Pairs With Life - Chapter One
Helena was leading service for the Jansen party that night, which was good news. She was awesome—an absolute pro at her job, and mostly unflappable. We met for a few minutes to talk strategy. I didn’t tell her about the bet, though maybe I should have, because she thought it was rather odd of me to be so concerned about a bachelorette party.
“Chances are we aren’t even going to need you,” she said.
“How sexist,” I admonished her, practically vomiting hypocrisy. “What if the bride is a director at Google? And all her friends are instructors at the Culinary Institute? What if they’re all writers for Wine Spectator?”
She wasn’t, they weren’t, and hell no.
When the bride-to-be finally sashayed into the restaurant atop a wave of millennial entitlement, it was as obvious as the rhinestone tiara atop her head that there would not be a single fuck given to the wine list. I had to admit, though, that the bride glowed; she beamed. She was all shiny teeth, dewy skin and smoky eyes, and radiating with the glorious possibility of a love eternal—a happiness unhinged and unfettered, as ethereal as a dream whispered to the breeze. It was practically contagious, something I could inhale or feel wash over me for one perfect moment as she sauntered by.
Oh, well. Life would drop its fucking jackboot on her heart soon enough.
Helena agreed to let me go in before she asked for an initial drink order, just to see if I could sell them on wine and not something vodka-based. I gave the group exactly seven minutes on the terrace before making my entrance.
They were snapping selfies like the paparazzi. I could have been Ryan Gosling riding in naked on a unicorn and no one would have noticed.
“Good evening, ladies!” I bellowed. Mostly silence. “And a special hello to our beautiful bride-to-be, Nicole!” That got a few ‘woot-woots.’
“My name is Corbett and I will be your sommelier tonight.” Blank stares. “That means I’m the wine guy—”
“Champers!” Nicole screamed, followed by a chorus of twelve other screams.
Champagne was a good sign, and the only indication so far that Andrew was not going to hand me my ass on this bet. The next step was to identify The Decision Maker of the group. Though typically the bride gets what the bride wants, there’s usually somebody else lurking on the periphery who actually foots the bill. I didn’t see an obvious candidate as the party walked in, but as I opened the list to the sparkling wine section and brought it over to the bride, I noticed one woman at the far side of the table who was definitely closer to my age than theirs. Her dress was just a tad less revealing than the spaghetti-strap numbers that dominated the herd, and her general demeanor belied a more mature—if not matriarchal—attitude. I made note of her but brought the list to Nicole, nonetheless.
“May I suggest the Nicolas Feuillatte,” I offered first. “It’s a beautiful, delicious, creamy Champagne.” Then I moved in for the kill. “But what I like to recommend is a bottle of the 2007 Cristal for just you and the maid of honor. You know, something to keep under the table, special for the two of you.” Sincere smile, friendly wink, and that’ll be seven hundred dollars: a solid start, but perhaps not enough to drop the mic on Andrew.
“Yasss Queen!” One of the bridesmaids rushed up, threw her arms around Nicole’s waist and squeezed hard before turning to me. “We need Prosecco! Have you ever heard of Prosecco?”
“Prosecco, hmm, I may have to look it up.” I knew I’d have to deep-six the sarcasm, or I’d be a hundred bucks short by the end of the night. A very, very long night.
We did have a Cartizze Prosecco at $150, but I didn’t have the heart to spring that on them.
On my way into the cellar to grab the wine, Andrew came out, holding two bottles.
“The ’14 Edmond Vatan Sancerre,” he crowed.
Ugh. Three hundred bucks a bottle, and that’s just the first course. “Your suggestion, or does someone know what they’re doing?”
“Two collectors. They’re completely geeking out.”
This was not a good development. “That’s all right. The maid of honor is the sous chef at Franglais in Los Angeles,” I said.
“No, she’s not,” Andrew dismissed, walking off.
“Your parents named you after the guy who did nothing in Wham!” I called after him.
“I don’t even know what that means,” he called back.
By the time I got back to the table, Helena’s crew had already set up the glasses. Since we were out on the terrace and the mood was festive, I took one bottle and popped the cork like a rocket. That elicited another round of screams, which in turn elicited the first round of noise complaints from the neighbors.
As I poured the wine, I couldn’t help but notice the older woman from before. She was alternately staring at me and her phone. This continued the whole time I went down the line of glasses until I reached the one in front of her.
“I know you,” she said.
She held her phone up to me, and there I was, guitar in hand, circa 1995. “You’re Sensitive Ponytail Guy!” she squealed.
Here’s the thing. It never gets old being recognized, and I have an ego-gasm every time it happens. Honestly, twenty years later, it totally makes my day. That said, my brief brushes with fame are exactly the same every single time, so my response has become perfectly crafted over the last two decades.
“Yep, you got me. I was lead singer and guitarist for Reality Star.” I smiled. “That was my band. But you have to understand, I was singing about Sensitive Ponytail Guy. That’s the irony of the song.”
