Authors: Charles Blackstone
For Alpana Singh and Haruki Murakami
Hitch your agony to a star.
But the way it works, you get what you get and the rest you have to do yourself.
Saturday, March 20
On the El ride to the airport, Izzy wouldn't even look at me.
How had things gotten so crazy between us? It was as though Chicago's celebrity sommelier and I, her husband of almost five weeks, were complete strangers. She sat across the train car, reading her book, checking e-mail. Any job leads? When her BlackBerry rang, I feared it was Pacer Rosengrant, Izzy's sommelier protÃ©gÃ© and ex-boyfriend, calling. I wanted to believe that nothing was going on between them again, but part of me couldn't. I'd found him in our bed one recent morning. The other master candidates had gone home after the blind tasting Izzy conducted. He spent the night. She slept on the couchâostensibly. Pacer Rosengrant's return to town, coming almost as quickly as Izzy's and my falling in love, buying an apartment together, and eloping, almost decanted us. It might have even already done damage we were incapable of fleeing. Yet here Izzy and I were, going to Greece for ten days.
“Who was that?”
” she said, in that urgent, annoyedâand annoyingâway few people aside from my parents and student loan creditors ever pronounced my given name.
“Don't you think now that we're separated you kind of have no right to know who I'm on the phone with?”
I didn't answer, and instead tried a new tactic. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
Izzy looked at the paper bag in my lap and nodded. “I can't stop smelling that guy's fries.”
I passed her our lunch. She inspected the three peanut butter and banana sandwiches I'd made before we left and selected one. She threw the bag back over the aisle. I barely managed to catch it.
“Why are we taking this trip, again?” I asked.
There was a throng at the terminal so dense I was certain that by the time we'd get checked in, we'd miss our flight. Never mind making it through security. Not going wouldn't have been an entirely terrible scenario. At least to me.
This sort of impasse had been plaguing us since the night we met. “Don't look,” I whispered, but it was too late. Izzy began to turn her head.
A TSA agent, seated on a bar stool at an opening in between the Retracta-Belt stanchions, said, “You're that girl, ain't ya?” Izzy smiled. The agent waved his hand. “Come this way.”
He led us to a corner of the maze and unabashedly released a lock on one side of the barrier. It sprang a length of prohibitive cloth and freed a space for Izzy and me to enter. We now were advanced on the line by a good fifteen minutes' worth of passengers waiting for tickets.
“I love your show. As soon as you recommend a wine, my wife runs right out to buy it.”
“Thank you”âshe looked at his silver tagâ“Malcolm. That's sweet.”
He emitted a hearty, rumbling laugh. “Now, that's where I draw the line. When you had that one time that pink wineâI forget what it's calledâI was like, âBaby, you're drinking that one yourself.' I may be willing to try a lot of things, but pink wine? Uh-uh. If I want something sweet, I'll eat a cupcake.”
“RosÃ©,” she said. “And, actually, that kind is dry, so I think you'd like it.”
“Give it a try.”
“Okay, okay. If Isabelle Conway says it's good, you know what? I'm gonna try it.”
“I appreciate that, Malcolm.”
“Have a good trip, Miss Conway. Be sure to drink a lot of wine.”
Malcolm reminded me, in a distant way, of myself, five months ago. It was then that I, sleep deprived and love starved, and nothing more to her than a fan, wrote an e-mail to Izzy. The subject line was “An impassioned plea (I think) for attention.”
So, I'm sort of just guessing that this is your address,
I'd typed last fall,
and also that even if this were your address, that you check this account, given the fact that there have probably been at least 35,214 people who at one point tried reaching you this way. Okay, it's more like hopingâreckless optimism perhapsâbut my cause is a worthy one: you have to get your
producers to cast me. I think I'm perfect for the part. I'm skeptical, curious, ready to learn, like restaurants and wine bars, have an eclectic cellar in my kitchen (two bottles, of dubious French provenance, stowed above the stove). I'm also quite charming, contentious, and always hungry for a good debate. I've been catching up on reruns, and let's face it, in the last season or two, most of the guests have been kind of dogmatic and a little overdramatic. A logician would have a field day with the rabbi who answered charges of “mediocre pairing” with a stammered, “But that's what we serve at shiva!” Bring me in to shake things up a bit. Please. I want to help the sommelier with the, er, mostellier make good TV. Truthfully, I'm just interested in meeting you and figured this whole trying-to-get-on-the-show thing (and, with any luck, this e-mail) might make for a good entree, no pun intended.
