One year ago today, my family and I lost my father to a disease called ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a muscular disease that occurs when for unexplained and unsolved reasons, muscles stop communicating with the brain. Think of a horror movie when a person tries to call for help, but they realize the phone lines have been cut by the antagonist rendering that person alone and helpless. Modern medicine has been working diligently to figure out this disease, but so far, very few steps forward have been made.
My father and I were pretty similar people, including out palates. Our taste buds aligned nicely with only a few exceptions, one of which was blue cheese. When I got into the wine business over a decade ago, we hadn't drunk many wines together. This was a new thing for us. I was living at home at the time, but moving out soon. I was still learning the trade and many wines were still very foreign to me. I had never heard of the regions of Margaux, Barossa, or Walla Walla, but as I came across them in the shop I was working at and tried wines from these regions, my father was the first person I told about them outside of work. He was a hotel and restaurant graduate, and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Needless to say, the man knew his way around the kitchen, food, and wine world. I had never heard him talk about wines much before that, it just wasn't the connection we had yet. We mostly spoke about hockey, music, and who was going to cut the grass. That was one of my chores growing up until the day he finally bought a riding lawnmower and magically, I rarely cut the grass again. He liked weaving back and forth on the John Deere. The biggest reason why I was able to excel quickly in the early years of my wine career was because of chats with my father. He was teaching me a lot whether he knew it or not. He never taught me through a classroom type situation, but through brief conversations that usually ended with him suggesting a region I should go check out in the wine shop, and to see what we sold, because he loved the wines from said region. He spoke about regions like Napa, Alsace, and his favorite region in Bordeaux, Margaux. I studied all of them and poured over maps. One day, while doing inventory at the wine shop, I came across a case of Chateau Margaux 2002. It wasn't a great year, fairly average, but priced accordingly. It wasn't out on display anywhere and was possibly forgotten about while buried under cases of many other wines. I came home and told my father about what I found. He was curious and ended up buying the entire case. I was excited and was eager to try it, but he said he wasn't going to open any. He said he would only on special occasions. Years went by, and he had opened them on special occasions, but none when I was around. My youngest sister had drank some more times than me. It wasn't until 2008 when I finally had my chance.
I had been working my way through the industry and exploring better opportunities when I was giving a chance to interview for a position in Northern Virginia to become a retail wine manger for a large company. I flew down for the interview and tour. It was intimidating and I had to interview with four big time people for this company all at once. My tie and suit coat were feeling a little tight. Weeks went by and I hadn't heard anything. Soon it had been a month and then a few more weeks. It was the spring time now. It was on a Friday, and just after work. I had returned to my apartment with a friend. My roommate was home playing video games and we had each just cracked a beer. My phone rang and it was the human resources manager calling about my interview. I had gotten the job and the offer was fantastic. The first people I called were my mother and father to fill them in. My father said congratulations and now it is time for a bottle of Chateau Margaux. I hung up the phone and told my friend and roommate to hang out for a few hours and I would return. They didn't care, they were big gamers and probably didn't even notice I left. When I got to my parents’ house, my uncle was there, in from out of town. He is a wine geek as well and was really happy for me and happy this was the day he chose to stop over. Chateau Margaux was poured for all. I remember everything about that bottle. We drank it on my parent’s deck in the backyard. It was opaque purple, and had aromas of leather saddle, boysenberry, black cherry, Kalamata olive, and more. It kept changing every time I took a sniff. It was rich and tight at the same time. As far as first growth Bordeaux’s are concerned, it was still young. My father and I each sat at opposite heads of the patio table. We briefly talked about the job offer, and then the wine, then the conversation went down other roads. I wanted to chug the entire bottle of Margaux, but I couldn’t get past the first glass. I just kept smelling it.
Over the next five years, even though I had moved away and was well into my career, my father and I never missed an opportunity to open some of the best bottles we could get out hands on. We shared bottles like Vall Llach 2004, Chateau Angelus 2000, Chadwick 2000, Sassacaia 2001, and many more. Sadly, in late 2011, after testing for many other diseases that were quickly ruled out, the doctors came to the conclusion that he indeed had ALS. I admit, I knew nothing about the disease until the day I was told about the news. The first thing I did was get online and research what it was and what was going to happen. One thing became very clear to me, that this disease is the worst and life just isn’t fair sometimes. There is only one outcome to this progressively fast disease and it is terminal. The old adage that people don’t change is false. That day, I changed, for better or worse I don’t know, but I personally have not been the same. I doubt anyone who is diagnosed or caring for a person with ALS will every stay the same, but one thing is for certain, ALS does not change a person’s palate. On the Christmas before my father’s eventual passing a month and half later, my father, the kitchen guru, was at it again. Despite being permanently saddled to his motorized chair and speaking through a computer which he typed his words into by moving his head, he was adamant that dinner was perfect. Eating had become a challenge for him and his foods were mostly being blended at this point. Some days he didn’t care, and some days he was stubborn about it. What he really wanted was the sauce for the meat to be perfect and he had me start making it nearly a week in advance. I roasted New Zealand veal bones that had been covered in tomato paste, and made a really rich veal stock that reduced down for days. My mother finished it at her house. When Christmas dinner finally came, I thought the sauce was awesome. My father said he liked it, but he was watching us like a hawk and probably saw us screw up a few times. He hadn't been drinking wines for a while at this point, but on that night, he wanted a little. I was all but happy to oblige. I had brought over a bottle of a 94 point, 2009 Beringer Knights Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I poured some into a tumbler and sat with him and held the glass while he drank little sips through a straw. It was hard for him to move his head and it took a lot of concentration for him to even swallow, but after his first sip, he slightly turned his head to me, faintly smiled, then looked back to his computer screen and type the word, “good.” Since we shared a common palate, I knew he really enjoyed it. It would end up being the last sip of wine he would ever have. For a man with a high end palate, I am glad he got to go out on a high end wine.
So far, it has been hard to write this blog. He passed away exactly a year ago today. It was hard to hear about upon his diagnosis, during, and this full year afterwards. I still think about certain bottles of wine we shared among other things and wonder why and how such an awful thing can happen to such a great person. My family has helped raise money for the hard working people and scientist searching for answers for this disease. We have a family donation site set up with the ALS Therapy development Institute in Massachusetts that you can find a link to below. To date, with the help of family and friends, our family site “Tom’s Team” set up by my sister, has encouraged donations of over $13,000 dollars so far. Our goal is set at $20,000, but really, the goal is set at an unmarked amount until ALS is cured. Please, if you would like to learn more about this disease and how someone is diagnosed with ALS every 90 seconds, learn more about my family and father, or my fathers favorite wine, click the links below. Every little bit helps, even a small few dollars.