Seka might show up, said Janusz, meaning the famous porn star. He hoped she would grace his Friday wine tasting at the Sandburg Wine Cellar. Seka, who lives nearby, had come in looking for a suitable bottle, so Janusz had invited her. Nonetheless, he insisted, “The tastings are pretty low-key. I’ve done it so long I’ve managed to exclude the real jerks.”

Janusz Maciuba joined the Wine Cellar crew about two years ago and quickly sold his bosses on the wine-tasting idea. He invites his favorite customers, drawing on a personal client list built over the past 12 years as he shifted from one wine store to another. But Janusz is no snob. Anyone who wanders in during the tasting gets to stay too. And he has a simple formula for determining who gets an invitation: “People I can stand.”

“I don’t know if Goethe said it, but I did–everybody is a bottle of wine away from any crime,” Janusz theorized. “This week should be especially interesting. It’s all ports. They have a higher alcohol content, which people aren’t used to, and it’s before dinner.”

The Wine Cellar is a large L-shaped room packed floor to ceiling with wine bins, down a flight of stairs from the Sandburg Super Mart. On Friday evening Janusz stood behind the counter talking to a nondescript female customer in jeans. Janusz looks like Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.–medium height, straight blond hair, a friendly but serious face. You can imagine him hiding an elaborate spy command center behind the stockroom’s swinging metal doors.

The ports were lined up on a table with a stereotypical but welcome platter of cheese, bread, and grapes. I joined the two people already choosing samples: a middle-aged man whose black jacket, black hat, black hair, and black goatee gave a striking impression of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a tall thirtysomething woman with long blond streaked hair in a full-length fur coat, whose name turned out to be Jan. She did not remind me of any pop-culture personalities. Soon the nondescript woman in jeans left, and Janusz joined us.

“Did you recognize her?” he asked. From everyone, a resounding “Nope.” “That was Seka,” he said, and shrugged. Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t know who Seka was until we jogged his memory. “Didn’t even notice her,” he yawned.

“How did you know it was her?” Jan asked Janusz.

“Well, she had her pants signed ‘To Seka’ from somebody–I didn’t see that name. I didn’t want to read her butt.”

“She looks good. She looks really good,” Jan mused. “She has a natural . . . she exudes sex, OK? She’s very attractive. She lives in my sister’s building.”

“She shops here,” Janusz volunteered. “She’s got very good taste in wine, actually.”

“She’s so cute,” Jan bubbled. “I was talking to her, and she said she’s going to a Bulls game, and she said she’s got a 15-year-old who’s in love with her.”

“I guess that’s not too surprising,” I observed.

“She’s my hero,” Jan decided. “Because I think you have to be brave to do that. And she’s survived it, she has a life, and . . .”

“Why do you admire her?” Janusz had been waiting on someone and had missed part of the conversation.

“I think it takes courage,” Jan repeated.

“My wife would say the opposite–like she’s being exploited,” said Janusz.

“She knew what she was doing. She wasn’t being exploited. Personally, I wish I had the nerve.”

“I have to agree with Janusz’s wife,” I said. “Maybe she wasn’t being personally exploited, but she was letting women be exploited.”

“I think she knew what she was doing and didn’t mind doing it,” said Jan. “And now she’s got some nice residuals.”

“I’m not sure you get residuals from porn films,” Stevie Ray put in. “I think it’s a one-shot deal.”

I was the only one not carefully swirling each port around in my glass. My knowledge of wine is confined to an episode of Columbo in which Dick Van Dyke played an evil vineyard owner. I consulted Janusz on the swirling thing.

“It opens the wine up and lets the air in,” he explained. “The smell is from acids, basically. So you mix acids and alcohol together and you get that nice smell. Remember chemistry class? In basic chemistry you made things that smelled like pears and were really good, and mixed some other stuff up and made this stuff that really stank.”

Jan and I stared at him blankly.

“I just tried to balance equations,” said Jan.

“You made things that smelled like pears?” I asked doubtfully.

“I created pears,” Janusz claimed. The ports were taking effect.

The ports arrayed before us ranged from a 1983 Barbosa for $14.95 ($12 for tasters) to a $98 bottle of 1963 Warre’s ($80 tonight). “English squires would drink six, seven bottles of this a day,” Janusz cackled.

“And they had very red noses,” said Stevie Ray.

“And gout,” Janusz added. “Then they’d pass out, and traditionally a servant boy would loosen their neck cloths.” He turned to Jan. “How was work this week?”

“Nuts,” she said. “There was a full moon this week, I think.” There was, I told her: a huge orange full moon. “It really does make a difference,” she said. “I work in a psychiatric ward. Whenever there’s a full moon it’s nuts. I can’t describe it any other way. We had a patient who cut off his finger and he wanted someone to cut off his hand.”

I was a little confused. It wasn’t an accident?

“No, he cut it off deliberately. And he wants someone to cut off his hand because he thinks he’ll be less anxious.”

“Is that the one who wanted someone to break his legs?” asked Janusz.

“No, that’s a different one.”

The place was filling up with Janusz’s regular wine tasters. Tony is a 40ish bankruptcy lawyer who readily admitted that he reminds most people of the bald guy on L.A. Law. The resemblance isn’t obvious in cold weather, since he’s partial to a red beret his girlfriend gave him. “My mother–and I love her dearly–she was most worried about me being bald,” Tony told me later. “She would send me Fels-Naptha soap. Italians have this tradition that if you scrub your scalp with Fels-Naptha soap your hair will grow back.” He hasn’t tried it.

