Friday, July 23, 2010
A career in the wine business is fantastic and utterly selfish. For 30+ years I've been paid to learn about wine, drink excessively, talk about wine to everyone I meet, and accept countless free rooms and trips and hats and polo shirts. And for this I earned admiration and unwarranted respect. Walk into a party and announce you're an accountant, no one cares. Walk in and have folks discover you're a sommelier, everyone seems to want to talk to you about wine. It's shameful, really, our obsession with wine. The number of hours we spend writing idiotic Dear John letters to Pinot Noir, or compulsively Tweeting about wine, spreading the wit and wisdom of high school sophomores around just as actual birds relentlessly spread crap all over windshields and statues, or relentlessly romanticizing the stuff we mostly use to alter our simple states of mind, is near criminal. But what's worse is the glamour and prestige attached to it. I was just a guy who knew a lot about wine who was paid to get folks drunk on expensive stuff. I never deserved much respect or admiration. Of course, now that I've been writing HoseMaster of Wine, most of that is gone. Good.
I met Karen Bopp ("My last name is not a verb," she used to tell me) at Pacific Dining Car. The restaurant is across the street from Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles and Karen was a nurse there. After her shift, she would occasionally stop in with a bunch of coworkers for a glass of Champagne. At first I only knew her well enough to say hello, as one does to a regular customer when you work in a restaurant. But, well, she was beautiful. The word "statuesque" may have been coined for Karen, and I wanted to get to know her. Karen had an aura about her, a sweetness and intelligence that radiated from her person, and the kind of infectious laugh that makes the entire room smile. She was irresistible.
There was a time when every Valentine's Day I would send Valentines to as many women as I could think of who made my life more interesting and richer. I'd post fifty or more Valentines. Sure, I was making Hallmark rich, but it was fun; and I was often told that mine was the only Valentine she'd received and that it had made her day. Each year I would also try to surprise a woman who was virtually a stranger to me with a Valentine, a woman I was vaguely acquainted with but didn't really know. In February of 2000 I shyly handed one to Karen. It was the one Valentine that changed my life.
Karen was flattered and surprised by my silly Valentine and agreed to have lunch with me. I can still remember how nervous I was to meet her for lunch, but the instant we began to talk everything was fine. We polished off a couple of bottles of wine, had a leisurely lunch, and it was suddenly time to leave. Karen had to pick up a birthday cake for a coworker, then would see me at Pacific Dining Car where the birthday party was being held. We began the day strangers but by party's end she had embraced me as a friend. All for the $3.95 of a Valentine.
Karen loved so many things. She loved singing. She loved wine. She loved nursing. She loved film, man, did she love movies. She loved yoga. She loved science fiction TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. Can't say I shared that passion, but perhaps working as a surgical nurse and running emergency rooms leaves you with a taste for believing in eternal life and the power of blood. She loved Sting. She loved fine art. She loved to spend time with her family. I've never met a closer family than Karen's. If there was any animosity or jealousy or anger or coldness in her family, among her and her three siblings and their clans, I never saw it or heard about it. Frankly, it was annoying in that Ozzie and Harriet way, although, really, I was simply jealous in the sort of petty way that would have disqualified me from being part of the Bopp clan. But this laundry list of her loves is like a silly FaceBook page and does nothing to explain what a beautiful, spiritual, funny, charming, compassionate woman she was. And how often Karen's Light enriched my life.
I won't soon forget a wine country trip I took with my wife Kathleen, Karen and another friend, Sue, a flight attendant. When you're a sommelier, everyone wants to go to wine country with you. So the four of us rented a house in Cambria and spent a few days touring wineries in Paso Robles. Our first day wine tasting was quite the endurance contest. We'd been to four or five wineries and it was getting late, around 7:00, but as we were driving by Linne Calodo I wondered if Matt Trevisan, the owner/winemaker, was still around. It was September, harvest, so it would be unusual if he weren't. He was. Karen, Sue and I piled out of my car (I was driving since I was the only one spitting, mostly because I was the cheapest drunk of the three). Kathleen had had enough and lay down in the back seat. Matt came out, recognized me, and offered to taste us on some barrel samples. Great! So Matt grabbed a thief and began crawling up and around all his barrels to sample us on his amazing wines. And what were Karen and Sue doing while Matt was climbing up the barrel racks?
