A Toast: To Not Forgetting, Good Wine, And Spoonfuls Of Sugar

I think of this story every September 11th: “Cocktails Before the Collapse,” by Cal Fussman.

In 1999, Cal was writing for Esquire and took a writing assignment focused on wine. His idea was to train to be a sommelier and then work at Windows on the World. If you don’t remember that spot, it was at the top of the World Trade Center. The article would take a few years to write.

Now you know where this is going.

But the story of how we get there, it’s full of life. And good wine.

During his training, Cal learned to frame wine as music to help explain and recommend it to others. It’s a brilliant communication technique, and it resonates with yours truly for obvious reasons.

The idea of finding a good model to speak through is timeless. Think of it as the Mary Poppins School of Medicinal Marketing, where everybody learns, “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” It’s still medicine. But when your magical nanny has a song about it, the tension just resolves.

Cal’s sommelier’s spoonful of sugar became musical references. The wine was the medicine. Obviously. And the ailments he was curing, think about this –

There are many skills that a great sommelier must master. But to me, the most important is the ability to remove the fear from diners who know little or nothing about wine. People have good reason to be nervous. Maybe it’s the link to royalty in the past, but wine has a way of bringing out that I’m better than you quality in people you wouldn’t want to have a drink with. But mostly it’s the prices that keep people on edge.

People want to feel good. If they’re sick, they want the medicine. So if you can make them not scared – if you can identify and resolve the tension with a song OR musical reference point OR any other “sugar” – you can make the medicine go down. In the most delightful way.

Cal finished his training and went to work as the sommelier for Windows on the World in May of 2001. It was intended to be a brief end-cap on his research, the highlight of his transformation from normal man to wine expert, and the aspirational bait to hook future article readers with. He worked through the end of the summer, then left to take a short vacation. He planned to finish the piece and submit it to his publisher when he returned.

And then it happened.

The attacks, the slow recovery, and – his inability to write about the experience. It was supposed to be a happy story revolving around a unique restaurant. But starting on 9/12/2001, the sun came up, and Cal felt different. For a long time.

I’d spent many 3:00 a.m.’s staring at a blank computer screen searching for a first sentence. There was none. Nor was there a last. Everything in the middle was wine bottles falling end over end through space as bodies hurled by into the twisted jumble of wreckage.

For a long, LONG time. Years went by. A story bottled by a tragedy.

Cal couldn’t draw the right connection into words that made sense. He grew the grapes, he harvested and bottled them, and now what? Every writer has pieces they can’t finish. Maybe this idea was just destined for the drain. But that felt wrong too. So it sat.

The more I thought, the more I realized how absurd it was to think that this ever could have been a simple, merry story. Life is just not that way, and nobody’s ever going to be perfect. The world is balanced just like the finest wines. Since 9/11, my life had been touched by births, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, and amazing little moments that make you grateful to be alive, as surely as it had brushed up against illness, cruelty, murder, profound sadness, and death. Wine is simply here to help us celebrate the joy as well as push us past the tragedy. “Give me wine to wash me clean from the weather-stains of care.” Ralph Waldo Emerson got that right.

It wasn’t until September 2011 when Cal’s article finally got finished and submitted to print. 10 long years, to age and mature. TEN.

So what happened? He found a spoonful of sugar. That’s what.

The trigger-inspiration that brought him back to finally finish his story, about training to be a world-class sommelier, in a legendary restaurant, sitting on top of an iconic building in the heart of a sleepless city, it finally arrive while he sat… at a bar.

Cal watched a young bartender serve a glass of wine only to have it rejected by the customer. Celebration, crash, rebuild – all in fast forward. His sommelier-senses tingled when he overheard the waiter telling the bartender the glass just “tasted off.” Cal intervened and asked for a sip.

“That’s correct, it’s not right,” I said upon tasting. “Open a new bottle and pour a fresh glass.”

The bartender opened a new bottle, poured the glass, sent it off with the waiter, and turned back to me. He told me he wasn’t really a bartender but an aspiring singer, that as a high school student he had once sung “Ave Maria” for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

“That wine wasn’t that bad,” he said. “How were you so certain it was no good?”

“If you sang for the Pope, you know all you need to know,” I said. “Taste it again. This time, listen to the music in it. You’ll see how the music’s right, right, right—then, at the very end, there’s a note that’s off-key.”

He put the glass to his lips, ran the wine around his palate the way I told him, swallowed, and a smile slowly lit up his face. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Yeah. I get it.”

What good is knowledge in your head if you don’t share it? What’s the use of compiling all of these life experiences if we’re not going to offer anything back to the world? Why grow the grapes, harvest them, bottle them, age them, and then never drink them?

Life moves on. Life is moving on. Living is the act of moving on.

Every September 11th I think of Cal’s words. We all carry knowledge and experiences bottled up in our souls. Those thoughts, at least a few of them, they’re worth sharing. While there’s still time to share them. Find the spoonful of sugar and get the medicine down. Don’t refuse it. Don’t refuse to help the others either.

Raise a glass with me,

Give me wine to wash me clean from the weather-stains of care.

To the pasts, presents, and futures. Thanks Cal. Cheers.

ps. serendipity I guess – this weekend my fiancé and I drank a fantastic bottle of wine and watched a movie full of vintage New York skylines, with a whole song dedicated to the places Frank Sinatra’s character can’t visit because “don’t you know a big city like this changes all the time?” Never forget. But always remember change is constant. You can never cheers too many times, so cheers.

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