Tony is from Brooklyn but speaks in a soft, carefully modulated voice that makes him sound like an upper-class Bostonian negotiating with terrorists. He can pinpoint his wine-collecting start to the day: Memorial Day 1982. “One of my first big clients was one of the foremost wine experts in the area, and we weren’t getting along,” he recalled. “We were having an argument outside the Pump Room, and I thought, ‘I better meet him halfway.’ And lo and behold I got interested in wine.”

Tony thinks his affinity for wine comes from his Italian heritage. “My dad and grandfather made wine in the basement of my grandfather’s house on Long Island. It was so intense we would put Canada Dry ginger ale in it to lighten it up. That was during the 60s. And we would make our own wine and raise our own crops. We’d go to poultry farms in the area to get fertilizer. The wine was a matter of Grandpa DeLuca going to some produce store in the Myrtle Avenue section of Brooklyn and buying cartons of grapes, then crushing them in a winepress in his basement.”

Tonight Tony deliberated at length over the ports. “The contrast between the ’63 port and the 70s ports–the ’63 was feminine and delicate, very fragrant. I mean the spices just rushing up into your nostrils, versus the masculine power of the 70s ports. You know, one of them is 80 bucks, and he opened up a second bottle.” He nodded approvingly toward Janusz. “Very, very generous.” Janusz later claimed that when Tony made his port purchases on the way out he wrote three checks before getting it right.

“Oh, there’s an engineer.” Janusz pointed out a tall guy with curly hair, about 30, in a brown leather jacket. Janusz had been theorizing that most engineers prefer white wine. Lou, it turned out, is actually a geologist. He went first for the 1963 Warre’s, which is red wine with brandy added. “It’s still young,” he announced sardonically. Two of Lou’s friends arrived, Will and Diane, married stockbrokers who are both blond and 30ish. Lou reported his progress on building a wine cellar in a corner of his basement.

Lou’s known Janusz since 1987, when Janusz worked at the now-defunct Connoisseur Wines. “I’ve been kind of following him around ever since,” Lou said. “He brought me here.” Will and Diane took a short wine course with Janusz and now use their extra bathroom for wine. “The bathtub’s full of wine,” Will noted.

Later I kidded Janusz about the legions of people following him around from job to job. “Oh yeah,” he said, smirking. “Whenever I go to a new place I send out the word: “I’m here now.’ I’m like a hairdresser. Mr. J.”

Janusz mailed me a copy of his resume, annotated in pencil like a dissected memo in Harper’s. For “Career Goal” he wrote: “A leadership role in the wine and liquor industry that emphasizes problem solving and uses my talents and experience to the fullest extent.” The penciled addendum read “At a decent wage, no bullshit, and no multi-hour meetings. Trips to Europe and California would be nice.”

The “Retail Experience” section took two pages, working back from the Sandburg Wine Cellar in 1991 to Stop & Shop in 1980. Most stores in between had penciled remarks like “went bankrupt” or “banks shut it down,” but one said “stupidly optimistic expansion–owner dies in flaming Mercedes.” Next to Connoisseur Wines Janusz had scrawled “The Epiphany!”

This is how I know Janusz: He was married to my cousin during my early teen years, back in the late 70s. The most pertinent facts about Janusz then were: (1) He had what we considered a strange name and accent, because he and his family were Polish emigrants and he’d grown up in England. (2) He and my cousin had their wedding reception on a farm that was home to two hogs the size of Buicks. And (3) my cousin and Janusz would let her two younger sisters and me spend an occasional weekend with them at their apartment near Diversey and Halsted, which for three girls from the south suburbs was like inviting Christopher Columbus to America. Of course there were a few more things about Janusz that I didn’t know when I was 15.

“My parents had an interesting war. They didn’t know each other in Poland. My father’s family, when Russia invaded, all got shipped to Siberia. After Germany attacked Russia they were released and went to Persia. My father joined the army–the Polish army was being organized in Palestine. My grandfather and an uncle died of typhoid in Siberia during the war. My father went through Egypt, Italy, and ended up in England, in Lancaster. My mother’s family, when the Germans came, they got taken to Bavaria and spent the war in slave-labor camps. They ended up in Lancaster too, as DPs–displaced persons.

“I’ve noticed the war really affected people differently. My mother has to have five dozen eggs in the refrigerator all the time. Her sister collected shoes. My father was into cement–he paved our whole yard in England.

“Most of my father’s family had come to Chicago in the 50s, and my father visited in ’67. Somehow the fix was put in and we got visas, and we were here in ’68, when I was 15. I don’t think I’ll recover from being yanked out. Fifteen’s a hard time.” They settled in Logan Square. “I thought all of America would be Dennis the Menace land. My first impression was like it was hell. When we left England it was rainy. We changed planes in New York, and it was like walking into pea soup, hot and humid. It’s the same impression I get whenever I’ve been to Europe for a while and come back–everything’s too hot, too loud. Sensory overload. I went back to visit Lancaster in ’71, and I was already changed. I could see it was impossible for me to go back. I don’t know. My friends–I still had things in common with them, but then again I didn’t.

