I was on a mountain top in Georgia, about 800 meters up, about to start tasting a variety of qvevri wines with about eighty of my new best friends when I got the text from Kevin. "Joe died this morning at home, at 1:45."
I was squat on the stoop, a supra, a soon to be feast, spread out in back of me, the tasters up on the hill. The Caucasus Mountains standing tall and black in the distance. I tried to go up the hill, there were others up there who knew and loved Joe Dressner, the mythic wine importer. Lou, Ceri, Joe C., and Justin. Instead, I turned around and took myself into the bathroom. I expected it, but the news hit hard. I selfishly wanted him to hang on until I got back home. I wanted to say goodbye.
The last time I saw him it was in the hospital, early August or was it late July? He was fixated on a shaver and tooling with his iPad. He barely talked to me, though he had told me to bring him coffee. His behavior was like my grandfather who wouldn't speak to me before he died.
I documented Joe in my first book. I told how I met him when I was writing the Food and Wine Magazine Wine guide. It was 2001. I was hating the wines I was tasting. Except. Except.
There was a huge chunk of wines coming from one importer, Joe Dressner. I called him up for samples. (Mea culpa). And he said he didn't supply journalists with samples, if I wanted to I could come over.
Joe Dressner’s ofﬁce, on the edge of Little Italy and Soho, was
a ﬁve- minute bike ride from my home. He opened the door for
me, sucking on a cigarette. In all ways, he was a looming pres-
ence. His feet (the size of skateboards) could have squished me like
a roach. He shared the narrow ofﬁce with his wife, Denyse; their
dog, Buster; their partner Kevin; several hundred wines; and Joe’s
bicycle— which, I learned, he rode in the hope of containing his
weight and staving off the inevitable bypass operation.
I went to work tasting the wines. At ﬁrst, like a cat, Joe ig-
nored me. Then like a dog, he warmed up, getting positively ver-
bose. He told me that he, an ex- Marxist, ex- SDS- er (of course, I
was impressed) had met his French wife at NYU’s school of jour-
nalism. Wanting to ﬁnd something that would give them a cross-
Atlantic livelihood and a way to live half of the year in France,
they got into the wine- import business. He used to import con-
ventional stuff, anything he thought had a market, and thought it
was immaterial how the wines were made. He slowly came to
the conclusion that what he called “real” wines tasted better than
the conventional ones— and he also found the winemakers more
simpatico. He started to get rid of wines he called “spoofulated,”
those that were manipulated for ﬂavor.
I spent hours at Joe’s, getting the dirt on his life as well as the
Those hours with Joe changed my life, my future. I am not alone in that. Joe, complex, arrogant, kind, generous, dick, crazy, wild sense of humor, had the power to effect change. He made a difference.
I would hang out with him at the office every chance I could get, soaking it all in, arguing, sometimes fighting. Ten years ago, days after 9/11 he decided to go ahead with his 50th birthday party. Classic Joe. He sent out the menu, told people how much they'll have to cough up, besides the wines they'd bring. Then at the end he picked up the check. He was prone to random acts of generosity. He was a mentor to many. Father to many. Fiercely protective of his son Jules and daughter Alyce. In Denyse and Joe's apartment there's a picture of Joe, holding a very, very young son. I could feel him thinking, how did something as precious as this happen to me? But still, he was a man who was as prone to ripping off scabs as he was to give his blessings and raise spirits and careers and esteems. To many, he was a dear and true friend.
In business he always believed his first duty as an importer was to pay his vignerons. They were to be paid first before his business. Though an avowed Marxist, if he was going to run a business he was going to support the worker who made his business viable.
For all of Joe's rants, at me included, for all of his sticking his nose into a riesling tasting and shouting out, "So does anyine here NOT deacidify?" For all the people who won't speak to him, who have been attacked by him, me included, the other part of Joe was the man who provoked love, loyalty and devotion, not only with his immediate family but with Kevin McKenna who became a business partner (?) years ago, Sheila who worked with him a few years shy of the years I became friends with him. The winemakers in his posse. And then random people that I know feel this loss deeply other than his immediate family, amongst them, and I'm just citing these people in the masses, because they have shown me their sorrow, Kevin McKenna,Keven Clancy, José Pastor, Lee Campbell, Levi Dalton, Joe Dougherty, David Lillie.
David and Joe.
Those two had stories to tell. They had a guy movie. Two tall men on the road, drinking for the greater good.
I was lucky enough to hear some of them.
The people who Joe touched (and punched) were many. And he effected all of our drinking and the way we look at life through that glass.
As for me? He often told me I was no writer, I should stop what I'm doing, he was angry at me for writing, it seemed. I could not figure out why except that he, an effortless and brilliant and pee-in-you-pants funny writer with a true voice, should have written his own book and I really regret that he left this planet and our lives with out writing them down between the covers. Maybe Jules, Alyce? Maybe Denyse, who herself is a lovely writer, will write down the history of their company. That's a book we need.
I went up to join the group after a little texting back and forth with Keven. I knew I'd embarrass myself with red-rimmed eyes, but it wasn't that bad. Ceri Smith looked at me across the table, I nodded, "Joe." I said.
The look on Lou's face, he turned the color of the basalt soil around us.
That night with Saperavi and Rkatsitelli in hand the tamadar toasted to Joe and then he asked me to speak. What did I say?
That without Joe's work, the natural wines of Georgia would have no market. No one would have understood them. Even those who didn't know Joe, had much to thank him for. I said some other things, perhaps the others can remind me. But what I didn't say but thought was there I was with a bunch of clerics, bishops, people who believed in God and hated Marxism. And there I was with them, marking Joe's death. A Marxist, and someone who had no patience for religion.
This was an irony that I know Joe would love. Or maybe he would just tell me I didn't know what I was doing, once again.
Joe, with love always, --Alice