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            By The Way

            This pandemic, I’m drinking through the souvenir wine I’ve collected since I was 14

            The writer's wine and travel journals in her D.C. apartment in March. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)
            Staff writer

            It was the summer I got my braces off. I’d just graduated from the eighth grade, and my family was going on vacation to Europe, our third trip to the continent.

            My journal from 2005 noted, “I’m 23 years old trapped in a 14 year old body help!"

            Natalie's vast collection of travel journals from over the years. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            Most of that frustration came from being a maniacally boy-crazy 14-year-old, but the sentiment rang true for some of my other tastes. For example, at 14, I wanted to start a travel wine collection.

            The source of the inspiration has been lost in the black hole of the past. Each time we traveled, I took a notebook to document the adventure. And yet while my journal from 2005 included minute details like the scores of my soccer games and what I was reading, they failed to include when, where and why, on our family trip to Barcelona, I asked my parents if I could buy a bottle of wine to save until I was of legal drinking age.

            Natalie and her sister, Crystal, in a wine shop in the south of France in 2006. (Courtesy of Natalie Compton)

            Whatever the catalyst, I ended up leaving Spain that year with a cheap bottle of red I hoped would age well.

            The purchase started a new tradition of bringing wine home from vacations as a souvenir. Over the next seven years, my collection grew because I had the incredible privilege of traveling regularly, in large part thanks to my dad’s “Million-Miler” status from his frequent business travel, which earned us “free” flights each summer.

            I memorialized the trips through photographs, cringe-inducing travel journals and bottles of inexpensive wine I schlepped home for inappropriate, indefinite keeping.

            At my childhood home, I took over a shelf in a coat closet near the garage. That closet was sweltering in the Fresno summer heat, and I stored my bottles upright (news to me later: These are sins in the wine-storing world).

            I tagged the bottles with notes like “Natalie’s wine, do not drink!" and “Croatia 2010," then didn’t touch them for a decade.

            Wine with, uh, a little bit of cork in it. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post) (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The plan was to save my souvenirs for a special occasion that warranted their opening. Maybe a wedding anniversary, a milestone birthday — something big enough that was worth popping my travel treasures open. Over the years there was plenty to celebrate, and yet nothing sparked the urge to uncork any of the improperly stored wine.

            Then 2020 happened.

            I don’t have to tell you why 2020 is different from other years. You already know the entire world is mourning some kind of loss. For some, it’s loved ones taken by covid-19. For others, it’s their livelihoods. At the very least, we’ve all lost our usual way of life.

            Life does not look anything like I’d predicted when I bought that first bottle of wine in Barcelona. I’m living alone, recovering from a breakup and hiding from a pandemic.

            As my consumption of alcohol went up (apparently with the rest of the world), and trips to the grocery store became increasingly stressful, I started eyeing the cabinet of my kitchen where my souvenir wine collection is now stored.

            While the wines had been saved for a special occasion, I never said it had to be a happy one. I grabbed an Ikea wine glass and a bottle opener and disentombed the souvenirs. These are the tasting notes and travel memories from six of the bottles, in the order they were purchased.

            Barcelona; 2005

            A bottle of wine purchased in Barcelona, Spain, in 2005. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The wine: 2003 Loxarel Ops; organic, unfiltered; cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Ull de Llebre blend.

            The trip: The summer of 2005, my family went to Spain and the south of France where I juggled my interests of seeing the works of Gaudí and eating gnocchi with buying phone cards to call my boyfriend of three days back at home.

            Besides spotting Magic Johnson’s yacht parked in a Saint Tropez marina and reading “The Catcher in the Rye," this trip was pivotal because it was when I decided to start collecting wine on vacation.

            I had absolutely no idea what to look for in a bottle, just that it needed to be cheap and have a cool label. Fourteen-year-old me took four pages of my travel journal to write a short story about waking up at five in the morning, and yet I couldn’t jot down a single note about the wine I bought.

            The tasting: It’s difficult to focus on the nuanced flavors and aromas of a wine when you are constantly picking cork shards out of your mouth.

            I learned this when the cork of my watershed wine crumbled into pieces in my attempt to open it. As crumbled cork wedged itself between my teeth, I searched “is it dangerous to ingest cork?”

            Search results said no, so the tasting went on according to schedule. If there wasn’t a pandemic making it feel ludicrous to go to the grocery store for something as nonessential as a coffee filter to stop the cork from pouring into my wine glass, this would have gone differently. What I’m saying is I’m now a person who eats cork.

            I can also say the muddy brown liquid was tannic. I can say it was definitely red wine. I can say that it tasted a lot like if you dumped some Tabasco into red wine, and maybe some olive juice, too.