Taking pictures of his ass. Closeups. Giggling all the while. They were like bung paparazzi. It was kind of embarrassing, the sommelier showing up with his drunk women, but Matt laughed and seemed to enjoy their enthusiasm for his, well, high end wines.
Karen and I had one huge falling out, and it was over a man. She had been dating him for six months or so and one night in the bar she talked to me about him. I won't share her confidence, but what she told me made me erupt with anger. I told Karen in no uncertain terms that she needed to lose this guy, that he would absolutely and inevitably break her heart into a million pieces. I was outraged and I crossed a line, threw far too much anger at Karen, and she didn't speak to me for about six months. Didn't come into the restaurant, didn't answer emails or return calls, just shut me out. I was crushed. I loved her, truly, deeply, loved her, and I knew, as only a man can know the perfidy of another man, that this clown would wreck her. But I'd been wrong to be so angry.
Another six months passed and my birthday rolled around. I got a card in the mail. A surprise card from Karen, as my Valentine to her had been a surprise. Inside the card were three words she had written. "You were right." The first and last time anyone has written that to me. I called Karen immediately, she briefly told me how the jerk had abruptly and cruelly jilted her, and we resumed our friendship. She taught me forgiveness in those moments, and she taught me about compassion, about the power of love and kindness to teach instead of pedantry and smugness, my normal tools of persuasion. This fool had crushed her loving spirit, she had believed him to be "the one," and humiliated her as only a turd like that can, yet she had thought to reach out to me, forgive me, and ask me to forgive her. When I looked into Karen's eyes I often felt I was looking into the very face of Love.
Karen had given her working life to helping people. Just how many people had she comforted in her life as a nurse? How many people had she saved with her hands and her intelligence? So many doctors she worked with in surgery admired her, leaned on her, trusted her completely. How many families had she helped? The numbers, could they be calculated, would be staggering. How much pain and suffering did she absorb? How many people walking around today owe her a debt of gratitude? Hundreds? Thousands? What is a life in wine worth compared to that?
Nothing. Her selflessness compared to my selfishness continues to haunt me. And yet I've been the lucky one in life, the one who doesn't deserve that luck. Would that I could have given her most of my luck as she gave me so much of her heart. I'd have gladly given it to her.
Karen would not have wanted praise or thanks or admiration. She was an extraordinary woman, filled with life. Life burst forth from her in a ceaseless stream. From her singing voice, to her beautiful laughter, to her skilled and graceful hands, Karen gave life. She was much loved, and had so many friends I cannot imagine how she even remembered all their names. And yet I know how much she would have liked to have found "the one," to have had children of her own, no matter how much she loved her nieces and nephews, to have shared her life with one special man. That this never happened for her is yet further proof of what cowards and fools men can be. There she was, right in front of them. Beautiful, brilliant, sexy, vibrant, loving, compassionate, charming, funny... Well, there it is. She may have just been too good for this world.
When Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer I don't think anyone believed it would beat her. Not her. It had been detected early and Karen had done everything right, had the absolute best care from doctors she knew were great and gifted. Her cancer went into remission. And came back. And then it seemed to be alright again. It was a seesaw battle for roughly six years, and there were many times it seemed Karen was returning to health. But, finally, the cancer spread to her liver, and on a family trip to Hawaii she became very ill. After doctors stabilized her enough to travel, she was flown home to Irvine Medical Center, where she was employed, to spend her last few days among family and friends. She died June 30th. She was 54.
During one of the worst stretches of my adult life, when I was frightened and depressed, feeling hopelessly lost, it was a visit from Karen that saved me. She came to Sonoma for a visit and seeing through my forced joviality she sat me down and forced me to talk about my mental state. I felt profoundly, for the first time, the strength of her healing heart and love, the sacred gifts that had made her such a wonderful nurse. As I shared my distress, my horrible fears and hopelessness, Karen held my hands and listened. When I was finished, she shared her own experiences with fear, her own insecurities and anxieties, her every day battle with cancer, in a way that was the very embodiment of courage and hope. And I knew, after just those few minutes we spent talking, that I would be fine. I knew in a way that I'd not known ever before. And it is that knowledge, a gift from my friend Karen, that I am clinging to now. Now that she's gone.