Walking into the Mid-Valley dive, you sense it immediately — rules are being broken. And everyone seems pleased about it.
It’s just after the lunch rush, the barstools are loaded, but no one’s eating — no greasy plates or crumpled-up napkins. The bar top is a yard sale of stemless wine glasses, disposable plastic cups and what appears to be too many open bottles for this time of day, this number of people.
What is going on here? Can anyone join in?
It had started out slowly, with just two of them — a handsome, Clark-Kent kind of guy, Superman before he enters the phone booth. Fifty-ish, tall and clean cut, masked by stern glasses. The other guy, older and pleasantly scruffy, has maybe 20 years on him. Like winos, each carries a paper-bag-wrapped bottle. The restaurant owner immediately brings them glasses and, without ordering, the men begin to pour, chat, laugh. It feels like a movie scene.
As the bar empties, they leap for a real estate grab. Two women join, bringing their own paper-wrapped bottles. One is a well-known bar manager down valley; her friend introduces herself as “a major purchaser.” A quiet guy takes the corner stool, eyes averted under a hat brim, darting between smartphone and newspaper. Brown bag on the bar top, he also orders a beer. A familiar liquor store manager glides onto another stool, his bagged-up bottle joining the queue as a youthful hipster plops down next to him, obviously friends. Between her permagrin and the thick black braids pouring from her pompom hat, she looks like a 10-year-old kid. In actuality, she’s the Western region rep for a popular brewery. She passes her bag down the bar line.
What gathers such a disparate group?
Corks are popping, wine is pouring, and spitter cups grow full and foamy under the cacophony of chatter.
“It started a few years ago,” explains Major Purchaser. “It was closing time and ■■■■■■ was about to get off. Rather than happy hour, someone says, Why don’t we all go get a bottle of Tempranillo, taste some wine, see who brings the best one? It was so much fun, I said we should do it every week.”
Hence, the Underground Brown Bag Club.
Holding court and bearing the risk is ■■■■■■■■, owner of ■■■■■■■■. Shiny-faced with a ball cap pushed back, he sports an old tee and loose shorts. Manning hot stoves and cold beer taps, he’s at ease and in charge. He’s just come from the doctor, a follow-up visit, and toasts abound.
And those mystery bottles? This week’s challenge is red wines under 40 dollars. Bottle by bottle, as the hours slide by, this motley crew of wine lovers will try to guess the grape and the region. Sometimes they’ll guess the vintner or the formative landscapes, geology or climate affecting the grape. Amid the babble and BS are expressions of wonder, surprise, confusion, intrigue.
Clark Kent holds his glass to the dim ceiling lights, murmuring, “ ... medium ruby with some brickish tones around the meniscus.”
“Oh, my God, he’s starting already!” Major Purchaser snorts.
Scruffy Guy waves it aside, “There is no specific language to know. The fun is in the exploring.”
Clark Kent is known for slinging words like “Brettanomyce,” for bringing obscure, unguessable fermented grape juice. The ribbing is friendly.
There’s much to be said for the camaraderie forged through the fruit of a vine. Cutting through ego and pretense, these informal gatherings are a sensory journey into wet newspaper, moldy cabinets and basement floors. Zingy rhubarb and dusky molasses. Sun-kissed grass and floral herbs. These brown-bag afternoons send Mid-Valley friends around the world, through time and memories. Quaff after quaff, the delicious juices seduce their noses, explode on their tongues, trigger torrents of saliva and expire themselves amid hums of pleasure. Who’s not going to feel cozy after that?
Overhead, Pink Floyd cuts in through crappy speakers, “can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail … ” A Pinot Noir from a Petite Syrah?
“If you don’t spit,” Scruffy Guy warns, plastic cup in hand, “all your taste buds go to hell in a handbag. You can’t taste anything, beyond ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t’.”
“I’m 158 pounds. If I swallowed everything I drank, by 3:00, I’d be stumbling drunk every day. Spitting gives you a procedure for tasting,” says Superman. “It creates consistency in your sensory impressions. And that allows you to understand what different grape varieties from specific parts of the world taste like.”
A wine importer for 20-plus years, Clark Kent’s presence is perhaps the only thing that lets this gathering squeak in this side of the law. It varies from week to week; it might be three or them or blossom to 15. No one’s hiding a thing. It’s a blatant party and reeks of grown-ups playing hooky. Mystery wines sampled, vocabulary exhausted, things wind down. Bags come off. Tasting turns to sipping. The afternoon lengthens. Mid-Valley traffic snarls through the parking lot, but in here, midweek? Friends sit back or lean in, rules be damned.
Genevieve Joelle Villamizar is the publisher of Bonedale/Amplified whose work has appeared in many local publications.