Essence of lantana

My parents drank film noir cocktails – martinis (always gin, never vodka), sazeracs, B&B, scotch. When we were over the Bay, there would be the occasional cold beer. Wine, however, only appeared on holidays, and champagne was reserved for wedding receptions, and then, only those not held in the church hall.

When I moved to the city, I slowly became aware of wine and wine culture and that there was way yonder more to it than a stolen sip of Tickle Pink from an older friend. The regions, the grapes, the acidity, the soil! Who knew? I have to say that I am flat fascinated.

I am most enthralled by the jargon. I have the good fortune to be dear friends with the manager of The Wine Cellar in Vestavia Hills, and if I perchance to drop by there in the afternoons, sometimes I get to take part in a “tasting.” I get to hear people in the know discuss the intricacies of every little swallow in the most beautiful terms imaginable. They swirl, sip, and spit then spill forth with such descriptors as “I get notes of saddle leather and orange essence” and “it is extremely fruit-forward, but the acidity makes me yearn for prosciutto and Roquefort.” “Oaky” seems to be bad. “Grassy” seems to be good.

I mostly try to be quiet, learn something, and not embarrass myself. I also smell and smell and smell and try to smell something other than…well…wine. Why can’t I get a hint of blueberry and the worn pages of a Hemingway novel read by the sea on a stormy day?

Yesterday, though, was revelatory!

I was again at The Wine Cellar trying to be quiet and not show my abject ignorance in a public venue. Again I was listening and marveling. Again I was smelling and swirling and smelling again.

Then it hit me like a brick to the head. Something familiar! An essence, a note, a hint of something humble, homey, and native. What is it? I can’t quite suss it out! They may move on to the next bottle before I get to sound as if I too am in the know! It is…it is…it is…


Before I could stop myself, I had blurted out “LANTANA” to the group of connoisseurs, who were now silent, staring at me with quizzical expressions.

Do I get something Provencal like lavender? Something sophisticated like kid leather or rose water? No. I get lantana. The invasive, poisonous, leggy plant characteristic of every hard-scrabble, dirt patch where little else can eek out even the most meager life.

It is a plant, however, that was always featured in Granny’s summer garden. As a little girl, I made bouquets with it for my playhouse, breathing in its unique aroma. I thought it’s clusters of multi-colored blooms beautiful and decorated my hair with its flowers.

Fortunately, the vintners did move quickly on to the next bottle, continuing their lofty discussions over the spit bucket. But I could not move on from the aroma of that particular glass. It smelled like summer to me.

Lantana may not be very high-brow, but upon reflection and recovery from my embarrassment, I think it was an appropriate, albeit unconventional descriptor. After all, lantana appears to be sweet and delicate, but in reality it is strong, stalwart, and constant. Just like the wine. Just like Granny.

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