Initiation: Part Two - Now we Drink for Pleasure!

So here we are… dinking for pleasure. What exactly were we drinking for before? Oh right, for business, my apologies, I get the two mixed up from time to time. This part of the story is a bit shorter, partly because the introductions and setting are all finished being explained and set, and the other part because well, I can’t exactly reveal EVERYTHING about this evening, but enough indeed.

So, as my burly French winemaking friend ventures down to the cave to retrieve our “pleasure drinks” my company and I stay waiting, and they express to me that we have to watch pour time, for we have a dinner booked at a famous restaurant in a few hours and we surely can’t be late. I knew there was no way in hell we were making it to that dinner, I just didn’t want to tell them yet, but we were in for a long night. Once the bottles of bubbly started to pop, we were already deep in conversation about unconventional vineyard practices like following the moon calendar, planting vines on days without an R… yes that is actually a topic we covered, and all sorts of other legitimately interesting things. At one point my brother-in-law looked over at me and gave me the classic French puff of the cheeks expression that usually hints at something being excessive, in this instance, he was surely talking about our rate of consumption, but we must soldier on! 

It is now about 8pm, we were supposed to have traveled about 40 minutes up the road to another wine region and do a little exploring – missed that – our dinner reso was for 8 o’clock… yup, blew that too, and we had a very important meeting at 9am the next morning to which we certainly did not want to be hung over for. Yah, check that box too. No need to worry however, for our trusty winemaker literally knows everybody, and called the restaurant to push back our reservation, something I was told was quite “impossible” (if you ever travel to France you should know that their definition of impossible is very different to ours) but alas, we had another hour before we had to be at dinner, few!

This is right about the time that I realized I had found my perfect job. It wasn’t the drinking, it wasn’t the craziness of it all. It was how deep of a connection people can have when they are doing what they absolutely love and run in to someone that is doing the same thing and loving it just as much. This is the most beautiful thing about the wine industry. When you find someone succeeding within it and they started their career because they were downright passionate and could think of nothing else, there is a no stopping the conversation, no slowing down the “tasting” there is just a legitimate connection that overwrites all other obligations. 

This connection overwrote our dinner reservation another 3 times, and because my new best friend is so persuasive he actually got the restaurant6 to take us for an 11pm seating. That diner was a total write off by the way. I had pre-ordered a bottle of 1995 Cos d’Estournel which was completely wasted on our table even though I thoroughly enjoyed every sip, I probably would have downgraded a bit considering my extended “a-hem” tasting at my new favourite winery. 

The other thing that was overlooked just a little was the 9am meeting we had the next morning at yet another winery to talk about starting a business relationship and therefore certainly taste a whole lot more wine. I was prepared, I drank about 10 litres of water the night before and woke up feeling rather okay considering our alcoholic escapades the night before. Now for the rest of my group, that is another story, and that story will be saved for next time when I get into what it’s like being an outsider trying to make it out of a wine industry tasting day alive, no matter how experienced in wine drinking you think you are.

 

Santé!

TJ Harstine

Initiation...

Celebrations are nice. Working hard for something and achieving it is pretty awesome. But sometimes being given limitless wine at your own discretion after passing an exam about wine that you have been studying like a psycho for over the last 6 months - is a disaster. This was my A-HA moment in the world of learning my limits, and luckily I was not the obvious example of “Dude, you may want to taste some of that water before your next wine” that day. Thanks to a very talented and extremely well read Somm that wrote his introductory exam the same day that I did, I had avoided my initiation and lived vicariously through his. Or so I thought…

 

Allow me to introduce a character that will make many appearances on this blog. If I have some promise in mastering The Art of Getting Drunk, this man is Picasso. He and I have gone down the wine rabbit-hole on a number of occasions while drinking wines that only a fortunate few are ever able to taste, and this is the story of how he and I became good friends while I was trying to take a day off during a busy business trip…Silly me. 

This needs a little bit of a set-up as I think it is important to understand the complexity of how this situation came about. I had just become fully self-employed after starting my own import company and I was on my first trip abroad searching for wines to expand my portfolio; this found me in a part of the world that produces wines that I adore - the Loire Valley. Accompanying me was my wife, her sister [who has lived in France for over 10 years, so obviously she has plenty of experience throwing back multiple glasses of wine], and her Parisian husband who has, of course, grown up with a glass in his hand, being French and all…so I was in plenty capable drinking company. We decided to make the drive to the Loire from Pairs a day ahead of my scheduled meetings so we were well rested before business really started as it was a 3.5 hour drive and I had just landed a few days earlier so I was still a little jet-lagged. Once we arrived I thought it would be nice to keep things light and play tourist for a day. I am always doing business when I visit wineries, and while my business is awesome and super fun, I still have to stay focused and I just wanted to kick-back, relax, and taste some delicious wine. So, once everyone agreed that it was a good idea, we hit the road and landed at a beautiful, very old Chateau that boasted a reputation for beautiful {perhaps do another choice for word selection as beautiful was just used to describe the Chateau - otherwise, eliminate the word beautiful from the Chateau description} wines. We exited the car and a very nice [and English speaking!] lady greeted us and offered a tour of their cellar. I was in my touristic heaven. A few moments into the tour she asked me what I do, quite possibly because I sounded a little more informed than the average guest. I told her that I owned a small import company that focuses on small production wines - my tourist cover was officially blown. The tour went on for a few more minutes and thereafter we headed into their small tasting room. It was at this time that she asked us to wait for a moment while she went to find her colleague… 

With heavy footsteps and a big swing of the door a large man entered, and to whom I recited the one line I had mastered in French, “Je suis desolé, mon français nes pas trés bon”. He replied with a uniquely British accent, “that’s alright, I speak English!”, and so the night began. [It’s only 2pm by the way]

This is where the initiation begins. First we began with the typical wine-after-wine professional tasting while the passionate winemaker describes each wine and why it tastes the way that it does. This particular winemaker had some very interesting things to say and I was completely engaged with every word. Once we finished the professional tasting and had the chance to chat about methods, philosophies, superstitions, and many other things, he asked me if I wanted to import his wines. I instantly exclaimed “YES!” without any hesitation, and he then said those six little words that have become my favourite quote of all time:

“Now we drink for pleasure”

To be continued...

