Corked: A Memoir
by Kathryn Borel
Grand Central Publishing, February 16, 2010
Review by Melissa Queen
Just this past summer, I was moving from the wine country of the Columbia Valley in Washington to the moonshine territory of southeastern Ohio. My father, insisting a young woman shouldn’t drive across the country alone (never mind I’d backpacked through India for five months independently) would ride along with me. My father is sternly and uncomfortably quiet; I am exhaustingly chatty. This is a cause and effect relationship. Thank goodness for MP3 players, audiobooks, and warm-hearted waitresses in truck-stop diners. These things, more so than AAA coverage and spare tires, are the parts of a crucial road-trip survival kit.
In her memoir Corked, Borel introduces us to her charming French father Phillippe, a wine aficionado, and to the fabulous time they have traveling together tasting wines in France. “Problems are for those who lack champagne,” she writes.
Given the long stretches of grass plains, corn fields, and tedious silences I endured on my road trip with my father in the passenger seat, I was wary as I began Borel’s memoir of the overt displays of paternal affection and French nicknames. But within the first ten pages my suspicions that the champagne was about to run dry were confirmed. The choreography of the endearing father-daughter dance quickly falls apart, and we see the strained relationship both Borel and her father have tried for years to mask with wit and charm.
As a novice wine taster, Borel wants to build a shared language with her father, to learn to taste what her father tastes in wine:
I wanted my father to ask me the same questions so that I could think harder and try harder and give him truthful responses. I wished I could tell him that I was afraid to drive and that I hadn’t tasted any minerals in that Riesling. And that I was afraid of no higher common language emerging from our special trip.
We follow the thread Borel weaves between the narrative of the tasting trip and the memories of her past. In the wake of her father’s silences, she carries the heavy burden of driving not only the car, but also the one-sided conversations inside it, at the hotels, and over dinner and wine. In these long stretches of his silence, her mind wanders just far enough away from the wine trip into her memories of trauma and troubled relationships. On the page, some of these transitions are more rough than others, but given a bit of time and patience, Borel joins the fragments together with careful seams. She moves between past and present, the way dinner conversation often does, especially when enabled by several glasses of wine. As her readers, we are invited and welcomed to share the table with Borel and her father, like fellow-traveling strangers with whom she can make small talk to save herself from the lonely silences of long trips.
When it comes to her relationships with men, Borel, is both cursed and blessed with a great dad who she expects no other guy to be able to live up to. The great dad who teaches her to savor wines is always in the background of each of her relationships, always in the next room during her late night drunk phone calls home to her indecisive-about-being-an-ex ex-boyfriend. For Borel, her journey to developing a palate is more about earning the understanding and the approval of her loving but complicated father while reconciling her own complicated emotions. She approaches the experience of wine tasting with a humility that reminds all wine lovers, amateurs and aficionados alike, that we must first learn to taste and experience good wine on our palettes before we can learn to speak the language that describes it.
Along the long drive from Washington to Ohio, my father and I stopped for a night in Malta, a small town in Montana along Highway 2. Malta didn’t have any bars, but they did have a VFW across the street from our motel. My father didn’t serve in the military, but he figured no one in this town besides me knew this, so it would be perfectly fine to go in and have a drink. As he sat down at the bar, the bartender turned to him and asked, “Are you from around here?”
“You know the answer to that,” my father replied, with a chuckle. The bartender laughed too, then asked him what he’d be having. Strangers will come to sit at a bar, to taste wine at a vineyard, and have no difficulty striking up conversation. Strangers can accept and appreciate the mystery in other strangers. Unless of course those strangers are not only strangers to one another, but also fathers to their daughters and daughters to their fathers.