“Oh my god!” She went back to looking at the music video playing on her phone. “I saw you guys open for Soundgarden in 1994. I loved this video.”
“Thank you, I really appreciate that.” I was still smiling like an ego-fueled dork, but knew I had to get back to business. “So, hey, maybe you’d like to take a look at the wine list and see if there’s something special you’d—”
A young woman dropped a case of wine on the table beside me. “Ok, bitches! It is ON!”
It was unfortunate to say the least, but it wasn’t uncommon for guests to bring bottles to the restaurant that they’d purchased on their wine tasting adventures. I could only hope that Andrew’s group did the same, because this turn of events was probably the bet’s death knell.
I opened the case and immediately saw that all the capsules were the same. I took out one bottle. Then another. Then one more. My stomach became the Pit of Despair, tied in more knots than a maritime museum.
I read the label aloud, like I was reading my own death sentence. “Rich Bitch Chardonnay.”
“Rich Bitch!” the young woman screamed. “You’re a fucking rich bitch, Nicole! WOOOOOOOO!”
More screams. All the screams.
Rich Bitch Chardonnay. $12.95 at the local Safeway (“but only $9.95 when you buy six or more!”). There were about seventy-three smartass, wine snob responses I could have said. Instead, I sulked off to find Helena.
One dozen red Solo cups for table eight, please.
Andrew was at the terrace door, waiting. He’d probably seen the whole episode go down and wanted to twist the corkscrew even further into my heart. Silently, without expression, he presented a bottle of 2006 Domain Armand Rousseau Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru.
I found that I was still carrying a bottle of the Rich Bitch, much the same way Jesus had to carry his own cross. I presented it to Andrew in return. He pursed his lips and nodded - I think he actually felt sorry for me.
“If memory serves,” he noted, “that bottle does not cost twelve hundred dollars.”
I didn’t go back to the Jansen party. What was the point? The servers could pour the case of plonk, and if by some miracle they needed me for something else, Helena would come find me.
I worked the floor for a little while, which typically lifted my spirits when guests needed recommendations or wanted to chat about some extraordinary winery they had discovered that day. On this particular night, it wasn’t working.
I hadn’t been entirely honest with Chef Dan. No, I didn’t want to leave Appellation once I got my credentials. Not because I loved working 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. six nights a week or dealing with bachelorettes who didn’t know their chardonnay from Kool-Aid or losing a bet to a somm who recently graduated from Gymboree.
I wanted to stay for the clout. For the respect. It wasn’t exactly like performing before 30,000 screaming fans, but Master Sommeliers were rock stars in their own right. There were only 236 of them in the entire freaking world.
And with that notch on my wine key, I could kiss the world of one-bedroom apartments and Top Ramen goodbye forever. Seamus O’Flaherty, my partner in crime (though attorneys hate being described that way), had been lining me up some pretty amazing freelance gigs over the past year: marketing consultations, restaurant wine lists, that sort of thing. Ten times the money and half the work. As a Master Sommelier leading the wine program at the top restaurant in Napa Valley, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have to take out an ad on Craigslist to get more consulting work than I could possibly handle.
I took my fifteen-minute break in the kitchen—a practice that was usually frowned upon. Though there’s no such thing as a “slow night” for a restaurant that’s fully booked six months in advance. However, I was able to convince Stacy to take pity on me and fix me a double portion of the pork belly course. As comfort food went, it was pure heroin, melting in my mouth like so much pig fat happiness.
And then I saw Rick Dornin.
More appropriately, he saw me, and his face twisted into a perturbed expression that only occurs when somebody yanks on the stick that’s been wedged up your ass for thirty-five years.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he said. “And didn’t you already get your dinner before service?”
“Richard!” I said with game show host enthusiasm. “What, pray tell, brings you out of your shit hole on this fine evening?”
“Seriously, if you have to eat that, do it in your office. But if you’ve already—” He stopped suddenly, and his lips cracked into some bizarre, smile-like expression. “On second thought, you just stay here and enjoy that.
Shouldn’t kick a man when he’s down.” He patted me on the shoulder condescendingly.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, although I already feared the answer.
Dornin didn’t reply, but if smarm was a moisturizer, it was slathered all over his sunken face. He gave me one more shoulder pat and walked past me. “Never take a bet you can’t win, Corbett.”
Freaking Andrew. I could just see him scurrying into Dornin’s rat hole to tell him all about our bet, his lips awash with the golden-brown hue of a major ass-kissing. The kid wanted my job in the worst way and was probably willing to be paid even less for it. Worse, Dornin was looking for any excuse to give it to him.
I ran out of the kitchen and caught up with Dornin outside his office. “You’re right, I shouldn’t take a bet I can’t win. So, here’s the deal. I’ll bet you I pass my sit next week and become a Master Somm. If I do, you just stay out of my way around here. You can set my hours, but I choose my parties, and I don’t answer to you.”
Dornin raised a cynical eyebrow. “And if you don’t pass?”
“Then Andrew can be Lead Somm. I’ll do what you ask me to, no questions asked.”
