This morning I went to Jensen’s Market, Palm Springs's finest foods market.
I went to see my friend Kevin, the wine guru at Jensen’s.
And I went to see Jensen’s “Mr. Chicken”, Pete.
Today Pete was “Mr. Turkey” too.
He was not wearing his turkey hat, not his chicken hat, but I recognized him.
Pete’s smile is unmistakable; and he likes to be called “Pierre”. I am happy to oblige, especially when he does such a fine job boning a turkey breast.
As I waited for Pete, aka Pierre, to do his work, I realized I was listening to John Denver singing his Rocky Mountain High.
And that segued into an Amazing memory.
In 1977 I was sommelier at Moran’s Riverside Restaurant. The restaurant was a Renaissance room, overlooking the Mississippi in New Orleans’s French Quarter. My job was simple. The owner, Jimmy Moran, said he wanted me to create for him “the finest wine cellar possible. “ He never asked what I paid; he trusted me to do what he asked me to do. And so we had a great time together building this wine cellar.
Moran’s restaurant was on the second floor in a newly remodeled eighteenth-century building. It was only accessible by elevator from the courtyard on the ground floor. The kitchen, just to the east of the dining room, was situated above the pasta-making facility, also on the ground floor. Between that ground-floor pasta facility and the kitchen above was the wine cellar. It floated between floors, and had great ventilation as well as security.
I had plenty of room to house current-drinking wines from the great regions of France and Italy and some from Spain, as well as that newly discovered territory, Napa, California. And some from The Finger Lakes’s iconic Dr. Konstantin Frank. I also had adequate space to house, in unopened cases, those wines that were too young to serve. Each was marked with my suggested date of serving.
In my search for the “best” I had thought of Mr. Moran’s customers and what would please the majority. Thanks to Michael Broadbent and Michel Roux as well as many of my vineyard-owning friends, I had found fine vintages of the best Second and Third growth Bordeaux as well as those I loved from the Cru Bourgeois, and the estates of Julius Caesar’s Burgundy. Of course for the minority who could afford the ultimate, the greatest vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux, Italy and Napa, had their bins. Every bin was clearly named and marked “do not disturb” so the waiters would not go in frantically moving bottles that were sleeping into perfection.
One morning Mr. Moran told me that John Denver had heard about the wine cellar and was bringing his entourage for dinner that night. By the time I entered the dining room for the dinner service I had sort of forgotten what he had said. I had been receiving some 600 cases of our house wine that day, and that is a long and important job. About half an hour after the night’s service began I looked up. Someone was waving me over. It was John Denver. Really. He was holding the wine list and smiling. Really. We, his wife Annie and he and I, discussed what the group was eating, and then he chose the wines he thought would be best. His father agreed.
Their dinner was about to enter the desert course when John waved me over again. He wanted to see the wine cellar. So we walked through the dining room into the kitchen to reach the stairs down to the wines. One bus-boy, just finishing polishing the silverware, looked up. Stunned by recognizing John Denver he dropped all the silver at John’s feet. Joining John in an uproar of laughter, the whole kitchen erupted in relief.
John followed me down the staircase and into the wine cellar. He really was curious as to how and why it was arranged as it was.
Like a troubadour he carried his guitar. Entering the cellar, seeing how it might swing and dislodge a precious inhabitant, he removed it, laying it carefully over a newly arrived case. When we’d made the circuit, he picked up his faithful pal. “I’d like to sing a song for the wines,” he announced.
“Do you mind singing in the stairwell,” I asked? I took a deep breath. How do I tell John Denver ‘no’? “This is a nursery. They will dream your song, inventing themselves anew. But perhaps inside this room the reverberations will be too upsetting?”
The troubadour understood. Strumming the first bars as he strutted out, John Denver began to sing for and to Mr. Moran’s wines, “Rocky Mountain High.” A movement made me look above John’s head. There was the whole kitchen staff, bus-boy in the foreground. And in back the whole of the dining room too. It was an Amazing Moment.
Waiting for “Mr. Chicken” this morning, John Denver’s refrain, “Rocky Mountain High,” followed by his soaring note that would fall into “Colorado,” I was amazed by the immediacy of those long-ago surroundings crowding in memory. I can see the faces of Annie, his wife, and that of his father as John waxed lyrical in choosing the wines. They understood they were in the presence of a fleeting dream, of a troubadour.
John Denver’s song tells of the majesty of America’s natural heritage. As on the first Thanksgiving let us again celebrate our human similarities and our native differences. He also tells us of his voyage, like Pharoahs of antiquity, to touch the sun. All together now: “He left yesterday behind him; you might say he was born again. You might say he found a key for every door. He climbed cathedral mountains; he saw silver clouds below. He saw everything as far as you can see. And they say that he got crazy once; and he tried to touch the sun. And he lost a friend but he kept his memory. Now he walks in quiet solitude the forests and the streams, Seeking grace in every step he takes. His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake; And the Colorado mountain high. I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky. You can talk to God and listen to the causal reply. Rocky mountain high. …..Colorado.”
I’d be a poorer person if I had not this amazing memory of such a troubadour touched by the sun. Wine, god Dionysos, caused us to meet; caused John to sing on that stairway long ago, inspiring bus-boys and chefs and diners to do greater things, like reaching for the sun.
John eventually did reach for and touch the sun.
Now I have an Emperor next to me who is getting antsy to tell his story.
But, Julius, your time is not yet nigh. Shussh. Soon.
Madeleine de Jean.
Dream Amazing dreams. Dare to touch the sun. Dionysos is there to uplift you.
The Night Julius Caesar Invented Champagne.
Thanksgiving day, 28 November, 2013.
Comet ISOS is nigh. Today it is touching the sun. Will it survive?