I signed off,
Yours in Champagne, Peter Hapworth, Conceptualist, Teacher, Chicagoan, Swashbuckler, Eater, Drinker, Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker
. She replied, eight minutes later.
My goodness! This is definitely one passionate plea to get on the show. I don't actually pick the guests but I will forward your note directly to the producer. I'm thrilled that you enjoy
and appreciate your enthusiasm in trying to get on. Your e-mail really made me laugh, and that's always a good thing.
Plus if you really are a butcher, that's even better. I don't think we have ever had a butcher on before.
I never made it as far as an audition, but ended up with something even better: a date with the host several hours later. We'd spent few nights apart since.
The airline ticket agent at the counter also recognized Izzy. He printed our coach-fare boarding cards, stapled luggage claim coupons to the envelopes, and snuck us into the first-class security lane, which again bought us some extra time.
Once we'd put our shoes and jackets back on and reclaimed our messenger bags, Izzy said, “Well, that wasn't so bad.”
“It pays to be you sometimes, I guess.”
We wandered the dark international terminal. It was a bazaar of languages, smells, and food-court stalls. Duty-free shops for cartons of cigarettes and gallon jugs of vodka lined the path to the gates. Snacks were available in vending machines. A few umbrella-covered carts served a small selection of bottled beer, wine, and spirits. I had no cash in my pocket, but found an operator with a sign announcing that he accepted a spectrum of transatlantic credit cards.
“Want to get a drink?”
People had been telling me about the show for a long time, about how much they not only enjoyed it but also actually learned something about wine in the process. Before I moved to Humboldt Park, though, I'd never actually seen it. I conflated Izzy's with another program that featured a popular lilt-voiced, panic-eyed Chicago restaurateur who'd become notorious with recipes he was rumored to have stolen at a
while on vacation in Buenos Aires. From a sound-stage set built to look like his home kitchen, he broadcasted alongside an overacting dancer he'd imported from the Palermo's nightly tango show. With the
in a one-shoulder ballroom dress, the chef, costumed in a campy coat and toque, now rather sanctimoniously, and lucratively, shared the Argentine dishes with a national audience. “His” famous menu was available for consumption across the country by way of an eponymously-branded frozen foods line, featured in heavy advertising rotation. Their show put me in mind of a strung-up hyperbolic duo on
The Muppet Show
. Izzy's would change my life.
's premise wasn't terrifically revolutionary: each week, three everyday Chicagoansâsalesmen and computer consultants and kindergarten teachers and marketing specialists who'd never met each otherâgathered around a table to drink and talk extemporaneously about all things wine, as though good friends whose cocktail hour bantering wasn't being recorded by two television cameras. Between their recommendations of favorite varietals and reviews of the bottle lists and menus at area restaurants and wine bars, Isabelle Conway revealed her unique perspective. Herein lay the real reason for the show's popularity. She was the sommelier with whom everyone in the city that liked wineâpretty much the entire cityâmost wanted to sit at a candlelit bistro table or on the living room couch and chat over a bottle or two. And for good reason: Izzy let her empaneled enthusiasts (and, by extension, the viewers at home) in on secrets of the trade. She introduced her audience to alternative selections and exciting unexplored wine regions. She debunked the perpetuated myths. She offered advice on practical domestic matters, such as storage, serving techniques, and wine and food pairings for dinner parties. And she managed to do it all in a way that made everyday people feel smarter about wine, smarter about life. The guests were modestly engaging, their anecdotes sometimes amusing, and the issues they came to the table to raise were largely germane. But they were ultimately
. As numerous magazine articles and blog posts concurred, it was the host who was the true television rarity. With her vast knowledgeâexalted for years by industry and consumers alikeâand inimitable unscripted personality by which she conveyed that knowledge, Isabelle Conway was what made the show uniquely compelling.