Dornin nodded. “And you won’t run off and complain to Chef Dan like a little bitch?”
I glared. “We don’t get to use the word ‘bitch’ anymore. Bitch.”
“It’s a bet.” He tried to do that grinning thing again; it made me want to press my thumbs into his cheeks and guide his face into what an actual smile looks like.
As Dornin slithered into his lair, I felt an uneasy sense of relief mixed with anxiety. A week from now, The Dornin Problem would be settled once and for all. All I had to do was pass my exam.
An exam I had failed the year before.
And the year before that.
It was time for a confidence boost.
I took a deep breath and headed back out to the terrace. Maybe the Rock Mom had gotten drunk enough to order a dessert wine, like a Chateau d’Yquem at $1,500 a pop?
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The party was in that loose, transition phase from Not Eating The Meat Course to Dancing On The Tables And Garnering Noise Complaints. I found a half-full bottle of the Rich Bitch Chardonnay and went around the table, pouring it out, listening for an opportunity. I couldn’t even find Rock Mom anymore. She probably bowed out an hour ago. I know I would have.
“Hey, are you the wine guy?” It was the girl who brought the case of wine.
“How can I help you, ma’am?”
She held up a bottle of Rich Bitch. “Can you open this for me? It’s the last one. I kept it hidden from everyone else,” she giggled.
I smiled in resignation as I reached for the bottle and took out my wine key. “So, are you a big fan of chardonnay?”
“Hells yeah!” she said. “Chardonnay is my jam.”
I stopped opening the bottle and stared at her for a moment. She had these huge eyes, like something out of a Japanese anime cartoon, but more inquisitive and less vapid.
“Hold on a second,” I said, handing the bottle back to her. “You take this, and stay right here, ok? I’ll be right back—don’t go anywhere!”
“Uh, ok.” Her voice was in the initial stages of slurring.
I dashed off to the cellar. I knew we only had one bottle left, and thankfully the price wasn’t marked up three times the way we normally do for the rare stuff. I grabbed it and raced back up to the floor, where I found Helena.
“Hey, the Jansen party just ordered this,” I said, showing her the bottle. “But they want it on a separate check, so I’ll ring it up, ok?”
“Jesus,” she said, in sincere shock. “Nice work. You want me to bring out more glasses?”
“No, but thanks.” I headed back out to the terrace to find that Powerpuff Girl was still there, in pretty much the exact same position as when I left, holding the unopened chardonnay.
I presented my bottle to her. “This is the 2009 Domain Ramonet Montrachet, Grand Cru, from Cote de Beaune in France,” I said. “This is a chardonnay, too, and I want you to try it.”
I gingerly pulled the cork and poured a few ounces in each of our glasses. I didn’t want to lose her attention or put her off with some long-winded Five Step Program To Fine Wine Enjoyment bullshit, so I just quickly sniffed the glass for flaws and handed it to her. “Now, drink this.”
She looked a bit tentative at first but raised the glass to her lips and took a healthy mouthful. And within a few moments, I saw it. By God, I knew it would happen. Her pupils dilated, her cheeks flushed, and a tiny smile pushed at the corner of her lips.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “This is amazing. This is chardonnay? I mean, I can taste it, but it’s like…”
“Different? Unbelievable? Unlike any chardonnay you’ve had before?”
“Yes!” I screamed. “Yes!” I threw up my arms. “Welcome to my world.”
I sat down next to her and filled our glasses. She took another sip, almost greedily this time. “You have taken the red pill,” I said. “Nothing will ever be the same now.”
She gave me the I Don’t Have A Clue What You’re Talking About But I’m Not Going To Admit It smile, and kept on drinking.
“Wine is life in a glass.” I said, gazing lovingly at the amazing juice in my glass. “It’s art, it’s history, it’s chemistry—like the chemistry of sex.” I touched my glass to hers, then breathed in the amazing essence of the wine. It was as though you could take the feeling of floating atop a field of sunflowers and catch it in a wine glass.
“Most important of all, wine is an adventure, a journey without end. Take it. Soak it up like a sponge. Never come back.” I took my glass and got up from the table.
“Wait,” she called after me, holding up the bottle. “Do I get to keep this?”
“Absolutely. Share it with somebody you love,” I told her. “And when you’re done, keep that bottle. Remember this night.”
I walked back to the servers’ station to ring up the Domain Ramonet—$1,545 after tax. Paying the rent was highly overrated anyway. I swiped my card and prayed for it to not be declined, then signed the check “Rock Mom Jansen” with a signature so interpretive, no one would ever be able to decipher it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” came a voice from behind me. It was Andrew, and I figured I was busted for sure. “The 2009 Montrachet? There’s no way.”
“Read it and weep,” I said, quickly flashing him the illegible receipt. “What else you got?”
“The Armand Rousseau was it,” he said.
I wanted to sympathetically pat the top of his man bun but decided against it. “Hey, nothing to be ashamed of.” I handed him the glass I poured. “Here,” I smirked, “best consolation prize in the universe.”