Arizona wine? An oxymoron? But there they were sitting on my porch, four bottles from the desert state of my childhood. Long ago I had run from that sweltering place—from the bloody noses and the eternal cuts in my fingertips from picking cotton. In all truth I really hadn’t run away. That was my mother’s version. My snarling, angry child-mother had dragged me from my grandparents’ home “to get back at them.” I can hear my grandmother crying. That sound still carries with it the smell of creosote. I see my Yaqui grandfather fully befuddled by modern life as my mother grabs the lever and pulls without mercy. I am the leverage that breaks them, turns them away; sends them shuffling sadly into the darkness of their adobe home. Suddenly the beans cooking inside are tasteless.
What is the terroir for Arizona wine? I came to understand terroir—the desire to reclaim a moment in time and space—when I lived in France, when the sun was this way and the rainfall was that; the year the pickers were Moroccan. It is the art impulse: mindfully tasting mindfulness. The bottle is a time capsule of earth, seed, and human intention. I have worked at many wineries in California, where I now live. Most wineries have no qualms about buying juice from elsewhere in order to amend their own wines. The wines here are very good, some exquisite, but so few of them carry the flavor of a somewhere … of a specific sometime.
I placed the four bottles on the table and walked past them several dozen times, glancing at them each time—one Dos Cabezas, one Keeling Schaefer, one Callaghan, and an ostentatious-looking bottle named Lozen. I called Sebastien, a French snob and a close friend who agreed to come over and taste the wines with me, but only if I served an authentic cassoulet. Authentic? The white beans on my shelf are from Stockton; the duck at the butcher shop from Modesto; the ham hocks and sausage come from southern Oregon. The garlic and carrots come from Mexico—nothing at all from Carcassonne.
“When the recipe calls for white wine,” he had snorted over the phone, “make sure it’s a Graves Sec. My dear mother will use nothing else.”
“White beans in white wine at a tasting of reds?” I asked. He had already hung up.
Sebastien arrived with his lovely girlfriend, Leah, at 6 sharp. The two of them breezed past two other guests and swept toward the table where they began picking through the cassoulet, spearing every sliver of duck confit, then sucking them joyously into their gullets.
Our expectations were low, but the plain fact is that we were amazed by the wines. The Dos Cabezas was everyone’s favorite. The Keeling Schaefer came in a close second and, surprisingly, the Callaghan was a very close third. All three were dark and full-bodied. I was reminded of Amarones that I’d had in Venice. There was very little of that ubiquitous “California” taste. Surprisingly, the higher-priced Lozen seemed closed up to my taste and prudish to the French. After an hour of eating and drinking, the French were still cooing over the Cabezas and the Schaefer. They were agush with words that would have sent chills down the spine of a cellar master from Minervois or Pomerol. “Cassis and a note of chocolate,” he said. “Eucalyptus and lemongrass,” she countered with a blush. I lifted the glass of Lozen that had been ignored for a full hour. It had opened up significantly. Now it was in a dead heat with the Dos Cabezas.
While my guests were busily tossing overtones and finishes across the table like darts, I put the glass of Lozen to my nose and sniffed. There was the unmistakable odor of wet adobe at the rim. Beyond the rim I glimpsed the crimson-red of votive candles silently spitting and dancing in a nicho. I heard the comforting shuffle of goats on the roof, then the Doppler shift of a faraway train. I heard my Indian grandfather agreeing not to kill any more pet chickens. I felt a drop of blood dribble down my left nostril—a gift from the fields. It flowed past my lip and onto my tongue. I drank half the glass.
“I savor myself,” I said quietly. “My grandfather never slept indoors,” I explained to the glass of wine, if to no one else. “He just hated roofs. He slept outside on an old Army cot. I slept there with him. I remember his stories—and on my tongue I can taste that first hard night without his grandson.”
Alfredo Véa, Jr. was born on Buckeye Road, west of Phoenix, and lives in Oakland, California. He’s a lawyer who has also written three novels: La Maravilla, The Silver Cloud Café, and Gods Go Begging, named one of the best books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times.