"Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."--Tom Lehrer
Friday, September 11, 2009
Six Degrees of Devastation
Every so often you get the perfect customer in your wine shop. One who takes all of your sage advice, a bit of your parsley advice as well, who is deeply interested in learning about wine, who doesn't seem to care about price, and who is charming company for the entire time you work with him. These kinds of customers are rarer than original thought in a wine blog, but I have a vivid memory of one such customer from my days at Mission Wines.
My partner and I started Mission Wines in South Pasadena in 1993. Like most of the dreamers who start their own wine shops, we actually believed we could not only sell the finest wines but educate people to the joys of great wines at the same time. People would flock to us, drink from the trickle of knowledge we offered, and leave satisfied and refreshed, eager to return. We would be overrun with business, cases of the finest Rhones flying out the door like monkeys in the Land of Oz, tastings more heavily attended than Whitney Huston in rehab, the cash registers singing like the voices in Rush Limbaugh's head. It was a lovely pipe dream. The reality, not so much.
Wine shops are interesting places. You get to meet many of the world's best winemakers and taste an enormous amount of great wine. But you also put a lot of stuff in your mouth you would be hard-pressed to identify as wine. And it all got 89 points from somebody. Or a Gold Medal from the Leavenworth Wine Competition and Parole Hearing. But it's the customers who continually amaze and frustrate and frighten you. In the four years I was at Mission Wines I don't really believe I taught a single soul a single thing about wine. No more than the sales woman at Nordstrom ever taught me a thing about womens shoes, like what wine to drink from them (depends on who had been wearing them last). I wrote endless newsletters, offended nearly everyone who read them (you can only imagine), sold boatloads of wine, but never taught anyone anything. No one cared. I always forget, though the wine shop experience continued to remind me, that wine's primary function is inebriation. Classy inebriation. Go to Happy Hour at your local bar and you're a drunk, go to an afternoon wine tasting at your local wine shop and you're a connoisseur. Drunks are filled with self-loathing and kill people with their cars. Connoisseurs are intelligent and educated and kill people with boredom.
But every so often...
I was manning the store one day when a middle-aged guy walked in and asked me for some wine advice. Very pleasant man, articulate and open, engaged with life, charming and just then discovering a passion for the grape. It was a slow day, midweek, and he and I had a long talk about wine, about what makes a great wine a great wine, about tasting wine, about loving wine. When I realized that this guy was serious about wine, had the right approach to wine (the right approach being the one I decided was the right approach), I'm sure I lit up. My passion for wine surfaced in all its pathetic glory and I walked him around the store pointing out my favorite wines. Chateau Rayas, Rouge and Blanc. Chave, any time, any place, Chave. Spottswoode, then and now the classiest Napa Valley Cabernet. Mount Eden Chardonnay, what I imagine you drink when you get to the Heaven where they don't let the Mormons in. And on and on. And every wine I pointed to he bought a couple of bottles. I didn't care about the sale, I just wanted to turn this guy on to the good stuff, the stuff that works its magic on anyone who has even the tiniest bit of taste and transforms them.
I rang up his wine at the register and he gave me his credit card. Out of habit, I looked at his name. It was David Angell. "Hey," I said to him, "you're not the guy who writes for 'Cheers?'" "Well, yes," he said, "I am. No one ever recognizes my name though."
All my life I had studied comedy writing. I knew all the names of the best comedy writers like baseball fans know the lineup of every baseball team. I knew his name instantly, knew he'd written for "Cheers" and was then producing and writing for "Frasier." I knew specific episodes he'd written. David was very flattered and asked me about my stupid career as a comedy writer. I told him how frustrating it had been, how I'd walked away. Then he told me about his journey.
David and his wife had moved to LA from the MidWest so that he could pursue his comedy writing career. They struggled for years and years, barely able to make it by each month, borrowing money from everyone they knew, never giving up on his dream. Yet they had been about to give up, move back to their home town, they had run out of money, all their furniture was in a storage facility, all their dreams in pieces on the ground, when David got a phone call. He'd sold a script to "Cheers." At the very last minute. He eventually joined their staff of brilliant comedy writers, helped to create "Frasier," and now he was successful doing what he loved beyond his wildest dreams. And comedy writers have very wild dreams, believe me. It was, ironically, one of the classic Hollywood stories.
I saw David quite a few times after that first day. He'd come in and we'd talk wine and comedy. Like most comedy writers, he was quick-witted when he wanted to be, but didn't try to be funny in his free time. He damn near made me go back to comedy writing, but wine had captured my heart and I just couldn't face that kind of return to the scene of my crimes. But I was damned proud to know him, like I was on speaking terms with Koufax or Ali or Thurber, and I always watched for his name on the credits of his shows so I could ask him about particular episodes that I'd liked or disliked.
