Spirited Debate


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I used to think that what distinguished Jews from other people could be boiled down to the balance of food and alcohol at a festive occasion. A Jewish affair would have lots of food but little to drink — and no one complained about it. I now know that there are exceptions to this rule, and that the rule itself may be changing. Jewish kids, even if they spend Friday night at Hillel, are not unfamiliar with the Saturday night keg party. And Jewish drunks, which my grandfather said didn’t exist (ditto Jewish prostitutes), are now a recorded species.

Despite such assimilating trends, there still remains some support for my generalization that Jews are more into food than drink. Take an informal survey at the next bar mitzvah you attend and I guarantee that the Viennese table — the name for what is essentially a dessert bar — will be more crowded than the regular bar.

One can find philosophical support for Jewish temperance. Immanuel Kant took time off from formulating his categorical imperative to postulate that Jews drink sparingly so as not to incur censure in a hostile society. Then there’s the anthropological explanation — that Jews have had to keep a clear head in order to flee persecution at a moment’s notice. This would also explain the emphasis on food: Having fled persecution, Jews need reserves of fat in case they had to wander around in the desert for, say, 40 years.

My grandfather, whom I mentioned above was a skeptic on the subject of Jewish drunks, was himself not averse to a bit of shnapps now and then, which he took in an ancient shot glass salvaged from the Old Country. When he did indulge, however, my grandmother would immediately look worried. She was afraid that even a thimbleful of alcohol could lead him to engage in untoward behavior. What “untoward behavior” might consist of I never learned, since my grandfather never came close to engaging in it. No sooner did he fill the ancient shot glass than my grandmother’s pot roast made an appearance.

Likewise, when my father would pour himself a scotch and soda after a hard day at the office, my mother would immediately start to protest. She was convinced that one drink was the beginning of a slippery slope, and before we knew it, father would be sprawled in the gutter, gripping a bottle in a brown paper bag.

All this is by way of prelude to my brother-in-law’s decision to open a liquor store. Eric had worked for years in personnel, but when his job became a casualty of the recent recession, he decided to follow his dream. His dream had its origins in his junior year in college when he and his friends discovered good beer. During his senior year, he discovered good scotch. And following graduation, during a few years working in France, he discovered good wine. Until recently, his knowledge of alcohol existed only as a family curiosity. We all dutifully listened to him extol the bouquet of this or that vintage he had brought for Passover, then went back to drinking our Manischewitz.

One day, however, Eric announced that he planned to buy the liquor store and bar, Little Joe’s, next to a New Jersey supermarket. There was something of a dust-up over the announcement. It wasn’t just the Jews and alcohol thing. There was also the fact that my husband’s family had owned a bakery, and my father-in-law knew what a retail business entailed: long hours, unreliable employees, shot holidays, spoiled inventory. Still, Eric was determined. He was OK with the hours and the shot holidays; he knew people he could rely on; and spoiled inventory wouldn’t be a problem — alcohol doesn’t spoil; if anything, it gets better with age. Besides, unlike my father-in-law, who really had never developed a taste for baked goods, Eric genuinely liked good liquor.

With that, the enterprise moved forward. Before we knew it, he had begun the transformation of Little Joe’s into Fusion Wines and Spirits. The name was settled upon after much family discussion. “Fusion,” it was decided, suggested a trendy global element connected to food (it seemed important to make clear that drink was not to be taken alone, and was certainly not, as seemed to be the case for the regulars of Little Joe’s, to be a means of getting soused into oblivion). “Spirits” also had a classy, archaic tonality, which Eric supported by getting rid of the lottery tickets that had drawn Little Joe’s seedier clientele. He also decided to transform the bar in the store into a wine bar.

The difference between a bar and a wine bar is mostly a semantic one. Get enough people to drink wine rather than beer or cheap whisky at your bar, and you have a wine bar. To further this end, Eric decided to hold regular wine tastings. Although someone (it might have been me) suggested that he supplement the wine-tastings with poetry-readings, the idea was nixed. Poets, it was agreed, were likely to crowd the store, taste all the wine, and buy nothing (poets are poor).

I should note here for anyone considering such an enterprise, running a liquor store is not a simple matter. It requires good relationships with the various suppliers, and an excellent marketing sense. Wines and liquors must be carefully selected according to price and variety to fit the area clientele. Eric himself has to be on hand almost all the time to discourse knowledgably on things connected to wine — like “legs,” “bouquet,” and “fullness in the mouth.” The trick is to snag a customer and then use him (or, given the desire for greater refinement, her) to spread the word. According to Eric, a particularly good day occurred recently when a group of  “red hat ladies” (older women who band together to go out on the town) stumbled in and were charmed by his knowledge of the wines of Bordeaux. They had been afraid of the store in its former incarnation, and were pleased to see that it was now under kinder and gentler management.

Eric’s modus operandi is to gradually teach his clients what a good wine is and thus seduce them, through this greater knowledge, to be willing to spend more on a bottle. Part of this involves weaning them away from brand names. Take Bailey’s Irish Cream, he explains. It costs $25 for a 750 mL bottle, is not unpleasant to drink, but has an alcoholic finish, a little burn at the end. A bottle of Molly’s Irish Cream, by contrast, made in the same factory as Bailey’s until the latter was sold, is superior in taste and finish and costs only $14.

That’s a useful nugget, but Eric says most people listen, nod, and buy Bailey’s anyway. With liquor as with much else, the familiar, even when expert opinion argues against it, is a great lure. It will tend to carry the day unless customers are forcibly jogged out of their comfort zone.

If anyone can do this jogging, Eric can. He has a good people sense — all those years in personnel — and so is able to judge when the direct approach is advisable: “Yellowtail? You don’t want that swill!” Or when it would be better to be more diplomatic: “Would you like to taste a possibly superior wine in the same price range as Yellowtail?” Gradually, he’s been nurturing a few regulars, educating their palates and edging them into better (and more expensive) wines. It’s a slow and arduous process, and there can be backsliding and disappointment — a sprouting oenophile may find himself shot down by a know-it-all friend or a spouse who wants to tighten the purse strings. Like clearing jungle terrain, Eric must move forward, carefully and slowly. Meanwhile, the store has lots to contend with — business waxes and wanes unpredictably, and a much-needed make-over to remove the vestiges of Little Joe’s is going to cost a fortune. The hope is that eventually Fusion Wines and Spirits will become a local destination, that the red hat ladies will drop in regularly, and that the locals will graduate from Yellowtail to $30 or $40 dollar bottles. All this takes time, but Eric is patient. He likes sampling every wine that he buys for the store, schmoozing with suppliers, and talking on the phone to his old corporate buddies, telling them that, yes, he’s working, but he’s also sipping a nice Pinot Noir.

My mother-in-law, meanwhile, continues to be nervous. She wants Eric to bring in cheese trays: People need something to nosh on so the alcohol won’t go to their heads. • 5 February 2010



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.