 

-TJ Harstine

 

Welcome to My World - Here is Some Mediocre Advice!

 

Intoxication...Something just about all of us have at least some experience in. Some great, some good, some indifferent, and some absolutely horrible. I personally am one of the fortunate ones that has generally marvellous experiences when sipping on the good stuff. I rarely embarrass myself, almost never forget what I have done, and, even when I do, it's usually not all that bad. This could be because of my immense experience with the sensation of being slightly tipsy, and the fact that I usually have to make sure I am remaining professional and alert when I am feeling it. I have been living most of my professional life through a wine glass. I stepped into the world of wine with a big smile and bigger aspirations, while quickly learning that I must master "The Art of Getting Drunk" or I would be exiting this world just as fast as I jumped in. 

 

You see, in my line of work, which is importing alcohol, I am constantly put in the position of having a drink while talking business. This does a few things: It generally lightens up discussion a little, it often gives you something to switch focus to if the conversation isn’t going the way you want, and it also adds an unpredictable element to your consciousness. The later is what I want to talk about. When you train to be a sommelier, or even just take some courses to learn more about wine, they teach you many, many things...but one thing that is always left out is how to deal with the inevitable situation of having to drink more wine than you probably should while conducting a business meeting. Now, many instructors, trainers, teachers, and/or mentors might tell you that you can simply spit the wine out but what they are not telling you is the whole story behind that my friends. Try spitting out wine when the winemaker isn’t. Try spitting out wine when there is no spit bucket or floor drain in sight. Try spitting out wine over dinner while your still discussing the details of your business arrangement...you would be a lot better off falling over and breaking the table, than expelling someone's carefully cellared back vintage that they decided to dig out specially for your dinner pairing. So, what do you do? Well you can do a lot of things but, in my experience, you have to start with accepting you are probably going to be slightly tipsy in some important situations and you better learn how to become comfortable with that feeling rather quickly, or you're probably not going to achieve a whole lot. 

 

From what I can tell, there are a few distinct groups that people fall into when drinking. The first, and possibly most common, is the type that quickly loses their filter when it comes to conversation, but catches themselves before they get too intoxicated. This one is rather simple to deal with. Simply use the "Say It Twice” method. When I start getting a little further into the wine than I know I should, I start to say everything that I think is intelligent or funny in my head first. You would be surprised just how ridiculous some of the thoughts you have sound when you say the sentence to yourself first. “No TJ! Do NOT bring up murder. It's not that funny, and you are weird.” I have uttered this in my head more than once…Seriously.

If you are one of those people that quickly gets clumsy when drinking, simply stay still. Use minimal movement or find a place to lean or sit before that klutz comes out.

*Most of these tips are preventative by the way, so it is best to find your safe place before the wine starts to flow too quickly.*

One thing I haven’t quite figured out how to combat just yet is the rare, but real problem, of speech slurring prematurely...so...if this happens to you, maybe fake an accent or something, because other than that, I have nothing for you, so good luck.

If you are one of the unfortunate folks that starts to feel the effects of booze faster than the average bear, then you need to learn how to pace yourself and stall the pouring, which actually is harder than it seems; but using bathroom breaks, drinking painfully slow, or not finishing what you have been poured so you are forced to dump when they want to pour you the next wine are all effective, although, it is common to feel the urge to slam the last sip before the next wine. DO NOT DO THIS, please trust me on this one. When you are traveling and meeting with winemakers, spending that precious one-on-one time together, they are going to want to pour you everything they have ever made, so you need to find a way to spit one way or another. Also, when at the winery you need to remember there could be a lunch or dinner offered after this, so the actual drinking hasn’t even started yet. I am 220lbs, so I can handle a few more drinks than average, but even I have to sneak a spit or pour out from time-to-time.

 

Another thing to keep in mind, is that you are not the only one tasting most of the time, so be aware of who you are with and figure out what etiquette is being enforced or followed, and then continue to pay attention as these things as they can change without notice. In the end, it is always better to risk offending than it is to lose self-control. I have seen both happen and the consequences of the later are far worse, as they should be, so don’t feel too much pressure. The most likely scenario when someone is proudly pouring wine-after-wine for you and then invites you to dinner after that, your meeting is going very well and there is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself while maintaining a level of professionalism. I have experienced some absolutely insane situations through my career up-to-and-including almost throwing up at one of the world's most prestigious wineries, following an evening of air-guitaring Sepultura until 5am in front of an ancient château with a winemaker I could barely communicate with...BUT...those stories are for another blog, so stay tuned and be Artistic my friends.

 

This will be my outlet for all of the insanity and ridiculousness I tend to experience, and I can't wait to finally share it all, after all, it is spilling over faster than an amateur swirler's glass of Cali Cab Sav.

 

Santé!

-TJ Harstine