Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me - clink!

Through the largesse of good friends - Barbara and Ron - we have attended the Alameda County Meals on Wheels fundraiser for a few years now.  These 5 Star Nights are lavish - I always feel under dressed.  (I really need to pop for a black tie.)  Last Friday was its 25th Anniversary, and some of the Bay Area's heaviest hitters were providing the food, including Bay Wolf, Ozumo and Bocanova.

Do you know Meals on Wheels?  They provide warm meals to home bound seniors.  We've had such fun at these Five Star Nights, and the stories they share are so affecting, that Karen had Elizabeth's Brownie troop write Holiday cards to accompany five dozen gift packages that the Moms put together for our local Meals on Wheels.  The Director there thanked Karen and told her that for most of the seniors, these gifts would be the only ones they would receive.  Bonus?  The kids had a blast.

The Five Star Nights begin with a silent auction, followed by dinner, a live auction and dancing.  Plus lots of drinking, did I mention that?  I love sitting down to a meal and having more glasses at my place than silverware.  After saying hello to Barbara and Ron - and nibbling on a few incredible hors d'oeuvres - Karen and I scoped out the silent auction items.  They're often out of our price range, but Meals on Wheels does such wonderful work that we've been known to splurge.

Yes, you do count five glasses.
I headed to the area advertising Wine and Spirits.  There was an incredible bottle of 25-year-old Glenfarclas whisky.  More impressive was the fact that it was being donated from Narsai David's private cellar.

Narsai David?  Local luminary, paste restaurateur, and catering impresario.  Bill Graham would have Mr. David cater events for troubadours passing through San Francisco.  Little music groups like the Rolling Stones.  When Mr. David opened his eponymous restaurant in the '70's, the New York Times reported that his wine cellar was one of the finest in the world.  He's been a special friend to Meals on Wheels, acting as emcee for their Five Star Nights all these 25 years.

There's a gentleman in black tie and tails hovering in the Wine and Spirits section, blocking from my view whatever glory has captured his attention.  I'm holding that bottle of Glenfarclas in my hands as I see that its bids have overflowed the first page and have begun their scroll down page 2.  The bids have hit four digits, so I carefully put the bottle down as I hear the recognizable voice of Mr. David announcing over the loudspeakers that he's a wee bit disappointed because a fine bottle of cognac that he has donated from his private cellar has yet to receive even an opening bid.  He gives the brand of the bottle, its provenance, and his assurance that it's indeed fine, VSOP.

That's of course when I see the man in the black tie next to me put down his microphone.  He puts his mic down so he can open the box of cognac glasses that accompany the bottle of spirits I was unable to see.  So he opens the box of Riedel glasses - there are two - displays them properly, and turns to his right.  To me.

Would you have guessed the backdrop is one of Kristina's Disney Princess nightgowns?

Good evening, Narsai David says.  This - and he gestures to the fine bottle of cognac he had just described - is a fine bottle of cognac that I just described.  It's from my own cellar - like that Glenfarclas, and the Glenfarclas I assure you is heavenly, my favorite - but the cognac?  I can vouch for the fact that it's delicious, but we don't have an opening bid.  Perhaps you would be so kind?

Narsai David is charming.  Meals on Wheels is a fabulous organization.  Karen and I didn't pay for our tickets to get inside the Scottish Rite Temple on the shore of Lake Merritt, so I won't hesitate.

Of course I'll begin the bidding.  After all, the Glenfarclas has dozens of bids - surely someone will outbid me for the cognac.  This is a trifle, this accommodation of Mr. David's gentle request.  My name and paddle number on the first line of the bid sheet will only serve to get the cognac's game on.

So I write Nick Petrulakis, #374.  Kind of laugh it off.  After all, my birthday is days away.  Why, it's almost as if Karen is making the bid for me.  A little gesture she can tell me about later - I thought it would be perfect to get you this bottle of cognac, she would say, from Narsai David's own collection.  But I was outbid.

And we'd clink glasses and sigh over the one that got away.

Only, of course, this one wouldn't get away.

There's a dapper gent standing next to me now, also in black tie like Narsai David, and he's looking at the cognac, then at the scotch.  That scotch, I say, is Narsai David's favorite.  Like I've got the inside dope or something.  And so we talk scotch.  For five minutes.  It's like we're talking ball, this handsome stranger and I, so easy to pass the time like we're discussing the latest scores.

After a bit, he looks at the cognac, sees the one bid.

That wouldn't be your own bid, would it, he says?

And I laugh, I laugh and say, Oh no, that's my wife's writing.  She put the bid in for me, for my birthday.  And so he laughs, too, and says he surely couldn't bid against my wife - not now, not since we've shared a few minutes talking scotch.

I forget, for the moment, that in fact I do want him - or anyone - to outbid me.  The silent auction has an opening bid, naturally, and the opening bid for the cognac was healthy.  Even more than the scotch.  The bids for the scotch have gone into the stratosphere, far surpassing the opening of the cognac.  Still.

