On September 17th, 2011 -exactly a year ago- my father Joseph Mathew Dressner died of brain cancer. It's hard to believe 365 days have passed: I'm not sure where the time went, undoubtedly because in that short period so much has happened, changed, shifted and evolved. Five trips to Europe, visits to a dozen states, moving from California back to New York... It's certainly been a busy year for me, but nothing has marked me more, or been more challenging than learning to live without the most important person in my life.
Over the last two months, I've compiled this collection of words (and in one case, a comic) from many people who were not only close to Joe, but also critical in Louis/Dressner Selections' growth and evolution. Friends, vignerons, co-workers, distributors, retailers: Joe had the uncanny ability to blur these lines and, by following his example, I am proud to call all the contributors part of my family. Because that's what we are!
Power in numbers!
"Unfortunately, at the moment I sit down to this write this for Joe, I found out the staggering news that Christian Chaussard has left us. And it brought back the memory of a meal we all shared together, on a summer night here at Béllivière. That night felt so natural. But as life's tragic cruelty is quick to remind us, you don't often get enough opportunities like that one...
Joe's attitude was sometimes unfathomable and enigmatic, because anyone trying to understand Nature, Culture and Man in this world will set forth a thousand propositions... But under that hard facade, Joe had constructed an infallible logic of open-mindedness, bridging the gap between viticultural worlds, unifying them by valuing nature and celebrating the diversity characterized by an infinite amount of different wines made by different people. Just like any civilization...
Yes, moments like that one, like that precious little meal spent with our families, there will never be enough of them. These are the types of meetings in life, for those of us like Desnos, that make you want to address each passerby on the street..."
-Eric Nicolas, vigneron in Lhomme
"The first thing I have to mention is that subversive and brilliant code that Joe often spoke, where two listeners would hear two completely different messages depending whether or not they understood the code. I never mentioned the existence of the code, nor did Joe, and I didn't really think about it until he was gone. But I recently mentioned it to Jules, who laughed and said 'yeah of course, that's the so and so (I forget what he called it)'. Which confirmed its existence for me. I'm sure that many of you know exactly what I'm talking about. Sometimes Joe used this to insult people, and they weren't sure whether they were being insulted (they usually were). Sometimes it seemed like sport, but eventually I realized that Joe used this with great intention and seriousness, and he often used it in important communications. I guess the key to the code was just to understand Joe's irony. If you didn't get that then he wasn't going to explain it to you. It was marvelous to finish a meeting thinking that Joe had really been pertinent and insightful, while others wondered if he was of sound mind.
The second thing I'll try to describe is the redirection of passion that Joe instilled in me. Of course we all generate our own passion, but Joe somehow tuned mine and helped point it in a more personal direction. He didn't do much, but he had a very sensitive and effective touch. Like a good shrink, I suppose, he helped me to believe in what I already knew, no matter what others around me thought about it. Joe's confidence in me really changed my life and I'll always be grateful for that. Together on road trips, Joe and David Lillie offered a solid example of how to do it: pragmatic, consistent, slow, humble, funny, engaged, appreciative. Their path wouldn't lead to big money, but they showed that it could lead to a decent living. I think about their example all the time.
Thanks for everything Joe, I'll never forget you!"
-Keven Clancy, co-owner of Farm Wine Imports, San Francisco California
"There is so much to say, and words sometimes feel as if they aren't enough to express the great experience of knowing Joe. Didier likes to talk about how we almost never met, a story you must know… Every year at the Salons des Vins de la Loire, your father never forgot to go and thank Patricia Denis.
There are so many memories, but my favorites are all the French expressions and words that made him laugh- everytime I hear the adjective "balloné" (ballooned) or "une petite demi-heure" (a SMALL half hour), or "un BON quart d'heure (a GOOD 15 minutes), I hear him laughing like a little kid. It became a game between us, and every visit I tried to find a new word he didn't know.
He loved and deeply respected his vignerons. We are lucky to have been friends."
-Catherine Roussel, vigneronne in Mareuil-sur-Cher
"What first comes to mind when I think of Joe was the intense delight he felt talking with vignerons - those he knew for years or those he had just met, who worked well in the vineyard and with no bullshit in the cellar, who had things to say, stories to tell and a sense of humor. Joe's face would light up with an infectious grin, with serious focus, with mock expressions of outrage or incredulity. It could go on for hours, especially if wine was flowing. Perhaps his basically dark and pessimistic world-view made him value these relationships with people who were doing beautiful work for no other reason than pride and who recognized consciously or not the importance of their contributions to the real beauty of life.
Henri Goyard and Jean-Paul Brun - perhaps they were the first vignerons with whom Joe had this type of relationship. I remember a visit when a barrel was still working after a year and a half (or was it two and a half?), Goyard, unconcerned, having us listen to hear an occasional bubble, then sharing a glass of the 1989 Monbellet in the sunshine of a warm day in February. Marc Ollivier of course, who became a close friend. Joe's appreciation of Marc's intelligence and hard work was deep and satisfying for both of them. We would stay at Marc's house during the Salon des Vins de Loire and struggle to stay awake over long delicious meals of pot-au-feu and game. Joe loved to meet the older guys who worked well - after a particularly frustrating two days in Sancerre, we went to taste with Pierre Boullay, just to drink something good. Boullay and Joe immediately got friendly and a few hours later we were walking up the street in Chavignol, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Claude Thomas came down off Monts Damnées to meet us. Claude was a bit taciturn and gruff, but here too a feeling of respect soon developed and many old bottles were opened. It was a great afternoon. Fernand Coudert - here was a man who enjoyed talking and tasting, it's fitting that a long bar is in the vat-room. Their mutual enjoyment during Joe's visits was obvious and great fun.
