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Cheap Wine & Cheaper Words #5: The Worst Nose in Wine / Anthony Neil Smith

In Mexico recently, I listened to a bartender at the resort explain tequila and mezcal to a couple of oblivious fellow Americans. Turns out I knew more about tequila and mezcal than the bartender did. I'm not saying this to brag. In fact, I was disappointed. I'd hoped to learn something new, something unexpected. Something a guy from Minnesota by way of Mississippi with no Mexican ancestry might not be able to pick up from web articles, magazines, and books.

No such luck.

The same resort had a mezcal bar, and I had really been looking forward to sidling up. I imagined flights of mezcal, the origins of each explained as I sipped myself into fuzziness, with stories about the myths and truths of agave whispered back and forth.

Instead, the bartender didn't look thrilled to have me there. I asked what sorts of mezcal they had, and he pulled out three bottles - one I could get back home (it's pretty good), one I hadn't heard of before (also pretty good), aaaaaaand one with a yellow label that said "Mezcal" in red with a drawing of a guy in a sombrero on it (also the only one with a worm in it). I asked if he had more to sample, but he smirked and said, "Full bottles only."

Thus, I learned I knew more than I thought I did.

I said all that to say this: I can't smell anything in wine besides wine. Absolutely nothing else. No berries, no pencil shavings (the hell?), no minerals, no leather or spice or the feet of the grape crusher. It smells like wine. I've been drinking wine (unprofessionally) for twenty years now, and I can only come to this conclusion - the experts make up the smells. They smell nothing but wine as well, but say all this other stuff to seem like know-it-alls, and other experts don't want to look stupid, so they go along with it and say they smell weird stuff in it, too.

It smells like wine.

Unlike what I've learned about tequila and mezcal, knowledge about wine feels hidden, often contradictory, snobbish, and as complicated as chess. Imagine that. One of the earthiest and oldest crafts in the world, and its playbook is like a Dungeons & Dragons manual in Klingon. But I press on, trying to save money, always threatening to splurge on something I know is going to taste exactly like the fifteen dollar bottle I snagged at Cashwise.

I haven't had any wine in about two months, due to a string of illnesses - cold and stomach - and travel for a conference and Spring Break. I haven't found the right time to uncork the next one, even though I've got quite a handful to choose from. A Kirkland zin? Another Pessimist? A cab labeled Luke? Soon, I hope.

In the meantime, there's books like Colin Gee's The Penult to read. It's so out there it's in here. Colin recently (wait, it was January?) dropped "Happy-Go-Lucky Jack" at Revolution John. Go read it. That guy's a trip.

I don't know how many more of these columns I have left in me. I feel myself shying away from the microphone, thinking I'd rather drink the wine than yak about it. But we'll see. Especially after I get another Pessimist down the gullet. That stuff is pretty damned good.


ANTHONY NEIL SMITH is a mystery/crime fiction writer who has had a great number of his short stories published in literary magazines and crime writing zines, and has also published numerous novels. His work ha appeared in Best American Mystery & Suspense 2023. He is co-creator of the well-received online noir journal Plots with Guns. He was also an associate editor with the highly regarded literary magazine Mississippi Review, having put together several special issues featuring crime fiction for the online edition. He currently edits Revolution John and is a Professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, MN.


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