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When Wine Failed

2011 September 9
by Mike

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.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jack permalink
    September 12, 2011

    I completely agree. I was the one in class who told my students that if anyone wanted to get rid of French wine to bring it to me and I am sure by the second glass I would be shouting Vive la France! (I guess depending on the quality :) )

  2. September 12, 2011

    Thanks everyone for the kind words and the shared recollections. Jack, I didn’t mean to suggest that that one experience was representative of what I encountered in France. The vast majority of people were very supportive and sympathetic, and resisted any urge to politicize 9/11. And I found that even at the height of all the tensions over the Iraq war, the people I talked to in France were careful to make clear that their differences were with the Bush administration–that this wasn’t just reflexive anti-Americanism (though there was obviously some of that among French political figures and in the French press). Whatever one thought of the Iraq war, I think we behaved far worse than the French–the French-bashing here was just awful, and it remains a sore point.

  3. Jack permalink
    September 12, 2011

    And I had the exact opposite occurrence. I was living in Europe during that year and in Italy the November after 9-11 visiting Barolo and while waiting for for my appointment, 2 Italians realized that my friend and I were Americans came over and offered us their condolences for 9-11 in the most sweet and sincere way that it still makes me tear up. And the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity throughout Europe in those months was simply amazing. Sorry for your experience but in mine it simply did not happen, and I was in France also.

  4. September 12, 2011

    Beautiful article. Thank you so much for writing it. Yesterday, I was pouring wine at an art & wine festival. I had mixed feelings about doing it on 9-1-1. It just seemed inappropriate. But I decided that celebrating life would be a good way to honor the people who died 10 years ago. I wish they could have been with us yesterday.

  5. September 12, 2011

    The French have always been there when they needed us. Yet it is fashionable to hate America for not being the Russia who was stopped at Berlin in WWII. The French left wanted a Russian style Europe, and their misery was compounded by the loss of their own empire. Hating America and needing America turns out though to be a harmless exercise in French culture. Cultural changes in Paris especially may divert the hatred of America to a set of real problems that grip Europe. America once again may be the only answer.

  6. Jack Bulkin permalink
    September 9, 2011

    We all have many memories related 9/11. One that has always seemed profound to me was that I had a Napa trip planned the week after 9/11. The woman I was dating had two young sons and thought better of flying so I went alone.
    I went to Reverie winery on Diamond Mountain and spoke with the owner Norm Kiken a bright former Insurance Executive that gave it all up to make wine. We spoke about 9/11 as he pumped freshly pressed juice. He took me upstairs to his office. There were three orders that he showed me sitting alone on his desk. All three were customers that had offices in and died in the horrific N.Y. Trade Center attack. He held up the orders in his hands and said “they were his customers and friends that ordered and wanted to drink my wines.” They are now all dead. We both shared a surreal yet tragic moment together. The orders became real to me representing wine lovers and people that cared about something I shared . The senseless acts of murdrr felt so much more personal and sad to me than it had before that moment.

  7. Larry Kantrowitz permalink
    September 9, 2011

    I drank a 1980 and 1981 Ridge Monte Bello with Kevin Zraly at Windows on the World. One of my fondest memories of wine that has only grown stronger over the past decade

  8. Doug permalink
    September 9, 2011

    Thanks for writing this. I’ll be at a cookout Sunday a few blocks from the Capitol – no doubt there will be similar feelings.

  9. Michael permalink
    September 9, 2011

    Great post!

    As an aside, as I travel to France at least twice a year, I’m always amazed for the French people’s simultaneous love and contempt for the United States…

    …I’ll be in Paris in two weeks and if you don’t find it crass to ask, given the nature of this post, would welcome both wine bar and wine merchant recommendations…

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