By MONICA BHIDE © 2009
All rights reserved. Photo: Istockphoto.com
Wine is a mystery to me—I don't understand all its nuances, but I revere it. Still, it has always held a special place in my heart. Choosing the right type of wine, I am told, is an art: the wine should be in perfect harmony with the food it is served with.
Sometimes, though, it's about more than just the palate.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited my uncle in the Austrian Alps. We were on vacation and decided to spend a few days with him and his wife. I had never met her and had not seen him in over 30 years.
He had left India at 20. I was about a year old then. He now ran a pension nestled in the heart of the ZellAmSee alps just outside of Salzburg. An Indian king had once remarked that the Kashmir valley reminded him of heaven on Earth; ZellAmSee begged the king’s claim – a stunning valley adorned with nature’s best gifts. Cows grazed in the emerald pastures on hills studded with yellow-hued flowers. Tiny houses that looked almost like doll houses lined the roads. It was so tranquil – even the sounds of the cars seemed strangely in harmony with nature. An amber sun ready to scatter vermillion rays had just begun to set. The valley reminded me of the perfect postcard pictures of the Alps on the covers of tiny Lindt chocolates I ate as a child. It was heaven on earth.
We had arrived on a cool, crisp May morning, and spent the day hiking and sightseeing in the city. He asked that we be home in time for aperitifs.
We returned from the hike famished and thirsty. He must have sensed it and immediately led us outside onto the deck. He had laid a beautiful setting with appetizers, wines, and pretty white embroidered Indian napkins. The weather had cooled even more and there was a slight chill in the air. I sat and accepted the glass of wine he poured for me. The atmosphere seemed a bit awkward—though related by blood we lived in separate parts of the world and were practically strangers.
Overwhelming was the word that came to mind as I sipped the wine offered to me so graciously. I am not sure if it was the heady sensation from the strong tasting wine or my uninitiated palate, but a strange thought came into my mind. My father had once told me about an Indian queen whose skin was so translucent that when she drank wine, it showed through her veins. My neck was surely not translucent, but the wine was so deep red I wondered if it showed through.
It is Indian etiquette to drink what your host offers you – and so I did politely, gasping with each sip. The woodsy wine played devil’s songs down my gullet. I am not much of a wine drinker and the wine made me a bit edgy. I even worried about getting drunk on an empty stomach in front of strangers and this strong red, a merlot, did not help. But the hand that poured the wine seemed so gentle and hospitable, I felt it ill-mannered to ask for a different drink. The deep red consumed my attention-I observed it in the finely cut crystal glass. How could something so beautiful taste so unfriendly? My lack of taste was clearly not shared by my husband. He seemed to cherish each sip, oblivious to my questioning glances.
Baby pink onions mounded over thick slabs of smoky sausages, puff pastry filled with strongly spiced minced lamb, small potato and onion stuffed bread wedges and lime pickle set on the table seemed to fight with the wine to gain the upper hand.
I remembered my uncle only through the stories my maternal grandmother—his mother—would share with me about his youth back in India. I recalled the most colorful one and shared it at the table. He was seventeen at the time, she said, and it was a big day. He was sitting for the entrance exam to a very prestigious college. She had waited by the door all afternoon for his return. When she saw him, her pounding heart calmed down. He was smiling, "I did great Mama," he yelled, "great- I will pass with flying colors." She hugged and kissed him and let him go out with his friends. When the test results came, he had failed the exam, miserably at that she said. She was mad: why had he not told her? "Simple," he said, "if I had told you then, I would have gotten yelled at twice!"
We laughed, the ice was finally bro
My uncle's eyes softened when he turned to me and his voice became gentler. I am a mirror image of my mother and I suspect I reminded him of her, his sister. "Eat," he prodded, just as his mother used to, "take some more. You haven't touched the food."
He fed us until we could eat no more, and served more wine. I quietly sipped the wine as I listened to him reminisce about how his only memory of me was holding me as a baby. The wine seemed to get gentler, fruitier.
It turned out to be a long night. After all, we had 30 years to catch up on.
He signaled for more wine. I found myself nodding, yes. It was beginning to grow on me. We reminisced about Delhi, our birthplace – the same place from two totally different view points, about the same heritage, yet from two totally different worlds.
The last toast of the night was his. To my family, he said simply, to my family. His eyes hazy with tears said the rest. We drank the deep red. I had stopped fighting it and it had rewarded me kindly. A warm spicy flavor now teased my tongue. Our conversation appeared to take the lead from the wine-a bit awkward at first, then warm and finally inviting and familiar.
Years later at an Indian restaurant, I am debating a drink with dinner. It's a special night. We are meeting some strangers who I am hoping will become new friends. I glance at the wine list and there it is. There it is, on the menu, my deep red friend.
The sommelier politely questions my choice of wine. "Madam, this red? Perhaps a lighter wine for your spicy meal? A red may not be just perfect." he says
But it really is, I say, it really is.