Food and wine and flowers: a short story

The bouquet was lovely.  Roses and lychee fruit, and a little wet limestone, wafted from the gewurztraminer.  They'd chosen it to go with a Thai curry soup - a little sweetness and low acidity to pair with the heat of the dish.  It had become a go-to combination for them.  But there was a little extra today.  Actual roses.

These were, quite literally, the days of wine and roses for Paul and Joanna.  They could afford the time to cook, the money to have a bottle of wine with dinner, and flowers once in a while too.  Usually the flowers came from the grocery store, but today they had two deep red buds from a friend's rosebush.  The flowers teased the wine.

Grocery store flowers have no scent; they're bred for durability and looks.  People are slowly forgetting that flowers are even supposed to smell nice, just like they're forgetting what tomatoes are supposed to taste like.  And strawberries.  And, for that matter, chicken.  Paul and Joanna were aware of the problems with food, so they kept a garden of heirloom vegetables and bought free range meats.  It showed in their cooking, but somehow they had never gotten into the habit of clipping fresh flowers for the dinner table.

Today the dinner table became a dance floor for three partners, where before there had been only two.  Lemon grass in the soup joined with the tartness of the wine; the earthiness of the roses brought out the minerals the grapes' roots had once crept through.  Paul and Joanna were enthralled.

What would go with beef?  Not lilac ... not lilies ... orange blossoms?  Closer.  Cherry blossoms?  We need more fruit trees, Joanna said.  All they had was a crabapple.  They began to plant flowers and flowering trees with dinner in mind.  Lime and lemon trees were a given, because they bought the fruit by the bagful anyway. 

It soon became obvious that the flowers lasted longer than a bottle of wine.  When it came time to plan meals, they began to look first at the vase.  It was easy to pair a bottle of wine with any given meal, but a considerably greater challenge to manage the flowers as well.  They couldn't have venison one night and shrimp the next, willy-nilly.  Meals took on a rhythm, a theme lasting a week or so.  Those rhythms turned into seasons, as the blooms in their yard came and went.  The winter became a doubly dull season, as fresh flowers were as unavailable as fresh vegetables.

Eventually - prompted by what, no one can recall - it occurred to Paul that they were cooking their own food and growing their own flowers but still buying wine.  They were not exactly punk, but still this didn't fit with their DIY ethos.  Paul took it upon himself to make wine.

He began with a great deal of assistance, essentially buying a kit and having much of the work done at a local store.  Really, all he did was pour everything in a pot and stir it, then come back eight weeks later to bottle it.  Having seen it done, he bought some equipment and did the next batch in his basement before the first one was even in bottles.  After all, they would need variety, so it looked like a batch every few weeks would be a good start, until they built up some inventory.  He bought boxes of grape juice and made two batches.

It was fall, and harvest season was approaching.  Joanna warily suggested that Paul buy his next batch in the form of fresh grapes.  She was becoming concerned at the amount of money the project was costing:  Paul had sunk almost $1000 into it and they hadn't drank a drop of their own wine yet.  Paul loved the idea of buying grapes (local!  fresh!) and made another two batches.  Their basement was filled with bubbling five-gallon glass carboys.

Finally, in a burst of optimism, Paul picked a few dozen pounds of grapes off the grapevines in their back yard.  They were Concord grapes, motley little clusters of green and purple berries of varying ripeness, normally for making jelly or just for eating.  The neighborhood kids loved them.  (In fact, their yard was becoming quite the topic of conversation around town.)  But Paul made wine with them.

In December, six months after Paul had stirred his first kit in a pot, they decided to drink a bottle with dinner.  It was Merlot, so they chose a simple beef stew made in the style of the French countryside.  The flowers that week were cherry blossoms.  The scent of mirepoix filled the house, which made Paul ravenous.  The cork came out, the wine went into glasses, spoons went into bowls, and stemware was raised in a toast to their project.

Within that first sip, Paul expected nothing but a happy simple wine with some varietal character that they could pair with food and flowers.  Unfortunately, well, there's no way to say this politely, but it sucked.  As the thin, acidic plonk coated the inside of his skull, the images that came to his mind were not of berries and meadows, but rather tennis shoes and roadkill.

Joanna cleared her throat.  "Paul, um, how much of this did you make?"  He was dazed.  "Two and a half cases."  "And you've done how many batches?"  "Five.  Wait, six."  He'd put the Concord wine in bottles that very day.  His eyes snapped into focus on the china cabinet.  Their modest cellar of a couple dozen wines had ballooned to fifteen cases.  All of it made without the benefit of knowing how the taste of the final product was affected by the processing conditions.

After a couple bites of stew, Joanna said, "it's only been in bottles for four months.  Your favorite wines from Spain aren't even sold until they're ten years old.  Maybe in six months or a year it will be better."

"Yes.  Maybe that delicate turdiness will fade.  Or the bold, up-front flavors that I can't quite identify but that make me want to run around shouting and smashing things." 

"I'm sorry, Paul.  I know you hoped for better."  And so they finished their meal, their food with flowers.

Paul closed the door on the cellar and brooded.  He washed the equpment, packed it away, and forgot about the project for a long time.  After a few months, he no longer felt a twinge of pain when they rang up a bottle of wine at the supermarket.  In the springtime, they brought out one each of the other five vintages.  They were all flawed - some with sins of omission, some with sins of commission.  The Concord was particularly horrid.  It tasted as though the grapes had been crushed by a malevolent spirit.  But none of the wines were really enjoyable.

In the meantime, Paul discovered calvados, an apple brandy made in France.  It was essentially distilled fermented apple juice, and it was an honest and beautiful representation of the fruit.  But he had trouble finding it.  He remembered having had some applejack made by disreputable friends in college, and the flavor of the calvados brought him back to that time.  He'd seen the setup - it was basically a pressure cooker and a plastic tube running through ice water.  Booze came out the end.  It was genius, considering they'd started with a pallet of fermented apple cider.

In Paul's mind, the cellar door unlocked itself.  The bottles taunted him, daring him to take the next step.  He was not that interested in hard alcohol.  But his pride wouldn't let him throw away the wine.  He ordered a still.

It turns out that a distiller can control how much flavor goes into the final product.  It's necessary to throw away the first liquid that comes out, and to stop distillation at a certain point even though liquid with some alcohol is still coming out.  The "heads" contain wood alcohol, while the "tails" taste bad and will give you a hangover.  Paul was cautious about giving the heads and tails plenty of room, keeping only the middle distillate.

Paul's terrible wines produced hard alcohols that tasted like essentially nothing.  At least at first.  While technically they were grape brandy, they resembled vodka more than anything.  Paul gave them away.  But in time he became less agressive about excluding the heads and tails.  He collected the distillate in a series of tiny jars, and carefully smelled each one before deciding whether to add it back in to the main output.  The odors and flavors were intense.  It didn't help that when he ran the still, he was bombed out of his skull without drinking a drop, just from the alcohol in the air.  He resolved to ventilate the basement better.  In the meantime, he had Joanna help him test the samples.  She insisted on watering it down - it was 130 proof straight from the still.

In the end, Paul's fifteen cases of plonk became about twenty liters of high-proof brandy.  Those made from white wine versus red were noticeably different.  Amusingly, the best was from the Concord.  Paul watered it down to a reasonable strength and added just a touch of sugar, and their friends loved it.

Joanna established a new tradition:  a brandy digestif after the meal.  The flowers stayed ... but Paul gave up on winemaking.  Except for the Concord grapes.  He bottled a batch every year as he distilled the previous year's.  His friends came to look forward to the little bottles of sweetened holiday brandy they gave away.  And besides, Paul enjoyed the fumes.