"I got a job!" my 23-year-old burlesque dancer friend Alaric said as we slipped over to a table at InnerFog wine bar. "A real job! With benefits! A grown-up job!"
The place was packed with people in a way that a wine bar shouldn't be.
"Congratulations," I said. "You're moving up in the world."
I scowled at her. "I don't think you're allowed to say 'totes' after someone tells you you're moving up in the world."
She scowled back. "I'm a millennial. I have rights."
A waitress slid through the crowd. "Are you ready to order?"
The menus are four-page paper squares with wines available by the half-glass, glass, and bottle. Alaric stared down. Confronted with so many options, her eyes scanned the paper without any information coming back. She looked over at me, gave me the you know something about wine look.
Time to play the grown-up. "We'll each take a glass of the Brutocao. The Sangio/Primitivo blend."
The waitress nodded. "Good choice," and stepped away around the crowd. My young friend smiled. I'd served my function well.
But here's the trick: I know as much about wines as a Mark Twain impersonator knows about history. Just enough to be convincing. I know how actual wine connoisseurs talk, how they act, and I've been faking it my whole life. And — this is the important part — I know that they're faking it too.
The explosion of good wines has made it impossible even for the professionals to keep track. We live in an era of such splendid abundance that following great California vineyards alone is a full-time job. And then there's Chilean pais and South African pinotage ... Ukrainian sparkling whites and Cavernet Sauvignon from the Golan Heights ...
Wine bars like the InnerFog are based on the premise that someone at the end of the line actually knows enough to know what they're doing. Which just isn't true. Not in the way we want it to be.
InnerFog's solution is to heavily qualify their menu. Instead of sorting wines by region, grape, or vineyard, it sorts them by generic flavor. Reds come in "soft," rounded," and "powerful," while whites are "sparkling," "bright," "aromatic," and "rich." The wine list is actually less extensive than it looks. Their beer list is almost as long, which ought to cost a wine bar some kind of fine. But effectively they're giving you a cheat sheet, and it works: The illusion of choice means you're more likely to end up with a wine you like, whether or not you know where it comes from and what the grape is. Provided you stay within a flavor category you like, it's hard to go wrong.
"I've been listening to classical music again," Alaric said. "Because every other kind of music I listen to I now associate with someone else. So when I listen to it, I think of them, and I feel like who I was when I was with them. It's only when I listen to classical music that I'm just listening to music, and I'm myself. Does that make sense?"
"Oh yeah. Especially when you live hard. The people we bump into leave impressions on our lives. Dents on our senses. Hey, question."
I looked around. "Is it ... all ... women in here?"
She checked out the room. "Oh my god, you're right."
The waitress brought our wine, which was excellent. Even knowing that the sommelier at InnerFog is faking it, just on a much higher level than me, they do a nice job with the selection. Price and taste meet about where they should.
"Question," I asked the waitress. "This crowd ... it's virtually all women. What's that about?"
"It usually is," she said. "I think that's because this doesn't feel like a 'bar' at all, you know?" She waited for me to nod. "There's no music, no 'scene,' it's more like a living room vibe, they can just come and kick back and talk and drink wine, and that's it. No pressure."
"Yeah, I can see that," Alaric said. "I think I'll come back."
"You'll fit right in." The waitress smiled and walked away.
"Actually," Alaric said, "this would make a really great date bar if it were just a little less crowded."
I considered. "More chill than romantic, but it would work on an off night."
"You shouldn't say that to me."
"Because you just got a real job. You should be paying attention to how well I fake adulthood."
She was caught, suddenly, between a bar telling her to kick back and a friend telling her the secret of life is to get good at pretending to be an adult.
We all must face this choice some day. She was still thinking about it when we left.