Joe's deep, dark and sometimes difficult sense of humor was a key part in many of these relationships. Fortunately Joe could laugh at himself as well, and growers often enjoyed a laugh at his expense. Catherine Roussell discovered one day at the Salon that Joe, who prided himself on his deep knowledge of arcane French idioms didn't understand "il y a du monde au balcon." The next day Catherine told Joe that he should taste with Jo Pithon as the wines were showing exceptionally well. As Joe approached their booth, Madame Pithon, who is very well-endowed and had worn a loose-fitting peasant blouse for the occasion, bent forward, loosened her blouse and said "il y a du monde au balcon?" Joe turned purple, and a good laugh was had by all.
And then there was the year when I didn't travel to the Loire with Joe, as having three kids between the ages of 10 and 16 made it impossible. An agent who sold me wines from Baudry and Hureau met Joe at the salon and inquired as to my whereabouts. Joe assumed his best expression of shock and outrage and said "Didn't you hear? They caught him stealing at Garnet and put him in jail!" The agent cancelled my orders. Joe produced a letter of apology, but insisted that only a moron would have believed him...
Joe was a very good driver, but could not or would not read maps, thus the beauty of our early relationship, as I love to navigate, despite the fact that he would occasionally fall asleep while driving. This encouraged me to pay attention and we rarely got lost. Finding Nady Foucault for the first time was a bit difficult however, as the great wine-maker has no sign on his house or indication of a winery on a long grey street in Chace. We were a bit nervous at that first appointment, as Nady rarely saw importers, especially Americans. Joe and Nady, of course, after a few hours of tasting and testing, each one feeling out the other, soon arrived at a sense of mutual respect. Things seemed to be going in the right direction, but then Charles Joguet walked in, waving a bottle of 1989 Clos Roche Blanche Côt and all thoughts of business disappeared. During subsequent visits the after tasting repartee between Joe and Nady got longer and longer, Nady behind the bar in his mystic black mold-covered cave, as our feet slowly froze and the days schedule was hopelessly ruined.
Of course the list of vignerons includes many, many more for whom Joe felt this deep friendship and appreciation and with whom he seemed totally happy. Laughing, arguing, gossiping, drinking and then doing his best to sell their wines, promote them and bring them to a wider audience - which he did so well and with a sense of irreverence and fun that enriched us all.
Thank you, Joe."
-David Lillie, co-owner of Chambers Street Wines
"First and foremost, Joe was a friend. Our story begins in the early 90's, when Louis/Dressner was just starting. At first, I'd see Joe and Denyse every summer with the kids, but as things progressed with the company, Joe started visiting us every February as well. He'd always stay at my house, and we would use my car to visit other vignerons, which gave us a lot of time to get to know each other. It took Joe a while to get used to Lyon's cuisine, and I remember one night where ate a delicious "Jesus" (a large lyonnais saucisson). Joe spent the whole night riffing on a pun he came up with: Jesus-Cuit instead of Jesus-Christ (note: cuit and Christ are pronounced the same in French). We ate too much of it, and were both sick the next day.
We always talked about wine a lot, about the industrial world and the peasant world. Joe truly appreciated France, and wanted to find the real wines, the ones closest to their terroir, wines that best represented the regions he loved so much. His journalistic talents really helped him dig up leads and objectively analyze people's work. The wine had to be good, but it also had to represent a state of mind, a philosophy, a story. Back then, 'offs' didn't exist, and not every lead or idea was a good one. I remember a trip where we tasted many wines that our naive palates could not believe were industrial. I remember a meal on Mercière street, where we both got caught up in a wine we were told was 'sans souffre'. Somehow, the next morning Joe had arranged to meet the vigneron. He came back that night annoyed; too perceptive in his questioning, the vigneron had admitted: 'I don't sulfur the wine, but I put a bunch in the barrel right before racking…'
Joe's great force, something us vignerons can never thank him enough for, was his passion for our wines. Over on your side of the Atlantic, he was able to make people understand the qualities of peasant wine. In fact, he was the precursor to it all.
Gloire à Joe."
-Jean Paul Brun, vigneron in Charnay
"It was September 2000. My employer, as he sometimes would do, called early to tell me I would be driving with a guest on my account calls that day - an importer. Soon afterward I met my boss in a suburban Detroit grocery plaza parking lot.
After exchanging greetings, Joe turned and asked me, "Do you have a blog?"
"What's a 'blog'?" I said.
He was sizing me up with the question. Then, charitably, he clued me in. "In the future everyone will have one."
I'd like to write a tribute to Joe, but it's difficult. It was his written words after all that I miss the most tangibly. And this attempt enflames the absence.
Writing is a method for discovering truth. Ordinary lies tend to wither in text form, and that is instrumental to the process of reducing them. In vino veritas, sure, butthe trade in vino chatter is particularly inundated with lies which Joe had the helpful and frustrating habit of pointing out. I don't think he could help it. He was more into the wine than the selling of it.
Of course, upholding wine and truth is not possible without true wine. In 2001-2003, unwilling to submit my wine selection to the approval of numerical scorekeepers, I tasted more than 15 000 wines, with notes and even scores of my own. I publicized this in an attempt to assert my authority as a judge. And it "worked." Business was active. And yet by 2004 I suddenly found that I loathed wine and drank almost none of it. I turned my attention instead to the beer department.
For vulgar trade related reasons, Louis/Dressner had been absent from Michigan since 2001. Occasionally I would agitate for its return, calling Joe and leaving messages on internetdiscussion forums. Then one day in May 2005, Joe showed up at my store with eight samples. I tasted them analytically, noting their euclidean attributes and conceding that all were worthy of testing on my shelves.