            In short, the wine was not good.

            Santorini, Greece; 2007

            A bottle of wine purchased in Santorini, Greece, in 2007. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The wine: Ageri semi-dry rose white wine; no year given

            The trip: On our family’s trip to Greece, 16-year-old me was heavy into indie music and reading Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment." I started recording “stop reviews” in my journal, writing down the place, noting the main highlights and giving the overall experience a star rating. I gave Santorini five stars. The highlights? Our hotel breakfast and visiting black sand beaches. Lowlights: “The cruise crowd” and “bed bugs?”

            Angsty teen Nat, right, scowls at dinner as wine is poured in Santorini, Greece, in 2007. (Courtesy of Natalie Compton)

            Somewhere between getting a fake tattoo and swimming in the Aegean Sea, I bought a bottle of rosé at a tourist shop, along with a bar of soap, for a total of 10 euros. Solid pick. It had to be a good 13 years later.

            The tasting: Opening it on a pandemic weeknight, the smell was so sweet I could tell it was going to be a syrupy situation. Even the color reminded me of marmalade.

            The label explained that it was named for "the freshness of the Cycladic summer winds and the long Santorini vinification tradition.”

            When I bought this bottle of rosé, I had no idea what “semi-dry” wines were. At 29 years old, the sugar gave me a headache immediately. I’ll drink just about anything, but I couldn’t stomach this. I dumped the contents of my glass and moved on to the next experiment.

            Corsica, France; 2008

            A bottle of wine purchased in Corsica, France, in 2008. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The wine: 2006 Domaine Saparale, Corse Sartène; Nielluccio and Sciaccarello blend

            The trip: In the summer of 2008, I was 17 years old and had been working as both a sign holder for a sandwich shop and a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool. In July, we landed in Corsica, France, for our beach vacation close to midnight and learned that our luggage had been lost along the way.

            Rocky start aside, I fell in love with Corsica for the sun, the beaches, the mountains, the cliffs and, now that my parents were letting me drink a glass or two with them on vacation, the wine.

            It was on the French island that my wine collecting took a more serious turn. I started keeping track of all the “zesty” Vermentino, “earthy” Nielluccio and “sweet” muscats that we tried during our trip. I learned French phrases such as “wine for keeping" so I could ask the wine shop owners how to choose a bottle that would be good in the future.

            Somewhere during our trip, I bought a 7.15 euro bottle of 2006 Domaine Saparale for my collection, and another to drink on our last night of the trip. We didn’t finish the latter, so I tried to see if I could stash it in my carry-on bag.

            I wept at the airport when we were heading home to California. Partly because the airport security agents made me throw out the opened wine bottle and partly because I felt Corsica changed my life.

            “This is the day to shape the days upon," I wrote in my travel journal. I wanted to stop being my old self and start being whoever I’d “become” while traveling that year.

            Over the next decade, I would have many similar moments, feeling myself click into place while on a trip. Travel unearthed clues about who I was supposed to be.

            The tasting: At 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night nearly 12 years later, I fired up Zoom and called my parents 2,700 miles away. It felt poetic to open a wine from my favorite family vacation destination with them present (virtually, at least).

            I broke the cork in half as I wrestled it from the bottle. My parents yelled cheers through their home computer as I took the first sip of brick-colored wine.

            “That’s not bad wine!” I yelled to my parents. “Wow! That’s so nice!”

            It was something I’d be happy to drink at a restaurant. The wine had notes of red berries and tobacco, flavors you might predict a wine to have.

            The bar had been set so, so low. This win meant a lot.

            Provence, France; 2009

            A bottle of wine purchased in Provence, France, in 2009. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The wine: 2007 Domaine Berthet-Rayne, Chateauneuf-du-Pape; organic; red Rhone blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Syrah.

            The trip: Eighteen years old and gearing up for college, I was a typical teenage nightmare the summer of 2009. For example, I had ditched a doctor’s appointment during class my senior year of high school and secretly got a tattoo. In cursive French, the permanent token of my youthful angst says, “Life is hard.”

            That summer, my family, my French tattoo and I went to Mallorca, Spain, and Provence, France. We saw the Tour de France pass through Arles, kayaked in Saint-étienne-du-Grès and got into a heated family feud in Deià.

            For once, I decided to mention my wine purchase in my travel journal.

            “I am SO excited for today’s activity,” I wrote in the margins of the notebook. “We’re going to Avignon then...Chateauneuf-du-Pape!!”

            Natalie writing in a travel journal in Provence, France, in 2009. (Courtesy of Natalie Compton)

            The only reason I knew about the wine region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape was because my sister’s boyfriend at the time told us about it before the trip. Because I idolized him, I took that information as gospel.