The first time I saw
, shortly after discovering I was getting cable, I was struck. Izzy was answering in medium-shot a complex question about how it is white wine can be made from red grapes, and somehow it felt like she was talking directly to me. Absurd as it was to think, I was suddenly overtaken by the notion that she and I could know each other. I didn't know how. I didn't know why. It just seemed possible. She was a conceptualist just like I was, but her ideas were more than just fancies, bound to the province of dreams. She was taking it somewhere, doing something with what she dreamt. Isabelle Conway wasn't just pouring wine into people's glasses. She poured wine into consciousness, into the world.
She was also very beautiful, and I'd been frustratingly single. Part of it was my exacting standards, as esoteric as they were unrealistic. On Craigslist, I posted Casual Encounters ads that sought “someone who knows the difference between Shiraz and Merlot, because I don't; someone who knows the difference between metaphor and metonymy, because I do.” My Nerve.com profile called for, in the words of Liz Phair, an “average everyday sane psycho supergoddess.” Who else besides Izzy would ever come close?
So I resolved to meet her. I'd use my charm and intellect and figure out a way to draw Isabelle Conway from my screen and into my life. For research, I programmed the VCR to catch all the reruns, which, fortunately for me, aired often. At the end of an episode, I'd turn off the TV, but found it hard not to think about her. And that's how I got the idea to apply to be a guest on the show. The scene played as vividly in my head as if I were watching a film: we'd meet on the set, I'd tell 150,000 cable-access viewers where I liked to have a glass of wine after a long day at work, or when my parents and sister came to town, and I'd make Izzy laugh throughout the taping.
With so many vagaries and uncertainties, how do regular people make sense out of any of it? How's a guy supposed to get a drink in this town?
Then I'd ask her out and we'd fall in love. That was my dream. Instead, she invited me to a wine tasting.
That October afternoon, something else I never imagined also began: my vinification. My experiences with grapes up to that point had been few, yet indelible: I could still taste the syrupy kiddush cup I'd hefted at the bar mitzvah that declaimed me an Upper West Side man. In college, after leaving New York for Chicago, there was kiwi-lemon Mad Dog 20/20, procured from Cornell Liquors with a fake ID I'd laminated with an iron, smuggled into the Reg, and drunk in the reserve stacks. It was with the help of jug Burgundy that I was able to fortify my way through not one but two grad degrees in English, back on the East Coast. In the years since returning to the blustery city to teach at UIC, I'd attended liquor store demos, but those late-afternoon gatherings of timid customers were always too awkward to enjoy or to learn anything. Between the pedantic store employees masquerading as winery advocates and the small samples, I always walked away with a sharp headache instead of the dull buzz I'd sought. What was worse, everyone feared sounding unsophisticated by voicing disapproval of the
pronouncements the “connoisseurs” recycled.
Even I hear people talk about wine sometimes and wonder what the hell they're referring to,
Izzy confided in our e-mail thread.
“Ah, yes, it's a dainty little thing. Perfect balance, good legs, and a strong will to survive.” It's all pretty silly.
Over and over that day, and for many days afterward, I told myself,
You can't fuck this up
On the flight to Munich, Izzy watched moviesâ
âwhile I sketched concepts in my Rhodia. I flitted from idea to idea like a teenaged slacker poet with combination skin and attention deficit. I knew I should focus if I really expected anyone to take me seriously as a restaurant conceptualist, but I couldn't help it. For the first time in months, everything around seemed to inspire me. The babbling high school orchestra that flooded the dozen rows in front of us, their ingratiating chaperones, myriad backpacks and iPods and plastic accordion folders. The meticulous, austere flight crew. The militaristic aluminum meal containers and tiny bullets of Coke and Coke Light. There's a restaurant in this somewhere, I thought, again and again as we crossed the Atlantic Ocean. No matter how good a concept I'd come up with, though, I'd never be able to do much beyond describing it in a notebook without Izzy. I'd once told her,
I need to have you in my life to be whole, to be anything.
It couldn't have been truer now.