“I got into wine accidentally. When I went back to Europe in ’71 I was 18, and I went for six weeks. I took $700 with me and I came back with $100. I had wine in France, and you’d be in the country and have a half a carafe of wine for lunch and then go take a three-hour nap. The sight-seeing really suffered. I wound up in Munich, which is supposed to be a big beer town. I didn’t like the beer, but I had a glass of cheap Mosel and it was delicious–like drinking apples and pears. So I started out like everyone else does, liking wine that’s slightly sweet, easy to drink. I didn’t really pursue it–being in college, you drank whatever was cheapest.

“So I went back to school, worked in an art gallery, drove a cab, worked in a factory, assembled black lights. I was lucky to get out of cab driving. I was robbed at knifepoint. I was a white liberal–I’d pick up anyone and go anywhere. Thirty-fifth and Federal? Oh sure. The only thing I learned about the south side was how to get out of there very quickly. I also found out that drunks always sober up when it comes time to tip you.

“And then I got a job driving a truck and delivering liquor. After a few weeks one of the counter guys quit, so I switched to that. One of the things that makes jobs bearable is to ask questions and find out about it. I used to work at an ice cream factory, and that put me off ice cream for a while–you know, when you can have as much as you want. Alcohol’s the one exception–you never get tired of it.

“I started out at Eastgate Liquors, which was owned by Irv Kupcinet’s nephew Mel, who was a dead ringer for the old boy, down to the cigar. It was in New Town on Diversey. At that time it was still a hopping 30s- or 40s-type area with a lot of SROs–before the condo boom. I’ve known some bums from around there since 1975. I still see ’em on the street and think, God, they’re still alive? They look the same, just older and worse.

“In those days–’74 was kind of a watershed year–people really started learning about wine. There were all these coffee-table-size wine books. There’s a saying–if the kid’s smart, send him to law school; if he’s dumb, buy him a liquor store. That was true until about ’74, and then suddenly it wasn’t enough to just get some liquor and stand behind a counter. The city started giving out all kinds of liquor licenses, White Hens popped up, and by the end of the 70s money kind of lost its value. People wouldn’t cross the street anymore to save a little. So Eastgate went into Chapter 13. I stayed there until ’79.

“I went out to the west coast for about six weeks, camped in the wine country, and went to Alaska to visit my brother in the Army. A friend of mine, her cousin is “Squeaky’ Fromme. Squeaky’s sister Julie was out there, and I stayed with her for a while. I met the mother too–she was a nice, normal woman. She made spaghetti and meatballs.

“Anyway, I came back and started at Stop & Shop, got divorced. That was a bad situation. I was going through the divorce, so I would just go to work all hung over, sit at my desk–nobody’d come downstairs to the wine department anyway. That was in like ’82. I was a bad employee. They had nice wine though. I was unemployed after that for six months, and coming from a working-class background at first that seems like the worst possible thing. But after a while you get used to living from check to check.”

Eventually he began working at a bank on Milwaukee on the main Polish strip. “People would come in every month to have interest stamped in their passbooks, and if it ended up at $1,998.80, they’d give me the $1.20 to make it an even $2,000. People would deposit their entire check and take maybe $20, $30 out of it to live on. By the end of the year they’d have $5,000 or $10,000, and then they’d come in to clean out the account and go back to Poland. You’d have to make an appointment; they’d take you to a special room and pay out in hundred-dollar bills. Oh, two-dollar bills were popular too–a dollar was nothing anymore, so they’d tip their friends in Poland with deuces.

“I was kind of wandering around, not seeing the larger picture. When you turn 32 you understand everything. You wake up that day and say, ‘Oh, right. Now I get it.’ I was working at Connoisseur Wines. It was like the only real wine operation in town. People used to come in from Ohio and Wisconsin and buy a year’s supply. When I worked for the ice cream factory, we’d make a special batch for the state inspector, who was too lazy to come in and see the operation. For him, we’d put in the right fat content. For the rest, we skimmed it. So it was really rare to work for a business that was 100 percent on the level.

“I’d never had a good burgundy until I started there. That’s why my customers are so great–you’re tapping into all their experiences. I learned a lot, and everything fell into place. People would come in who knew a lot about wine, talk to me, and take my advice. That gave me confidence. I used to have to open a bottle out of a case for people to taste; now I can persuade people to buy a case on my word.

“When they closed, I had to go work for Gold Standard, the evil empire. I ended up there for two years, first at Ivanhoe and then managing the Armitage Chalet. I started at Sandburg in April ’91, and they were for anything that would bring more people down there. It was one of the original wine stores here, but people weren’t coming in anymore, sales were flat. I was pretty bored. So the tastings were to bring people in, give me something to do on Fridays. It’s really a good excuse to talk to people.

“I’d estimate there’s about 1,000 wine collectors in Chicago, and then you’ve got all these stores to serve them. All these stores for about 1,000 guys–and it’s mostly guys. There are people who spend Saturday going from store to store to see what’s new. Like Tony. I had a customer call up once to see how much a bottle of wine he had was worth, and I called Tony and he looked it up in some catalog and gave me the price right away. Just like my mother knows the price of flour and sugar at different supermarkets, Tony knows the price of wine. I’m his Friday-night stop. His girlfriend Linda can’t see the point of having all this money tied up in wine, so he’s been ordered to sell some. He told me once what was important in his life: sports, his job, wine. And Linda can’t see the point in any of them. He goes to all the auctions, all the tastings. So he’s one kind of customer.

