One of the incidents I was curious about at an early age was in exactly what manner I came into this world. During the early years, Anyu held to the myth that a stork dropped me off onto the apartment balcony one October dawn. She doggedly held to this version until she finally relented (I was 12 years old) and gave an interesting report of my birth at home in the marriage bed. She had been attended by a midwife, Apu and a friend who was a gynecologist. Anyu took great pains to report that neither Apu, not the gynecologist assisted at the birth because they were both blind drunk on home-made wine. When I uttered my first crying comment while being held upside down by the midwife, Apu was passed out on the bed beside Anyu. The gynecologist was picking out some folk songs on the grand piano in the corner of the room, oblivious to Anyu’s grunting ( and likely, swearing using the rich vulgarities available in the Hungarian language) Apparently they didn’t bother to offer her any of the wine! What this story did for me was to introduce me to the importance of wine in our family. It also served as a keen reminder to never give birth to a child at home.
Social occasions in the family home, mostly involving Apu playing chamber music with his cronies, were usually lubricated by wine contained in large jugs. As well, cigarettes, of the roll-your-own variety, were consumed in huge quantities and added atmosphere to these musicales. A story Anyu liked to repeat, in order to demonstrate what kinds of shenanigans Ildiko and I got up to as toddlers, was this. After a particularly energetic practice, Anyu and Apu walked the departing musicians out into the vestibule, there exchanging protracted goodbyes. When they returned to the salon to begin clearing up, there were Ildiko and me eating cigarette butts and finishing off any wine left in glasses and gallon jugs. That must have been the seminal experience which started me off on a life-time appreciation of red wines, and a liking of smoking cigarettes. There is nothing like starting young, particularly in developing vices.
Apu had a great liking for red wine. Usually after hours in the surgery, and before late dinner, he attended at the local wine and beer cellar to play cards and unwind with the neighbourhood men. Anyu was far too busy attempting to make flavourful meals with the poor supplies available in post-war Hungary. When it was almost time for dinner, she’d dispatch Ildiko and me to the tavern to bring Apu home. Of course, the tavern was a fascinating place, and we’d bug the tavern-keeper to show us how to decant wine and beer from the barrels. While practicing this none too feminine skill, we imbibed quantities of wine and beer, and then would hang about watching the men play cards and help them cheat, sing songs with them and pester them with bad jokes. Usually, upon our noisy return to the apartment, we’d find Anyu irritated and fuming, and our dinner getting cold. But after evenings of bringing Apu home from the tavern, we fell to sleep readily, oblivious to the irate exchanges between Anyu and Apu out in the salon.
Apu continued our lessons in wine appreciation during summers. He loved to visit the various wineries on the north shore of Lake Balaton. Usually we spent one summer week at Siofok resorts on Lake Balaton’s south shore, getting there by the family car, a DKW, barely cobbled together and wheezing along the pocked roads of the Pannonia hills. A big part of getting to the resort was the afternoon we spent going from one winery to the next. Apu just had to sample the latest vintages and discuss with the vintners the finer points of wine-making. This irritated Anyu no end, especially since Apu’s mood gradually improved the closer we got to Siofok. On the drive between wineries he told us funny stories, and sang silly songs.
By the time we arrived in the children’s resort in Siofok, where we were dropped off and left in the care of rather well-meaning but dull and officious caregivers, Apu was in full glorious baritone, and Anyu was glaring out the car window in silence. I had decided during these experiences that wineries were fun places to visit. There were all kinds of fresh fruits to pick from trees and shrubs, and the welcoming hosts had plenty of good bread and cheese to feed on. And playing hide and seek in the rows of grapes was entertaining.
