Confessions of an Accidental Wino - Episode 5 - by Ronald Mackay
Are we there yet?
“’Success comes before work only in the English dictionary!’” A cynical Wino said that long ago! Considering the work Viviana and I put into our wine business, we were, I felt, achieving less success than we warranted.
“When will we get there?” We used to ask ourselves.
Sleepless, I’d lie in bed imagining what ‘getting there’ might be like. ‘Heavenly!’ Not the ethereal, pink cloud kind of heavenly. For a strung-out Accidental Wino like me, heaven would be more earthy. It would mean an empty cellar in the winery El Rosal where our 20,000 bottles of CALEDONIA 2005 were stored. Revenues would have been deposited in the bank. ‘Getting there’ would mean that we would have the wherewithal to finance our 2006 vintage.
Deep down, I knew that success this year would only take us on the roundabout to the challenge of selling next year. And so on it would go -- a never-ending annual cycle. Fortunately, an Accidental Wino lacks the brainpower to think that far ahead. Winos – especially the Accidental kind -- are satisfied with immediate triumphs. They can’t imagine themselves as hamsters on a treadmill.
“Is that you, Ron?” John Riggins voice sounded distant. “It’s like you’re in another world.”
I didn’t tell him that I felt like I was in purgatory, condemned forever to think about markets, prices, margins, cold-calls and sales.
“Can you come to Atlanta? I’ve applied for a state permit to import wine. I want to start with CALEDONIA.”
I was speechless.
“Still there, Ron?”
“I’m here, John.”
“Whaddaya say? Bring a case of your ’2005. I’ll set up a dozen tastings. Ah wanna getta head-start on ma noo bidness!”
John Riggins was an energetic septuagenarian from Georgia. His sole interest appeared to be in losing money. After a career promoting popular music groups, he had invested a small fortune in a bankrupt Argentina. He established a restaurant where his invited guests outnumbered paying customers. He bought a large pear orchard but his employees robbed him blind. Now, with typical Southern optimism, he swore he was about to recapture his fortune by buying Mendoza wine inexpensively and selling it to high-end restaurants in Georgia and neighbouring states.
“Can this mean we’ve arrived?” I sought assurance from Viviana after telling her about John’s new plan.
“John Riggins?” She rolled her eyes.
“He’s applied for a permit to import wine into Georgia. He’s setting up tastings…” My voice trailed off. We both knew John as a big talker. Nevertheless, in those early days I felt duty bound to pursue every opportunity that came my way.
“Welcome to Atlanta, Ron!” John looked at my carry-on case. “Where’s the wine?”
“Lost in transit! The airline will call us when they find it.”
“If they don’t?” Did I detect a note of hope in his voice?
“They will!” I sought the positive. I couldn’t let John down after his efforts.
Mary and he lived in a gated community -- shaded parkland studded with fake European houses hiding behind golden laburnum and blooming rhododendrons.
“This is it!” He parked proudly before the double staircase that led up to a miniature French chateau. Drop your case in the hall. Mary’s already at the restaurant.”
“A tasting? Right now?” I panicked. The case of wine was still somewhere in the stratosphere.
“Tasting? Oh no!” He sounded evasive.
As John, Mary and I dined together, it became clear that they seldom ate at home. Each had a favourite breakfast place where they met friends separately. Each had lunch engagements with a different set of friends. During the course of the day, they agreed where they might dine together. Their miniature French chateau in all its symmetrical beauty and European setting served solely as a dormitory. It also became clear that their favourite conversation was what they referred to as ‘ smart bidness’. That meant making even more money by shuffling their excess wealth they already through a series of doubtful operations.
My phone rang. “American Airlines. Are you Ronald Mackay who manged to lose his baggage?”
The use of the past tense was ominous. “Yes,” I confirmed.
“Sir, your item was improperly packed. It has been damaged beyond repair.”
Why argue that I’d packed the wine in a high performance, polystyrene case labelled ‘FRAGILE’ on all six sides.
“No wine!” I told John.
‘Was that relief I saw on his face?’ Impossible!’
“Not even one?”
“I have a single bottle in my carry-on,” I told him.”
John and Mary exchanged guilty glances.
“Ah! Well, Ron, I gotta tell you sumpin!”
An hour and many convoluted explanations later during which ‘gumint boorcrats’ featured as the villains, I understood that he hadn’t quite completed his application to import wine. Neither had he set up the dozen tastings with prospective clients. As we finished the meal in silence, I though desperately how I might salvage something from the ruins.
I struck gold. “How far is Auburn from here, John?”
“Auburn, Alabama? Just over an hour.”
“Viviana and I met a retired American surgeon in Mendoza who told us he was in the wine business. He lives in Auburn.” I searched through my collection of business cards and came up with ‘Bid Montgomery, Selected Wines’.