“I hardly talk about wine at all on Friday nights. The wine talks for itself. If they like it, they like it. I usually talk about schizophrenics with the mental-health professionals. Now that’s fascinating.”

“I hate Al,” Janusz proclaimed at the next week’s tasting, talking about his immediate boss. Al, who’d never attended Janusz’s wine tastings before, was suddenly interfering, forcing Janusz to include a “mystery wine” in a brown paper bag. Janusz was disgusted.

The minute I’d walked in Al had nearly vaulted the counter to pump my hand: “So, you’re a writer?”

“I can’t stand him,” Janusz growled. “You know, I didn’t tell him you were a writer, so he got it from someone else.”

Janusz confirmed my suspicion that Al sensed publicity and had magically gained an appreciation for wine tastings. Still, Al was Janusz’s boss. “I won’t mention that you hate him,” I said diplomatically. “Go ahead, I don’t care,” said Janusz, and he meant it.

Will, the blond stockbroker, was an early arrival. “I brought you something so you can find out why we’re all here,” he said, handing me a slim hardback called Wine Is the Best Medicine, by a Dr. E.A. Maury. “Not for fine wine or getting drunk, but because it’s good for you,” Will insisted.

The dust jacket said that Maury–a retired general practitioner, acupuncture specialist, and homeopath–claimed a “tremendously high success rate among the patients he has treated with wine.” A handy chart titled “In Vino Curitas” graced the back cover. The first column listed a variety of unpleasant illnesses, the next column the type of wine recommended for the ailment, and the last the daily dosage, represented by tiny wineglasses. Arteriosclerosis requires four glasses of muscadet and Provence rose on alternate days, while fever demands an entire bottle of dry champagne.

Janusz poured me a sample of Meursault 1989 Olivier Leflaive. The tasting theme was “Mostly Red Burgundies,” but this was a white wine. “I didn’t know there were white burgundies,” I admitted.

“It’s a political area,” Janusz informed me.

“This is pretty tasty,” I ventured.

“It’s too cold. You can’t taste it,” Janusz said and spat the wine into the nearby spit bucket, a white plastic tub.

“Oh,” I said.

“I found your keys,” Janusz called to Tony the bankruptcy lawyer.

“You did!” Tony exclaimed. “May I ask where?”

“They were across from the burgundies, in the pinot noirs.”

Janusz tried the Bourgogne 1985 “La Digoine” A. et P. de Villaine and immediately spat it out.

“No good?” I asked.

“No, terrific,” he answered, without sarcasm.

Jan the psychiatric nurse was looking over the chart of wine cures and claimed the concept worked. “You know, one time I had a very bad cold, felt like my face was on fire. My girlfriend and I drank hot brandy and honey and lemon, I put a blanket around me and sweated like a dog, and the next day I was fine. Actually, I didn’t really set out to cure it. I lost my judgment halfway through, but it worked.”

I wandered over to two other regulars, David the architect, and his wife, Morrison the law professor. David looks like a cross between Pete Townshend and Hans Gruber, the terrorist villain from Die Hard; Morrison is pretty and refined, resisting obvious comparisons. Janusz was passing by with the mystery wine in its brown paper bag.

“This is a new high or low for Janusz, drinking out of a paper bag,” Morrison remarked. Janusz grimaced and kept going.

“It did have a cork, didn’t it Janusz?” I called after him. He sneered and gave a quick nod.

“We knew each other two weeks before we got married, and I was a confirmed man hater,” Morrison told the wine tasters a few weeks later, on the occasion of their 11th anniversary. David only mildly disagreed. “Not a complete man hater.”

David grew up on a farm in Iowa. So while Northern Exposure is one of his favorite TV shows, he’s not taken in by its portrayal of small-town life. “Oh sure. Everybody’s well educated and eccentric,” he snorted. “In our town everyone went to church, and all the religions were essentially alike, just in different churches. It was funny, because everyone was so much alike that you had to develop your own prejudices.”

David’s description didn’t make Iowa sound much like Little House on the Prairie either. In his Iowa farmers hunt for machinery with the fewest pieces of safety equipment and then blowtorch them off. Accidents are predictably frequent. His brother Frank was responsible for the most memorable accident on David’s family farm.

“When he was in college and dating his wife, he was painting the barn. And all we used was oil-based paints, and all we ever used to clean up with was gasoline. For clothes you’d half fill a bucket with gasoline and just soak ’em, then throw ’em over the fence to dry. We never had an automatic washer and dryer, but then finally my mother had gotten one and it was hooked up in the bathroom. The house had a single bathroom, just a lean-to built onto the back of the house. So Frank, he didn’t want to dry the clothes on the fence, and he threw them in the dryer. And then he and his girlfriend were on the couch, doing whatever people who are dating in college do on couches, and they hear this explosion. And this ball of flame shoots right past them on the couch and blows out the front windows. It took the roof off the bathroom.

“It gets better. The phone wasn’t working, maybe because of the explosion, so they had to go to the neighbor’s a half mile away and call the fire department in the nearest town. It’s a volunteer fire company. My uncle is on it, so him and all his pals say “There’s a fire,’ and they hop on the truck. And when they pulled up to the house nobody had put any water in the truck. So they’re standing there with this 5,000-gallon hose and no water. Luckily we have a pond, so they got some water out of that. But everyone had a sense of humor about it. Everybody laughed.”

