How to Drink Well
When I was a teenager and a frequent attendee of major rock concerts around California, I got to a point where I honestly thought having witnessed major music performances would constitute the make or break moments in my life. If I missed an important show or didn't score front row seats to the hottest new tour, I was devastated. I was clever, manipulative, and dedicated when it came to buying tickets, so I saw a lot of great acts. I knew how to work the raffle systems, line up at the right time, camp out at the more remote box offices with the smallest customer turnout, and how to butter up the phone reps if an event was actually sold out. Because of my advanced entrepreneurial skills (or my early onset assholery, take your pick), I saw a lot of amazing concerts from seats that no sixteen year old should ever have access to. I saw the Stones at Oakland Coliseum in '94 from the front row. I saw U2 in 1996 from the same seats and slapped hands with Bono. I watched Trent Reznor and David Bowie sing a duet to "Scary Monsters" from about ten feet away at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in 1995. That same year, I hung out with Beck in Fresno before his sold-out show at the Rainbow Room and ended up giving him a prom picture of my girlfriend and me I happened to have in my wallet at the time. I saw Radiohead play "OK Computer" in its entirety at the Warfield on Market a week after the album came out. I was everywhere in the nineties. If it was music-related and cutting edge, I was there. I knew how to work the system and find a way to get the most out of every opportunity. It was my obsession.
The problem with obsessing over any experience is that you begin to lose sight of what drew you to that initial interest in the first place; you start to value the actual logistics and the mechanics of the operation more than you do the art itself. How can I make the next concert even better? More importantly, how can I assure that nothing about this lifestyle ever changes? What if Soundgarden comes through town and I'm not in the front? What if Chris Cornell reunites Temple of the Dog and I don't see it happen in person?! (I did get tickets for that one next month, but I paid the Stubhub premium since I've now shed my former skin). It's that fear and that competitive anxiety that turns an enjoyable hobby into more of an addiction or a burden than an actual pleasure. You begin to think more about what you're missing rather than what you've already experienced. You dwell on the negatives rather than the positives. You become a total jerk, a needy, angst-ridden curmudgeon who ruins everyone else's good time when things don't work out the way you want them to. You start believing that every opportunity defines your value as a person—it's either this, or nothing. To put it into a booze perspective, it's like Pappy chasing. Your life (as far as you see it) becomes defined by the upper limits of hobbyism. I know exactly what that's like. Yet, I also utterly detest those people when I encounter them today. Maybe because I recognize an old, embarrassing trait in my own personality. It makes me cringe. Maybe I really just hate my former self, however. Maybe I'm projecting.
I think it's completely healthy as a somewhat sophisticated drinker to aspire. You're curious. You want to know what's out there. You want context. You want to know if something's worth the money or if it's all just hype, so you start searching for the next level. I've been doing this job for almost ten years now and I still wake up excited about wine and spirits. Now that I'm also working in the Bordeaux and Burgundy departments, I have a completely new fire in my belly here at K&L. At the same time, I'm also tempered and more grounded than I used to be. I'm not jonesing for DRC bottles or 1982 vintage first-growths now that I'm traveling more to France, nor do I lust after underground cellars with racks full of cherry châteaux. I really just want to expand my expertise. That's it. I don't care if I'm drinking a ten dollar bottle or a thousand dollar bottle at this point. I just like drinking, no matter what it is. Working in a fancy liquor store, however, and holding the position that I do comes with its share of obsessives. I get emails, texts, phone calls, and inquiries in the store about rare bottles. Please, please, please, please, please!!!! I'll die if I don't get a bottle. My life is over. There's no point in going forward. I need this whiskey! With social media today I think it's worse. Just like concert goers today spend all their time taking videos of the performance they're actually at rather than taking it in, I feel like the Facebook or Instagram photo is almost more important than the experience of tasting a new wine/whisky/beer at this point. It's more about showing people where you were or who you were with than it is the actual enjoyment. That's been happening for the last few years though. It's not a new phenomenon at this point. It's just our new reality.