            We visited a wine shop in Avignon where I bought a couple of bottles for my collection. I wrote in my journal after: “the wine tasting isn’t as great as I put it up to be. Oh well.”

            The tasting: I was shocked by the spicy, meaty flavor of the wine immediately. I kept saying the word “meaty” over and over in my head. I also said “whoa” out loud, partly because of the alarmingly meaty notes of the wine but also because I’ve been socially distancing alone a long time and have gotten in the habit of talking to myself.

            The wine was funky and beefy. It was steaky, meaty wine. There were maybe some peppercorn flavors in there. I questioned my sanity.

            After keeping it open a few days (I don’t have a wine stopper, and the cork all but broke), the wine turned thicker, sweeter and more port-like. Not great.

            Hvar, Croatia; 2010

            A bottle of wine purchased by the writer in Hvar, Croatia, in 2010. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The wine: Plavac; “quality table red wine"; no given year

            The trip: Our Europe trip when I was 20 years old included five days in Paris and a week in Croatia. In France, we packed in museum visits and drank “LOTS OF NICE WINE,” according to my notes. In Croatia, we had french fries and beer for lunch in between beach visits and exploring small towns.

            We visited the Plitvice Lakes, Croatia’s world-famous natural wonder that was empty in every photo I’d seen on Google. The reality was much different. I felt duped as we shuffled down the park’s trail in a conga line of other tourists.

            On the Croatian island of Hvar, I picked up a rustic bottle of table wine with no date or mention of its grape contents.

            The tasting: The wine was as crystal clear as fruit juice from concentrate and smelled like the bottom of a wet wine cask. Taking a big whiff was like dunking my head into a just-retrieved long-lost barrel at sea. It was musty and vaguely fruity.

            The wine tasted wet. I realize wet isn’t a flavor, but I couldn’t help thinking it was wetter than other wines. Was I losing my mind? Was that the isolation talking?

            Mental health considerations aside, I got notes of dripping wet red Jolly Rancher, plus some lemon juice.

            Rhodes, Greece; 2011

            A bottle of wine purchased in Rhodes, Greece, in 2011. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            The wine: 2006 Villaré; 100 percent Amoryano/Mantilari

            The trip: In the summer of 2011, I was 20 years old and really going through it. A journal entry on day 10 of our trip to Halki, Greece, opened with “I’M A MONSTER.” I had both ringworm and sun poisoning. Covered in a speckled rash, I still found inspiration to wax poetic about the idyllic ocean views from our apartment rental.

            On day 11, we went to Rhodes, an island we visited in 2003 that I’d considered my favorite place in the world for years. The place made such an impression on me that I made Rhodes a part of every digital password for the better part of a decade.

            The tasting: The first word that came to mind when I tasted this wine was lime. You know, a typical red wine flavor. It was so tart, so spunky, a little peppery. It also reminded me of a cherry-flavored throat lozenge.

            I kept the wine open for days to come, and the limey-ness died down. The wine transformed into something good and tasty. With some air, the wine became my second favorite of the lot.

            Final tasting notes

            When I decided to start drinking my souvenir wines during the pandemic, I thought I’d open all 12. It’d be a bacchanal of good and bad wine to pass the time.

            The inspiration came from needing wine to drink, but the real joy was reliving priceless travel memories.

            A cautionary note. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

            I wept reading my mom’s entry in my 2009 travel journal when she wrote down thoughtful life advice on our flight to Paris. I laughed out loud or cringed seeing what moments a younger version of myself considered worth writing down.

            All of these family trips, and the ones I’d take alone as an adult, molded me into who I’m stuck with during the pandemic, the person I’ll be for the rest of my life.

            As I went to open the seventh bottle, a pang in my heart gave me pause. The naive, hopeful, deranged teenager who started this collection stopped me from burning through them all too fast.

            Natalie arranging material for her travel journal in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France, in 2009. (Courtesy of Natalie Compton)

            Right now it’s hard to imagine when the pandemic will truly end and we can all go back to doing the things we love. I have to remind myself that the “new normal” of drinking wine at home alone, talking to myself aloud, seeing my family solely through a screen, is temporary.

            When that day comes that we can share wine together again, I may want to pour my friends a glass of the 2002 Domaine de Terrebrune I bought in 2006 on our family trip to the south of France. I’ve waited 14 years to drink it; I can wait a little longer.

            Read more:

            How to think about planning travel this summer — and if you even can in the pandemic

            Traveling in spirit: How to-go drinks and cocktail kits are letting us escape

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