Monday, November 28, 2016

Don't die before drinking your best wines: What I learned when my plane caught fire

I thought this might be the last photo of me, and I was OK with that
I learned I won a Born Digital Wine Award on Thursday night, while at the home of my friend Eduardo Brethauer in Santiago, Chile. We celebrated briefly, but without even sharing any wine because I had a plane to catch.

Eight hours later that plane was on fire over the Pacific Ocean. And I really, really regretted not having had a glass of bubbly with Eduardo.

Obviously there is a happy ending as I am not writing this from beyond the grave. But for 25 minutes, smoke slowly wisped through the front of the cabin and tense messages from the crew reminded us where the life vests were under each kind of seat. I had time for regrets. And a surprising number were about wine.

Naturally, my first thoughts were what I had said in my email to my wife just before boarding. I replayed my most recent conversations, especially silly Facebook comments, with my close friends. I am glad I hadn't told anyone to bugger off.

Then I thought, I just got some mid-'90s Bordeaux out of my storage cellar before leaving for Chile. Why hadn't I drunk them?

How I looked on the plane (artist rendering)
Does this count as a near-death experience? I was sitting in an exit row and flight attendants came three times to ask if we were sure we could help passengers evacuate, because if not, we had to move right now. Cabin lights blinked, flickered, got very bright and then dimmed slightly. The pilot and co-pilot didn't talk on the intercom, but a purser told people in Spanish to sit down and tighten our seat belts. Then the first officer said in English we would land in San Jose, Costa Rica in 25 minutes. I looked at a world map in the United in-flight magazine and realized we would be over water most of the way.

I tried to read to distract myself, but I was reading "Wolf Hall," about the reign of Henry VIII of England, with people burning at the stake, suddenly dropping dead of "the sweats," and worrying about poison. I put the Kindle aside and sat with my thoughts.

When I look back now, I'm surprised. I had no professional regrets, though I haven't written the Great American Novel. I didn't think about places I haven't visited.

I had sent a tweet before boarding about the irony of drinking supermarket wine from nowhere after winning an award for writing about such, and the thought brought me a wry grin: that plastic cup of red from a plastic magnum, which I didn't even see the country of origin of, will be my last wine. At least I had splurged afterward on a miniature of 12-year-old Glenfarclas Scotch. I wished I had a sandwich in my hand, especially a patty melt, because who cares about calories?

What I regretted was not the wines I had last drunk, but the wines I hadn't had.

My wife has always wanted to try DRC, which I tasted once at a press sampling, and I haven't made that happen for her. I had three bottles of terrific Chilean wine in my checked bag and if I had had the screwcapped Laberinto Sauvignon Blanc with me, I would have swigged some right out of the bottle.

Mostly, though, I regretted wines I own that I could have drunk already, but hadn't. Wines I thought about drinking several times but never found the time for. Some people in that spot probably remember their triumphs and loves lost. One woman gripped the hand of the stranger next to her and prayed aloud. I thought about a bottle of Cabernet I'd declared too young; an amazing bottle of just-ripe Malbec, of all things, which I never had the right food for; a Champagne that might have already aged too long.

Just before I left for the airport Eduardo took the photo at the top of this post of us celebrating the writing award, and I retweeted it. I'm unshaven and sweaty after a warm day in Santiago. But I was happy with that as my final image.

Eduardo, publisher of the wine magazine Vitis, had given me a delightful gastronomic day: raw shellfish, some of it weird, at Santiago's Mercado Central, followed by local razor mussels parmesan and one of Pablo Neruda's favorite dishes, fried conger eel with fried potatoes topped by grilled onions and a fried egg. We had pisco sours and a bottle of cheap Santa Rita white blend, and I was satisfied with that as a last meal.

I just wished I had had a glass of Champagne with Eduardo, and that we had opened and shared the Huaso de Sauzal Pais I bought in a local shop. I discovered that wine, made as rustically as possible, while writing a story earlier this year for Palate Press. I thought of it sinking to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It has no sulfites; it wouldn't last through a shipwreck. I imagined its flavor: light-bodied, savory, complex, shifting. I felt sad that not only I, but nobody would drink it.

Life is short! Fill 'er up!
Then we saw lights outside the window: land! I saw one fellow passenger kiss a crucifix on a small gold chain around his neck. Me, I thought of what wine I would have if I made it home. I couldn't make up my mind: so many choices! Now the drinking of all of them seems urgent. (Update: I opened a '99 tete de cuvee Champagne, and it was marvelous.)

This is what I have to tell you, fellow wine lovers. Don't leave too many prized bottles unopened in your cellar. Drink the good stuff now and have no regrets.

I am proud to have won the Born Digital Wine Award for Best Investigative/Journalistic Wine Story. The other members of the shortlist are great writers; some are personal friends. You can see above how thrilled I was. Here is the award-winning story

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TheMotleyCru said...

Glad you're still with us! And they're definitely words to live by - sláinte!

Zzzz said...

I generally avoid this feeling by not having a proper cellar and the tiniest of bottle fridges. Given Spanish summers, it forces me to not keep too many bottles and cycle through those I have a good deal faster. I find this greatly preferable to having to think about such things when in a seemingly doomed aircraft.


PS - Appearsyou weren't the only journalist on the flight?

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the link, Miquel. Lyder captured the feeling of the flight.

I wish I had chatted with Lyder during the 10 hours we spent locked in a room in Costa Rica (boo, United) waiting for a new flight, but we didn't meet.

Bob Henry said...

I introduce my wine cellar reorganization clients to the late Australian wine writer / raconteur Len Evans and his "Theory of Capacity."

To wit: Every time you drink a modest bottle of wine, that takes away from the limited number of days you have left to drink the "really good stuff."

I cajole them not to be the "Charles Foster Kane" of wine, with treasures still unpacked from Europe, languishing in a warehouse.

Drink up your cherished "rosebuds" !

There are never enough "special occasions" to drink your "special" wines . . .

Unknown said...

Glad you're still with us, Blake!

Unknown said...

After surviving a malady with a nominal 7% survival rate, I opened that 85 Sassicaia I've been waiting for the right moment to broach. I've also opened that 99 De Vogue Chambolle Musigny, the Mugnier Musigny, the 95 Margaux, the 78 Charmes, the 95 Yquem, the 96 Giacosas, the 74 Stags Leaps, and all the rest of those "great bottles" that I've been saving, some since the early 80's. You get the picture. What an idiot I was! Friends have been delighting in revelation, and I'm having a double blast. Open them and drink them up; they're just fermented grape juice, after all.

W. Blake Gray said...

Wow, Peter, I'm glad to hear both that you survived and that you're enjoying these great wines. Carpe diem!