I often say that I am a child of communism (born and university educated still in communist Poland, I wrote about it here). It has had a significant impact on how I have viewed reality around me and myself in it. As I grow older I reach back to to that time. In this post, I want to tell one of my favourite stories from the times of communism. So, here is a post about Polish ‘wine’ and my first ever glass of wine.
When I was growing up, there were two kinds of alcohol around. There was vodka and there was beer. As long as I can remember, family events were generously oiled with either clear vodka (the so-called ‘czysta’, i.e. pure) and for those who didn’t like that, there was beer. For some, it was both, some, admittedly mostly, men used beer just to wash down the taste of vodka. Occasionally, you could get some fruit or herbal liqueur (Polish nalewka, link here) but that wasn’t a thing, really.
As a man, it was difficult not to drink. As someone who liked neither vodka (I still don’t touch the stuff) or beer (I learnt to drink beer much later, in Mexico, but it’s a different story), often I had to fight hard for the right not to drink. I remember helping out with threshing work in a village in the early 1990s and the party afterwards. At the party, I was offered a shot of vodka and when I refused, the look on the host’s face told me that I had to drink at least the first round. By refusing to have the first toast, I would have mortally insulted him. So, I did drink, to my detriment. Not only was it disgusting but my body somehow didn’t and continues not to tolerate such (i.e. strong non-grape based) alcohol. Much has changed since, although I suspect it’s very much class based.
Incidentally, what has also changed is that even though Poland is a wine periphery, thanks to the European Union, we can at least try to remove the barriers (Brexit has made it more difficult!) – my latest wine order went to a shop in the Netherlands, before it was Czechia, I was also looking at a Tokaj shop in Hungary. All hail the EU!
Now, at that time, in Poland, there was practically no wine to speak of. Occasionally you could buy Bulgarian Sophia (both red or white) and the cheapest Hungarian Egri Bikaver (red) and both were dreadful. Interestingly, I can’t remember any other Hungarian wines (there are many accounts of communists practically destroying the Hungarian wine industry) or Georgian, Armenian, Moldovan wines, all from communist countries.
What was around was the so-called fruit wine, the jabcok or jabol (link here), referring to the fact that they were (and apparently continue to be) made from apples (Polish ‘jabłko’). I can remember those ‘wines’ very well but never as part of any party. Rather, they were drunk outdoors, by, well, people, who drank alcohol outdoors…And the names…. Wine or Knight, Castle, Bison. After communism collapsed, the names got more adventurous. We had Arizona, Apache, Texas, Crazy Horse. It’s worth noting perhaps that there are lovely ethnographic accounts of mostly men who drank wine in stairways or playgrounds (e.g., by Roch Sulima).
All that meant that at the time I was practically teetotal. The Polish drinking scene was so poor, especially in a provincial city I lived in, that (proper) wine for me was something you either read about in literature (Dumas’ musketeers drank Anjou wine, for example) or see on television. Wine was something people ‘in the West’ drank and enjoyed. We, well, they, in Poland, battled (there is a whole vocabulary of what you do with such wine, but ‘drink’ is rarely there) the jabols or got smashed by vodka.
Things were about to change, though. I graduated from university and found my first research job and Prof. Walery Pisarek (my first boss) said to me one day that I should take care of my English and go see movies with the original soundtrack in the US Consulate in Krakow. I happily obliged and often attended the consulate’s film shows which were held in early afternoons. One day, however, there was a show in the evening, as there was also a meeting with the director or some other person of note. I happily attended, but can’t even remember who the person was; something else happened. The participants were invited to have a glass of wine.
There were two tables, one with a battery of glasses with white wine, the other with red wine. As my experience of wine was zero at the time, I started wondering which colour to go for. And then I remembered Prof. Ludwik Stomma.
Stomma was (he died recently) a well-known Polish anthropologist who moved from Poland to France and soon after started writing a column in the political weekly Polityka. Time and again, he would refer to drinking white wine. As a student, I had met Stomma, the bon vivant, before, and I decided he did know what he was doing. And so, I went for white. This decision was one that has weighed heavily on my life, well, sort of.
I didn’t have much expectation. I was a teetotaller not because of some ideological take on alcohol but because all alcohol I had tried was dreadful. And I still had the notion that you don’t drink alcohol to get drunk but because it tasted nice.
So, I took a glass of white wine and…..I was taken to a place I thought didn’t exist. It was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted. I wouldn’t have described it in such terms but I was smitten by the balance of the wine. Everything was in order in the liquid in my mouth and it wasn’t even sweet!! It was just right. I had another glass – the experience was similar. Pure bliss. It was so inoffensive. I like describing wine as something which doesn’t attack you, it feels almost like thick water, except it is sooooo full of flavour.
What is this magic, I thought…Well, the bottles were on the table, this wonder of a liquid was called Chablis. It’s the first time I had seen the name. Needless to say, I can’t remember the vintage or the producer. I just know it was a Chablis. Later, I found out that Chablis is (well, can be) very good wine.
This was in 1990 (or so). There was no Chablis in Polish shops in Krakow. I tried a few restaurants and had no joy. My second tasting of Chablis had to wait. As it turned out the next time I had Chablis was about two years later. This was when I got a job at a British university and moved to the UK. One of the first things I bought in a British supermarket was….a Chablis. It cost me about 6 quid, which was expensive for a bottle of wine at the time (and it was more than my monthly salary in Poland in 1989/90). It was still wonderful.
At the time, my salary in UK didn’t allow me to drink fine wine but I was very happy with my local Tesco (yes, yes, I also had my fair share of cheap German Rieslings!). It had more wine that I had seen in my life. Not long afterwards, the Internet came and I could buy from shops with a much longer wine list.
As years went by, my palate has gone more expensive and more discerning (though I still think that wine mostly smells and tastes like wine, expect some smell and taste more interesting). Two things remained, though. First, Chablis continues to be very close to my heart – it is still the wine region from which I drink most often, and Chablis with other wines from Burgundy account for most wines I drink. Second, I continue to be very partial to white wine. Only recently have I started to make more of an effort to move into red wine, and Burgundian pinot noir is wine which I like more and more (the other day I had a Morey Saint-Denis and it was heaven in my mouth, as we say in Poland).
Wine is important in my life, not only do I find it delicious but also I find it simply interesting. Wine is worth reading about! I also think I was lucky. A child of communism introduced to wine way before wine became available and common in Polish shops, specialist and otherwise. What continues to bring smile to my face, however, is that I was (sort of) introduced to wine by a US Consulate and newspaper writings of an anthropologist.
And so, I dedicate this post first to Ludwik Stomma who reminded me/us that you could enjoy wine well before we could. May you always have a glass o white wine to hand! Second, I dedicate it to US consulates. May your wine lists grow and wine-sharing events thrive! Finally, I dedicate this post post to the European Union. May we all enjoy wine wherever (in the EU) it is sold!