The Beauty of Boxed Wine and Other Life Lessons

In the absence of anything else to be snooty about, I picked wine.

After graduating from college in San Diego, I moved north to Berkeley, California. Sure, I wanted a new adventure; but really it was to follow a boy, my first ‘real’ boyfriend. He was both an atheist and a bartender; I thought he was cool. So, I moved to Berkeley, lived with some roommates in a gorgeous old home, and looked for a job. But I didn’t look for a ‘real’ job. I wanted to write my important novel. Money, I figured, was only needed to feed, clothe, and house myself. I had waited tables in college, thus a job in a restaurant seemed the perfect choice. After some false starts, I found a pretty good one at a fancy place on the bay. That was where my snootiness began.

From the land of snoot

I’m from Orange County, California. Snootiness, you may think, comes with the zip code. In some ways, you’d be right. I did know someone with an elevator in her house, a tennis court, workout room, a huge pool, and an absurd amount of candy on hand for any occasion. But, as my parents often reminded my sister and I, money does not grow on trees. There’s no doubt I lived in a privileged world, with lots of advantages. However, we drove old cars, pinched pennies, clipped coupons, bought as much as we could on-sale or at Costco, and eschewed fancy things. My parents didn’t drink a lot of alcohol. but when they did, my mom drank a glass of Franzia’s finest white zinfandel, and my dad sipped a cold Coors Light.

They were not cool. Not to 22-year-old  me anyway. I had a grown-up boyfriend, was living on my own, had a job, and was following my writing dream. Never mind that their fiscal responsibility and careful saving had meant I didn’t have any college debt to pay off. Never mind that they’d launched me–ungrateful me–into the world with as much generosity as any two people could possibly manage. I wasn’t mad at them. I wasn’t rebelling. The truth is, I wasn’t much of anything. The only thing I knew how to do at that moment in time was define myself by what I wasn’t. I wasn’t, for example, someone who would drink white zinfandel from a box.

Waiting and winning

The restaurant I worked at had white linen tablecloths and an excellent sunset view over the water. To motivate the servers to sell particular menu items, the management would often run contests. The prizes were trips to bed and breakfasts, expensive bottles of wine, or gift certificates to here or there. I won many of them. For whatever reason, I’m good at selling things. I have a knack for sounding like I know what I’m talking about. So when I recommended the halibut cheeks as the best thing on the menu, people believed me. They were happy. I was happy. And I took home a few really good bottles of wine.

But, here’s the problem with that. I don’t know if the wine was good or not. I just knew it was expensive. People who did know what they were talking about thought the wine was great. They were willing to pay big bucks for it. So, it must be good, right?

Wine-ing

I remember a cold night, when my boyfriend and I set wood ablaze in the fireplace of the gorgeous old house, made soup, and opened a bottle of Opus One. I can’t describe to you what a $200 bottle of wine actually tastes like. But I can tell you I couldn’t get the cork out. Me, a waitress, failed to cleanly extract the cork. We had to push it into the bottle in order to drink it. (Wine connoisseurs are probably crying right now.) That is not how one should treat a good bottle of wine–a once-in-a-lifetime bottle of wine–but that’s what happened.

I knew a little, a very little, about wine. Enough to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I could tell you about varietals and what went better with fish or steak. But, beyond that, I had no expertise. But, I thought I did. I wanted to. I wanted to know something–anything. Mixed up, launched into the world, but filled with self-doubt, I needed to feel powerful in some way.

Snoot and a nincompoop

Sometime during these years, I visited my parent’s house. I must have made a face when my mom poured a glass of white zinfandel from the handy box. I probably said something like, “Pink wine . . . Really? From a box?” Convinced of my own superiority in this matter, I declined a glass. “No, thanks. I’ll have water,” I might have said. Meanwhile, I went to call the boyfriend from the bedroom just to make sure he knew how unhappy I was to be away from him.

With 20 years distance from this moment, I shake my head. What an idiot I was. What a conceited, ridiculous, ungrateful, nincompoop! Who was that girl? Who did she think she was looking down at her parents for any reason whatsoever? The truth is, I have no excuse–only youth, and insecurity, and broken visions of a shining adulthood swathed in success. I had no success to speak of. I’d achieved an internship with a magazine, and had some work published. I’d finished a (bad) novel. The boyfriend, I discovered soon after, though still a bartender and still an atheist, wasn’t cool. When I’d had enough of figuring out who I was not, I left Berkeley and moved to San Diego to live with my grandmother.