Back at the tasting the normally congenial Janusz looked ready to blow the roof off the Wine Cellar over the mystery wine. “People are playing with wine too much, instead of drinking it,” he seethed. “The hell with playing with it, just drink it. Look at that guy over there. He’s married and he’s putting the moves on everyone.”

Lou the geologist arrived. “He probably doesn’t remember you,” Will said, flipping his eyes skyward to suggest that Lou’s faculties had been massively impaired at the last tasting. Lou began furiously scribbling notes about the wines. “You didn’t do that last week,” I observed.

“Uh, I was kind of out of it,” he admitted.

I read over his shoulder: “Good clean chardonnay.” “What’s the next word say?” I asked.


“You think it tastes like popcorn?”

“I’d like to take it to a movie sometime,” Lou said, smirking.

“Buttered?” asked Will, bringing Lou the mystery wine.

“Oh, I gotta tell you what it is? OK.” Lou swirled the glass with his nose hovering around the rim. “Ooooh. Got a real barnyard, shitty nose.” He gulped it down, then held the glass under my nose to prove his point, all too accurately, before going for seconds.

“You said it tasted like a barnyard and you have seconds?” I asked.

“I said it smelled like a barnyard, not tasted like one,” said Lou. The distinction was lost on me; it hadn’t come up in Columbo.

Janusz was still bitterly eyeing the mystery wine, complaining to David. “I’ve been here since April, and in seven months I’ve brought in at least 10 percent more business. But it’s expensive.”

“But people wouldn’t normally drink these wines if you didn’t,” David pointed out.

“I wouldn’t normally drink these wines if we didn’t,” Janusz agreed. “This guy Al, all he does as far as I can tell is play with the computer. The computer has files and files. You could spend all day going in and out of files. Before I started the tastings, on Fridays you could sit back here and say, ‘Hi, the beer’s over there. Hi, the beer’s over there.'” Janusz waved at phantom customers.

“There’s that married guy,” he continued, eyeing the philanderer who was hitting on someone else. “The only reason you don’t get invited–not for not buying stuff. I really don’t care. You get uninvited for being a bastard. Like I said, everybody’s a bottle of wine away from a major indiscretion.”

I tried mollifying Janusz by assuring him that the mystery-wine concept was going over well.

“Yeah, well, stop playing with it. Drink the stuff, for God’s sake,” he said grudgingly.

David was meeting the next day with a new client who was planning a major house overhaul, including a 600-square-foot greenhouse to raise orchids. I pictured Humphrey Bogart sweating among the orchids while he meets Lauren Bacall’s father in The Big Sleep. Do people really build 600-square-foot hothouses these days, I wondered–outside of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle–or does an architect like David get clients with big ideas that shrink after they see estimates?

“He seems to know what’s involved in raising orchids,” said David. “Especially the way we are today, the disparity between what people think is a lot of money or a little money. To some people what I would consider a fortune is nothing at all. So I don’t presuppose anymore. I just tell them what it is, and I figure in a range of quality of finishes and say, ‘You guys tell me–how rich are ya?'”

The evening was winding down and only a few customers were left. Janusz stood near the counter dispensing coats. An unfamiliar woman sauntered up to him. “I was wondering if I could be put on your mailing list? I’m from California. I didn’t even know people in Chicago drank wine. Everyplace I’ve gone people drink beer. And I’ve never even had beer in my mouth before.”

“This one guy who’s married was trying to persuade these two women to go out with him, separately I assume,” Janusz grumbled over the phone, describing how the “Mostly Red Burgundies” tasting had ended after I’d left. “One of the women was Jan, so I walked her home because he was kind of sleazy and he was right behind her in line. He followed her for a while and then he disappeared. It turned out he’d left his gym bag at the store. He won’t be here this week. He’s barred.”

“Did he hit on you too?” Jan the psychiatric nurse wanted to know the next week.

“No, you kept him busy while I was here,” I said.

“Gretchen pulled him off Jan,” said Janusz, referring to another regular. “But the guy was following Gretchen down the street with two bottles of champagne afterward.”

Gretchen, a tall, striking artist with long black hair, soon walked in. Jan told her, “I got here tonight and about two seconds later he showed up. I can’t believe he showed up.”

“He wanted me to go to New Orleans with him,” Gretchen snickered.

“Ask Janusz how he got rid of him,” Jan urged her.

“I asked if I could speak to him by myself.” Janusz shrugged. “And I just said that I couldn’t have him at the tastings anymore because of the way he behaved last week.”

“How did he take it?” I asked.

“He agreed with me and he left.”

“If wine be the drink of love . . . then pick me up a gallon jug and a couple of straws, a bag of pretzels and dip,” read the legend around the perimeter of the large white Xeroxed paper heart. It was an invitation to a special Valentine’s tasting, featuring pink champagne and anything “that could be a double entendre.”

“So which ones are the double entendres?” I asked Janusz, surveying the bottles.

“Cote-de-Beaune,” he answered, pronouncing the last word with extra emphasis. “I wouldn’t try that one,” he advised Marcia. “Tastes like chewing gum. Chewing gum with a dirty stick in it.”

