Last Thursday, I went to “Beachcomber Night” in Madison, CT, which is on the shoreline near Hammonasset Beach State Park, with my friend and my two sons. We dropped by RJ Julia, my favorite bookstore in Connecticut, and we decided to have some pizza. I headed toward Village Pizza along Rte. 1 with my friend and my kids in tow. I walked all the way to the gas station, which I knew marked the end of the block. No pizza place.
I headed back toward the bookstore and stopped a woman on the sidewalk. “Didn’t there used to be a pizza place here?” I asked her.
“It was destroyed in the fire.” She pointed at the gaping hole in the strip of buildings that lined the block. I’d been looking so hard for the pizza restaurant that I didn’t even notice that an entire building was missing. Then, I realized that if Village Pizza was gone, then the Madison Wine Shop had also been lost.
The Madison Wine Shop was owned by Rick Lewis, an amazing character and wine ambassador. I first stopped by the shop when my oldest son was a baby. I hated sitting in the house all day, and I’d grown tired of the usual haunts like Barnes & Noble, the library and the mall. I strapped him into his carseat and drove down Rte. 9 to Madison. I decided I could use a refreshing beverage, so I walked into the wine shop while wearing my son in a baby sling.
The shop had dark wooden shelves with wines grouped by varietal. The syrah was front and center; I learned later that syrah was Rick’s favorite wine. The wines were labeled with handwritten cards that both described their characteristics and offered suggestions for pairing them with food. I made my way to the rear of the store and saw an old man and a young man sharing a bottle of white.
“Try this,” the old man said to me. He handed me a generous sample that turned out to be my first taste of viognier. I left with a bottle of viognier along with a red that I opened at home later. The viognier was slightly sweet and a little bubbly because it had a bit of moscato mixed into it. The red–I have no idea what the varietal was. It was from Italy, and it tasted like a library.
The older gentleman turned out to be Rick. Rick stocked a couple of brands of white zinfandel because he had to, but most of his choices were handpicked. He called himself a “Value Vulture,” and he priced most of the wines in the shop to reflect his view that you could find many good bottles for under $20 and even under $10.
I stopped by Rick’s shop whenever I went to Madison, and I learned more about picking good wines from his tastings than I’ve learned from any other source. I wasn’t a frequent pupil, but I paid attention when I showed up. During one tasting, Rick sampled five different French wines and asked us to choose which two he had picked for the shop. I was way too proud of myself when I picked the right ones.
After seeing the emptiness where Rick’s shop had been, I went home to read about the fire. Apparently, it happened on June 20, and the fire marshal never determined the cause. Even more shocking, I learned that Rick had died, not in the fire, but earlier, in March. The Madison Patch published a brief obituary that said of Rick, “The bottom line is he was unique and interesting. A man of strong conviction when it came to most things, but particularly about wine, stubborn, demanding, witty, engaging and always a gentleman.”
Wherever you are today, raise a glass on Rick’s behalf. Ignore the Parker score, and skip the chardonnay. Be passionate about something, whatever that is. Above all, may your life inspire an obituary as descriptive as Rick’s.