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Message in a Bottle

A father, a son, & a wine cellar

By Steve Bjerklie

Dad and I don't share much more than baseball, the weather and wine as conversation topics, but our silent hands have found a fluency of their own across the language of wood. We're not craftsmen, mind you--he builds retaining walls and flower boxes for his yard, I make rough bookshelves out of oak ply--but useful work to celebrate the small happinesses of life, like his rhododendrons and my beloved Stegner, seems to bring us together. He lives in New Hampshire now, so I guess we talk now and then over the phone as well about miter joints and Sur-forming.

Over one Thanksgiving weekend in Mill Valley many years ago, Dad and I built a wine cellar. We straddled sawhorses out in our garage, penciled cut-marks on a bunch of pine one-by-eights, discussed numbers and angles, and jigged out hundreds of half-circles with a little power saw. We carried the cut planks into the cool, still air beneath our house, tacked them to the wall studs, built out some framing, then tacked up some narrower cross-ties. White pine sawdust flecked Dad's mussed black hair; his glasses were dirty and he didn't stop working to wipe them clean. He wore khakis mottled with housepaint, an old torn sweatshirt. I rarely saw him like that. He commuted to a bank job on the bus.

The wine cellar turned out to be the best thing we ever accomplished together. It was my idea. I drew the plans, Dad bought the lumber. The half-circles would cradle the butts of bottles, the bottle necks would rest on the cross-ties. Like millions of fathers and teenage sons, Dad and I were separated by the divide of Vietnam, the counterculture and politics, but we had a wine cellar we built together. And he and my mother taught me to love wine. I learned to share their appreciation of something simple and good, of love in a glass.

When we were done in the garage, Dad had a place to store 360 bottles. He never filled the racks completely, but he usually had a couple hundred bottles down there at any given time. My parents and a few of their old friends would drive up to the wine country a couple of times a year and come back with the trunk of the car low-riding beneath the weight of zinfandel and cabernet. Nothing fancy, just good. The bottles slept quietly beneath the home I grew up in, like the bones of saints.

We would forget what we had. One night as Mom made her revered chicken-and-mushroom dish, Dad sent me downstairs for a bottle of white. In a corner of a low rack I found a dusty 10-year-old bottle of Johannisberg riesling. We filled our glasses in the kitchen so we could easily dump the wine into the sink--riesling that old is like fruit forgotten on the tree. But this wine's color was still good, a clear gold like a summer meadow. And the nose, a little faint, still wafted with hints of pear and honey. Then we tasted. The wine was a shock: it was perfect, crackling with life in our mouths, sparkling over our teeth like trout water--a wine at once impossible and wonderful, the same qualities in fact, that bring Margaret to cries and laughter after a single bite in Stegner's story "The Sweetness of the Twisted Apples." Mom lit candles. The old bottle occupied stage-center on the dinner table, and we spent the entire dinner marveling. Even my young sister got a taste.

My dad drinks. My mom drank. I drink. My sister drinks, too. All the old friends of the family drink. Drinking is part of our lives, with no apologies. We are not alcoholics, none of us. We don't drive drunk, we don't even get drunk. My parents, who both came to California from the Midwest and didn't know a thing about wine when they arrived, learned to love to drink wine with food and friends because the combination, like music with words, ties a simple art into the deep well of human experience. My parents taught me that wine and other drinks could be part of happiness. The anti-alcohol zealots lobbying the legislatures these days have no right to stain my memories with guilt.

The night 20 years ago that Mom died from cancer I drank a glass of well-aged zinfandel. It was my favorite and hers. We enjoyed a communion together, her spirit and I. The old wine swirled with life, a sort of biology of secrets drawn from the placenta of memory. The river of our family had abruptly changed course, and the wine glass in my hand was a buoy in the stream. That still amazes me about great wine: Even a small glass fills the mouth with both history and promises.

I don't remember anymore if Mom loved ironies. If she did she would've laughed, and then wept a bit like her survivors did, when Dad eventually sold the Mill Valley house after remarrying. He sold it to a teetotaler. Our wine cellar became an empty tomb, and now Mom's grandchildren do not play above the same sleeping bones of saints she knew. But they do play above the new bones of others. We do what we can to make our small happinesses, spoken and unspoken, carry on from generation to generation.

Navarro Vineyards 1992 Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon. Mom and Dad found Ted Bennet making wine up in the Anderson Valley 25 years ago, before he even had a tasting room. He made his cabernet then like he does now: with humor and depth. They taste like Shakespeare reads. I buy a case every year whether I can afford it or not, because Ted makes wine for joy as well as love.

Bushmills Irish Whiskey. My son gave me a bottle of this for Christmas, remembering that while his grandfather is a strict Scotch man, I'm a liberal. It's a good splash, smoky and peaty and edged with what tastes to me like centuries of the Troubles. But of course the Irish can't make anything without their soul going into it.

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From the June 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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