To take a big sip of corked wine at the end of a long day is among life's most bitter disappointments.
A sharp, mysterious liquid coats the tongue. You wince, hoping that you are mistaken. You stick your nose deep into the glass. You flinch. And, as the unmistakable scent of wet dog and moldy earth fills your nostrils, you know this bottle is a total loss; nothing you do will fix it. Once the tiny organisms that eat away at the cork begin their work, any wine that meets the cork is doomed to taste like a mangy mutt.
If my year had been a wine, it would have been a corked bottle. I had hopes for 2011. They weren't grand hopes, pretty modest, actually. Like Cupcake pinot noir-type hopes. The kind of hopes you pick up on a weeknight at the grocery store for $10.49. The kinds of hopes you can get on sale.
But whether your hopes come from the marked-down bin at the Harris Teeter or beckon from the top-dollar shelf of the collectors' aisle, when they go bad, there's nothing that will save them.
Fate was unkind to a great many people this year, including me and mine. Since January, I've wrecked a car, seen a tornado rip through my backyard, spent two days with my 4-year-old in the hospital while he fought pneumonia, attended the funeral of a friend who died in Libya, rushed my 4-year-old to the ER after he broke his arm, came home to find the upstairs bathroom flooding the foyer and I lost a full-time job.
A bad bottle of wine, you can pour down the sink. It's a bummer, especially if you spent the last $12 you had until payday and there's nothing else to drink in the house. A bad year you cannot dispose of so easily. You gotta slog through to the finish. Right about now, I'm rejoicing at the sight of the end.
One reason corked wine is so bitter is that you can imagine the lost possibilities. Somebody had hope when they tended those Central California Coast vines, crushed those grapes and blended that enormous batch. While they were nameless, faceless growers and vintners, all working for The Man in service of expanding Cupcake's empire, nonetheless they'd probably hate to hear that their handiwork wound up swirling down the kitchen drain.
But the real reason corked wine is the worst way to end any kind of day is this: You feel like it's happening to you—and you alone. Everybody else who fell for that cheerful Cupcake label, as cute as a bistro menu all done up in sunshine yellow and café-curtain blue, got their $10.49's worth. Why not me?
It's a statistical probability that some wine will go bad. Corks fail. Oxygen infiltrates. Things go wrong. What I keep trying to remind myself is that it's not all about me. It's just wine—or life—and sometimes bitter is the dominant note.
So as I cross my fingers in hopes of a better 2012, I am warmed through by memories of all the blessings this year brought. Of the friends who came with chainsaws to undo tornado wreckage in our yard. Of the friends who kept us in their thoughts and prayers while Sammy beat back pneumonia. Of the friends who gathered to say a last goodbye to talented comrade who died too young. And of a patient husband whose hair turned a little grayer as the months ticked by.
I know that 2011 didn't happen to me alone. It was much worse for many people. So, let's raise our glasses of bargain bubbly in a toast. Here's to hope and good cheer in 2012.