Sunday, December 05, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. V

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” ― Benjamin Franklin

I could see the horizon approaching more rapidly. It had been almost 40 years since I’d started in the wine trade, and the time was coming when it would end. I had my team in place. They’d take it from here, and carry on as ambassadors of Italian wine. I had other directions I wanted to go towards, and was ready to move on.

Years ago, I’d read a piece about how Italian restaurateurs were ambassadors of food and wine to the world outside of Italy. Savvy Italian vintners enlarged the scope of the mission to include the wine trade, from the importers to the distributors,. We were all working to uplift Italian wine and food, and in the last 40 or so years amazing strides had been made. When I first moved to Texas, it was nearly impossible to find an espresso, a decent mozzarella, artisanal pasta from Italy and fresh white truffles. Now, it takes a lot of effort to make a bad espresso (although there are those stalwarts who still insist on making a crappy ristretto). But, by and large, we’re in a golden age of food and wine right now. Who knows if it will last? But we got here with the tireless dedication of thousands of players, working days and nights to bring a better interpretation and experience of Italian food that once was only found in Italy. Now you can find it in New York, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, hell, even Las Vegas. Italy has taken root in America. It has been a great victory and it was wonderful to watch it all unfold and be part of it.

And it was for that reason that I didn’t give up on Segundo. I just couldn’t believe his heart was so dark and hard that he couldn’t understand the bigger picture. In other words, I was naïve and unwilling to accept defeat.

So, it came one Friday that I had two young women in town from Italy. They both belonged to different winemaking families and were starting their life in the wine trade, future ambassadors for the upcoming generations. They were bright, spoke perfect English, were media savvy and they also were just really pleasant to be around. Sweet people. I was taking them around on their last day before they went back home, and before I took them to the airport I invited them to lunch, at the restaurant where Segundo worked and held court on that day.

Segundo used the day, as I’ve written earlier, to have all of his suppliers come at the same time and help bolster his self-curated social network, buy lunch (spend money and support the account) and wait in line to taste him on their latest and greatest offerings. It was a little bit of a clubby atmosphere, most of the time. So, I reserved the big table and brought a group in to drop some of my remaining expense account money.

I knew Segundo would also be working as a server, as he needed tips to augment his pay. So, we didn’t bother him while he worked. He came by the table, actually waited on us, and served the table properly. At the end of the meal, we came up to the bar, officially introduced him to the young women, whereby they asked him if he’d like to taste their wines before they went back to Italy. He was their last stop.

Well, maybe that didn’t sit well with him. Segundo was never anyone’s first stop, if you asked his father. But the various salespeople, who knew how to work the account, acquiesced, more out of fear than respect. I wasn’t in there to sell, just doing a little p.r., and like I said, supporting the account. No hard sale. And the two women knew not to push either, that was not their style. Nonetheless, something must have triggered him.

I dropped about $400 on that lunch, not an inconsiderable sum, $100 of that being the tip for Segundo. I figured it was the end of the week, we did no harm, and dropped my company off at the airport, sending them back home to Italy and their families.

Well, when I came into the office on Monday I ran into my boss, Brad. “Can you step into my office, there’s something I need to run by you,” he said. Brad loved to play it up. It didn't make me nervous though. He just liked to build things up for dramatic effect. I thought nothing of it.

“It has come to my attention that you took the two young ladies to lunch at Segundo’s place last Friday.” I answered affirmative. “Well, Segundo told me that he doesn’t want you ever to come in there. Ever again!”

I must have seemed stunned. “You’re telling me he is banning me from the restaurant?” I asked.

“Look, we all know he’s a particular kind of fellow. And I’m not saying you did anything wrong, nor did he mention anything specific, or anything at all. He just doesn’t want you coming in there at all. I think it would be best for us and our future relationship with the restaurant if you comply. Capeesh?” Brad loved to throw in the occasional Italian word.

“Of course, Brad. I don’t want to squash any future dealings our salespeople or specialists will need to have with a cloud hanging over them, imagined or real. I don’t need to eat or drink there, or spend money there. I’m glad to stay the fuck away from that place.”

We were in accord.

But I have to say, I did some hand wringing, trying to imagine what in hell had happened. No one insulted anyone. No one under-tipped. Maybe he was expecting a Blow'N'Go! from one (or both) of my guests. Hell, I don’t know. All I know is that El Segundo was some warped sonofabitch, and at that point I would be ecstatic staying away from his sorry ass. Even if he didn’t own the establishment, and wasn’t the manager, and really didn’t have any authority to banish anyone.

But, la vita è breve. And I was winding down my tenure in the position, I didn’t need that kind of caliginous fog punctuating my denouement. I would never step foot in that place, while Segundo was there, so help me God.

I had my answer to the question I posed at the end of the last segment (Part IV) when I said “It became a question, not of when Segundo would ever learn to act professionally and affably, but if.” Segundo didn’t give a shit about affability or professionalism. He had an axe to grind, and he was trying it out on the Big Tree. I got it.

What he didn’t get was the fickle finger of fate heading in his direction - a slow but steady bullet was aimed right at him. And the god of wine was an excellent shot.

…to be continued

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