By: Brian Shinnick
We pulled into Judd’s Hill winery after our sugary binge on the pavement. The rolling mountains ran out and upward as the backdrop to the large veranda. The sky poured out into a sharp, dazzling blue. Cloudless. The vines, recently harvested, streamed upward on the mountain’s back in perfect sage colored rows and we wandered around, our fingers reaching out to graze the greenery. There were still a few grapes left hanging, and I nibbled.
The resident sommelier is something of a shorter, pudgier variety of Craig T. Nelson with the signature bald-on-top graying mullet. His name is Judd. No relation. He recited all the bits of information that both Katherine and the Spelletich sommelier had already told us. Katherine politely informed him of this repetition. Judd, being the crafty old boy he is, decides to turn his ramblings into a game where more and more wine will be prized. Problem: No one was actually paying attention the first go-round. That or the wine has clouded the learning abilities of the group. Result: no one has any idea what the hell he’s asking. Except, for the lone wine genius: the Brazilian man, sitting cool like Cruise in Ray Ban’s. He’s answering every question correctly with ease.
Mom doesn’t like this. Nuh-uh. Jan wants to play the game too. Jan wants to show the crew that she’s been drinking wine since she was twelve so she must be an expert. Jan even serves wine at parties, much like Judd is doing now, which makes her a sommelier. Boom.
Judd touches his finger to his lips and asks, “And who knows the best time of day to actually harvest the fruit from the vine?”
Mama Bear folds her arms and drunkenly strong voices, “Noon!”
“I’m sorry?” Judd turns to her unsure of what he heard.
“The afternoon. Like early dinner time.”
“Um,” he squints his eyes a little, “No. Actually, the finest hour for the fruit is in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s even sometimes made into a sort of party for the pickers and they bring their families and it’s a beautiful event.”
Mom’s not buying’ it.
Judd begins again, “How about this. Can anyone tell me what one acre of vineyard land yields in grapes? Um, in tons, that is. How many tons of grapes?”
“Six hundred…THOUSAND,” she says with sheer confidence.
“Six hundred thousand?” Judd repeats it back. “Six hundred thousand tons?”
“Ma’am there’s probably six hundred thousand tons of rock in that large mountain right there. Are you saying you can yield that amount of grapes from one acre of land.”
“Yeeeeeeeeeeee-up,” she says after finishing the rather full glass of wine in front of her.
“The answer is five. You can get five tons of grapes from one acre of land.”
We leave the Judd Hill winery having purchased zero bottles of wine—I imagine it was a choice Mom made out of spite—and a heavy buzz. We get back on the bus and everyone is a bit rosy in the face. The Canadians are a little more in love and her sunglasses are crooked and his shirt is un-tucked only on the right side. The Lone Brazilian is smiling his very wide smile discussing South American wine to the honeymooners. The Asian women are all laughing hushedly at each other with their hands in front of their mouths. They’re adorable.
I shout with purple lips from the back of the bus, “Katherine, can you turn on some crowd pleaser jams? A little Metallica? Some Slayer, maybe? Y’know, something to loosen up the gang a bit.”
Her big beautiful eyes look into the rearview mirror with a salty smile, “You’re pushing your luck, Chicago.”
“You have no idea.”
The bus turns off the main road and begins down a skinny stretch of asphalt lined with the spires of Mediterranean evergreens and lush vines running—as they always do—into the hills. We pull up to a grand Italian villa with a round splashing fountain to welcome all who enter. The beautiful building is surrounded with lush, tall trees shading the area perfectly, nestled in the mountains and vines. Andretti Winery.
We wander around, Mama Bear and I, not concerned with wine or wine knowledge just yet. The space, that place, the lowering sun, the warm dirt beneath the vines. It swallowed us. We just smiled quietly.
I finally went to get us both some wine and began talking to the Canadian couple as we waited at the small bar. As we discussed what circumstances lead us all to the same place, I could see Mom sitting at a small table, wine already in hand, talking with Katherine.
The three of us go and sit on the grassy edge of a shady spot beneath a tree and laugh for a while about how much we hate winter and there’s no way, we can’t do it, we just don’t have one more god damn winter left in us. They are excellent people. Extremely polite but still a little edgy. Dave, the dude of the couple, asks the very hungover bartender lady if he can just have a bottle of wine, any wine, that he can bring to the shady spot instead of running back and forth. The extremely-discontent-with-her-job bartender gladly hands over a bottle.
I stand up after a while, remembering I’d left Mama Bear, and look to see she’s sitting at a crowded table laughing with Katherine and the like. She gets up for a moment and I meet her walking to the bar.
“Oh, there you are, you little booshkies! [Gasp] I just had a GREAT idea!” she says.
“What? But you don’t even know what I’m going to say.”
Resting my hand on my scrunched forehead I explain, “I can just tell it’s one of those…y’know…Jan ideas that nobody ever really wants to participate in. Like, matching Halloween socks or, uhhhhhh, visiting Abe Lincoln’s childhood home, or joining that Church of Scient-whatever it was.”
“Hey! Historical sites are magical and you’re going to regret not going to—“
“Mom, what is it?”
“A group picture!”
“Yeah, I don’t—“
She runs to the front of this large porch everyone is now sitting at and begins shouting wildly and flailing her arms for everyone’s attention.
“Hey, everybody!” she says. “Heyyyyyy-oh!”
The group looks at her with confused smiles.
“I was wondering if we could take a picture, like a big group picture to remember this wonderful day? Can we? It’d be fun!”
There are a few rustles, but mainly silence among the group. I walk over, “C’mon, gang. This one’s for the Christmas card, now get your asses up here.”
The group assembles along a patio wall and smiles for a few pictures. Katherine is kind enough to snap the photo. It wasn’t until that moment I realized how glad I was to have done this with these people. This strange little cast and crew. Maybe it was the booze. Definitely the booze. But in that moment, I was really happy to be with my mother. I was really happy to understand more of who she is, who she is in this moment. It’s never easy to realize who you are traveling with until you’re knee-deep in the muck of it all. Not until it gets ugly do you know who you’re dealing with. Odds are you’re both going to survive, but you’re both guaranteed to be different.
I knew that when the flash snapped and I knew it was all over.
We single-filed back onto the bus, ready to brave the ride home, clinking more bottles and laughter rang out amid the music of the highway. Red wine spilled into the white and cheersing glasses cheersed.
“Katherine!,” I shouted. “Can you pull over for some waffles or somethin’? Orrr, uhhh, you guys got White Castle’s in this town?”
She shook her head laughing, “We’ll talk later, Chicago.”