One Year: An Hommage to Joe Dressner (Part 2)
"Denyse and Joe arrived to my little estate a beautiful day in 1991 (the 13th of August, to be exact). Denyse had her arm in a cast and Joe gave me an empty bottle, asking me in French (but with a New York accent, which made it seem very serious and authentic) "It's you who made this?" I actually thought they were lost…
What? Americans? Here? There must be some kind of error!!!! Well No! I wasn't dreaming!! I was in the presence of a real "Uncle Sam"-or in this case "Uncle Joe" - and he wanted my wine! You must really want it if you came all the way over to my parts! For a guy who had never left France, it was incredible to have an American buyer come all the way to see me. And I could never have guessed that this meeting would lead to a professional relationship that has lasted over 20 years and continues today. 20 years of loyalty is huge, especially when you live 8000 kilometers away from each other! At the time, international commerce experts were telling me "You don't have the right structure to do this, it won't last, you need our help and and…" And nothing! I wasn't having any of it; Denyse and Joe gave me this opportunity.
In fact, I recently found the document they had brought with the bottle, and it said "… our customers are looking to start solid relationships with their producers in order to create a loyal clientele." Often, these are great, convincing intentions, but the promises fall flat. But after 20 years of sharing this experience, things take another dimension and you can actually appreciate those values. This vision was the work of a lifetime, one where Joe was not only the author, but also the director.
Like all relationships, there were "up and downs" that had to be overcome, and I'll spare you all the details because if I did, I'd be writing a novel. So instead, I'll share two "lows" that marked me, and 2 "ups" that were a lot of fun to remember.
Of the hard times, I remember a time when your parents and I were just starting to work together. Joe had found a customer in New York who I'd sent wine too, and he was very late on his payment. Back then, I waited for customers to pay me in full, then I'd send the commission to your parents. I'd sent the order out in the Spring, it was late August and I was still waiting on a payment I should have received in May or June. During their visit in late August, I mention it. Joe tells me: "I'm taking care of this the minute I get back". Three weeks later, we're in the middle of harvest and I receive a long letter with a check explaining that the customer was unable to pay for the order, so they were paying me back with their own money, and would deal with getting it from this guy themselves. I couldn't believe it! This was unheard of in France! We were more used to "we're really sorry about that, but rest assured that you can keep the commission!"
Another tough moment, mostly for me. It was February 2001; Joe shows up with a new customer from Oregon and I had no more 1999 left (the 2000 had not been bottled yet). This infuriated Joe, and my arguments did not convince him. He refused to even taste the 2000; instead, he stormed off to his car, slamming the door. Before driving off, he gave me a look through the side window, which I thought was going to be our last, and said (always with the New York accent!) "How long have we been working together?" The implication was that we HAD worked together, and that the future was compromised. A few days later, I was feeling horrible about the whole situation, and found the courage to call New York. I got Denyse, who was really nice. Joe was back, but he was still mad and we both conceded it would be best if I faded into the shadows for a while…
But the thing with Joe was, you never got bored. After all the business talk, he would let his guard down to tell us the little stories that marked him, the countless anecdotes from his numerous trips that he would tell so well (always with the New York accent. That was the charm!) For example, this story is typically Burgundian. At the beginning of his career, Joe is tasting at an estate in Burgundy, and he likes the wine. After talking about the prices, he gets into the formalities and explains to this guy (who has probably never exported a single bottle in his life) that he needs to get a "fax" machine so they can easily be in touch. This was way before email. The vigneron, a little confused by this "American" word, asks Joe to repeat himself. He finally understands, but is very hesitant since it must be very complicated and probably very expensive! At some point, Joe had spotted the 2 Mercedes-Benz in the garage, so to reassure the guy, he says "It's simpler than driving a Mercedes, it takes up a lot less room and more importantly, a fax could be very useful if you need to replace them or buy a third one…" Not sure what the guy ended up doing, but you could tell he was thinking about it!
Another time, Joe was with a distributor in France. To make things easier, Joe had rented a car. One day, they're on the road and M. is at the wheel. After a few kilometers on the autoroute, he was getting passed by a lot of other cars, and even trucks!
"M., you don't have to drive 60 kilometers an hour. We just got off the American highway. Here you can roll at 130."
Thank you for your visit on August 13th, 1991. This one's for Joe, the man who made me discover America."
-Jean Manciat, vigneron in Charnay-lès-Mâcon.
"So often when we think of Joe, we think of these moments which were beyond the pale. His very presence could often be counted upon for high-spiritedness, gregariousness and perhaps at the very least, a lively lesson in history or etymology (I'm forever grateful for his educating me about Emma Goldman as well as introducing me to the term, "that old chestnut.")
