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WINE TASTING AT AN ART EXTRAVAGANZA IN A LAUNDROMAT
I arrived at the laundromat late and began loading in what I needed for the night: 10 cases of wine, 2 pony kegs of beer, plastic glassware, paper footprint cutouts, appropriate signage, and the viewfinders. Tommy A, wearing tight shiny tuxedo pants, helped me load things in.
"Did you get ice?" he asked.
"Crap. I did not get ice."
"Give me your keys; I'll go get ice."
"No," I said, grunting as I tried to pull the door open with my foot while not dropping the keg. "I need you to set up your bar. Go find Janke; I'm sure he has someone running errands for him."
Janke owns this laundromat with his wife, Emily. Emily works at Merriam-Webster as a word definer. In addition to supplementing the definition of the word 'a', Emily also defined and added the term 'golden shower' to the dictionary. This has nothing to do with the column at hand, but pretty awesome, right?
It was Janke's idea to organize a fashion show of laundry left and lost at his laundromat. As part of a town-wide arts weekend, local fashion designers were each given a bag of lost laundry and instructed to put together a collection. Janke built a runway across his single-load washers. In the room behind the laundromat he invited a few visual artists to hang paintings, photos, and other pieces. In the garage, two cousins named Stevie and John constructed a miniature town out of salvaged brick and pipe. They called the installation Sewer Town at Sunset. Stevie is a brick mason by day and a crazy dude by night - John and he had gone so far as to graffiti the entire miniature train that ran the length of Sewer Town.
Leading up to the fashion show, which was scheduled to start at 10:30, Janke booked three bands and a short play. Now, just an hour before the doors were to officially open, Janke ran around connecting cables and putting the final touches on his runway. (The last load of laundry was supposed to be in at 5, but there were still a few stragglers and so Emily was helping some folks move wet laundry out of the single loads so that the runway could be assembled.)
"Janke!" I called, dropping the keg behind the bar built for the event. "Do you have anyone who can go get ice?"
The ice was for the white wine and the kegs. As the owner of a local cafe that championed beer and wine, I was the alcohol guy for the event, setting up a cash bar tended by Tommy A; and organizing a wine-tasting that I would run. I had been to wine-tastings before where a 'wine professional' told us how and what to taste (see column 1); and I had been to wine-tastings as a professional, where my opinion mattered to those pouring the wine (see column 2); but this was my chance to professionally direct a tasting and I took it seriously. I wanted to create a tasting experience that would display and share what I liked about wine with others.
And that is where the viewfinders and the paper cut-outs of feet come in.
The idea was this: pair each art event - the music, the visual pieces, the fashion show - with a different wine. Or at least that's where it started. As I got into it, I remembered that I didn't really like wine-tastings. And maybe it wasn't enough to simply pair wine with a piece of art. It may sound cool, but maybe its more like wearing a crazy tie to work. Yeah, there might be a picture of a snowman on it, but it's still just a tie. And that's not crazy at all. That's actually kind of depressing.
So I decided to work on a wine experience - something that would integrate the wine into the evening rather than force people to stand in the back swirling glasses and enjoying how its berry flavors really did go well with the miniature city made of brick and pipe.
Janke found someone to get ice while Tommy A and I finished setting up our stations. I wanted to make sure I set footprint cutouts down before the doors opened. The footprints suggested an ideal viewing place for each wine/art experience. I had trouble in the garage, however, because tape wouldn't stick to the bumpy concrete floor; the sand Stevie and John had strewn all over that floor for Sewer Town also did not help.
Tommy A meanwhile opened his own wine and tapped the first keg. Tommy A used to work with W.A.G. (Wine Allergic Girlfriend) and I at the cafe we owned. During his tenure there he was voted 3rd best-looking bar tender in the area by a controversial annual "Best of" poll conducted by a local weekly newspaper. The categories in the poll ranged from best cafe to best tire place. That particular year the paper launched best-looking bartender, Male and Female categories. After all the ballots had been counted, we got the call that Tommy A was voted third best looking male bartender. We celebrated his good looks by designing an ad with his face beaming underneath the banner "Lady Killigrew: Home of the Area's 3rd Best Looking Bartender!" A few days later, the paper called us back. They were pulling the category, they told us, after some of the female winners complained they didn't want the attention those kind of accolades would no doubt bring in a college-town. While this seemed sensible to us, we still felt disappointed; and still ran the ad and told every single person who walked through the door for about three months about our smoking hot staff member.
Tommy A's good looks and tight tuxedo pants only compounded my fear that attendees to tonight's event would choose the normal cash bar over the wine tasting. I wanted to integrate the wine-tasting into the event, but it occurred to me, maybe too late, that a cash bar was already really well-integrated. Maybe there was reason why I had never heard of a wine-tasting like this.
I asked Tommy A to discourage folks from buying wine from him. "If they ask for a glass of wine, remind them about the wine tasting," I said.
"Maybe I'll pretend like I can't hear them," he offered.
"Yes, perfect," I said and then mimed as if really loud music played. I pointed at my ears, and shook my head. "Maybe that guy can help you," I pretend shouted and pointed at myself.
"How's it going?" W.A.G asked from behind me.
I spun around and looked through the empty window frame cut between where I was in the laundromat and where the first band played in the back room. The band was called The Cartwheel Club; I had paired them with a red bordeaux wine from a winery called Chateau Bonnet. The back room was filling up, and small groups of people lounged against the dryers in the front.
