Pop liked beer. He also chewed Red Man tobacco. After he had his one beer for the evening, he would sit in his recliner and use a beer can opener to punch the can two or three times more, to use as a mini-cuspidor – a beer can spittoon. When in the car on the highway, he used the beer can; however, on the ranch he would spit out the window. He warned us to roll up the back window behind him, to keep the spit from coming back in the car. I was fortunate never to get hit by what my lawyer kin on the Drew side would call a “miasma of effluvium.”
Pop liked wine. Unwilling to buy it from a store because of the expense, Pop resolved to make his own wine. He went to see some of his many friends in the Italian community of Lake Village – I can’t remember if it was the Fortes, or the Pieronis, the Scucchis, or the Santinis. They sold him some wooden barrels, or told him where to order them (I don’t remember). These wooden casks were about twice the volume of a 55-gallon drum, about five feet high and very big around. They had two-inch bung holes on the side, stopped with large wooden plugs. He ordered some pinot noir grapes from California, which arrived in 30 or so crates. But first he had Mr. Dennis, my brother David, and me to dig a wine cellar for him.
We dug an 8-foot deep room under one corner of the house. We shored up the walls, and put concrete on the bottom, but it was still just a big dirt pit with steps down to it, absolutely nothing fancy. Pop had the barrels put in there, strung up some lights, and then invited the Italians over. I say Italians with the deepest possible respect. Those men were master wine makers, all devout Catholics, and people who made the town run. I say this even though a couple of them had flasks of Old Crow in their hip pockets.
The fun began. Humming, joking and laughing, cheeks and faces glowing with good humor, the Italians brought the crates of grapes over to the barrels and dumped the grapes inside, still attached to their stems. They poured massive amounts of sugar into the barrels. They then invited me, owing to my long legs I suppose, to pull a Lucille Ball and trample out the vintage where the grapes of Pop were stored. All I remember is that it was pleasant to the feet. I can’t remember if my legs were stained or not. They showed Pop how to seal the lids, using paraffin and copper tubing and glasses of water. Then they disappeared, still singing and laughing. They knew how to put happiness into the atmosphere!
Three months went by. Then the Italians came back. This time they brought big beaten copper and tin bowls or pans, three feet wide and about eight inches deep. The flasks were in the hip pocket again, of course. Down into the cellar we all went, in a procession. Pop was there and the Italians kept up a steady stream of instructions to him. They gave me a wooden mallet – might have given my brother one too, for the other barrels. An Italian held a big copper pan under the bung hole and instructed me to knock out the plug on my barrel. Whoosh! Out came the wine! It was raw and sweet and the air was filled with the smell of wine. This was the first wine. My feelings of camaraderie and friendship with those wonderful old men grew by leaps and bounds: I was a junior third string assistant wine maker!
This first wine was poured, most of it, into other waiting barrels. More sugar was poured into those barrels and stirred. Then those barrels were sealed. This was to become the second wine. The first wine, of which Pop kept some to sample, was strong, what Jesus called new wine. It had a sweet fruity taste, and a powerful kick. The Italian gentlemen left, telling Pop he could handle it from now on, and to call them if he needed guidance.
After another three months, we got the second wine. This wine was more like champagne. It was not sweet, exactly, but was very bubbly and smooth. Its kick was not so hard as the first wine. It was more gentle, and much to be preferred over the first wine. Pop had ordered some bottles and caps and a cap press, and we had fun pouring the second wine into bottles. Pop put the caps on. We filled up cardboard boxes with the bottles, and stored them in the wine room, what we began calling the cellar. We still had barrels of first wine and second wine, left to age. We would go down from time to time to check on the barrels, and you could see the little bubbles coming from the coiled copper tubing out of the casks and into the fruit jars full of water: blurp, blurp…blurp.
I thought I could drink the second wine like soda pop. I recall one of the two times I ever got drunk. It was due to my drinking the champagne-like second wine. For the first and only time in my life, I laid down in bed early after supper and kept very still to keep the room from tilting and spinning.
Years later, in college, I went to one (only) college party where they drank rather heavily. That was not for me, I decided. I limited my drinking to when I was writing papers for my classes. I would open a bottle of Liebfraumilch or Cabernet Sauvignon –or, when I was broke, Ripple. I would sip the wine while writing my papers. It calmed the anxiety and enabled me to concentrate.
I may as well tell you the rest of the history of my drinking. I really didn’t make a practice of drinking in college, not beer, wine, or whiskey. I wasn’t interested. However, I came back from Bolivia a few years after college, and I was upset by the rough experiences there. Mad at God. I took some off-campus courses from my seminary, and spent a year working at Jacob Schmidt Brewery. There I worked in the pump room, which pumps beer up to the fillers. My room was kept at 35° and held 13 huge tanks the size of railroad car tanks. Each was filled with different beers, still full of live yeast and unpasteurized. Everyone’s favorite beer was called Schmidt Extra Special because it had 12% alcohol instead of 6%. The bosses and managers would come visit me from time to time. I would go to the Extra Special tank and turn a metal spigot, filling a bottle with this perfectly cold and fresh 12% beer for them.
Finally, after a year in the brewery, I had an experience with God. I quit the brewery, went on a two-month mission trip with my wife to Puerto Rico, and returned to seminary. I graduated and spent seven years as a pastor in Mississippi. My only other experience with wine or any alcoholic beverage began after those seven years. My wife and kids and I went to Santa Marta, Colombia, to be church planting missionaries with South America Mission. While there, the other missionaries were in a quandary. Who would go buy the wine for holy communion at our new church? Being the one supposedly with the most experience with wine (probably true), I was sent. First time, I bought a bottle of Mogen David wine. However, the Colombians in our worship service complained afterward. They said it was disrespectful to the Lord to serve such cheap wine for communion! So missionary Wally went back to the liquor store and, in front of God and everybody, bought an expensive bottle of wine for the next time. I don’t remember what I bought, but that was the last complaint I got out of the Colombians about the wine. Since 1985 when I returned to the States, I have had no alcoholic drink of any kind, with only three exceptions.
Twice, I took communion in the Catholic Church, once in Greenville, and once in Okolona, both in Mississippi. The Greenville priest warned me not to do it again, while the Okolona priest begged me to come partake. The final taste of wine in my life was several years ago at Annual Conference in Jackson. The bishop of the United Methodist Church in Mississippi, Hope Ward, had invited an Episcopal priest to come have communion with us, and out of hospitality, there were two serving lines for communion. One served wine, the other grape juice. Needless to say, I chose the serving line with the wine. And it was definitely not Mogen David. I remember that it was exceedingly fine.
I close with a short piece from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a Muslim mystic. He compares the intense mystic joy of communing in the presence of Allah, with drunkenness. I don’t believe in Allah, but he does. In this short piece he is advocating that one should spend more time in that joy. It sounds like he is advocating for drunkenness, though he is not. It goes like this:
Ho, a cup, and fill it up! And tell me it is wine,
For never shall I drink in shade when I can drink in shine;
Speak, for shame, the Loved One’s name,
Let vain disguises fall;
Good for naught are pleasures hid
Behind a curtain wall!