I remember the day I realized it was possible to know something, at least a little bit, about wine. Or, I should say, the night. It was my junior year of college, spring semester, during a joint formal between my sorority and another one (college!). A friend of mine arranged a dinner before the event for her friends in both sororities and their dates, which took place in the back room at the ‘nice restaurant’ near campus. It was a set amount and BYOB for wine, so I was going to pay for dinner, and my date, a guy I had recently started seeing (his ex-girlfriend was at the dinner too, upping the stakes—and the volatility quotient—considerably), was bringing the wine.
He brought a red and a white, and not just something from the gas station or that stuff in boxes we were all disturbingly OK with drinking at parties. The white was a Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, and the red a Ruffino Chianti. Up until that point all I knew was that there was red wine and there was white wine, and when my parents offered me a glass when I was home for the summer I should always say yes, but that night marked a turning point. He had taken the time to pick a good wine, coughing up significantly more than a typical college kid does on a bottle. He meant business. (He was also 21, which certainly helped the purchasing process.)
There was a collective ‘here goes nothing’ as everyone pulled their variously marked bottles from plastic bags to have them uncorked by the poor waiter who got stuck covering the dinner shift for a bunch of college kids trying to get as drunk as quickly as possible. The waiter came around, dodging the nighttime equivalent of paper airplanes and note-passing as he opened bottle by bottle (by bottle by bottle). When he got to us, he looked at our wine, looked at us, looked back at the wine, and then said, “This is a beautiful wine.” We had impressed him, if only by how fancy our wine was, especially compared with everyone else’s, inspiring dirty looks from the other guys populating our table, whose wines were not beautiful and whose dates now knew it (or did I just imagine that?).
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The waiter was right. The wine was delicious. I could taste things that, while I couldn’t possibly describe them with the correct terms (and somewhat stubbornly still can’t), I knew were something. I was drinking good wine, and I liked it. I wanted to drink more of it. And so we did, polishing off the two bottles with our chicken entrees, downing our final, glorious glasses before heading to campus to board our sorority-sanctioned buses to the formal.
Later that night, in the cab home, the guy and I would decide to start officially ‘dating.’ Then we would have the car turn clear around to pick up my roommate, whose own date, underage and wasted, had gotten into a fight in a shared cab on the other side of town, accidentally punched the driver while aiming for the guy in the front seat, then bolted when the police arrived, leaving my roommate stranded and finding himself in the drunk tank minutes later.
Things wouldn’t work out between me and my new boyfriend (though I wouldn’t realize it for another four years, whoops, during which we’d refer to that night as the beautiful wine night and throw around the phrase as often as we could). To this day, though, I grab that same red wine from Trader Joe’s for every (really) special occasion. There’s still nothing like a beautiful wine.
Stephanie Butnick is an associate editor at Tablet Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat, Cat Stevens. Follow her on Twitter @stuffism