But something else had happened. By the next day I found myself helplessly craving 2004 Domaine Pepière Muscadet and 2002 Maréchal Bourgogne. They couldn't arrive soon enough. When they did, the drought was over. I was drinking wine again. Not tasting, comparing and judging - though the capacity didn't abandon me - I was drinking wine, and alive.
Another curious thing happened. By 2006 and after several large shipments of LDM wines, I noticed my clientele changing. I saw fewer needy, status-obsessed middle aged men. They were once a core constituent of our shop and almost certainly a reflection on me. But for every absent incrementalist trophy hunter, there were three new customers joining us. It was a visibly diverse new public: women, young people, people who had been to wine tastings and never enjoyed wine. Well we were all enjoying it now.
For now I've given up blogging and trading so directly in wine. I'm learning the restaurant business. It's less organized and more public in its evasions and conjuring tricks. It's good exercise. Joe taught me to get out of the wine business, and live, by doing it right.I miss Joe. I'm grateful to know his family, the vignerons, and their work, which carries on renewably."
-Putnam Weekley, ambassador of great wine in Detroit.
Indigenous yeasts... It's spring 1999 and we're tasting 1998, which I believe is the first vintage you brought to the states… I still remember how much joy I felt seeing you appreciate my work!
And then a tasting the next summer, with both our families eating wild mushroom omelets, ham and some local charcuterie. The ambiance is very casual, but of course the conversation always revolves around wine. You ask me about indigenous yeasts and if I've ever tried making wine with them.
"Me, no, but my father Jean, of course. There was no other alternative."
The conversation changes to another subject, but the decision is made the minute you leave: "I will retry a spontaneous fermentation in 1999…" 13 years later, working this way is so evident to me that I still wonder how I ever did anything else! So, of course I thank you for the "yeast question", but mostly I thank you for making me reflect on my work -to escape from my shackles and the beaten path- by making a simple suggestion that was by no means an obligation. Well played, my "guide"!
And that morning in San Francisco. We both find ourselves in front of the hotel... You're calmly smoking your cigarette and I'm trying to digest the 4 breakfasts I just pounded down! As always, I'm never sure if I should leave you alone or start a conversation. I must admit I talk a lot...even way too much! But today it's you who asks:
-Do you know San Francisco?
-Not at all. this is my first time here!
-Do you want to take a cable car ride with me?
It was a great visit, and I discover the city in a way I will always remember. But that's not what I remember the most of our morning walk: we talk about all types of things, about you, about me... And that morning, I want to keep it forever. That night, I realized that I actually knew something about you, and that I like you a lot! More than the wine, it's also the vigneron you appreciate. And with my wine, I feel like I let people see into my soul. Therefore, through my wine you now know me well... Alright, time to go back to the hotel, the rest of the family, YOUR vignerons are waiting for you. Thank you Joe!
You know Joe, it's not easy writing to you... So I refuse to write in the past tense, because thankfully, you're still extremely present for me."
-Franck Peillot, vigneron in Montagnieu
"Joe had, and continues to have, a huge impact on my life and the way I've come to value people and relationships.Sure I learned a lot about wine over the years, but I learned more about living from Joe. Joe was all in: loving, hating, creating. I can't say that there was one singular experience marked me, it's more the accumulation of them. Here are some of the times I think about when I think about Joe...
Me driving while Joe simultaneously operates two GPSes in an attempt to figure out which is smarter.
The sound of Joe's voice when he would call to wake Denyse in the morning.
Joe and me singing a karaoke duet version of "I Got You Babe" at a bar in Avignon.
The time the cat flew off the wall in Venice and planted itself in the middle of Joe's chest.
Joe calling me while riding his bike in NYC.
Joe showing off his newest, greatest travel bag.
Joe saying"come on, this is great stuff."
Denyse, Jules, Alyce, Buster, Zaggy.
Hearing Joe tell his mother that his father is dead for the third day in a row.
Joe checking in with me after an event and saying, "Are you happy, I didn't offend anyone..."
And so many more..."
-Shawn Mead, former Louis/Dressner employee, soon to be awesome restaurant owner in Seattle.
"OMFG, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
Writing about Joe!
Where and how do I start? Joe would have probably relished this kind of exercise - frustrated/talented writer that he was. Me not so much.
Just who is this Louis Dressner?
I first encountered Joe's label in the late 90's while working at La Goulue, which wasn't exactly a temple of natural wines. Mutual curiosity flickered as I purchased case after case for my bosses from someone who curiously imported all the stuff I wanted. Mine was further piqued when I realized that everything I bought at the local wine store (Garnet Wine & Liquor, where the Grand Loire Wizard at the time happened to be David Lillie) for my own consumption bore the same label. But mutual curiosity notwithstanding, even when my offerings of Joe's wines had increased manifold through numerous establishments I managed, our relationship did not mature until...
...The Arrival of the Little People (TM)
François and Jenny's (Worldwide Wines) arrival on the scene vexed and pushed Joe into fighting back, taking greater risks on more far-out (0) wines and breaking free of the three-tier Schnook system (1). On the eve of opening 360, I was delighted at the ever expanding inventory, direct sales and bounty of P.M.G.'s (2). Now we got to know each other better! We bonded over a firm conviction that wine should be drunk, not collected and a staunch resolve to put into practice this shared philosophy (3)-not anything so profane as balancing the inventory or diplomatic posturing at corporate tastings. Actually we got to cherish each others' dislikes and likes alike. Joe, though, was luckier than me in that respect, as he had extraordinary partners, the L and M in LDM, to keep him in check.
