He was a peculiar kind of asshole.
Mr. James Sanders is considered the “father of wine” in Atlanta, Ga. He had his own vineyard in France, a wealthy clientele, and celebrities bought bottles of wine with his name on it. He even sold wine to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He was a legend in a thriving southern city.
But, to me, he was just the crotchety old man who drank 3 bottles of wine a day, called me ‘little buddy’, and had a 15 yr old Basset hound named John The Basset.
When I was 18, he paid me $40 a day to take care of customers, take the trash out, and listen to his stories. It was a dream job. He taught me about wine, food, and about life. But he was an asshole.
He once made me ‘excuse’ a customer for asking if we sold California wines.
“Little Buddy, you tell that idiot to leave right now. If he wants California crap, he can go to Kroger…I’m serious. Can’t he read the God damned sign.”
He pointed to a big sign on the front door that read: “only fine European wines sold here.”
For all his oversized curmudgeon-ness, he was passionate about wine. The back room of his small, one room shop was separated with outdoor lattice work. There, he would cook 5 course gourmet lunches for himself and me, his "Little Buddy."
And, almost everyday, He would invite customers back to drink with him, to taste his newest vintage, or to talk about the state of the world.
One day he invited me back.
“Little Buddy, come here.
“You see that young couple out there? The one with the funny hat.”
He was whispering now.
“Let me tell you how wine can save a marriage. That couple was on the verge of divorce last year when they came in the store. I sat with them and introduced them to wine. I mean, really introduced them to wine. Everything changed.”
“Listen to me, Little Buddy. When you drink wine you talk about it—what it tastes like, where it came from. You cook--wine is always better with food. Then you dine together—"dine" not "eat". You listen and communicate with each other, you laugh, you smile, you clean the dishes, and, you may not know this yet, but the drunk from wine is not like the drunk from anything else…”
(Of course I already knew that…)
“And before you know it, you know each other again. You remember how to listen, how to talk, how to love.”
(I swear he actually said that to me.)
“And look…a year later, they’re back in the store together. You’ll get to know them, they’re regulars. Now go sell them some wine.”
As I left, he stopped me.
“It’s the beauty of life, Little Buddy. It’s the beauty of wine.”
(I swear he said that.)
I used to love red wine. In fact, and Mr. Sanders never knew this, but the reason I worked there was because I wanted to drink underage. You see, because of him, I knew more about wine than most 18 yr olds, so when I went to a liquor store, I’d just talk about wine with the owner and they wouldn't think twice about selling it to me—a hairless, 135 lb, 18 year old.
It worked like a charm.
But, after drinking a glass of red wine one night, I got a headache. Not a hang over, but the headache that comes from red wine sometimes. It’s the tannins.
So, I stopped drinking it...for a long time. It hurt 15 years ago…I better not try it again.
Funny how we always assume the past equals the present.
We tend to see the world through the lens of our past. Sometimes that’s a problem because it stops us from listening.
If you believe the past equals the present you cannot truly listen to someone.
There, I said it.
If you only see someone from the lens of your past, you are blinded to the reality in front of you today. Listening demands that you stay present to the present.
For the married couple in the store, wine brought them into the present moment with each other.
Wine gave them something to talk about, to commune over, to listen to.
Wine saved their marriage.
Mr. Sanders died in 1999, less than a year after I left his store. I never had the opportunity to tell him what he meant to me, and what he taught me about life, listening, and wine. I never got to visit him as a man and show him the influence he had on my life. Still, every time I see his name on a bottle of wine, I quietly remember the man who changed my life in the back of a small wine shop.
On my last day at the shop, Mr. Sanders asked me where I was going to college.
“Little Buddy, where are you going to college?”
“University of Georgia.”
“That’s great, Little Buddy. I want you to take as many classes as you can. Don’t focus too soon. Study hard, learn as much as you can, and when you graduate, I want you to laminate that diploma, and put it on the front windshield of your car.”
“on my windshield...?”
…he grinned like only an old man can.
“Yes. That way, you can park in the handicapped spots.”
I told you he was an asshole.
Do you get caught believing the past will equal the future? Do you need a glass of wine?