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Raising a glass to wine & friendship

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Raising a glass to wine & friendship

Wine's association with food is part of what makes it social
Five gay men sit on a balcony overlooking the canal. It's summer, but an evening breeze is winding its way through the railing's wooden slats and around our legs.

The conversation is also winding: it shifts from Kenya to Newfoundland, from publicly funded Catholic schools to marriage to monogamy.

I'm a last-minute addition to the dinner party and at 24, the youngest guest. The cook good naturedly spreads dinner for four over five plates. We uncork the bottles of wine the guests have brought, one by one, sharing among friends old and new.

I'm 15, sitting in a dewy park in the pitch black. My best friends perch beside me on a bench. One of them has procured — from an older sister, I think — a bottle of the cheapest red wine. It's her birthday.

Water in the air condenses into mist and we begin to share stories.  Not for the first time, we try to put some mileage between our childhood and our adolescence. In all our naiveté, we feel grown up. We laugh and chat and worry about the future.

The wine is practically black, and it disappears quickly. When we notice how cold we are, we head to a big box bookstore behind the park. We are a motley crew, decked out in our finest thrift store attire: corduroy and polyester, silk scarves and scratchy wool cardigans. The fluorescent lights are off-putting, unfriendly, but the bookstore is warm, at least.

We pull from the shelves a pile of books and magazines, which we will admire but not purchase. We find two overstuffed chairs and settle in.

Usually a bit skittish about physical contact, Rachel loses that inhibition. She curls up on my lap, but gradually her uncoordinated frame inches toward my knees. Soon, she slides off my legs altogether and settles in a heap on the floor. She laughs.

Liam Doody works for Diamond Estates Wines, the company behind brands like 20 Bees, Birchwood and Dan Ackroyd's. He says that — aside from the alcohol content — the reason that wine is closely associated with friendship is that it's so bound up with food.

"Sharing food or meals is an important part of any relationship," he says. "And wine can be a part of that, more so than spirits."

Wine is, after all, a communal beverage. It is customary to give wine as a gift, far more than beer. And unlike beer, which is produced in single-serving bottles, wine is usually corked in quantities that make it ideal for sharing.

In Ontario, wine sales are up since September, although the composition of sales is changing with the recession. For one thing, people are downscaling, choosing less expensive brands and scrimping on the vintages. Also, says Doody, as retail sales climb, restaurant sales decline.

And while red wine sales may be up — the drink of hunkering down — champagne sales are shrinking as people have fewer things to celebrate.

I'm 20 and my most prized possession is a kitchen table that is the size of an exterior door.

There are two white vinyl chairs from an estate sale and two metal chairs lifted from the school's cafeteria. If more guests arrive, we wheel out an office chair from the bedroom or commandeer a wobbly stool from the living room.

I'm in university, living in a two-bedroom apartment. Eventually, a total of four roommates will blow through the second bedroom.

That kitchen table becomes a regular haunt for a rotating cast of women and gay men. Sometimes we have enough wine glasses, sometimes we all drink out of coffee mugs. Sometimes I make dinner, more often than not we order pizza.

When I get burned by a bad break-up, my friends begin to assemble in my dining room. There's food and wine and friendly faces. In my grief, I pose a question to my friends: after your first, second and third relationships end, how can you optimistically begin another? I mean, if you followed the empirical evidence, wouldn't you give up?

Everyone is gentle with me. The wine does its work. Later, we agree that a relationship doesn't have to last forever to be worthwhile. On balance, the joys of love and lust are worth the heartache.

And, anyway, as lovers come and go, we'd always have that table with its wine and friendships to return to.

Back at Diamond Estates Wines, Doody points out that wine is social simply because it is a better topic of conversation.

"It's intrinsically more interesting than pop or apple juice," he says. "There are all kinds of historical, cultural and geographical elements that you don't find in most beer or spirits."

Perhaps, although with my friends, the wine is rarely the topic of conversation. More commonly, it's the complement.

Doody points that there are tens of thousands of brands of wine globally — and each brand makes a slightly different product each year. That makes wine a world as complex as you want to make it.

"It's like your favourite piece of classical music. The [score] is the same, but no orchestra plays it the same way twice."

As with wine, so with friendship.

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