360's wine cellar became pretty much an LDM exclusive and I used to joke about how Joe was really the owner - against all regulations. Working more closely together, I shared and admired his uncompromising practices while keeping his business sustainable, before that even was a term. I also got to know him as a shrewd businessman, learned about his irritability with spoofulation (4) and his unwavering support of his friends in good or bad times. In support of me and my little place in the middle of nowhere, he would drag his wife, kids and aging parents all across town to eat, drink, be merry and wait for a taxi...
Joe Married Me!
After my wife and I had met over a glass of an LDM import (5), had gotten secretly married at City Hall and decided to do it again -this time for real with family and friends- it was clear from the start that only Joe could officiate. He accepted gracefully and took the job very seriously, preparing for a month, interviewing both candidates and unearthing an ancient Celtic ritual he decided was perfect for the union of a Frenchman to a German woman. He also denounced us as sentimental, but we forgave him. He did such a good job of it that we are still happily married and he received several requests from hopeful bridal couples. Seeing as he wasn't actually authorized to marry anyone, he had to decline.
After moving to Puerto Rico, we would see Joe on summer vacation in France and put dents into other people's wine cellars. One year at Denyse's family house (aka the Famous Château
Dressner à Poil Rouge) I thought I noticed a limp. When I asked Joe about it, he brushed it aside, attributing it to askew vision due to overindulgence in miscellaneous fermented beverages and a known predilection for herbal remedies of the smokable kind. A few months later it unfortunately turned out to be early evidence of the brain tumor he would vindictively fight over the next three years.
The big 4-0
Dressner and I finally make the "Big Times" (6). After hard times going through chemotherapy and radiation, Joe made a point in 2010 to preside over my 40th birthday celebration. Again in France, among many vigneron friends and many, many bottles of wine with porcine interludes, I relished seeing Captain Tumor Man, whose acerbic (and hilarious) blog entries had become part of my daily routine. Back home, it took three emails from him to finally make me read what I assumed was just Joe spamming me about heavily discounted penis enlargements in Malaysia.
The last Time until the next Time
In June 2011 for Puzelat's wedding Joe was so well that he celebrated all night, enjoyed much laughter, boar and many a bottle and even buried the hatchet with Breton over some fine Cubans. After the three-day celebration he was clearly exhausted, and when we saw him a few days later to say good-bye before going back home, he was weak. So weak in fact that he asked for our help in getting from his bed to the lunch table. He was clearly embarrassed by his frailty, and we were touched that he would allow us to see him this way. It was the last time I saw him.
I am very grateful to have known someone who agreed with me that the customer is not always right and who unlike me made a very successful business out of that philosophy, bringing mo' better wine to America in due course. I bemoan the fact that now there is nobody left who outgeeks me with the newest gadget and latest flavor of Android. I miss his cantankerous rants against distant (or less so) relatives, Alice Feiring, fake posturing and the questionable practice of circumcising adult men. And I miss sharing a good bottle or two or three with my friend poking fun at some undeserving victim or just laughing together for no reason at all. "Enjoying the lifestyle" as Joe would have smirked, quoting some Portland hipsters' reason for entering the wine business; as I have always suspected he did himself."
0.Far-Out: marked by a considerable departure from the conventional or traditional.
1.The Three-Tier Schnook System
2. Pour Ma Gueule: bottle reserved for ones own consumption.
3. "Humorless activism to promote wine is an oxymoron. Getting smashed, eating well and laughing with good friends are key to our movement. We also enjoy being contemptuous of other people around us, somewhat randomly, particularly when we're on our second or third bottle." - Joe Dressner
4. Point/Counterpoint on the History of the Term Spoofulation
5. Thierry Puzelat Pineau d'Aunis 2003
6. Jancis Robinson "Pure Pleasure?"
-Arnaud Erhart, former New York City restauranteur, current scuba diving instructor in Puerto Rico.
"Joe Dressner particularly marked the wine world, as well as the spirit of all those who met him along the way. Like Marcel Lapierre with us vignerons, in the wine business Joe distinguished himself as an independent, free spirit that changed people's minds and pushed thing forward in a positive, sustainable manner. His words, sometimes soft and well intentioned, other times bitter and without concession, remind me of the spontaneous fermentation of fresh grape juice.
So to describe his bursts of anger, of joy , his moments of brilliance and even his mistakes, I will use the generic term: "Dressner fermentation"! The Dressner fermentation is a huge mess! It's a succession of truths and contradictions without the slightest hint of apparent logic, but when you take a step back, you realized his determination was exemplary! It's also important to mention that this fermentation would have no value without Denyse and Kevin there to control temperatures in the cellar. I don't think I can come up with a clear, concise definition of the Dressner fermentation, but I've experienced it many times, and here are some examples:
My first experience with Dressner fermentation was during Denyse and Joe's first visit to our cellar around 1996. They had been sent by the Baronne and Barbouillette (note: Catherine Roussel and Didier Barroullet from Clos Roche Blanche). We barely knew them at the time, but our shared "customer" marked the beginning of a great friendship!
Next up, a huge argument between Joe and I, who had wrote on the internet that he bought Overnoy and Puzelat just to lose money. I doubt that he thought us "country folk" had access to the web back then!
Though Jenny and François introduced me to Arnaud at 360 and Laurent at Içi, the Dressner fermentation is what permitted me to get to know them and become friends! The perverse effect of this fermentation, Laurent ended up leaving New York and showing up with a backpack at my front door. Luckily, he quickly found a new house, a house where things are fermenting nicely...
In the same way, the Dressner fermentation created my New York family: Jorge, José, Chris Andrews, Chris Johnson, Bill, Arturo et Fifi: my American alter-egos!
It also gave me an Italian family: Luca, Maulino, Arianna, Uncle Bera and Santa Fonterenza. Another perverse effect: one of my "adopted sons" left me for one of those Italian vigneronnes. Again, love because of Dressner fermentation.
