Missing My Mentor, Drinking to My Mentor

I’ve never done any research on this, but I suspect that anyone who bothers to keep a journal could lose an entire afternoon reading through a randomly found old one.
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Earlier today I was perusing an old OpenTable database looking for the aliases a prominent food critic to pass them to a friend who is about to open a restaurant.  All of the notes that we recorded about our guests read like the well worn pages of a journal chronicling a particularly lovely, enthralling, and more than occasionally difficult part of my life.
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My jaw landed on the table when I reached the note about one of my wine mentors who happened to be a regular.  The grief I felt the day I learned of his death two years ago came rushing back.  Then I began to think of his incredible generosity  – with his time, knowledge, experience, and, yes, his wine too.
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TJ would call me the mornings of his reservations and in an almost conspiratorial tone, he would tell me about some spectacular bottle with an impossible to find combination of vintage and winery.  He would drop it off before the opera and give me precise instructions on its opening – “OK, Refugee, crack it about 3; at 5, give it a taste and decant it if you think it’s ready; you’re gonna wanna taste it again ’round 8 and maybe double-decant it then but probably no later than 9:30 or so.”
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He would arrive about 10:30 adorned with a smile as big as a Pagliacci grin… but real.  “Did ya like that wine, Refugee” he would ask despite knowing that it was nothing short of sublime; and we would talk wine in the bar for a few minutes before taking him to a table.  I always learned more during his 90 minute meal than I did in any 90 minutes of my sommelier courses and that was only from the random two minute bursts of conversation peppered with wine talk.
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One night he walked into the restaurant – solo and without reservation as he often did during the week – and placed a winicorn* bottle on the bar.
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“Refugee, it’s been a really shitty day, you know what we do on really great or really crappy days right” he asked with his usual ebullience  – it was classic MT; he loved life so much that even bad days were reason to be happy.
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I replied with the philosophy learned from him, “Exceptional wines are for days that are exceptionally good or exceptionally shitty.”
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“Damn right! Get a coupla glasses and have a drink with an old man.”
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We were about halfway through our glasses when TJ rhetorically asked “Do you know why I come here, why we do this?”
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Knowing him well enough to know that he would answer his own question, I just took another sip to fill the beat before he continued.
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“There’s enough crappy sommeliers ‘round here with enough hoity-toity pretentious bullshit to fill every Tastevin** in the world.  You’re not like that, your staff’s isn’t like that, and I figure if I can help a young somm be better, and have some fun in the process, well… well, that just makes the wine world a better place.”
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With that, he drained the rest of his glass and said “I gotta run, a few more bartenders*** to say hello to tonight; share the rest with your guys at the end of the night.”
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The night TJ died I went to one of my favorite restaurants with one of the best bottles in my cellar.  I had a glass with my friend, the manager; I told him about MT.  I asked him to share the rest of the bottle with his staff.
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I am pretty sure that someone bartender will be hearing a few TJ stories this evening… and drinking really well later.
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* refers to some impossible to find bottle, usually very small production and about as much cash as a mortgage payment.
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** refers to the ceremonial cup awarded to people who have been admitted to the International Court of Sommeliers
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*** in TJ vernacular, “every time a great bartender becomes a manager a little piece of [his] soul dies.”  There is no higher compliment that he gave to managers than to call him/her a bartender.
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4 Responses to Missing My Mentor, Drinking to My Mentor

  1. What a lovely post and a great way to pay tribute to someone who sounded as though they touched you on many levels.

    I have to ask, what was TJ’s favorite go-to wine?

    TJ was a man with a massive wine cellar – 15k bottle massive – he was not the type to have favorites in the way you speak. I can tell you that he loved Barolo first among all of his loves.

  2. k8 says:

    Our mentors never truely die.

    The good ones don’t and he was a great one.

  3. kitty says:

    sounds like a great person to have known.

    He really was a special man whose impact on my wine education cannot be overstated.

  4. […] took the liberty of ordering a bottle of Prosecco (bubbles before all things – my wine mentor used to say.)  Monica’s ex was the first to arrive.  Derrick was my almost five inches taller mirror image, […]

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