Novermber 6, 2008


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Spooky wine
Sipping the dregs of haunted tales

By Tim Protzman

Last Friday, around cocktail time, as darkness descended, the Haunted Bottle rose from its oaken crate and walked among us.

No, not really. But there are a lot of scary wines out there, lurking in inauspicious green and clear bottles. Waiting for their next victims. Like the old Bordeaux Superior I found on my cousin’s lazy susan. It had sat there since our graduation year. Its age was impressive, but its birth year was not. The 1975 season was hard. Little rain in the spring, then a lot of moisture near harvest. They picked early to avoid the mold. The result was probably good once. But the aging factor wasn’t there. Plus, the storage conditions in the Poconos cabin were a cascade of extremes. Hot then cold, then hot and when they went skiing. Cold followed by the heat of a gas-fired furnace. The wine had turned a brick red. An unnatural clarity had settled on it. It was translucent. You could read through it. The cork slid out with hiss, like that of a serpent. Not from pressurization, but from decay. The air filled with sulfur, not unlike the something Daniel Webster would have noted when he was around Mr. Scratch. Thick black clods poured with the first glass, settling to the bottom. Disintegrated cork and sediment. The taste. Porty, nutty, almondy, no tannins and no alcohol. Was it bad? Evil? No, but it wasn’t what purists would call wine either. Did we drink it? That’s the scary thing. We drank a whole glass each, and politely pushed the sediment from our tongues onto a napkin. We kept trying to see if it would revive. It never did, but it wasn’t putrid. We didn’t gag. It was like a wine post-mortem. That all too human morbid fascination.

I’ve heard a lot of tales about haunted wineries. Buried bodies, treasure, spiritually ruined harvests.

A salesman for a distributor told me about this winery in Walla Walla, Wash. They’d been around 12 or so years, which made them middle-aged in the Walla Walla appellation. They were looking for some good cheap lands to plant merlot. Some place where they could get started and experiment with the terroir. A team of consultants had researched several prospective locations. All they had to do was visit them.

They went at dawn when the light was best. Driving past wheat and apples and stands of oak. They liked the third one they saw. As they headed back to town they stopped at a diner. The place was busy. The waitress came over. She handed the vintner a note written on the paper placemat. It said, “Don’t build there.” They were stunned. They hadn’t told anyone who they were or why they were there. Searching for that logical answer most would later recall they immediately suspected industrial espionage. Were they being followed? Many people knew about their plans.

They asked the waitress who sent the note. She said a man over there, but he left. What did he look like? They asked. Plain, she said. Was she in on it?

Once they placed an option on the land little things started to happen. Flat tires on the way to meetings about the land deal. Missing files. Faxes the sender swore they sent but never arrived.

They never bought the land. On the day the team was showing the property to their banker something strange happened.

They arrived in mid afternoon. The sun was warm, but it wasn’t hot. They walked into the property toward a stand of oak that indicated a water source near the surface. Something moved in the bushes. They stopped. Ahead were squiggly grooves in the dirt road. More movement in the bushes. The delicate s-shaped tracks revealed the creature. Snakes. Hundreds of Western Rattlesnakes moved around them. Feeling surrounded by the unseen menace, they slowly backed out, only turning their backs on the threat when the noise and movement in the bushes stopped. They let the option expire. They saw the land’s still vacant today.

Perhaps the most haunted wine region in the world is the Coonawarra, which means honeysuckle in the Australian Aboriginal language. It is said that restless or earthbound spirits are attracted to the beautiful fragrance. After that, Champagne, which has a longer history as a region full of battlegrounds, is most spectral. The presences are rarely spooky; most are what is known as dislocation or “transmigration of time” event. Ancient peasants appearing in field. Columns of marching men at arms. People often say things like: we went on a walk and as we turned the corner we came upon a picnic where all the picnickers were dressed in Victorian clothes. It was strangely quiet. They seemed not to notice us, but one woman looked directly in our direction. The sky was so clear. We felt strangely alive. Then as we walked on we became aware of the hum of the motorway. We turned back toward the picnic, but when we arrived there was nothing. The grass wasn’t even mashed down where their blanket had been.

Although I’ve never heard of it I suppose there could be a haunted bottle. An old vintage with a curse for those who dare to possess it. Or a bottle damned by an angry, vengeful winemaker, whose intention is pain, not pleasure. A bottle with a soul as dark as midnight, el diablo’s wine. Don’t laugh, I’ve drunk one. And being me I probably found at least redeeming quality. After all, even though it’s possessed, it’s still wine.

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