When it comes to actually enjoying life, I think about the advice of others quite a bit these days; mostly because of how little of it I tend to follow. I hear it all the time: I should buy a house to secure my future. I should have kids to secure my happiness. I should invest my money here. I should eat there. I should drink this. I should watch that. I should talk to this person. I should carry this whiskey. I should meet this guy. I should try this ab-toning exercise. I should try that wine. I should work less. I should blog less. I should drink less. I should move here. I should vacation there. And so on. Yet, I am where I am today—happy, content, and ultimately fulfilled—because of one thing and one thing only: I didn't listen to any of that advice. It wasn't easy, either. When people tell you to do something with what seems like authority and genuine knowledge, it can be quite moving and/or troubling. You start to doubt yourself. You start second-guessing your gut. You wonder if you actually like what you like. You wonder if you even know what you're talking about. I thought I liked this whiskey, but this guy here said it's terrible. Maybe I don't like it. Maybe I shouldn't like it. Maybe I never liked it in the first place. Yeah.....that's it.
Drinking well, however, isn't about drinking whatever Robert Parker says is good. It's not about drinking what got a subjective 90 points or better. It's not about owning the bottle that Jim Murray says is the world's best. It's not about anything that anyone thinks, says, or does other than yourself when it comes to drinking well. If you managed to get a bottle of the newly-crowned Booker's Rye, but you hate every sip of it, are you drinking well? If you order that Rhum Agricole cocktail at Smuggler's Cove because some smug hipster said it's cool, yet you can barely choke it down, are you drinking well? If you drink tannic red Bordeaux or tart Bourgogne rouge because it's French, and it's chic, and it's what your boss says he likes, yet your mouth puckers up and your eyes water each time you take a sip, are you drinking well? What's funny to me is that the people I meet today who are the most obsessed with wine and whiskey, and the most concerned with presenting that obsession to the world, seem to be enjoying it the least. They're also coincidentally the most adamant about telling me what's good, what I should be drinking, what I should be talking about, and what I should be doing next, yet I'm completely dismayed by their advice. I don't believe that kind of advice is given out with the happiness of others in mind. It's meant to make the giver look smart. It's selfish advice. Plus, I don't want to spend my free time chasing rare bottles, searching out the impossible, and obsessively locating my next drink. I already spent much of my youth behaving in a similar manor with music and it gave me unbearable anxiety.
If you want to drink well, don't listen to anyone's advice. Listen to their expertise. Heed their knowledge. Learn from their experiences. Listen to their stories. Learn about what's what. Try different things. Keep an open mind. Spend some money and make a mistake. Drink some wine. Drink some beer. Drink some whiskey. Drink a few cocktails. Don't shit on vodka because that's what some asshole bartender in the city did when you went out there and asked for a martini. Don't discount merlot because some asshole in a movie (who is exactly the kind of asshole I'm talking about and is supposed to be a total asshole) said he didn't like it. Keep the opinions of others in mind, but for God's sake just take a chance. Use your taste buds and your heart to form your opinions, not your ego or that chip on your shoulder you developed in grad school. Yes, experiences are great, but I saw every important band in the world between 1993 and 2001 and I can't say I'm any happier for it, nor did I really learn anything about good music. Most of the bands I listen to today on repeat are artists I've never seen, nor will I ever, yet they're what I've come to define as "good" according to my own tastes. I'm fine with that, however, because I don't need that first-hand experience anymore to validate my feelings or my opinions. Unfortunately I'll never see the Cocteau Twins sing "Heaven or Las Vegas." I'll never see the Chameleons rip "Second Skin" in person. I'll never see Christian Death belt out "Romeo's Distress" in a seedy LA club. Does that mean I don't get their music? Does it make me any less of a fan? Does that mean there's a gaping hole in my credibility?
No, it doesn't.
Drinking well is a lot like living well. It's more about the culmination of your experience than the experiences themselves.