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.
Thanks, David. Save me a glass of the Mount Eden.