At one point, one of our interns (who was also a radio journalist), set up an interview with Joe at VitiValaire. First question: "So, you specialize in natural wine?" Joe answers: "No. I specialize in good wine!" End of interview, get outta here! Dressner fermentation.
Also, Joe was one of the first to "knight" Pierre-O-Bonhomme as a worthy successor. After grilling him for a few hours, of course!
In France, all of us are micro-categorized: if Houillon is identified as a natural wine producer, then Pinon is the organic wine producer, etc… Eric Texier isn't even allowed to be part of this circle at all! But the Dressner fermentation brought us all together, gave us the opportunity to listen to each other, to be attentive and to watch each other's backs. Finally, it made us realize that our goals, our experiments, our successes and our failures were so similar that these the categorizations have absolutely no reason to exist.
Those were just some examples of what the Dressner fermentation represents: a combination of free spirit, humor, being super serious, bad faith, intellectual honesty, respect and provocation. Joe contributed greatly to all the agitation indigenous yeasts are causing everywhere in the wine world. And after hearing Jules' speech last October during Joe's commemoration, oenologists should be worried: the Dressner fermentation is far from over!"
Thierry Puzelat, vigneron in Les Montils.
"I guess our first meeting kind of summed it up. I invited him to come lead a staff training at the four star restaurant where I was the buyer. We poured I think three Dressner wines by the glass at the time. He asked me if there was bike parking. I wasn't sure. He wouldn't come if there was no bike parking. I said I was sure we could find something in the building. He said he had been to the Time Warner Center before and hadn't been able to bring his bike inside. He said the guards had stopped him. I asked if it would be possible to take the subway over.He said he wasn't coming, and to call the whole thing off. I talked to several people in Building Operations, and we worked out special permission as well as a dedicated plan of bike entry and storage. I called Joe back and let me him know. I really wanted him to come. I showed up early the day of, ready to gofor Action Plan: Bike. Joe showed upa bit late onthe day of, with no bike. Decided not to ride the bike today, he said. Jesus.
We go over to the tasting. It is a Japanese restaurant. Everything is hyperclean. Surgically clean. You could have made microchips on the sushi counter if you wanted to. Joe starts opening a bottle of what I can't remember but it had a wax capsule. Wax was flying everywhere. It was like he was somehow coaxing more wax onto the bottle top, as if by magic trick, and then brushing that wax on to the floor. I sort of dived on tothe floor trying to clean this stuff up before the owner came in. None of the dudes who worked there were really wine guys. And they would freak if you like didn't clean up ALL OF EVERY SPECK of the loose leaf tea from the counter if you made a pot. They were like that. It was a religious thing. A state of mind. The wax would have been a bad first date. Joe was completely oblivious to all of this. No idea what I might be going on about.
We did the tasting. He had Larmandier-Bernier in the bookthen. He called Krug by way of contrast maybe the best made wine that he knew of, but still a made wine. That pretty much right there changed my whole conception of a lot of things wine related. The Japanese staff, most of whomwere women and most of whom were under 5'5'',really didn't know what to make of this, uhm, distinguished guestspeaker. I spoke to the staff about the need to serve customers wines that were better than they expected. Wines that might spark a realinterest in wine from people who previously had never noticed wine much. That this was a service we owed them whether we were asked for it or not.
Joe showed me afew samples after the training. I remember there was a Roally. There was also an Overnoy that I was intrigued by. I realized that for the price asked, I couldofferthe Overnoyby the glass. And Joe said he could get me the quantity to go ahead with. But I lacked the balls, really. I didn't go for it. And that was definitely the last time anyone ever offered me an Overnoy pour.
We finished up the tasting and went for coffee. We chatted a bit. He criticized the last restaurant I had worked in. He criticized most of my chosen career path, actually. Then he asked me what I had thought of the Roally from the tasting. I said it was the only wine that he had broughtwhich I didn't think delivered. The only wine which was uninteresting. And then he told me that Roally had been the wine that had sparked his own real wine interest in him.
So it went.
Probably theamusing short anecdote that stays with memost isthat ofJoe seeingJerry Seinfeld at Gray's Papaya.I chuckle overthe twofunniestJews in the world finding each other in the hot dogfactory of pork.
And there was thebitabout putting on other people's nametags at the high school reunion. That was signature Joe, I think. I actually can't imagine himdoing anything else when presented with the opportunity.
There was the story he told me one afternoon thatwas just so epically well done with the comic timing that it is hard to do justice in a retelling, although I did myself try.
But I'll be honestandsay that I knew Joetowards theend of his life and from his blog (which I read over and over). As much as I wish I had spent more time with him. I feel like a faker when I overplaythe relationship that we had. But I deeply regret not going to the hospitalto see him. I was afraid of intruding onhis life. I was afraid ofjust assuming that he would want tosee me. I thought I might be out of line. I was afraid he wouldn't want to see me, really. I should have just gone.
I held a party for Joe on my birthday awhile back.He attended.That was aterribly bad decision on my part.Not that we had the party, but that I choose that day to have it on. Each birthday is an anniversary now, and this last one was really lousy inside. But I am the one that is still alive, so what am I complaining about?
I remember this email exchange I had withJoe once:
Date: Fri, 5 Sep 2008 09:05:43 -0400
Subject: Re: thank ye
It was my pleasure.
I was drunk and did not pack.
On Fri, Sep 5, 2008 at 1:26 AM, Levi Dalton
Thank you, Gentlemen, for stopping by the restaurant. It was a great pleasure to see you both here.
It was hard to thank Joe, I think. I haven't stopped trying, though.
