Bar Exam

Some friends once invited me to join them on a short car trip to a local winery, which I decided would be the perfect opportunity to show off my vast knowledge of how to enjoy short car trips. I certainly wouldn’t be impressing them with any wine expertise. I wouldn’t know chardonnays from mayonnaise. Maybe three times a year, while at a party and not wanting to look unsophisticated, I’ll sip a wine, instead of what I really want, which is chocolate milk with a swirly straw.

So here I was at this winery, sampling assorted varieties with my experienced friends, watching how they would sniff the bouquet, roll the wine gently around the bottom of the glass, then take a sip and say something like, “This grips the palate with an insouciantly flirtatious intimation of pear.” Asked my opinion of a Cabernet Franc, I declared it to be “yummy” and was ignored for the rest of the tasting.

To be honest, I could easily do without ever having wine again. I’m just not into it. In fact, alcohol has never held any interest for me. Yet there was a day in Germany many years ago when I felt absolutely obligated to have a beer—for the longest time my one and only beer. Let me tell you about it, mein freund.

In the summer of 1990, eight months after the Berlin Wall was torn down like an off-key contestant on American Idol, my buddy Gregg and I were enjoying a typical post-collegiate backpacking tour of Europe. Germany then was divided into two countries, East and West. After a few days in West Berlin, which was surrounded like an island by Soviet-controlled East Germany, we hitchhiked a ride back to West Germany with a mild-mannered fellow named Helmut who spoke about twenty words of English. He worked for Volkswagen in West Berlin and amazingly drove the 245-mile round-trip commute each day from his home in West Germany.

Once we passed through the now relaxed security checkpoints and crossed East Germany to the western border, we were suddenly on the renowned autobahn, the German highway with no speed limit. The g-force flattened our faces as Helmut shifted into warp drive and took off for home like a rocket ship escaping an exploding planet. There wasn’t much conversation during the flight-- er, drive—because of the language barrier. And also because Gregg and I screamed most of the way.

We landed in the city of Braunschweig. The train schedule indicated that our connection to Hamburg would leave in an hour, so Helmut offered to take us on a brief tour of his home town. With great pride he pointed out various buildings and statues, concluding with a visit to his favorite pub. It was like a scene from the TV show Cheers whenever Norm entered the bar. We walked in and all the regulars shouted, “Helmut!” Our chauffeur raised three fingers and bellowed, “Drei bier [three beers]!”

Gregg, who loved beer and knew that I didn’t drink, was highly amused. He wondered what I was going to do. Before I could react, we were ushered to bar stools, and German brew in mugs the size of fire hydrants were plunked in front of us. How could I refuse? A stranger had just driven us over a hundred miles, given us a tour of his city and was crowning his hospitality by buying us a round of beer. Helmut and Gregg immediately began to down their drinks like Vikings. I, on the other hand, took a tentative sip like a Viking’s picky three-year old child. I’m not really sure what elephant urine would taste like, but I imagined it might be something like this. Helmut dug an elbow into my ribs. “What? You no like beer?” he inquired. I protested that I loved beer more than I loved my mother; I just wasn’t thirsty, was all.

Somehow I managed to consume half my ale before we needed to leave. At the train station we waved goodbye to Helmut and then I dashed to a kiosk to buy a box of mints which I emptied into my mouth like a pelican swallowing a school of minnows. “How do you drink that stuff?!” I wailed. Gregg only laughed. And laughed and laughed.

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a lot of idiocy caused by alcohol abuse, and sometimes I think that these days Jesus would be more likely to turn wine into water. But just because I don’t get much out of it doesn’t mean others shouldn’t enjoy a Budweiser or Bordeaux. 

Drink responsibly. And to avoid pretentiousness, use a swirly straw.

Cuyler Black