Mon 17 Apr 2017
We drink wine for many reasons, for pure enjoyment with a meal or perhaps for the prestige that a great, long-lived bottle brings; for raging thirst and desire or for the conviviality of friendship. Here’s a brief tale about one of those motivations.
In the early 1990s, we made the acquaintance of Jack M., an elderly man, a native Memphian, who had returned to the city after closing his gallery in New York. Before his sojourn in Manhattan, he had operated a gallery in Paris for several decades. He abandoned New York primarily because of a crippling ailment that gradually deprived him of the power of movement. Not of thought or expression, though, not a bit of that. Jack was sharp, witty, a little irascible but always courtly and considerate, widely-read and knowledgeable about all the aspects of life worth knowing about, but primarily art, literature and music, food and wine. His garden apartment in Memphis was filled with drawings, prints and paintings and books, many of these objects inscribed by grateful artists and writers to their benefactor. We visited Jack as often as possible; though a few relatives attended to his needs, he was lonely in his city of origin, a sad fate for such a gifted raconteur with a talent for friendship. Just in the time we knew him, he had to give up his car, yet he never complained about the pain his affliction brought him, only the inconvenience.
Much as he loved food and wine, Jack’s doctors forbade him any indulgence in the latter of those essential quantities, a ban that gave him a great deal of frustration. When we invited him to our apartment for dinner, an occasion that required the working out of all manner of logistics, I pondered the wine issue deeply. Would it be an act of mercy or arrogance to disobey his doctors’ orders and give Jack a glass of wine? And how would he feel if the rest of us had wine and he didn’t? And would it seem strange to have no wine on the table at all, a gesture that would make no sense to this Francophile?
The dinner was simple: A roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes and a salad. At a private wine tasting I had been to recently, a collector had given me a bottle of Madame Leroy’s Bourgogne Rouge 1989, the basic, classic entry-level wine from the most meticulous and expensive of Burgundy houses. At four years old, it would be drinking perfectly. That night, our friends drove to Jack’s place, brought him to our building and helped him up the stairs to our second-floor apartment. Setting the table for five, I positioned a wine glass at each place, but at dinner time poured only four glasses.
Jack regaled us with stories about his time in Paris and New York, anecdotes, a few scandalous, about artists and writers he knew, and tales about his life and travels. He kept an eye on that bottle of wine, though, and finally he said, “How about pouring me a little of that wine? Just an inch.” I looked at my wife and she nodded, so I said, “Sure, Jack, an inch of wine can’t hurt.”
On the candle-lit table in our darkened dining room, the wine glowed deep cherry-red, like a glass of wine in a Dutch still-life painting. Jack lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed the pinot noir aromas and then drank the wine down in one long supple swallow. He sat still for a moment, holding the glass, and then said, “God in heaven, that was good. Bless you.”
Jack died a few weeks after that dinner party, to which he brought a present of Armagnac in a funny old bottle that leaned over at the top, as if the bottle itself were joyfully inebriated. We held on to that Armagnac for years, sipping a glass late at night occasionally, until only an inch or even less pooled at the bottom. On Christmas Eve 2006, I poured the last of Jack’s Armagnac, and we toasted to the generosity and kindness of a man who knew how to live and how to die.
And that’s a great reason for drinking wine.
This little piece is dedicated to Meg Houston Maker, whose lovely and insightful writing about food and wine and whose talent for storytelling continue to inspire me.