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Wine and Grief

Wine pairings for each of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief.


Contrary to what you may have heard, wine isn’t just for happy people. Venture, for instance, to San Francisco, where the most well-trained, empathetic sommeliers will tell you that pairing wine with happiness is like pairing it with cheese. In that city’s metro area, they’ve known for decades that all wine tastes good to someone who’s satisfied and well-adjusted and having a great time with people they love. If you’re already drunk on approval and validation, even a jug of Carlo Rossi would seem like a miracle of American viticulture, and the restaurant markup on that Screaming Eagle will be wasted on you. Little known fact, but that’s why they have to show you the bottle.

Sadness, however, has a much more discerning palate. Each flavor of grief demands a specific wine, and when they’re improperly paired, that’s what leads to violence, self-abuse, 3:00 AM Google stalking, Mexican pizzas, basic cable, puns, identification with the music of Bonnie Tyler, and late night texting to ex-girl/boyfriends. In short, all of the societal ills that the so-called experts ascribe to wine consumption are actually a result of improper conjunctions of wine with grief and grievances.

According to the top 177 sommeliers in the Bay Area, rated by empathy (there’s a pretty big drop-off after 177, trust me), the five proper wine/grief pairings are as follows:

1. Denial: Lighter-Bodied Whites
Refusing to face facts, living with wanton misapprehensions, or a consistent willingness to make decisions with little or no information often results in a sadness that pairs extremely well with champagne, cava, moscato, prosecco, or asti. This kind of grief requires a wine that’s approachable young and is drinkable with no decanting, and the effervescent, floral notes of these varietals uplift the drinker to a state of plausible deniability and perhaps even moral superiority. A person whose internal well of sadness stems from a failure to live in a world that’s logical, practical, or even agreed upon by the people around them need a wine that’s going to validate them, and nothing validates like sparkling whites.

If they’re excessive in their denial, oily, or schmaltzy, do not give them anything that’s undergone full malolactic fermentation; they don’t need it. These folks are possibly dealing with cognitive dissonance over real-world issues—like, for example, the devout supplicants or sentimental fanatics refusing to face the sexual abuse in their churches or universities, or people who are staunchly anti-government despite benefitting from social security and/or unemployment insurance and/or Medicare. These folks will absolutely flourish with a crisp, tart, malic white, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but any white will do in a pinch, as long as it’s been exclusively barreled in stainless.

2. Anger: Full-Bodied Whites
If rage clouds a person’s judgment, or frustration with their lot in life seems to be their defining emotional characteristic, they should sit down, take a deep breath, and enjoy at least two glasses of a thick, full, bold white, like Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, a warm-weather Sauvignon Blanc, or a buttery Napa or Australian Chardonnay aged at least six months in new oak. Notes of citrus and lively acidity? Like they need that shit! Angry people need the kind of big, fat-ass wine that’s going to invite itself over for dinner and matter-of-factly pass out on the couch afterwards; What can do that better than an buttery, oaky white that grabs your nose like a playground bully and then blows up on your palate like fireworks in a cat carrier. There’s some beautiful chaos in full malo that will harmonize with an angry person’s sense of balance and victimhood, making them feel smarter, more relaxed, and ultimately justified. The solutions can come tomorrow; this is wine that pairs perfectly with complaints.

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Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century. Medieval handbook of health. Wine cellar. Source: Wikicommons

3. Bargaining: Fruit-Forward Reds
People whose sadness stems from a lack of leverage in their relationship or occupation, or whose grievances are drawn from attempts to negotiate with non-negotiable entities, like traffic jams or God or dead parents, need a wine that’s going to sit at the table, ante up, and show its hand. Those wines are the fruity, spicy Mediterranean reds of Southern France and Mediterranean coastal Spain, although its sisters among the Rhone-style blends and varietals of Central California will also be forward enough to provide hard answers to people with the wrong questions.

This is the trickiest pairing of all, because while some are mollified by having something firm and tangible, others are soothed by a nuanced, opaque reflection of themselves, and those people get the lighter, lower-alcohol, and subtler Burgundies, American Pinot Noirs, Blauburgunders, and sometimes Brunellos di Montalcino, not that they’ve earned them.

4. Depression: Full-Bodied Reds
Grief formed out of pure regret, fear, and/or wallowing in heartbreak need new blood, and nothing’s going to give them a bigger, badder shot to the heart than a full-bodied Bordeaux. If you’ve ever yelled “Just get over her already!” to some dumb friend of yours, get over yourself and buy that friend a big velvety Pomerol or a chewy California Cab.

Nebbiolos will be preferable if the person who left them was bad for them all along, Petit Syrah if the love was unrequited or fanciful, Pinotage if the union was forbidden, and Rioja if there was violence. If the grieving person’s adultery or mendacity caused the breakup—and their sadness is the “pity the sinner” variety popular among otherwise Christian politicians and pro athletes—those people get big, jammy Zinfandels, and that’s all they get, and they’re going to like it.

5. Acceptance: Dessert Wines
People who are emotionally detached or objective about their personal grief require only two things – Port or late-harvest dessert wines, and someone to punch them in the neck every hour of their lives.

With this handy guide folded up in your pocket, you’ll only look like a lonely hoarder who walks around with pockets full of greasy computer print-outs, like some throwback from the Map-quest era; the joke’s on everyone else this time, because now, you’re armed with the facts.  It’ll be your duty to go forth and share an astonishing new world that is equally delicious and well-adjusted. Spit buckets are for scaredy-cats and space cadets; Go big with your emotionally appropriate wine, and go home self-actualized, at last.