I can tell you that after talking with Joe, or reading something Joe wrote, that I said smarter things and told funnier jokes than I normally do. He rubbed off on people that way. It's rare for folks to have that effect on others. I picked up some of his high mindedness too. And I suppose I've pissed off a few more people than I strictly had to, because I wanted to be like Joe.
I can still tell you exactly the last moment that I ever saw him. I suspect, however, that that moment wasn't such a big deal to him outside of the discomfort of the walking, so I won't go on about it."
-Levi Dalton, sommelier extraordinaire, blogger extraordinaire, podcast kingpin
"A flow of memories come from the "wine tour" Joe started to do each Spring. After my third invitation, I accepted. Well actually, we accepted since I asked my son Julien to come with me. It was my first time really spending any time out of France. We were about to discover the the biggest ambassadors of our work: you, the New Yorkers who already appreciated our wines. Joe's collaborators, the buyers, retailers, the sales staff… So many "professionals", yet so friendly and agreeable. And I can't forget the other French and Italian vignerons, all on our "class trip". More than wine, Joe knew how to keep varied personalities around him, all authentic."
-François Pinon, vigneron in Vouvray
"Joe left us and a year has passed, but his memory will always guide us. After almost 20 years working alongside the Dressner family and their collaborators, Joe managed to create a family of vignerons around him, and what a family! We all keep incredible memories of our trips to the United States. We will continue to move forward on the the path Joe created for us, with his passion for viticulture and wine, always so grateful of the vigneron's work. The incredible relationship he built with us, by visiting our vines and cellar so regularly; we will never forget Joe and Denyse's first visit to Petit Chambord, with the tasting lasting so long we forgot the roast in the oven!!!!
And thank you Joe, the ambassador of ROMO in New York!!!
-François et Claudie Cazin vignerons in Cheverny
Last year you left us and Christelle and I didn't get the chance to know you better. For the entire family, you were first and foremost a friend. You were also a lover of good wine, of wines that did not lie, of vigneron's wines. I still remember your quick visits to Mérignat, tasting Cerdon right when they were starting to re-ferment, taking notes on your super computer and partaking in the great conversations our tastings led to. Our tiny appellation, and especially our tiny vineyard was part of you. You were and always will be the importer who made Americans discover Cerdon. The moments we spent together in Mérignat and during our infamous trips with the whole team in the USA are unforgettable. Know that you will always stay in our hearts."
-Elie and the entire RENARDAT-FACHE family, vignerons in Mérignat
"The memory of Joe I have is amazing. I remember him as a man of great character: his ideals lived in his thoughts (that were impossible to compromise on), ideas he was so proud of putting to action.
We met many times. In the beginning, before the bastard cancer, two or three times a year, then less, and a last time in NY for a quick hello at the beginning of last year. I remember his first visit to the cellar with Denyse, Alyce and Buster. We spent an unforgettable day with my father Alfredo. We ended the evening in a small trattoria called Ostu Djdiu, drinking and telling life stories.
Since 2007 up until last year, there was the annual "Real Wine Attack" and the tasting in the Loire. These trips are etched in my memory. I have to be grateful to Joe for making us feel part of a family and for introducing me to some people who I now consider my best friends. When traveling, Joe told pearls of his life, gave me advice... Joe was considered our Uncle, forever with a ready wit, sometimes unexpected, with its biting humor made us feel part of his project, part of this family.
-Luca Roagna, vigneron in Barbaresco
"I'llalways remember the time we spent together during our several US tasting tours.
I'll always rememberyour sweet and kind smile,yourloud laughs, your strong american accent while speaking frenchand your mumbling when you weren't too happy with a wine!
I'll always remember you, and you are in my heart!
We miss you, JOE!"
-Alessandra Bera, vigneronne in Canelli
"I have not had the time to experience Joe Dressner as I would have liked to; I first met him four years ago at the Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie and then saw him again in the summer of 2010 in the Mâconnais with Kevin and Denyse. I had joined them in their annual tasting tour to try to gain insights into those Gamay wines produced using cold semi-carbonic macerations. It was very hot, the sort of heat typical to the month of July that leaves you breathless. Joe, whom I noticed was not at his best, didn't miss out on a visit. He would sit, taste, speak with everyone present and then walk back to his car leaning heavily on his walking stick, close the car door and set off on the next leg of the tour to the next meeting and tasting. I remained silent in the sidelines, exchanged few words with him. I was slightly overawed by him and afraid of opening up to him, of saying the wrong things. I did not know him well but had a great respect for the incredible work he had carried out supporting traditional authentic wines made by farmers and assisting the many winegrowers he discovered and helped enter into "the world". I listened and tried to understand the depths from which that strength was sourced, his serenity, his ability to listen to the people that were close to his essence, the enthusiasm he expressed in his work and in the wines he tasted, his inquisitiveness for life and his deep love for the men and women that work in the vineyards in a straightforward and open way. I saw a generous but stern man; behind that apparent reserve, there was infinite kindness. I will never forget that trip; it was also a journey within myself."
-Elisabetta Foradori, vigneronne in Trentino
"It was probably in 2001, in Verona, that was one of the first times I met Joe. Kevin was part of the trip. I proposed to go and have dinner at "La Ragnatela" in Mirano. Not really around the corner but I thought it was worth it.
Kevin asks Joe to get in my car, meanwhile I am thinking, "That's great! Joe Dressner is in my car, I'll get the chance to talk to him, pick his brain, learn something, know him a little better, understand which wine likes etc etc..." Well, so much for my expectations: Joe got in the car and fell sound asleep from that moment until the moment we arrived. Kevin then asked him "you did not sleep did you ?" Joe said he was not sure. Dinner was actually very good and we had a great time.
Later on during one of our tours in the US, on the train from Boston to NYC, Joe and I sat together and had a very nice conversation. I still remember it as a great moment. Joe had a fantastic sense of humor and the capacity of looking at things in his own special way."
