“We are more and more into communications and less and less into communication” … Studs Terkel
My father instilled in me an innate curiosity about life and people. He taught me that having the right question may be more important than having all the answers. And most importantly he taught me to listen. I’ve always been interested in how people arrived at their career choices. Was it an accidental journey or a planned path that you’re now walking down. Since my life’s work has been in the wine business, I’m for the most part interested in people who have traveled a similar road. My Socratic style was inspired by Studs Terkel and his examination of the average American working stiff. When someone asks, ‘will there be anything else, sir’, I often respond question in question, “what’s the meaning of life?” This always stops the questioner in his/her tracks. A moment of reflection is sometimes given to a substantive response, but for the most part it often devolves into an embarrassed laugh, or worse into some platitude or other. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk with someone during a wine interaction I like to ask about their first memorable wine experience. What’s that? Well, since you’ve asked, I’m more than willing to share my story.
My father, Howard Corcoran was a character, and in the Irish oral tradition told great stories. He graduated as the Valedictorian from Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, West Virginia and then from West Virginia University with a degree in Law. He never sat for the bar, but instead followed his widowed Aunt Margie to Florida, where she was the business manager for the architect Addison Mizner. His aunt had been married to Arthur McConnaughy the founder of Island Creek Coal Company, the genesis company of what is now ConocoPhillips. My great Uncle was killed defending his mine during a strike, and Aunt Margie was left with a then significant income. So off to Palm Beach with Dad to be near her sister Virginia, who’s husband operated the men’s haberdashery at the Breakers Hotel. Dad quickly landed a job for $1/day as a clerk in a brokerage office, and lived on a yacht owned by American composer Jerome Kern, with his roommate Johnny Love. At night Dad and Johnny headed a jazz combo that played during the high season at all the big parties. This was in the middle of prohibition, but the swells weren’t about to do with out their champagne or booze. My Dad and Johnny had a sideline business of also supplying the party favors. The yacht was used to sail over to Bimini to pick-up a load of Cordon Rouge Champagne, Seagrams whiskey, and Kennedy Scotch. And then the boys sold their haul to the social 400 who inhabited Palm Beach for the winter.
My Mom and Dad got married after the end of Prohibition just as the New Deal was helping to drag the economy out of the depression. I came along as the last of five kids towards the end of the famed boomer generation. I grew up listening to these by then romanticized stories, and knew that in some way, some how wine would be part of my life. My parents often had dinner parties, and Sunday meals were always formal sit downs at the long claw and ball foot table in the big dinning room. Wine was often part of these occasions, and we were always allowed to taste the wines and encouraged to share our impressions. Knowing my Dad’s story, I often asked my father’s friends and business associates about the first time that they thought of wine and went wow.
I still ask this question. I ask it of store owners, and clerks. I ask sommeliers, and chefs. I ask university professors, distributor owners and winery entrepreneurs. And everyone has an answer. That moment of enlightenment seems, while always different, to be a memory worth sharing. Although I grew up enjoying wine with my family in the appropriate social situations, my moment of zen came on the
balcony of my Disney office in Florida tasting samples while creating the wine list for the Empress Lilly Riverboat restaurant complex at Lake Buena Vista Village. It was the mid 70’s and I was tasting the 1970 Ch. Pavie, and all of the sudden I got it. This, my moment of sudden enlightenment, was soon followed by a trip to Sonoma County, California. At the end of a long week I was sitting in my rental car on a cloudy, rainy winter day in the parking lot of the Dry Creek General Store sipping on a bottle of Dry Creek Vineyards Zinfandel. The sun finally came out from behind the dense clouds and a focused beam of light hit my car. At that moment, I knew that this was my home… satori in Sonoma.
That my story, but what’s yours? I’ve been so fortunate due to the circumstances of my life and career to have asked this question of governors, congressmen,senators and CEO’s. I especially enjoyed asking this question of some of the icons in the wine industry, including Joe Heitz, Hans Kornell, Mike Girgich, Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Henri Jayer, Jacques Seysses, Jim Barrett, Warren Winarski and Jess Jackson. Their stories were all unique, but what great stories they were to hear. One of the best lessons that any successful wine salesperson can learn is to ask the right question and then listen to the answer. So, do your remember the moment when you first drank a wine and thought, wow? I‘m listening.
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