And while I relished those times of outlandishness which continue even now to keep all of our tongues wagging, there was another side of Joe which I value equally. This was a side of quiet contemplation and great humility... a side which I suspect he called on greatly in the final chapter of his life. I recall an evening we spent together during the last year or so of his life. Denyse was out of town for a short while and he was on his own. Although he had been ailing, he was still well enough to stay alone with the help of close friends checking in. That evening, it was I who was checking in. Zaggy and I went for a walk, and when we returned, Joe asked if I was hungry, and of course, I was! So we browsed through a pile of takeout menus and he ordered our supper (online, of course). I sort of thought we might watch TV, but instead, we hung out in the dining room just shooting the shit. I don't really remember much of we talked about, I just remembered being completely cozy and glad. We were both feeling appreciative of the other. The thing about Joe was, whether there was a crisis at hand or it was just a rainy Friday night eating Chinese, he always seemed so pleased to be in your presence. He was really good at friendship.
We ate noodles, and then I pulled books off of the shelf that we half-discussed. We looked at old family photo albums, and tried to drink some fancy Scotch because he said it was the only thing he could taste anymore. We pulled things out of Zaggy's mouth that she probably shouldn't have been gnawing upon, and talked shop a little. In other words, we didn't do much of anything. And we didn't eat or drink anything in particular. It was a mellow night.
And I left after a few hours feeling totally full."
-Lee Campbell, former Louis/Dressner sales boss, wine director for the Andrew Tarlow group
"A non conformist importer, irreverent, sarcastic and often of bad faith, Joe made me laugh. This is what I remember the most today. He was funny and we all miss his impertinence. Thank you Joe for all the laughs."
-Laurent Saillard, former restaurateur in New York City, vigneron in Touraine.
"Joe had a contentious relationship with the physical world. All of us who knew him during his battle with cancer were watching closely the ups and downs of his treatments and therapy which were vainly working to stave off the ultimate villain—which he did for a good amount of time. Soon after Joe and I began to work together in 2010, I was invited to travel with him, Denyse, Kevin and Zaggy in France to visit many of his longtime winemakers. I jumped at the opportunity-- not only to meet the producers but also to travel in a single car, with LDM-Z. I knew it would be memorable and intimate and that's exactly how I wanted it. The trip was indescribably rewarding and funny. I had a few trepidations going into it; being in a small car together for several days in a row can be tricky, but it worked out with no problems. I was a welcome traveling companion (mostly because I bought the jambon sandwiches on the highway!). Joe wasn't really tasting much or eating much at this point but he clearly enjoyed his time with the growers.
Midway through the trip Joe gets a spider bite on his hand. No big deal. Except it's Joe. He fixates on it. It gets bigger. He fixates more on it and now cannot stop talking about it. He knows it's only going to get worse and—it does! To the point where Joe has to leave Cazin and check into the local hospital. He was given some antibiotics and released the next day. It went away. Round two to Joe (and the drugs). We continued on our way and had the best time. We saw, we ate and we drank and I will never forget it. But Joe was restless. He was waiting for the next fight, for the next slick, bold, unsuspecting opponent who dared to cross his path."
-David Bowler, importer and distributor in New York City.
"In the first days of knowing of Joe's diagnosis, Joe, Linus Kessler and I went to Trestle on Tenth to whom knows what words to use, I guess just deal with this news of our dear friend in a place we felt safe and comfortable. Off the list we had a stunning showing of the 2005 Breton Clos Senechal complimented by the tasty "home-cooking" that is the signature of Trestle.
At some point during the long meal we went out for some fresh air. Trestle is across the street from a car wash. "I have always wanted to drive through one of those in NYC and have never done it" said Joe. Well whats a friend to do? I hail a cab, hand a twenty to the driver and say "Take us round the block through the car wash please".
Around bottle four Linus suggested to Joe to change his blog to The Cantankerous Captain Tumor Man, which Joe morphed into The Adventures of Captain Tumor Man. That night was one of our best ever together. It was full of the things Joe loved, real wine and food, honest conversation, a good argument, lots of laughs, and great friends sharing a NYC car wash together."
-Michael Wheeler, co-owner of PDX wines, Portland, Oregon.
"He was a cantankerous, cynical and contrarian New Yorker. He was also one of the most honest, authentic and real people that I ever met in the wine business. We all know that Joe had unique skills. He was a very gifted writer. He was witty and smarter than everybody else. And he knew it. He had a bizarre sense of humor. Who can ever imagine the weird story and legacy of Cuvee Buster? You never really knew what would come out of his mouth next. Should you receive a rare compliment from Joe, you had to wait a few seconds to make sure that Joe just wasn't playing with your head. He usually was.
I think that he found the industry simply preposterous. He didn't "fit" in. "Fitting in" would be the last thing that he would want. Some of the mundane industry activities gave Joe endless ammunition for his hilarious tales of "a day in the life of a wine salesman". Very funny stuff and mostly because it was based on true stories. He antagonized the wine media for years and took endless potshots at "the 100 point scoring system" which drives the industries insecure buyers.
Of course, the great irony becomes that this larger than life outrageous contrarian ended up being the visionary. Those weird "real", natural wines ended up becoming the fashion. No, they will never be mainstream but clearly Joe had it right from the beginning. Joe's wine discoveries were based on real people making real wine from real places. The wine writers had no choice but to start following Joe's discoveries. Joe became a go-to guy for everyone serious about fine wines. He never bent his principles. He was ahead of the market.