"Okay," I replied. "Not a lot of wine-tasters." True to my worries, the cash bar did a much brisker business. A typical interaction at my bar went like this:
A person approached me with head down and hand in wallet.
"Can I get a glass of wine?" they asked.
"Actually," I told them, already knowing this was not going to go well, "I am offering a wine-tasting. For $12 you get to taste seven wines, each of which is paired with this evening's artistic pursuits. Or, you can try one three ounce taste for $2." This last bit usually accompanied them walking away.
"And so," I was telling W.A.G. "I worry I'm selling something too complicated that no one wants. I'm like the guy at the state fair with a purple pumpkin. 'Look everyone! Purple pumpkin! I got a purple pumpkin here!' No one cares."
"Well, that might be true," she said, which was definitely more truth than I think I wanted.
"You need help making people understand this," she said and went to go find paper. Before the short play began at 8:30, W.A.G made a couple of signs that read: WINE #4. Wine #4 was Bonny Doon's Clos du Gilroy, a wine made from the Grenache grape, and which has on its label a portrait of Proust. She handed the signs out to nearby folks.
"Walk around like those women in bikinis between boxing rounds," she told them. They went off; while W.A.G. went on stage and grabbed the microphone.
"Wine number four is now available in the back of the room." The room did that quick hush that only amplified speech can cause. "If you really want to understand this play," she continued, "I suggest you get the viewfinder and start drinking."
Above the crowd, the signs reading #4 rose and pitched like boats on water.
Some people took the viewfinders, some didn't. Most people who took them didn't use them. I had cut frames into some heavy card stock and glued them to a tongue depressor. Across the top of the frame it read "Hello! I am looking at art AND drinking wine!" The names of the wines ran down the side.
I made the viewfinders and the accompanying wine/art checklist not because they would actually make a difference in the wine or the art, but because I wanted people to take something home; and because I thought they would make a difference in the whole wine experience. I used to save ticket stubs and playbills, the idea being that I could collect my own experiences; capture the time I spent doing something in an object that wouldn't fade like memories.
I also thought the viewfinders would make people look like they were at a masquerade ball.
"Tell me about this wine?" an older woman asked me while an experimental rock-country outfit called the Halles Cowboys played behind her. She was asking about the Marquis Philips Holly's Blend, a white wine from Australia that I had paired with said experimental country rock. I really did not want to tell her about this wine. People's default position with wine seems to be jargon. I obliged because what was I supposed to do?
"It's a big white, rich like Chardonnay, but more fruity than buttery." I almost gagged.
"Hmmmm, I like it," she said. "Very big."
W.A.G came up right as I was picking my head off the bar. "I'm seeing a lot of people with viewfinders," she told me hopefully.
"It's not working," I said. "I am having to talk in wine jargon, and it doesn't feel like people are... getting it."
"Well, it's a lot," she said. "You have viewfinders, checklists, art-pairings, cutout footprints on the floor, seven wines. The evening's already so hectic. Most people are not going to go for this sort of thing. Or, its just not for everybody."
I looked out at the people watching the band, the last before the fashion show was to begin at 10:30. The band performed from behind bandstands of their own construction. Most people in the crowd stood still and stared; some swayed; one or two brave souls danced. I've never liked live music as much as I've always thought I should. This is especially true when I am standing or there is a rabid Ani Difranco-esque fan-base involved. I guess it's because often I don't feel a part of what's going on and when all those fans are losing their minds, I usually want to distance rather than include myself. I feel similarly when at an art gallery, though usually sans screaming fans. I feel a sort of "What exactly am I supposed to do here" anxiety and boredom.
Often I come up with tricks to involve myself - pretending I'm making a documentary is an oft-used strategy. Drugs used to be a great strategy, until I realized I was getting way too into hard house music and Space Ghost.
Looking out at the band in the laundromat, I notice two people looking through their viewfinders standing exactly where the footprints for that wine instructed them to stand. These folks drove a far way to get here and would tell me later on that night that this was the most fun event they had been to in a long while. They sipped wine, laughing, looking through the viewfinder at the band and the crowd and at each other. They sort of pushed and cocked their heads like birds. And other than maybe the band and the dancing folks, I thought they looked like the most engaged people in the room.
It was when I saw the woman in the dress made entirely from dryer sheets that I realized I was seeing something really special and impressive. The Fashion Show lasted a little under half an hour and I had only paired a single wine with it - a Syrah from Cline Cellars in California. The idea was that I could pour people one last taste and join the crowd at the runway. Before the show began, W.A.G. again sent her Wine Number cards parading through the crowd and grabbed the mic.
"Found Laundry doesn't look right if you are not looking through a viewfinder!" she told everyone.
A good crew had joined the tasting by then; and while I still struggled with having to perform 'Wine-Tasting' for some folks, enough alcohol had been consumed by then that the viewfinder was way more interesting than the Syrah's tobacco high notes.
Tommy A's special lady friend Rachel was one of the designers that evening; her show began with a wedding dress made from white undergarments. She followed that with a dress constructed entirely from used laundry detergent boxes sold out of the laundromat's detergent vending machine. The crowd cheered and took pictures. I looked over at Tommy A and saw him crouched low, looking at the model in the detergent boxes not only through a viewfinder, but through his entire glass of wine.
To listen to the audio component of this column (recorded 100% while drinking wine) click here. The audio component will be a recurring feature, and will almost always be worth your while.