I called him, right there as we sat at the table.
“’Course I remember you and Viviana, Ron. Grape-growers in San Rafael!” Bid was as business-like and precise as John Riggins was vague and ineffectual. Ten minutes later, we’d arrived at a solution.
“Ron, you book a restaurant in Peachtree City for tomorrow evening. My wife and I will drive up from Auburn and taste your wine over dinner.”
John and Mary didn’t look too happy that I had succeeded in drawing this chestnut from their bonfire.
Next day, John drove me to Peachtree City where we found a pleasant Italian restaurant, the Scent of Myrtle. I explained to the manager what I wanted.
“A table for five. This,” I handed him my only remaining bottle of CALEDONIA, “served at 65 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Your own wine?” The manager looked dubious.
“I’m happy to pay corkage.” He brightened.
“We’ve chosen your restaurant because my friend assures me you have the best food and table service in the region.” My lie reassured him. “I’d appreciate a waiter used to fine wine.”
“I’ll do the honour myself,” he assured me.
John and I arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes early. “Mary may not come,” he told me. Her lunchtime bridge game hasn’t ended.”
Bid and his wife Olivia arrived, an elegant couple, eyes sweeping the restaurant with approval. Bid was every inch the retired surgeon turned professional wino. They promised an interesting dinner.
Mary arrived with another couple in tow. “Jim and Dot decided to tag along to see what all the fuss is about.” Bid and Olivia looked politely puzzled. John greeted the intruders. I smiled. The manager added chairs, looking at me with a ‘Changes are not welcome!” look.
“How are ya all? Ma name is Kevin and Ah’ll be your server this evening. A drink to start?” He thrust the drinks menu at us. Jim and Dot grabbed it. “We’re the gate crashers! We’ll buy the first bottle.”
I explained for their benefit and for Kevin the waiter’s that they were welcome to order a bottle from the wine list for themselves, but that Bid, his wife and I would start with mineral water and taste our CALEDONIA with the main course.
“OK! OK! Jim and Dot seemed to speak each other’s thoughts. “We’ll suffer! We’ll do what you-all do and drink the Scottish wine. We don’t care what we drink so long as it’s over 12 per cent.”
My heart sank. Bid and Olivia cringed.
The main course served on the table, Kevin returned with our CALEDONIA swaddled in a white towel.
I gestured to Bid.
Bid accepted the bottle, noted its temperature, and examined the front and rear labels. Satisfied, he passed it back to Kevin who cut the capsule and extracted cork.
“Jim uses his teeth to do that!” Dot roared. Jim and she rocked with laughter.
Dot held up her glass to be the first. “Dot’s the expert,” Jim explained, “she’ll tell us if it cuts the mustard.”
Dot downed the wine in a single gulp and nodded enthusiastically. She let out a great belch and said, “Ah swear that stuff’s gonna tear yo ass!”
“Whoopee!” Jim raised his glass, keen to have his arse torn.
Bid and Olivia exchanged weak smiles. I willed the floor to open and swallow Jim and Dot.
Kevin began to pour wine into Jim’s proffered glass. Jim indicated he continue. I tried to catch Kevin’s eye to no avail.
Here, I need to tell you that a standard bottle of wine holds 750 millilitres or 35 ounces. One ‘drink’ is about 4 ounces so a bottle holds eight ‘drinks’ and a little more. We were two more guests than planned and Kevin had just poured three drinks into Jim’s glass leaving four drinks to share among the remaining six of us.
Astutely assessing the situation, Bid touched the waiter’s arm. “Allow me!”
He poured three ounces in each of his wife’s, John’s and Mary’s and my glasses. Then he smiled graciously at Jim and said, “Share yours with your wife.” He placed the almost empty bottle out of reach of the others and explained as if to a patient about to go under the scalpel, “The rest is mine to enjoy!”
With empathy, insight and courtesy, Bid repaired the incipient disaster. I felt grateful to this savvy and enlightened Southern gentleman.
Bid relished the wine. He and Olivia shared and thoughtfully savoured what was left in the bottle while John and Mary, Jim and Dot, tucked into heaped bowls of ice-cream.
A week later, back in San Rafael, Viviana and I received an email from Bid.
“I want 80 cases of CALEDONIA 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the same shipment, I want 80 cases of the Torrontés you mentioned. My customers like their wine in pairs.”
Viviana and I looked at each other in delight.
“We may just be on the point of getting there!”
Ronald in his vineyard Fincas Caledonia
Viviana and Ronald at a Burns Supper they hosted
in San Rafael
Viviana with Cabernet grapes during our 2004 harvest
Viviana and Nora making pasta with the help of neighbours' children
Viviana and Ronald in San Rafael, Argentina
Viviana with wine-loving friends