Sun 24 Dec 2006
Dear friends, it’s Christmas Eve, and I want to tell you a story.
In the early 1990s, we met Jack Mayer. He was originally from Memphis but had long been away, operating art galleries, first in Paris and then New York. Elderly and ill, he had returned to Memphis, where he now lived alone in a garden apartment filled with books and art; a few relatives lived in the city and took care of his needs. He no longer drove and led essentially a solitary existence.
We visited Jack a few times. He was intelligent, witty, self-deprecating, lonely, a little irascible and largely, as far as we could tell, stoic about his fate, because he knew or suspected that he did not have long to live. Though his doctors had put him on a limited diet and he was forbidden alcohol, Jack clearly appreciated fine food and wine. We decided to have a small dinner party, with Jack, the two of us and two friends who had also gotten to know him.
Because of Jack’s strict regimen, we planned a simple menu: roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes, a salad. For those who could partake of wine, I had a bottle of Leroy Bourgogne 1989 on the table. Our friends picked Jack up and brought him to our second-floor apartment, helping him slowly up the stairs.
As usual, Jack regaled us with tales of the art business in Paris and New York, artists he had know and worked with, meals he had eaten. He was a gifted raconteur. He kept glancing at the bottle of Bourgogne, and finally, about halfway through the meal, he said, “Let me have a sip of that wine. Just an inch or two.” LL and I looked at each other and she nodded and I said, “Of course, Jack, I’m sure that a sip of wine wouldn’t hurt.”
I poured what he had requested, an inch or two of deep ruby wine that glinted in the candlelight. Jack held up the glass and gazed at it for a moment, sniffed deeply of the bouquet as a seasoned imbiber would, and drank the wine in a single, throbbing swallow.
There was a long silence, and then he said, “God in heaven, that’s good. Bless you.”
Jack Mayer died not long after that dinner, to which he brought us, as his hosts, the funny bottle of Armagnac you see pictured here. Does anyone make such an eccentric product as this anymore? Rustic, individual, earthy, old-fashioned, endowed with jollity and savoir-faire and history? I mean, I can see Moliere pouring himself a swig of brandy from just such a bottle in a tavern in Paris.
We have had this Armagnac for 12 or 13 years. I forget about it for stretches of time, it has moved with us to a second apartment and then a house and now another house, and occasionally I will discover it again in the liquor cabinet, usually when I’m looking for something else, as happened recently. The bottle is dusty and holds about an inch of brandy.
LL and I are having Christmas Eve dinner tonight. Beef rib roast and Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts with a bottle of Chateau Leoville-Barton 1996 and, with the cheeses, the Quinto do Vesuvio Porto 1990. Yes, the whole Merry Old England thing.
I think we’ll finish things off by finally emptying this funny old bottle of its last remains of Armagnac, toasting to a man who knew how to live and how to die.
And that’s why we drink wine.