-Silvio Messana, vigneron in San Casciano
"I met Joe in 2006. It was like some kind of examination. I remember that we were at Villa Boschi in Verona. I was showing my first vintage, 2004. Kevin passed my table with Shawn and someone else. They were serious, but their faces were comforting. They tasted the wines. It was their first experience with Frappato and for me it was the first experience of a tasting. I saw their happy eyes: it looked like they had discovered something, but at that moment I did not really understand anything in their expressions, so I smiled, expecting them to say something. It seemed they liked it anyway. Then Kevin said, "We'll be back in about an hour with the Boss."
For us Italians, the word Boss, it means much more than the leader, it presages the imaginary Italian-American, in the typical crime film in which the "boss" and his followers hid in some warehouse in the Bronx, always at a long table handing out his commands, cigarette smoke saturating the room, the accents vaguely Sicilian, drug-trafficking and gunshots on the street. So that's what went through my head for the hour. In the meantime, I tasted the wine and was happy with it.
At one point this same group was in front of me forming a barrier around the table that slowly parted and there in front of me there was the Boss, Joe, with his air of serious, infallible confidence, one of those people who are forever firmly grounded. We re-tasted the wine -those two minutes seemed endless- and then there was that smile, his head went up and down and only two words: VERY GOOD. And at that precise moment I entered the team. I did not yet well understand what it meant to be on a team, from a business point of view. I could play volleyball, but I also did athletics, so playing sports helps a lot, but at that moment I couldn't put the pieces together. That team was a family, a group in which the rule applies: I grow, you grow. The concept of TOGETHER, where things are not programmed but come spontaneously and everyone helps each other.
Joe managed to create this. He had his own ways, his humor, sometimes obvious, at other time you had to think about it for two days. He had a great knowledge within and a knowledge on wines that I have seen in very few people; an intuition that the wine had it or didn't. He has contributed greatly to change the way we drink in the States by bringing in a surprising selection of wines over the years, always things that were so special, until the last moment of his life. The wine was all for him, and so was his family: Denyse, Jules, Alyce were his pure daily food.
There was the summer I spent with them in France, far from the chaos of New York that he loved so much, and close to his producers. From there, producing ideas, creating the last great thing he has left us, his blog Captain Tumor Man. Only he could find the virtue in the absurdities of life. A great lesson: the meaning of life is to stay true to that which we give and do not lose hope until the end of life. Joe loved me and with the last hug came this sentence: "I never thought that your wines could meet such success. I knew something, but it's way beyond expectation. I'm proud of you." This alone is the true meaning of my work - The firm link with life, with other places and with other people.
-Arianna Occhipinti, vigneronne in Vittoria.
"The very first time I met Joe in Chicago was also my very first tasting as a future employee of Maverick wines as a sales rep. He was presenting a selection of wines from the LDM portfolio along with Eric Texier who was showing all of his new releases. I respectfully went through the tasting the way Joe guided me through it and watched as he scolded others who wanted to taste wine on their own terms. Someone even walked away from the table and said to my boss, 'You know, that guy is a real asshole". Even as a newbie to the trade, I understood what he was trying to do and didn't understand why this customer felt as if he knew more than the importer.
The very first bottle of wine I purchased using my employee discount was Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon. I still wish I had some of that today but sadly, the 2001 is long gone.
Several months later, on my very first day marvining with Joe, I was warned ahead of time that it may be challenging. The sales person who worked with him the day before said that he almost pulled over in the middle of a busy expressway out in the suburbs and make him get out of the car. I spent a day with Joe learning some of the most valuable lessons, not only in the trade but in life. That was the day that I learned to take the ego out of it, that it wasn't really about me or this famous wine importer sitting next to me; but about the men and women who tended the vines and made these lovely wines. At the end of that day with Joe, I also realized that I needed to divorce my husband. He had this uncanny ability to question you without it feeling as if you were being interrogated, yet was able to draw out answers that left you wondering ' holy shit - did I just tell him that?' A day in my car with Joe was always like an extended psychotherapy session.
I think that very first day was one he blogged about when he wrote of having to taste wine in glasses that had been rinsed out in the bathroom sink and left to dry on the toilet tank lid, a practice he and I both found to be disgusting.
We connected that day and started a friendship that held up, despite my transgressions of moving on to different roles in management and representing spoofed and tricked out American wines. On my very first LDM trip in 2007, I was introduced to the group by Joe as the American Brand Manager in a tone that could only be described as 'with derision'.
He hated my boyfriend of the time and every time he would call, he would ask "Are you still with that jerk?" He was one of the first people I called when I told him we split up. He treated Mark as suspect when we first started dating but eventually warmed up to him when he felt that he treated me well. He had genuine concern for my mother as she was going through her own cancer treatment. He would call if he had not heard from me in a while and say "you never call, you never write" in his best Jewish mother tone and we would always pick up where we left off. In 2008, when he brought the growers to Chicago, he wanted to bring the growers to my mom's restaurant and we handled the logistical challenge of getting everyone out there efficiently and economically by hiring a school bus. It was an evening of great fun, food and laughter.
I guess I can sum it up by saying that Joe was a giant influence on me professionally and personally at a time in my life when I was going through some huge changes. He helped change me for the better."
