He's already been gone half a year, this son of New Orleans, father and mentor to so many of us. Al was one of the forefathers of wine in America. He was there at the beginning, right after World War II, when the budding wine industry got its start. A great story teller, a proud grandfather, a lover of women, a classic New Orleans chef, and a slave to the wine god, in the very best sense.
This isn’t an easy post to write, because we are all still smarting from his absence. Two years ago, on Fathers Day, we slipped some Champagne and appetizers into his room at the home he was temporarily staying. He couldn’t live alone at the time and he bemoaned the dismal vittles. So we rustled in some tasty contraband.
He always had the New York Times Food section open somewhere near his reach, along with the op-ed section. Well read, an active mind, an engaged soul, who loved passionately and deeply. Sometimes too much.
I still remember his home phone number, but he’s not there. When I was in New Orleans last month, I had a dream about him. He’s dancing in Galatoire’s, making mischief in Commander’s Palace, lifting tablecloths in Brennan’s. He belongs to the Ancients now.
Al had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic food and wine, but he was always interested in what was coming around the corner. I met him when I was just starting out in the wine business; he was still on the streets. We both called on a wine store owned by a South African gent, and Al was in there pitching wine from Chile. This was in 1981!
He had a collection of menus from New Orleans and all over the country. He had stories about the wine business, some which were archetypal. They were, for me, instructional from the point of view that they indicated markers along the career track that would later come across my path. I learned survival skills from Al, who mentored me for a generation. Like other mentors who influenced my trail, they are life lessons that I use often. Those who knew Al, or who have had that kind of guidance, know how extraordinarily lucky one can be to have that exposure.
Al loved women; he had an invisible pheromone that attracted young and beautiful women to him all his life. Maybe it was his famous Café Brulot or his Coquilles St. Jacques. Anytime I walked into his home there would be something cooking. And there was often a beautiful lass by his side, learning his technique. He was a gentleman, and he loved the ladies.
Few people know that Al first brought American wines into the White House. It was his second tour of duty, the first being World War II. Al loved this country and being a true son of New Orleans, was a national treasure to me, much like the Crescent City is, to many of us in our country.
From French and Italian heritage he loved butter and olive with equality. And wine? We talked about wine all the time, his library of food and wine books was a research center for me. Whenever I had a question about something that I could not find, I’d call Al and he’d get back to me with the answer. Often he would have several versions.
Our conversations burned through cords and cords of wood, over the years. He was a happy man and a role model for me, not just about the successes, but also for the failures. When he was afflicted with a stroke, some years ago, he reinvented himself, embraced physical therapy and found a new interest in physical therapists, especially when they were young and pretty.
Later, when my wife was struck down by M.S., Al was there to listen to me, to share a glass of Chianti or Cognac, to be my friend and my wine dad.
Life for Al was never half empty. It was neither half full. For Al, pardon the cliché, but his cup always runneth over. And he was more than happy to invite friend and stranger alike to the party, to share his table, his love and his joy for life.
Happy Fathers Day Al, we’ll raise a flute in your honor today, though I know our Champagne will pale in comparison to the cuvee you will toasting with Tim Russert and all your gang.