But I forget myself, and my new friend has gone on his way - though there is plenty of time for other bids to usurp my own.  So I go on my way, too, seeking out more champagne, more hors d'oeuvres.


I take time to post that I may have just purchased an expensive bottle of cognac.  One of my coworkers, Elizabeth, took the time to respond:

J Pepin had a wonderful old bottle of Hine cognac, 25 years old. His wonderful wife, Gloria, entered a meat loaf contest and won. But later, she was never able to reproduce the taste. Gloria spoke to her husband and he asked what was different. She said she had used "that cognac in the cabinet." Jaques went to his sadly depleted stash, moved it, and kept the rest for himself.

What Elizabeth doesn't know, can't know, is that the bottle I've just bid on is the twin to the one that J Pepin quietly squirreled away for his own use.

I find Karen, tell her about the cognac, assure her that with time left, someone else will surely win the bottle and glasses.  Then it's time for dinner and we take our seats in the banquet hall.

The meal is exquisite, and in the midst of more drinking - we have to use the five glasses that have been set out for us, yes? - a woman approaches the table and asks for Karen.

The woman is all smiles as she tells Karen that she won two auction items!  She just needs a credit card to finalize things.  Karen smiles and with a flourish hands over some plastic and we're the proud owners of a new, pretty necklace and an old bottle of cognac.


After the party's over but before the cognac arrives, I see a man - tall and handsome - headed to our table.  It's the gent in black tie that I chatted with before I owned cognac.  In his hand?  That bottle of Glenfarclas that Mr. David said was his favorite.  I won, my friend says, and he holds the bottle up so it catches the warm light.  Would you like a shot? he asks.

I'm trying to think of a time when I turned down a shot of scotch, much less from a bottle that's been praised by the man with one of the greatest wine cellars in the world.  So I just smile and my new friend does the honors.

The only problem with old bottles of spirits?  Unlike wine, you don't store them on their sides so the corks can dry out.  This has happened to the Glenfarclas and the cork crumbles in two when its owner tries to remove it.  He's undaunted, finds a waiter to help, and soon he's pouring two glasses of nectar.

I just look at this bit of sunshine in my glass - sniff, swirl, and taste.  All I can think is - smooth.  So I sip some more and think smooth some more and thank my friend and off he goes, holding that bottle unlike the way I would.  Me?  I'd cradle it like a baby.  A newborn I didn't want to disturb.  But that's my problem, I think.  I share it with my dad.  He kept all the good stuff - didn't want to fritter it away.  And after he died, after we found so many bottles of the good stuff that he never got to enjoy - I thought, Ah, Dad.  Why did you wait?

My friend?  He's name is Paul.  I got his card.  Paul met me a few hours before, but after buying the most expensive bottle of scotch that's ever been in my hands, his first reaction was to seek me out and ask if I'd like to share - only because I'd happened to be there when he was bidding on the bottle, only because we'd shared a few moments talking about the pleasures of fine spirits.

Me?  With my new-found cognac?  I was worried about when I should drink it:

If I ever finished the novel?  No, not good enough.

Maybe when I sold the novel.

Maybe at the wedding of my daughters?

And is this just ridiculous?  Why not crack it open right then?  Seek out Paul, reciprocate, offer the first pour to him?  To Barbara and Ron?  Instead I'm going to wait until I cure cancer.  Easy, right?

As I'm turning this over in my head, the Hine Cognac arrives.  My host, Ron, says we should get the bottle signed by Narsai David - Ron's father and Mr. David were very good friends, so Ron knows Narsai David well.

We wend between tablecloths, find Narsai David, and Ron does the introductions.  Narsai, he says, my friend Nick here says you coerced him into bidding on your cognac.

Who, me? asks Mr. David, and I'm thinking coercion is a strong word.  Propose, maybe.  Maybe suggest.  But both Ron and Mr. David are laughing at the coercion, and Mr. David thanks me for supporting Meals on Wheels.  Then he produces the biggest hip flask I've had the pleasure of seeing and asks if I noticed the bottle of scotch that was neighbor to my bottle of cognac.

I want to tell the truth and explain everything - leading up to the glorious taste of that scotch that I was lucky enough to experience.  But before I can say anything, Mr. David shows me that affixed to his silver flask - as if affixed to a bottle - is a Glenfarclas label.  25-year-old.  And Mr. David says that he and another renowned wine importer, Darrell Corti, purchased multiple barrels of the stuff somewhere back in time.


It's basically his sipping scotch.

He asks if I'd like to try some.  And yes, I could explain everything - leading up to the glorious taste of that scotch that I was lucky enough to experience.  Instead, I say yes.  I say, Certainly.

And so for the second time in ten minutes, I get to drink some of the smoothest scotch I've ever been around.  Mr. David is happy to sign my bottle of cognac.  We shake hands, I take a quick picture of he and Ron, and then we part.

Karen and Barbara are laughing about something when we get back to the table.  They're talking about the desserts on display and we all head that way.

As I bite into a creamy tart, I decide I won't save the cognac for the most special of occasions.  I won't.

Unless, of course, I do.