Marcia teaches seventh- and eighth-grade French in the north suburbs, but lives in a high-ceilinged apartment on Lake Shore Drive just north of Oak Street Beach. The prewar high rise is as close to Paris as you’re likely to get in Chicago. The entrance features a two-story vaulted stone ceiling, and the lobby’s marble floor and carved fireplace suggest one of the more intimate suites at Versailles.

Marcia stores her wine in a walk-in closet outfitted with racks that together hold about 50 bottles. She once generously offered to open a second bottle of Riesling for me just so I could taste the difference between Alsatian and German Rieslings. When I protested that I didn’t want to drink her out of house and home, she laughed and showed me the closet, which is roomy but not climate controlled. “That’s why I only keep a couple of bottles here,” she explained.

Marcia was born in a tiny Illinois town. “My father was a doctor, and during the Depression he was paid in chickens,” she recalled. “We were one of only three Jewish families there, and that was difficult. One day I came home and said, ‘I love Jesus Christ. Why can’t I go to Sunday school?’ And my parents said, ‘We’re moving to Chicago.’ Especially since my grandfather was a rabbi.” They moved to South Shore when she was about four.

Unfamiliar people were behind the Wine Cellar counter this evening, fooling around with the computer. “They’re consultants,” Janusz explained. “The one guy plays around with the computer. The other guy used to work here, and he’s going to look around and make suggestions. The first thing I’m going to tell them is ‘Get rid of Al.'”

I wondered if Al realized he had a Benedict Arnold working for him.

“Sure, yeah,” Janusz yawned. “He’s trying to screw me over too. He causes all this confusion on Friday when I’ve gotten things all set up for the tasting. You know, just garbage.”

Will the stockbroker was discussing a recent Christie’s wine tasting and auction with Greg, a tasting regular who looks like a nice Newt Gingrich, though that may seem like an oxymoron. Greg pulled out the auction catalogs. “Let’s see. There was one really old sauternes that went really fast,” he said, flipping the pages.

“Was it that 1824 that went for $20,000?” Will asked.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “How many bottles for $20,000?”

Will and Greg in unison: “One.” They riffled through the black-and-white catalog looking for a picture.

“For $20,000, they oughta have a color picture,” I said.

“I think it oughta be scratch ‘n’ sniff,” Jan observed.

Tony the bankruptcy lawyer is another fan of Christie’s auctions, but he dwells on the preauction tasting. “It’s interesting to see how the wine ages–it loses the acidic edge and it changes color. For instance the color–in one bottle, you can have a multicolor effect. The rim can be an amber, then a lighter, maybe brick red, then maybe some purple in the center. The wine might have the smell of the earth, maybe peat moss or maybe a walk through the woods.”

Tony urged me to attend the next Christie’s auction, “although you can get pretty liquored tasting 30 or 50 wines at 9:30 in the morning. But they like you to taste as many as possible, so the bidding will be more aggressive. After you taste it you might bid more than you would otherwise, and your reflexes might be slower taking the paddle down.”

Tony and Marcia fell deep into conversation about food, briefly forgetting wine. “On your steak, are you serving it with a sauce?” she asked seriously.

“No, I was going to have it without. By the waaaay,” he said, turning to me, “sheeee had some otherworldly lamb that had an aftertaste that was with you the next morning.” He was describing a recent progressive dinner attended by several regular wine tasters. “Fabulous. The best lamb I have had in my lifetime.” He punctuated the words with reverence.

“There’s a store in Kenilworth called Kenilworth Grocery,” Marcia started to explain.

“Fabulous,” Tony interjected.

“Their lamb is different from what Greeks would use,” she continued. “In my day I still remember meats and steaks would taste different. What’s prime now used to be choice way back when, because each butcher would age their own meat and they would cut off a certain amount after a month or six weeks. Kenilworth Grocery still does that. And their beef. I actually prefer beef that you get in France, which is a little tougher but it has a lot more taste. Go to Kenilworth Grocery. They still have the beef that melts in your mouth–you can cut it with a butter knife, but you can taste it. My leg of lamb was just fabulous.”

“Fabulous, with garlic,” he said, nodding.

“I bring my garlic back from France,” said Marcia. “What you do is get cloves, cut them up in slivers, and then you stuff it in your lamb.”

“I was very disappointed with the wine the doctor brought,” Tony reflected, talking about another guest at the dinner. The idea had been for everyone to bring a favorite wine. “I was very disappointed because of his . . . position in life. Vis a vis the bottle of wine Janusz brought, in light of his position in life, what Janusz brought was worth ten times the wine the doctor brought. It goes to show you how generous Janusz is.”

Marcia was hesitant to criticize. “But don’t you think it’s also a question of taste?” she suggested.

“When someone has a thousand bottles of wine, he can–”

“He has a thousand bottles of wine?” Marcia interrupted.

“A thousand bottles of wine,” Tony insisted. “And to bring something that cost him eight bucks. So I was very disappointed in the fair doctor.”

The 1988 Bourgogne Blanc was, to my mind, indistinguishable from the 1989 Bourgogne Blanc. But Lou the geologist said, “The ’88 seems like it’s just a little more open. A little more accessible.” Which sounded ridiculous coming from a guy in a brown leather bomber jacket, so I laughed at him.

“Don’t start cracking up on me,” Lou pleaded. “I’m only on my fourth bottle here.”

