A FEW YEARS AGO, I flew into Houston for a work trip on a breezy October afternoon and cabbed straight to a sales appointment with a distributor colleague at a truly Texas-sized grocery store. No need to mention the store by name, though gourmet-minded residents of the city would know the place, which was high-end and located in a nice neighborhood. The lighting and space were bright and airy, and the shelves were very well-stocked. It reminded me of a saying I once heard: “Dallas has the flash, but Houston has the cash.” Indeed, there was a fossil fuel-enabled vibe of prosperity to this mammoth epicurean outlet. I was, after all, in the energy capital of the world.
Upstairs in a back office, the wine-related dealings came to a swift conclusion. The store’s merciless buyer was like the Astros’ J.R. Richard, circa 1978, shooting BBs past the Dodgers. Naturally, I was the Dodger—a strikeout victim. As I trudged back downstairs with my colleague, we encountered a wide stack of wine at the end of the “Gourmet to Go” aisle, the cases full of what turned out to be an Italian pinot grigio.
In keeping with the U.S. treatment afforded to one of Italy’s cornerstone exports, the boxes had been dumped directly from their pallet onto pinot grigio’s natural terrain in this country: the floor of a supermarket. The signage atop this lowly stack of wine advertised something called “Mommy’s Timeout,” its cost per bottle just a couple dollars more than Two Buck Chuck’s. There was no doubting this fancy store had more than a few cheapskates among its affluent clientele, and I was pretty sure that the pale liquid in the bottles didn’t exactly represent the noblest Italian expression of pinot grigio. But not curious enough to buy one on the spot, and not having come across this wine since, I can’t comment on its flavor (or possible lack thereof). It was really the label that caught my attention.
The illustration on it depicted a café table and a single, unoccupied chair arranged in the corner of a room. This being a timeout, the chair was pointed towards the corner, its shadow cast low against the wall. A bottle of wine and a glass sat on the table. I didn’t miss—or mind—the obvious humor. Here was the spot where Mommy could temporarily escape the stress of being a mommy and remove herself to a wine-themed break from the kids. It was clever visual marketing to a stressed-out demographic. But the image was also morbidly engaging. It reminded me of a Charles Addams cartoon: toss in an ashtray and burning cigarette, and it could have passed for a scene of foul play, or maybe the aftermath of someone’s spontaneous combustion.
• • • • •
Though I appreciate the contents of a good bottle, I’m also a sucker for wine label art and packaging, particularly of Italian wines. They’re what drew me in the early 2000s to the distinctive bottles from Cantina Terlano, a winery in northern Italy. This historic company (which happens to produce excellent pinot grigio) is a 120 year-old cooperative of grape farmers in Alto Adige, the sundrenched province and winegrowing region in the Italian Alps, close to the borders of both Austria and Switzerland. Perhaps at some point the proud Terlano growers took a vote not to pallet-jack their slender, discreetly embossed bottles of pinot grigio into Texas grocery stores, fancy or otherwise. The postage stamp-sized Alpine etching at the top of the label would get lost in a supermarket, anyway. Cantina Terlano’s wines have always been a more unique Italian product, both aesthetically and from a quality standpoint.