Just Sip It

[ In honor of the new NBA World Champions, here’s a reprint of a column I wrote back in the Jordan era about basketball and wine. Check out the stars I mention — now that’s old school, baby! ]

A dark arena surrounding a gauzy, spotlit court. Everything seems slow, supercharged and saturated, almost dreamlike. Michael Jordan, lean and crouched, is facing off against some hapless guard as the ref tosses the ball skyward. Cut to a tight shot of the ball rising to the height of its arc until Jordan is just about to touch the ball. There’s the woody sound of a cork being coaxed out of a bottle, and then freeze-frame and echoy silence — maybe the distant clink-clink of full bottles — as everything stops, hanging for a moment.

Just as we can’t stand it anymore, one last squeak explodes to the intercut sound and visual of a cork popping as Jordan smacks both the ball and the camera pace into motion. Music starts — maybe Hendrix singing Dylan’s line about businessmen drinking his wine — and Jordan flows up the court and takes to the air, all grace and knowledge, super-imposed with red wine poured super slow-mo, roiling into a glass as the camera tracks a 360 around it. As Jordan nears the rim a third image of a lowering bottle of wine is superimposed, touching the ground as the ball snaps the net. Fade all but the dramatically lit bottle, and super text:

“Domaine Dunquage. Red, white, and beyond…”

Didn’t see that one during the playoffs? Neither did we, but as we wandered into sports bars, asking after their corkage fee, we began to wonder why. What is it about sports in America that has made it so inhospitable for wine, and yet so welcoming for beer and other beverages?

It’s not as if wine has never had a place on the field. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, wine was central to war and its civilian reflection, sport. Indeed, it was the original sports drink when Greek and Trojan heroes celebrated their epic battles with wine and song. “Son of Menoitios,” says Achilleus during halftime in the Trojan war, “set up a mixing bowl that is bigger, and mix us stronger wine, and make ready a cup for each man, since those who have come beneath my roof are the men I love best.” This from the original tough guy, and one who was ultimately undone by a sports injury.

But somewhere along the way to this country wine fell by the wayside, even though evidence of its appropriateness in sports is everywhere. For instance, if your favorite NBA superstar were an alcoholic beverage, which would he be? A rich, potent, and complex wine, or a Schlitz?

Consider this: a few of the older big men in the league, like Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon and Utah’s Karl Malone, are like 7-10 year old Cabernets, still big, powerful and fresh but with finesse and a light touch on the jumper, their game complex and layered. Or what about Houston’s Clyde Drexler, classy, debonair and saturated with a rich, vivid smoothness like a fine Washington Merlot, hanging through the finish with the positive spin he lays on for the press. Dennis Rodman is surely a murky, high-alcohol Zinfandel, untamed and unpredictable, in your face and graying your teeth as he pulls up from that awkward run and dazes you (and the Atlanta Hawks) with a 3. And who would dispute that Jordan is not a French Burgundy of the Premier Cru, balancing the silkiest smoothness and grace with a rich, concentrated and unpredictably complex game?

Of course, it’s one thing to be reminiscent of wine, and quite another to drink it. But Americans are already used to consuming fruit-based drinks after sports–why not take it one step further? After a tough half-court game with the air shimmering above the asphalt, you just can’t beat the refreshing taste of a cool, crisp Chablis!

All right, it’s a bit of a stretch. But as we valiantly try to mix Bordeaux and Ball during the playoffs, we wonder whether it’s nature or nurture which makes wine so unsuitable for the enjoyment of sports. To be sure, wine isn’t even in the draft for the couch- and coach-prone because cold and fizzy beer is just plain refreshing, its relatively lower alcohol content means you can drink more of it, and you don’t need special glassware, a corkscrew, a level surface or patience to suck it down. (Note for future patent: wide-mouthed wine bottles.) In short, beer has the carbonated dynamism lacking in the stillness of most wines.

But ever since ad types repositioned Marlboro from women to cowboys, the intrinsic qualities of a product have determined only part of its image. When Poles, Irish, Germans and other Northern Europeans — whose climate made growing grapes difficult — emigrated to this country over the last century, they brought with them beer culture. Since they started at the bottom, beer became associated with the working man, who talked straight and toiled with his own hands to better himself. As beer companies began to develop a coherent national marketing strategy, the metaphor for this demographic was right in front of them: the athlete.

It makes us wonder if, at that crossroads thirty or forty years ago, wine could have beaten beer to the sports endorsement. Instead of pandering to class envy of the leisured and wealthy (an association from which it is now desperately trying to flee), it could have promoted its connection with ancient warriors and games, family, and the emigrant working class from Southern Europe. Maybe Budweiser would now be the Viscount of beers.

We’ll never know, but one thing is certain: if you are going to serve wine during the game, remember that only Zin can cut through the Doritos and take it to the hole.

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This column originally appeared in June, 1997 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon. Garagiste James and I alternated writing the columns; this column was written by me. More such affronts to the English language can be found here.

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