Janusz had planned a special tasting that night, putting together an array almost entirely of Leroy’s wines. That’s classier than it might sound, since “Leroy” is pronounced “Le roi.” The $70-per-head cost persuaded many regulars to make other plans, but the turnout was still healthy. Instead of the usual Xeroxed handwritten sheet, Janusz had created a program featuring a cover design by tasting regular Gretchen, who’d used a photo of imposing statues at Versailles. The Sandburg Wine Cellar Xerox machine had mangled the photo a bit, but Janusz had strung the program pages together with dental floss to wonderful effect.

Dr. Z., a psychiatrist and regular taster, was drinking the 1985 Bourgogne Blanc. “It’s ripe, and it needs at least five more years,” he decided. “It tastes crappy right now.”

Marcia the French teacher didn’t hear him and loudly announced, “I like the ’85.”

Dr. Z. corrected her kindly: “It has potential.”

“It has potential,” she quickly agreed.

“But drinking it now sucks,” Dr. Z. concluded.

Janusz provided a box of standard-issue wineglasses, but many of the tasters had brought their own. Some wielded glasses like empty lava lamps, others used burgundy glasses–essentially huge brandy snifters. Still others, like Lou, held weird glasses with no stem but with two finger holes built into the glass itself. Kurt, a tall, 50ish, professorial lawyer, had one of the weird glasses. The finger holes, he said, let you warm up the wine if it’s too cold to taste properly. And if the wine is already at the right temperature? “Well, then you drink it quicker.”

Kurt and Tony the bankruptcy lawyer said they preferred the smaller rim of the weird stemless glass for tasting older wines. I took a stab at guessing why: Because it condenses the wine’s aroma? “Oooooooh yes,” they chorused. “Sort of like the old bongs that would shoot it right up your nose,” Kurt reminisced. “That’s what it’s like.”

Marty, a heavyset regular with black wavy hair and beard, talked wine cellars with Lou the geologist, who’d just installed the refrigeration unit in his. Marty introduced himself as a landlord. A voice interrupted from across the room: “He’s a slumlord.” Marty grinned, grudgingly. “That’s what people like to call me. All businesses have some bad people, but there aren’t many businesses that you can characterize in a word like that. I used to be a lawyer, and people would call me a shyster.”

“Then you’re used to it,” I observed.

“A slumlord is below a shyster,” the voice called again. Marty’s grin was beginning to look strained.

“Does that mean they’re not as good as shysters, or they’re worse?” I asked.

“Worse. But they won’t rent to lawyers,” someone else answered.

(“Marty” isn’t Marty’s real name. He’s good-natured about ribbing but drew the line at having even his first name associated with the word “slumlord” in a newspaper.)

Lou revealed that his wine-cellar project is driven by the impending transformation of his current wine room into a nursery. He said he generally spends all his time fixing up the outside of the house. “I figure the inside is livable,” he said.

So anyone who burglarizes his house will be disappointed, I guessed.

“We’ve been lucky so far. Although while we were away on our honeymoon the neighbor’s daughter, who was cat sitting for us–she’s been doing that for years–well, she grew up a little bit, and she let her friends into the house. And they ripped us off and stole our car.”

“Well, she got in trouble,” Lou answered my raised eyebrows. “They had the car and were cruising around for a couple of days. The police finally pulled ’em over and busted ’em. And now I’ve been to court three times already. The district attorney’s just incompetent. He loses paperwork, you name it. The victim has to do all the work, take time off work to go to court. I’ve had to take three days off, and they’re not sick days. I’m paying for it. These kids were stupid–I mean, they didn’t even steal anything that was valuable. They passed up silver, jewelry, watches, even cash. They took a couple of VCR tapes, they broke the tape deck, took a bunch of my wife’s clothes, which I thought was interesting. Strange kids.”

I thought it must be awkward living next door after that. “Yeah, it is. We were pretty good friends with them, and now that’s screwed up. And the kid caught a lot of shit from her father. . . . It’s hard putting trust in people. I’m thinking, how are we gonna find a day-care center for the kid? I told my wife we’re gonna have to take the kid to work.”

The Les Fremieres 1989, Lou noted, tasted like a cherry Popsicle. “It has much too much earth in it. The reason it tastes like a cherry Popsicle–it’s like when you get down to the stick, you know? The wood? It’s the exact same wood flavor.”

“Wear your worst clothes,” said Janusz when he found out that Tony the bankruptcy lawyer was taking me to a Christie’s wine auction. “The last auction I was at, people were animals. They were lunging at the wines, spilling it all over everybody.”

But my brain has only one auction experience to relate to, the Dick Van Dyke Show episode where Rob accidentally buys a painting when he scratches his head. The Dick Van Dyke auction looked very proper, so I wore a suit. But keeping Janusz’s advice in mind, I chose a purple suit.

Any event at the University Club of Chicago, however, provides little opportunity for animal imitations. The Christie’s auction was on the second floor, up a wide staircase with plush red carpeting and elaborate carved railings. The auction room itself featured arched Gothic lead-glass windows with gorgeous griffins and other mythical creatures that looked out onto Michigan Avenue. The real estate listing would read “Sunny, lots of room, great views, wonderful medieval feel.”