-Josefa Concannon, American Brand Manager at Louis/Dressner Selections
"I have good memories of Joe. I met him at Villa Favorita in Italy, maybe 7-8 years ago. Then I'd always bump into him at tasting events in France, and almost always at Haut les Vins, which he was very loyal too. It was always a good time to talk about the vines and the wines, but also about music; he was surprised that I regularly listen to ZZ Top, probably never imagining a rocker in this "bonhomme" frame. But what surprised and amused him the most was my april fools joke involving doses of Stévia:
He actually put it up on the front page of his official website, claiming to be the owner and exclusive reseller of the product in the USA… all the while selling my natural champagnes and their Boulardienne dosages! This got us some attention with the press and some mettlesome sommeliers who found the whole thing scandalous. That's why I liked Joe so much: he was serious in his work, but always shared humor and conviviality with his friends."
-Francis Boulard, vigneron in the Vallée de la Marne
"I fondly remember my first meeting with Joe. Once basic niceties were done with -rapidly- he fixed mewith a fairlygimlet eye and said "It's louche" and I replied something like "Really? What's louche?" And he switched completely to his Archie Bunker meets Woody Allen accented French saying "C'est louche, un vigneron qui parle comme toi, avec un tel accent"! It hink that 99% of people who meet me in France think the same thing but no-one else ever expressed it directly to me for fear of seeming politically incorrect no doubt."
"I only met Joe twice. He had told me about his two kids, and how everyone in France always asked what they did for a living. The French always expected something like lawyer or doctor. One day when asked the question, he saw a plumber's truck and decided to tell everyone his son was a plumber. I found that hilarious, and think about it often. It's good to relativize ourselves every so often."
-Tom and Natalie Lubbe, vignerons in Calce
Our story with Denyse, Joe and their children begins at the same time as Mas des Chimères'. 1rst vinification: 1993. First visit from Denyse, Joe & Co: summer 1994. Everyone showed up at noon to taste, and there I was, alone with my kids. We had a big meal that centered around…tomato and gruyere pizzas, since Jules didn't eat anything else.
And then we got our first order: Coteaux du Languedoc 1993. We were bottling to order at this point; the labels weren't always straight but at least the wine was there! And this was the beginning of a new rhythm. Every summer we waited for our Americans, usually to great pleasure and anecdotes: Alyce, Jules and Antonin coming back destroyed from the Salagou lake, Joe shattering a hotel bed, the "black hole" Joe slipped and fell into at another hotel, the winter when Denyse call us to say: "Joe is at Vinisud. He's really bored, can you two hang out with him?", Palma picking him up, our "special VIP", in her tiny old Citroën.
And of course the last years, the illness, the remissions and the pleasure to still see each other despite all of his problems. And today, death, absence and the lives that continue…"
-Guilhem Dardé, vigneron in Octon.
"Joe, I've told you many times that us meeting, that our friendship (which quickly replaced professionalism) was hugely influential in my life as a vigneron. Thanks to you and Denyse, I met some extraordinary people: vignerons who influenced the way I work, but also the wine shop owners and enthusiasts who opened my mind (and palate) to wines from the entire world."
-Marc Ollivier, vigneron in Pepiere.
"Many moments and anecdotes with Joe and Denyse -most notably our trips to the U.S- will always stay in our memories.
What I remember the most were Joe's little gadgets which he took notes with. Every year, (or at the very least every other year), he had a new gizmo.
I also remember his incredible amount of responsibility he took in our first years working together. I'll never forget the time a customer refused to pay us money he owed. This was horrible for us, worst than hail even because the work had already been done. At the moment we thought all hope was lost, Joe decided to pay out of his own pocket."
-Claude Maréchal, vigneron in Bligny-les-Beaune
"Monday, February 23, 2009: the date is etched in my memory.
It's our first time in New York for this particular tasting, of which this was the fifth edition. Everything is set up, the doors open and a large crowd forms! But the veterans whisper to me: "Nothing important is going to happen as long as Joe Dressner isn't here."
Who was Joe Dressner? The first thing I remember is a physical presence. Tall, proudly carrying a few admirably spread out pounds… A colossus! The only thing bigger than Joe himself was his reputation: that he had an incredible palate, that he was THE importer in the United States. Everyone hoped he'd visit their table, secretly dreaming of convincing him to buy your wine…
While waiting for him, Dominique Hauvette and I are walking arm in arm. All of a sudden, she says: "There he is! Go introduce yourself!", and pushes me in front of him without warning. Here we are face to face, and I don't even have the time to panic that I'll say something stupid: "Hello, I'm domaine de Souch…" His answer is a bit curt: "I was looking for you. A lot of your friends here are speaking highly of you… I want to confirm what they are saying is true."
Not another word from him as we walk over to our stand, where my son Jean René was pouring.
Joe: "I'm here to taste".
Jean René: "Which one?" (there were three wines, the 2007 sec and the 2 2005's)
Joe: "All three, of course…"
Perhaps he was slightly annoyed by us not being at ease. He tastes without saying a word. Looking him dead in the eye, we desperately search for a clue, a hope. Nothing!!
Very concisely, he finally says: "Come to my office Wednesday morning, we'll taste again in a calmer environment."
Oh no! Our tickets are booked for Tuesday, but Jean René immediately calls to change them.
Wednesday morning. Here we are in front of Joe and Denyse, silent and worried. After a while, the men start talking about sports, particularly about the Tour de France that coming July. Joe reveals that he is he a passionate cyclist, and has always dreamed of following a full stage of the Toure in person. And then I hear Jean René telling him he could organize that for him… My husband was a journalist, and had often covered these cyclists' exploits. Through those connections, it would be possible to find room in a car following the race up the Pyrénées… After that conversation, the tension is gone and the ambiance is electric. Joe is full of joy! He buys the three wines from us (which he liked a lot!), and we left the office, happy and proud to be selling our wines in New York.
You know the rest of the story. Joe was never able to visit us in France, and then he left us…But we still send you wine, and Denyse seems happy, and so are we!"
-Yvonne Hegoburu, vigneronne in Pau
PART 2 BELOW.