But, it would take many years for the weight of the gratitude I owe my parents to sink into my thick skull. Twenty years later, as my mom sipped red wine, poured from the box I have in my own kitchen, I can’t help but be reminded of the jerk I was. Maybe it’s because every time my mom and I have a glass of wine together she says some version of, “You were such a snob about wine! No boxed wine for you back then.”

I try and explain, that was then; I was dumb. Clearly, I shouldn’t have said those things, shouldn’t have thought those things. But the truth is, wine was all I had. It was the only thing I knew that they didn’t, or so it seemed. Knowing a little bit about wine was the little bit of something I could cling to. It was a differentiator, a sign that I was my own person. As is so often the case, I didn’t know that until much later. Maybe it’s too late to make up for being a snot when I should have been grateful.

But, here I am today. Writer. Mother. Homeowner. Runner. Friend. Wife. Thought leader. Gratitude-practitioner. Box-wine-drinker. Reformed nincompoop. That’s me.

Your turn: Have you come to realize your conceits were just insecurities? What was that like?

This story also appears in The Ascent Publication on Medium. Follow me on Medium for new and refreshed essays.

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

8 thoughts on “The Beauty of Boxed Wine and Other Life Lessons”

  1. Now, you’d think hailing from the U.K. I’d have no right to be a wine snob. Nevertheless, I certainly am. I am (proudly) European after all and we do like our wine. I remember being very snobbish about the wine my parents drank. Whilst not from a box, they insisted on drinking German. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s horrible. I feel quite guilty though as I’ve mocked them for it so much over the years, they no longer buy it. Yet when I was a student we drank bottles of a Spanish white wine that was called Selecta and cost about £2 for a large bottle. So I really shouldn’t have had the audacity to mock my parents for their wine choice. FYI Californian wine is very popular over here. I’d love to visit a Californian winery one day. And I’d love to share a box (yes that’s right- a box) of wine with you one day too xx

    1. Ha! Wonderful. So glad I’m not alone in my ridiculous snobbery. Every time I have one of these insights into my own stupidity I have to both laugh and cringe.
      I’ve not had German wine–I don’t think? Sadly nowadays I buy things with pretty labels or the easy to use box variety.
      Though I do have a few favorites–some of which are Californian. It’s absolutely gorgeous out there if you ever get the chance to visit. The Chandon winery is one of my favorites (or it was 20 years ago in the heyday of my snobbery).
      I would LOVE to share a glass of anything with you. Someday. . .

  2. I still don’t get wine, but I do have a line I like to get from Up North in Wisconsin: Three Lakes wine. Their elderberry is AMAZING. 🙂
    But I do think we all have these moments of “I know better” when we really don’t. Parenting’s got a share of that. Technology makes that feeling come more easily. “Yooou didn’t have this back in yooooour day.”
    But I can’t really pinpoint a specific time–I think because there are things I’ve always freely confessed to NOT knowing more about–like sewing, which Mom could do, or home improvement stuff, which Dad was pretty good about. There’s never really been that moment of moving *ahead*, if that makes sense?

    1. Hi Jean,
      I like elderberry wine too! Something about elderberry makes me think of your story and the Princeborn. Seems like something they could find or enjoy in the forest (provided all those yucky creatures aren’t around to mess up the party.)
      It’s pretty great that you realized all the things you don’t know and can still learn. I love that quote from Kinky Friedman about how there’s plenty of time to be humble when we cocky folk have been proved horrendously wrong! So much better to start with all the things we don’t yet know.

  3. Oh, your last line – I love it! I wonder if everyone goes through a time of wine snobbery. J and I actually joined a wine club for about a year before we found that we didn’t care for most of their wines. Now we just enjoy trying wines on a budget – many of them are absolutely delicious. No snobbery needed. ☺️

    1. Nothing at all wrong with a wine on a budget! I know those wine clubs seem like a good idea. One keeps popping up in my facebook feed promising low alcohol and no hangover! Tempting. . . But it seems like such a pain to have to be here when they deliver it. So, I think I’ll stick with my box (or a mocktail!)
      Miss you!

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