When Wine Failed
Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11. All week, the airwaves have been filled with flashbacks to that day of madness, ditto newspapers and magazines. I’m not sure there is much a wine blog can add to the discussion, but I do recall the role that wine didn’t play—that it couldn’t play—in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Wine, of course, serves many purposes, not least as a balm in times of despair or distress. It can offer relief, and it can help us regain perspective. But for me, at least, it was unable to fulfill any of those functions in the aftermath of 9/11. I continued to drink wine, but I found that its cathartic powers were completely overwhelmed by the ghastliness of the moment.
My son had been born a month prior to 9/11, and from his bedroom, we could see the smoke rising from the World Trade Center. For weeks thereafter, I was consumed by three emotions: sorrow, guilt, and fear. The stories of those who died in the attacks were all painful, but the ones that left me unglued were of the new or expectant fathers who had been killed. My son turned 10 a few weeks ago, and thinking of the many pleasures I’ve enjoyed over the last decade and that were stolen from those men kicks up a sickness in my gut that will likely never go away. I also remember being scared. A week after the attacks, Martin Amis published an essay in the Guardian that expressed exactly how I felt. “Mothers and fathers need to feel that they can protect their children,” he wrote. “They can’t, of course, and never could, but they need to feel that they can. What once seemed more or less impossible—their protection—now seems obviously and palpably inconceivable.” That was the sum of all my fears, fears that were then magnified by the anthrax attacks, when merely bringing the mail into the house seemed fraught with danger.
Two months after 9/11, I went to France to do a story about Chablis. As I kissed my wife goodbye, I said, “If something happens, you know what to tell him.” Actually, she didn’t know what to tell our son, because we had never discussed anything like that. But with so much menace in the air, it seemed like the prudent thing to say. The trip included visits with the Raveneau brothers and Vincent and René Dauvissat. Those were a thrill, and I got to taste some special wines. But there was no getting away from the barbarity we had all witnessed. It was the unavoidable topic of conversation, the black cloud that followed you everywhere. I was joined on the trip by Owen Franken, a Paris-based photographer who is a delightful and very funny guy (it runs in the family: his brother is a professional funnyman-turned-United States Senator). Over dinner one night, Owen’s assistant, a young French woman, made the mistake of invoking the chickens-had-come-home-to-roost argument. Wrong time, wrong table: Owen and I were harshly dismissive of her comment—brutally so, in fact—but the emotions were raw. Chablis in late November is a cold, dark place, and the weather matched our moods.
Those were awful days, and wine couldn’t make them better. Hemingway said that wine was the most civilized thing in the world; we had just experienced the most savage assault on civilization imaginable, and wine offered no succor. Only time and distance brought relief, and even now, a decade on, the sense of horror persists. We were in Manhattan last weekend, and as we drove uptown, past Ground Zero, I felt the anguish all over again. And I’ll feel it again on Sunday, as will most of us.