As a country that measures its alcohol in pints, not magnums, Ireland is probably the last place anyone would think of for learning to love wine. But that's where it all started for me, thanks to Peter Dunne, a director of Mitchell & Son wine merchants and the man I call "my Irish father."
Peter--too young to be anything more than a spiritual father--was one third of the remarkable family I lived with for much of 1982. Ours started out as a strictly practical arrangement: I needed someplace to live, and the Dunnes--then young and struggling--needed my American dollars. The college made the match; the Dunnes and I never spoke until I was at their front door. Our sole communication had been a passport photo that the school told me to send. (Perhaps to ensure that the Dunnes didn't let the wrong American move in?)
The Irish Tourist Board couldn't have conceived of a more perfect family: Peter and his wife, Anne, were not only generous and kind but young and good-looking. Even their little daughter, Mary Elizabeth, seemed happy to have an American in the house (though their dog, Cherry, clearly felt otherwise). Soon I was being asked to dinner and invited along on Sunday drives in the country.
It took a while longer before I began to feel like part of the family. That moment came about a month later, when Anne and Peter confessed their thoughts on seeing that first photo. Like all passport shots, mine was far from flattering. My face, said Anne, had loomed so terrifically large that she'd told Peter, "She'll eat us out of house and home." (Never mind that the Dunnes served an infinite amount of potatoes at each meal, making that mathematically impossible.) Peter said he'd been about to ask the school for more money--when I showed up. "We were so relieved," said Anne.
Potatoes notwithstanding, our dinners together were generally memorable occasions. Not just because Anne was a great cook (her halibut-and-leek dish was stellar) or that the conversation was lively (a favorite topic: my Irish boyfriend, whom both disapproved of), but also because of the wines Peter brought home. Most were samples, bottles he'd tasted earlier that day. I'd never encountered anything like them--German Rieslings, premier cru Burgundies, and petit château Bordeaux. Sometimes he brought home an American wine--in my honor, Peter claimed, although I was skeptical; it was usually the worst wine of all. This wasn't surprising, considering that the biggest California wine in Ireland that year was Paul Masson Chablis in a carafe bottle.
We'd talk about wine, or rather, Peter would talk and I'd listen. A few times I even tagged along to Mitchell & Son. The venerable wine merchant (founded in 1805) was housed in a trim Georgian town house on Kildare Street across from the Irish houses of Parliament. Every politician of consequence (including the prime minister) was a customer of Mitchell's, and Peter knew them all. Many took their lunch at Mitchell's wine bar; one day Peter pointed out Winston Churchill's granddaughter to me.
The business of wine as practiced by Peter seemed so civilized, so urbane. His wine talk tended to be metaphorical, even poetic, not facts about fruit, oak or tannins, or for that matter, money. Wine, as Peter described it, was lifted beyond commerce or science into art. I wanted somehow to be part of it all.
It wasn't easy. In the wine business back home, no one wanted to talk wine the way Peter had. Instead, I was asked to memorize case-discount prices and the names of liquor stores in Queens. It was a long, long way from the world that I'd found in Ireland, with Peter.
Over the years, Peter and I kept in occasional touch. As he and Anne added members to their family, I accumulated jobs on my résumé. Finally, when I had the job I thought might make Peter proud, I called him up and suggested a visit. He not only agreed, but announced that he and Anne would hold a dinner in my honor. (Who takes a call from someone they haven't seen in 19 years, let alone throws them a party?) However, Peter noted, with chagrin, their house was more crowded. With four children, there wouldn't be room for me.
I arranged to stay at the Merrion, four beautifully restored Georgian town houses joined together to form one sumptuous hotel. It was only one block away from Mitchell & Son. Dublin looked a lot more prosperous than when last I'd seen it, and so did Mitchell's. The wine bar where I'd worked once or twice was now a full-scale restaurant, Bruno's, and the shop had expanded.
Not only was Dublin better off than before, but so were Peter and Anne. They'd moved out of their small cottage in the suburb of Blackrock to a sprawling brick house in the posh district of Ballsbridge.
The dinner party the Dunnes had put together was a mix of professional (Chef Bruno and a château owner from St-Émilion and his wife) and personal (friends and family, including Mary Elizabeth, all grown up). The two younger girls, Greta and Jenny, served the meal, which featured, as always, plenty of potatoes. (Even enhanced fortunes did not equal fewer spuds.) The wines were from the St-Émilion château owner--a sprightly rosé and an uninspired red from the lackluster 1997 vintage. "I forgot to bring the 1998 home," Peter admitted. (A much better vintage.) But he didn't seem upset. Nor did the château owner. I was surprised. I've been to dinner parties in New York where the host would sooner kill himself than be caught serving off-vintage wine. But in Ireland, it seemed, wine, even for merchants and producers, was primarily meant to ease conversation and provide a good time.
The wines were served in double magnums--"Dublin magnums" I called them, for they seemed to be bottomless. I tried to keep up with the pace but knew it was hopeless when I was chastised for "drinking too much water." Later, when the toasts were made, I spoke of Peter as my mentor, hoping, I guess, for some sort of response--an acknowledgment that I'd turned out all right. Instead, Peter rose to fetch a copy of Hibernia magazine in which another protégé, Erik, a local wine-bar owner, acknowledged Peter's influence. I sighed. Apparently it was just as hard to win the approval of a spiritual father as a biological one.
Peter and I spent the next several days discussing wine. It was like the old days, except this time I knew what he was talking about. I wondered if things might have changed for Peter in the ensuing two decades, considering how much the world of wine had been altered. In some ways, said Peter, it wasn't so different: "Mitchell's is still a wine merchant, not a wine business--which means we have relationships with our customers and our producers. We don't just sell people wine--we talk about their dreams." And if their dreams ran to 100-point wines? "That's not really what people come to us for," Peter replied, adding, "They want our advice."
It sounded so wonderfully old-fashioned. But then so was Peter. He always wore a tie, held car doors and pulled chairs out for women to sit down. And he never lost track of a friend. Peter not only knew everyone in Dublin, but every local wine professional seemed to have been mentored by him. There was the buyer for the big Oddbins store, a fellow who started an Internet wine company and, of course, Erik the wine-bar owner. Even the Dunnes' former au pair had gotten a job at a winery, thanks to Peter.
"You must be very proud of them," I said. "Yes, they all had talent," Peter replied. "And me? How about me?" I couldn't help asking. "You?" Peter replied, as if the topic took him by surprise. He paused. "I remember one night I brought home a wine that was corked; I wanted to see what you'd do." "What did I do?" I asked, eagerly. "You thought there was something wrong with it," Peter replied. I wondered if that made me a prodigy.
On our last night together, Anne, Peter and I had dinner at Bruno's. I'd brought an American bottle I wanted Peter to try, one I knew he hadn't tasted and a wine I thought represented the best of what American winemaking could do. It was the 1998 King Estate Reserve Pinot Noir--a first-rate Oregon Pinot Noir. Peter brought a bottle too, the 1966 Château Pontet-Canet. "The first château I visited," he explained. (Sadly it turned out to be a bit faded, the fruit dried out.)
And my wine? What did he think? "It's gorgeous," Peter pronounced. "Simply gorgeous." Maybe this wasn't the exact compliment I had hoped for, but that's what probably happens in most families. Nobody ever says exactly the right thing, in the words that we're most longing to hear. But when there is love--like the love I felt for Anne and Peter that night and all those many years ago--nothing else really matters.