Later on, when I was in Art School and still living at home, Apu took it upon himself to practice wine-making. Ildiko was at university then, studying genetics, and had vials of fruit flies in cold storage in our refrigerator. As Apu’s wine fermented in the basement, an infestation of fruit flies took residence in every space in the basement, including my basement bedroom. My bedroom also smelled like a distillery. Once, when Ildiko had improperly knocked out her fruit flies at Lab, and instead of being unconscious when she opened their vials so she could sex them, they flew off in all directions. This accident necessitated that she star her fruit-fly breeding program from the beginning. As she recounted this while at dinner with the family, Anyu helpfully suggested they repair to the basement and trap some of the resident fruit-flies for the new experiment. This suggestion provoked Ildiko to partake of several glasses of wine at dinner, in order to assuage her depression. After dinner, during a spirited round or two of canasta over another carafe of home-made red, we all forgot about the experiment failure, and even tolerated the irritating flitting of home-bred fruit flies in and out of our wine-glasses and downed the drowned ones along with the wine. Apu perhaps reasoned that nubile young daughters would be kept out of trouble if they did their drinking at home, rather than out in the wily and seductive world? This drinking of home-made brew resulted in me really disliking receiving bottles of home-brewed wines as gifts. Often they taste as foul as Apu’s vintages used to; with some interesting variations in flavour, most of them unpleasant, bitter, corky or vinegary.
During University years, there was a wine drought in my life. The need to eat won out over any desire to drink wine. So there is a lapse in increasing wine appreciation, for which I made up for amply, much later. Twenty years later, to be precise, after Renaissance Man had left home to pursue his studies at university. Rumpole and I were abruptly alone together. We decided to take a road trip to California upon the suggestion of friends who had just come back from a holiday in the Napa Valley.
We consulted maps and studied the possibilities. A mid-life romantic revisiting of San Francisco and its environs was in order. The Napa valley, being close-by fit into our plans. Off we took in the family car, bearing cooking equipment, including pots and pans, camp-stove, dishes and silver, even wine-glasses along with our cooler, duds and camera equipment. The plan was to eat picnic dinners and lunches in state and city parks along the way, like a couple of gypsies. We provisioned from a variety of sources along the road, and had a wonderful time doing experimental cooking and eating outdoors
In the Napa Valley, we decided to set up base camp at an inexpensive motel in Sonoma, a rather quaint town at the Southern end of the Napa Valley. From here we forayed out daily for three days, driving North and visiting wineries. At the end of each day we returned to home base in Sonoma to recoup for the next day’s adventures.
The first day, we visited one winery before noon and tasted all their reds, sniffing roasted coffee beans between small glass-fuls, swishing our mouths out with water and nibbling cheese. By the time we were finished touring that particular winery, I was a bit fatigued and needed to nap in the car. Rumpole took off from the parking lot and went in among the grapevines to take photos while I slept off the wine. Afterward, we drove to two more wineries where Rumpole prevailed upon me to sample some whites – chardonnays, gewurtztraminers, etc.. Having had a skewed exposure to only reds, I found the whites somewhat perfumy and unpalatable, but bravely drank down my portions, which then I followed up with sampling any reds that were on offer. Soon we stopped to prepare our evening meal, which was a bit of a production as we were both slightly inebriated. Meal prep was a bit of a gong show, but we did manage to make a presentable pilaf, salad and steak. Good thing we ate, too, because neither of us remembered how we got back to the Sonoma motel at dusk.
The following morning, slightly hungover, we marvelled at just how much a punch those many small sips of wine during the previous day had packed. We vowed to eat constantly on the second day between visits to wineries, and only to sample one or two of the wines available. That decision was a smart one, as we grew increasingly critical of the Wine-Tasting Experience – the ersatz chateaux constructions, the fake snobbery of the wine-tasting rituals, the almost Disney-Land grooming of the whole Napa Valley where conspicuous consumption was the order of the day.
On the third day, we loaded up the car with all our stuff, signed out of the motel, and decided that once we got to the North end of the valley we’d keep going and drive on homeward. We were thoroughly wined out and decided to find the local cheese-makers, of which there were plenty. Wine and cheese are naturally paired – animal fats with vegetable astringent – a pairing made in gourmet heaven. We had bought a number of bottles of red wine. We therefore had to buy a requisite number of delicious cheeses with which these could be paired.
This trip had pretty well done me for a lifetime of wine-tasting. I still like red wine. In fact, last night, after I had babysat Mousey, Glasgow Girl and I sat on her veranda and sipped a nice glass of ordinary red.
I know the foregoing reads very much like a toned-down A.A. drunkalogue – a sort of “How I came to like the Demon Drink.” But, I confess, I do like to drink a nice glass of red wine, and have come to an appreciation of doing so while disliking drinking to excess. Oh, and bring on the cheese – of any sort, colour, flavour, scent.