go backward, you only go deeper.”
When Margaux ordered a “natural” wine, I passive-aggressively opted for a vodka cocktail. Of course, I ended up tasting her drink, and of course, it was lovely, and of course, I ordered that natural wine for my next round. THAT’S NOT THE POINT.
Walking home after that, I wondered why the incident bothered me so much. It wasn’t that I was mad about missing out on the dinner at Bibi’s — I get takeout from there once a week anyway. And, as I had told Margaux, from now on, we would simply have to go to BYOBs or to places with extremely vetted wine lists. So it wasn’t the logistics of future outings that made me feel irritated and, weirdly, hurt.
In the past, the food and wine that we consumed was unimportant. It was set dressing — a mere excuse to spend time together. It was never a significant factor in the success or failure of any given evening. All we ever really needed was each other; a subpar drink, an annoying child, these would all have just been details to laugh about. But now, there was a new player in Margaux’s life and, frankly, I wasn’t sure that I could compete. Even now, I could not say with certainty whether Margaux would ever choose to spend an evening with me if a bottle of Yellow Tail were in the mix.
They say that sharing means caring, and, sometimes, we must learn to share our best friends. They get married, and we must share them with a spouse; they procreate, and we must share them with their children. And sometimes, they get absorbed by a secret society of swirl-n-sniffers, and we must learn to share them with a parade of “somms” (SOMMELIER! SOMMELIER! WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SAY THE WHOLE WORD???).
That’s all, really. I don’t mean to wine about it.