I think of this story every September 11th: “Cocktails Before the Collapse,” by Cal Fussman.
Cal was writing for Esquire at the time and doing a deep dive into wine. His job was to train to be a sommelier and then work at Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. It was 1999.
He learned to frame wine as music to explain and recommend it to others. It’s an amazing lesson in communication (and it resonates with yours truly for obvious reasons). It also speaks to the importance of how, when we become knowledgeable about some topic, we can share that knowledge with others in a way they’ll immediately understand. Great communication removes fear and uncertainty. Here’s Cal,
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.
The application to complexity, costs, and fees should feel familiar.
Cal went on to work as the sommelier starting in May of 2001. It was a brief end-cap on his research to be turned into a forthcoming article. He left to go on vacation later that summer, planning to write the piece when he returned. And then it happened. The attacks, the slow recovery, and his inability to write about the experience he had had. It was supposed to be a happy story revolving around a unique restaurant, but now everything had changed.
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.
Years went by. It was like September 11th had trapped the story. Cal couldn’t draw the right connection into words that made sense. How could he capture what it meant, let alone apply it to now?
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 was September 2011 when the article finally made it to print. It took a moment of inspiration when Cal helped a young bartender deal with a rejected bottle of wine while he was out one night. The chance experience remained him about the knowledge he had picked up as a sommelier. What good is the information in our heads if we’re not going to share it? What’s the use of compiling all of these life experiences if we’re not going to offer them back to the world? What’s the sense of not putting something positive out there when it’s already on the tip of our tongues?
Every September 11th I think of Cal’s words. We all carry knowledge and experiences within ourselves that are worth sharing. We aren’t here to just stand still, we’re here to keep moving forward. We’re here to help others keep moving forward.
Let’s drink to that.