There won't be another Joe Dressner. We all benefitted from knowing Joe and we all learned a lot about wine and more importantly, authenticity.
Miss you, Joe."
"It's true, that I can't remember the first time I met Joe. We live with this narrative idea about life, that it begins and and that it ends. But this cartography doesn't do justice to the way we know people, the way we respect and appreciate, the way we live with each other. My friendship with Joe Dressner feels, in that way, timeless. I remember seven years ago he came to Diner for lunch with a salesman. They ate at the bar and I tasted wine with them. They were not super interested in selling which I felt was a relief, equally for them as for me. We talked a bit about Mondovino, a movie that had recently came out. An interview with Neal Rosenthall had been filmed inside the Diner. Joe told me all the growers he worked with liked the movie. That first visit was full of quick banter. Later, in France, Joe introduced me as the star of Mondovino.
The first time I met up with Joe in France it felt as oddly as though I'd come home. I felt secure in his presence, he immediately felt like family to me. Joe was speaking french, but he was doing it with a cadence that was specific to him. As an english speaker I could almost understand everything he said just by his gestures. His character, his language, his spirit seemed boundless, tremendous.
The friends and vignerons he introduced me to also felt like family. It felt like the right place, a community of people joined by ideals and certain way of working. Ideals and virtues came first, then came business.
Joe surrounded himself with the most original, charming and mischievous characters to ever grace a vineyard row. They are farmers who work the fields and are committed to leaving the land and the planet in equal, if not better condition than they found it. These vignerons counted on him to represent them and sell their wine and pay them for the bottles. Joe became the natural if somewhat reluctant leader of this community. He was able to bring people together vegnerons and other, all more or less like minded, trying to do something ethical, something authentic. Wine just happened to be the vehicle for these values.
I have never known anyone who passed away that has lingered in my thoughts the way he has. I spend many of my interactions with people wondering how Joe would do it, or what would Joe say. The odd thing is he mostly never did things the conventional way. Brash and super opinionated, generally pretty right, intensely funny and biting, super sharp and fast. The intensity he took to the world sometimes made me feel like I was talking to someone who was smarter than the rest of us.. He was a radical communist in college. For the people with the people but maybe smarter than people. Movement, not a movement.
It's a been a couple of months since Joe died now and I can't stop thinking about him. I asked my wife and she talked about how perhaps our minds cannot philosophically comprehend the notion of death, that our minds struggle to understand the loss of another human being. I feel lucky to have spent time with Joe. To sit at a table with him, and share in his jokes, to be on the inside of his jokes. To spend time in the warm glow of the life Joe created.
I want to say, Joe, goodbye and thank you for bringing this community together, for caring so much and holding on to your ideals, and not being quiet or polite about it, for trying to make it better and totally being a personality about it. Such important lessons."
-Andrew Tarlow, restauranteur in New York City
-João Roseira, vigneron in Pinhão
I want to thank everyone who contributed. Reading, translating and editing your words brought me inestimable amounts of joy, laughter and tears. I know some key voices are missing, so if anyone wants to write something, whether I've contacted you already or not, please mail your entry to email@example.com. It seems probable, inevitable even, that a part deux be in the works. I also need to thank Bertrand Celce for giving me permission to use many of the incredible pictures you can find on his even more incredible blog, wineterroirs. Additional photo credits: Alex Finberg, David Lillie, David Mcduff, Levi Dalton, Josefa Concannon, Maya Perdersen, Jarred Gild and Luca Roagna.
A year ago, the only thing I knew for certain was that the Louis/Dressner story had to continue, and that I wanted to be a part of it. Over the last three years, I've come to realize the significance of what Joe, Denyse and Kevin have accomplished, and it created new levels of pride and love in my heart for the man I already respected most. My grandfather told me when I was very young that when a person dies, you mourn for a year then let them go, both for your sake and theirs. In part because I'm a pretty bad Jew, I don't know if I'll ever be able to "let go", but as time passes, the bad memories of the last four years are slowly fading and getting replaced by the good ones. Not that it makes it any easier...
But I take comfort in the fact that Denyse Louis, Kevin Mckenna, Sheila Doherty, Josefa Concannon, Maya Pederson and David Norris are the most incredible team I've ever had the pleasure to work, let alone co-exist with. I take comfort in the inestimable amount of support and kind words I've heard from so many of you in Europe and in the U.S. this past year. And most of all, I take comfort that Joe's vision continues! 2012 was a true year of pushing things forward: adding Zélige Caravent, Domaine du Possible and La Stoppa confirms our continued commitment to seeking out France and Italy's best producers, and starting with Louis-Antoine Luyt in Chile, as well as our four new German estates -Knebel, Immich-Batterieberg, Clemens Busch and Koehler-Ruprecht- reaffirms our dedication to seeking out and representing the most outstanding examples of viticulture and winemaking in the world.
Thanks to the admirable and constant work of our vignerons in Europe (and Chile!), the continued support of our distributors and the dedication of retailers and restaurants in an ever-increasing amount of establishments all over the country, we honor and celebrate Joe's life by sharing and drinking some of the best bottles both man and nature have to offer. So raise your glass, and CHEERS!