On September 11, 2001, David and his wife Lynn were on Flight 11, one of the planes that was flown into the World Trade Center. I saw his name on the list of passengers a few days after that horrifying day eight years ago. I learned that he and his wife had flown to New York to accept an award for his comedy writing, a Peabody I think, and they had had to catch an early flight home to Los Angeles so he could resume work. I hadn't seen David or spoken to him since I'd left Mission Wines in 1997, but news of his death brought the entire nightmare alive for me. He was my connection to the murders. Everyone I've ever met seems to have found a connection to that massacre, a human connection through a friend of a friend, or a cousin of a roommate, or a guy who used to date my neighbor, or someone I used to work with at Windows on the World. We search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless tragedy through those connections. Yet eight years later the meaning still eludes me. As it has eluded everyone else.
David's work continues to make people laugh even after his death. I think I'll watch reruns of "Frasier" tonight and David will make me laugh through all the bad memories of this day.
I am reminded when I think of David of the opening sentence of "Scaramouche" by Rafael Sabatini that reads:
He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that was the world was mad.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
What the Critics Are Saying About HoseMaster of Wine
"If you want a great hoot and howl moment or two...go read the HoseMaster's year-end reflections...that guy is without a doubt the funniest SOB in the blog-world...and thank him for having the brains and balls to target his laser of laughter on anybody...HoseMaster for President...HoseMaster for Blogger of the Year...although he would be the first to say the bar is so damn low for that award, he should win it every year..." --Robert Parker
"No one is immune from California sommelier and wine judge Ron Washam's skewering. He polishes that skewer with boundless enthusiasm and acuity."
"As serious as the world of wine is, it does allow time for humor. Each Monday and Thursday, Ron Washam customarily posts a commentary on his needling wine blog HoseMaster of Wine. Washam, a former sommelier and comedy writer – he might say they are closely related – is the most opinionated, humorous and ribald observer in the wine world. His body of work is irreverent and remorseless. It’s almost always satire and parody, though he occasionally drifts into straight commentary, sometimes even with tasting notes. This past year, one of his posts was named the best of the year in the Wine Blog Awards. His success has spawned several imitations, which in their awkwardness show just how difficult satire is."
--Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee
Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/01/21/6089630/dunne-on-wine-wine-blogs-and-bloggers.html#storylink=cpy
"Please let this guy write the scripts for Saturday Night Live which has gotten so lame...his newest "wisdom" is worth an Emmy....I wonder if he is the genius behind all those Hitler/Parker,etc. clips? No one else is remotely as funny or as talented.And the wine world sure needs someone to poke fun at all the nonsense and phoney/baloney unsufferable crap out there."
"Washam uses his own blog, HoseMaster of Wine, to skewer the industry in general and wine blogs in particular. If your mouse scoots to your browser's close box while reading a wine blog, Washam may be the blogger for you."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"Ron Washam, former sommelier, is easily the most bitingly funny blogger/wine writer that we have ever come across. He is an equal opportunity crusader who pillories big wineries and amateur bloggers alike, as well as everything and everyone in between...One needs a sense of humor and a tolerance for earthiness to enjoy reading The Hosemaster. We must have both because this guy deserves a wider audience, in our humble opinion." --Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine
"In my opinion, and that of many others, his blog is one of the best. And in terms of satirical or parodic wine blogs, it has no peer. Ron’s alert eye catches every pretense and skewers it with laugh out loud mercilessness."
"This site should carry a warning label. It's sort of a Dave Barry/George Carlin approach to wine. The Hosemaster (real name Ron Washam) skewers fellow bloggers and industry savants with glee, while offering hilarious wine guides such as his Honest Guide to Grapes..."
--Paul Gregutt, Seattle Times
"Washam is a skilled wine judge (I have judged with him) who is willing to judge wine double blind, in public. To my knowledge, Parker does not do this and never has. So Ron's credentials are in place, and so is his sense of the absurd."
--Dan Berger, VintageExperiences
"...I consider Ron a very talented writer and I’ve long been an admirer of his scathing wit..."
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--Tyler Colman "Dr. Vino"
"Those of you who know Ron either love or hate him, because he throws jabs like a punch drunk boxer, and we’re all in the firing line. He’ll throw them if he hates you, and he’ll throw them if he loves you. He’s a satirist of exceptional quality."
--Jo Diaz "Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz"
"I must say you are an idiot. I've never liked you. I have no idea why people find you funny."