A (Michael) Jordan Cabernet

No one gets into the wine business to get rich. Well … very few people do, anyway.  No, ours is what we lovingly call a “lifestyle business.”

People are drawn to the wine business because they truly enjoy the culture of the industry, and are genuinely passionate about all things vinified, fortified, brewed, bottled, fermented and distilled.  It’s a wonderful menagerie of wild personalities, fiery opinions and varying cultures of business. And, more often than not, if you spend enough time climbing the proverbial ladder, you will find yourself afforded opportunities for international travel–visiting the world’s great wine regions and vineyards.  For most, and for the most part, it’s the “lifestyle” in the “lifestyle business” that is the reward.

Chicago Bulls wineIn fact, there are precious few other businesses that are so capital intensive with such risk — so few that there’s an old adage that provides a wry wink and a smile:

How do you make a million dollars in the wine business?  Make twenty-million doing something else and buy a winery.

Of course, this is not to say it can’t be done, I mean just ask Gary Vaynerchuk.  Still, while the monetary gains may not be as attractive as other careers, there are few who would argue that being “in the biz” doesn’t offer an attractive package of other, less tangible benefits.

For starters, you have opportunities to eat and drink lavishly with legendary winemakers and world class chefs. Not so bad, huh? And, of course, you can also tap into a wonderful international network of fellow foodies and oenophiles.   It’s another nice benefit.  But, the one perk that offers the most fodder for re-telling, depending on which side of the industry you’re in, is getting to meet a celebrity or two.

While most times these chance “celebrity” encounters will be little more than a friendly, brief exchange, every now and again you’ll get a nice story out of it, something to regale others with over your next glass, of, well, wine, of course!

I had the opportunity to meet a few stars in my restaurant days. From athletes to actors to business moguls; the encounters were usually little more than me tending to their beverage needs, however, a few encounters stick out in my mind.

On one particular occasion in Chicago a few years back, we  kept 676 Restaurant and Bar open late so that Michael Jordan and some of his friends could enjoy a cocktail in private. Mister Jordan was always kind and asked very little. He and his comrades would sit in our plush lounge, looking down on the magnificent mile sharing laughs and stories over a few mixed drinks, and occasionally glasses of wine. Every now and then they’d hit me with a scotch or tequila question, but for the most part they just wanted to have their stolen moment away from the crowds of admirers.

Michael-JordanOne cold fall night a gracious and frequent guest had left me the last glass of his 1997 Cornerstone Collage Cab Sauvignon (a wine whose memory I hold more fondly than most of my childhood).  In a cruel twist of fate, I was unable to swallow any wine due to medication I was taking at the time. However, I was NOT about to let science keep me from such a stellar glass of vino! So over the course of the evening I must have smelled that wine a thousand times. Each gentle whiff better than the last. As the evening drew to a close Mister Jordan came to shake my hand and say thank you as he always did, but this time as I was polishing stemware he stopped short and said (with a curious grin) “I’ve seen you smell that wine about a thousand times but not take a single sip. Does it really smell that good?” Slightly embarrassed I laughed and replied over my shoulder, “Taste is over rated. A lot of what you get out of a wine will be in the bouquet. At least that’s what I tell myself as per my doctor, no wine for me for a couple of days.”

He then picked up the glass and took a nice big whiff and said, “Smells like … grapes!” “You’re hired!” I replied with a laugh.

We both chuckled, and right as he was walking out he turned and asked, “So how’d you end up in this business?” It was a question I had never really thought about up to that point so I just said the first thing I could think of. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else” I said. I could tell he understood exactly what I meant. He smiled, nodded and on his way out the door said “Well, you’re good at it.”

It’s nice to hear that every now and again, especially when you’re in the “lifestyle business.”

Louis Calli has been involved in the wine industry for over a decade in several capacities. He currently works as a Wine Director for 21st Amendment Wine and Spirits located in Indianapolis Indiana. When he’s not enjoying vino he spends his time hiking with his pooch Frankie, and working on expanding his impressive collection of sweater vests.