Some of the more prominent wines on the auction block were on display beforehand. Tony had arranged for us to arrive early so that we could appreciate the bottles, the labels, the wine colors. There was an 1874 Chateau Lafite, and Tony noted that it wasn’t the original cork. “Lafite recommends replacing the cork every 25 to 50 years. In fact, Lafite will send their people out to different parts of the world to visit customers and recork bottles every few years.”

A Musigny “format” bottle dominated one end of the table, where it swung on a stand. Tony said the huge format bottles are for dinner parties; I thought pouring from them at dinner would be pretty awkward. A Tokay Ausbruch 1866 stood near the end, looking like something Geraldo Rivera pulled out of Al Capone’s vault.

Tony scrutinized each bottle with a practiced eye, noting the height of the wine and condition of the cork. If the wine is low, he said, there could be problems. “You say, “Tony, why aren’t corks standard?’ Well, cork is made from a developing organism, and you’re going to get some defects.” He pointed to a smudged label. “That could reflect that it was left uncovered in someone’s basement, or substantial humidity swings.” It’s easy to forget he’s from Brooklyn.

Yet Brooklyn is an inextricable part of Tony. He fondly reminisced about New York over the sumptuous lunch served in the club dining room that afternoon. “Growing up in Brooklyn in 1956–I was eight years old–people prayed for the Dodgers in church on Sundays. We had so much pride in our baseball team. When the Dodgers left, I immediately took up the Yankees, who were really hated because they had Roger Maris. He hit 61 home runs in ’61, which by the way was a great Bordeaux year.”

The tasting began promptly at 10 AM. We ran into Marty the good-natured pseudonymous “slumlord” in line outside the tasting room. He was critical of everything on the wine list. It looked fine to me.

At Tony’s urging I’d had a huge breakfast, shoveling in enough pancakes, I hoped, to soak up the alcohol. The wines were set up on tables that lined the walls, each bottle sporting an auction number on a small paper tag hung around its neck. The corks were bound to each neck by a rubberband for everyone’s inspection, and a partially filled glass stood in front of each bottle.

When the doors opened the crowd of about 100 people rushed as one to the table holding the red Bordeaux, which ranged from a Mouton-Rothschild 1961 to a Domaine de Chevalier 1982. They weren’t quite the animals Janusz had predicted, but the image of lemmings did come to mind.

Picture walking around such a room, asking for glasses of Cuvee Vieille Vignes 1959 or Haut-Brion 1971 and . . . getting it. Now picture doing it awake. If you wanted to, you could keep going back to the same bottle until you emptied it. Not that anyone was crass enough to do that. You get invited by buying something at a previous auction, which minimizes the bozo factor. Yet the crowd was casual, with most men in chinos and sport shirts, most women in simple dresses. One guy with a long grizzled gray beard and ponytail wore jeans, a jean jacket, and a blue bandanna. He looked like a member of ZZ Top–you almost have to be to afford the stuff at a function like this.

People scribbled hurried notes on their wine lists, resting them against columns and walls. One guy whispered furtively into a tiny black tape recorder after every sip. The more professional you are, the less you drink. The tape-recorder guy pretty much sipped, swished it around, and spat it right out. Instead of Janusz’s white plastic spit bucket Christie’s uses tall silver containers that look like table-side champagne coolers, filled with wood shavings to absorb the discarded wine. I didn’t use them much.

Christie’s almost inhumanly polite employees stood ready behind the tables, and many knew Tony by name. “Hi, Tony. The Cheval Blanc 1970? Certainly.” I was partial to the La Mission-Haut-Brion 1962. This was not supposed to be its best year, Tony informed me, but since that was my birth year, I liked it anyway. We went back for a second glass, and Tony introduced me to Michael Davis, Christie’s vice president, who was presiding over the red Bordeaux. “You’re lucky!” he declared. “My year is a terrible vintage. I have to lie about my age.” His year, he confessed, was 1954. “Abysmal!” he moaned.

Davis ran the auction that followed the tasting orgy, with a masterful pacing that kept the proceedings lively but never hurried the audience. Christie’s assigned everyone an auction paddle with a number, so there weren’t any amusing Dick Van Dyke problems. More’s the pity. Davis worked through the massive wine list; some wines were clustered in the catalog as collections with headings like “A Distinguished Collection of Finest Wines Removed From the Ideal Cellar of a Doctor” or “Fine Bordeaux of a New York Gentleman.”

Davis got to a ’75 Chateau Latour. “A wine to pass on to your grandchildren,” he announced, “starting at $750.” Auction paddles dropped conspicuously. “No grandchildren here? That’s a shame,” Davis quipped easily. But he soon sold it for $1,050. More Christie’s employees sat at a small phone bank communicating with Christie’s clients abroad–dispersed, I imagined, in Paris salons and small Greek islands just big enough to dock their yachts.

We sat in the back row so that, Tony pointed out, we could see who was bidding against us if necessary. Davis closed the bidding on a Beaulieu Vineyards Napa Valley Cabarnet 1958 at $650, and Marty, sitting a few seats over, hissed, “I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell that guy.”

The snickering and giggling emanating from a bunch of middle-aged men in the last two rows proved that no matter where you go the troublemakers sit in the back.

“Did you have an algae bath?” Marcia the French teacher asked Morrison the law professor some weeks later as they discussed French spas over Chateauneuf-du-Pape at the Sandburg Wine Cellar.

“Yes, it was disgusting,” said Morrison. “I got some algae packets to bring home to have algae baths here.”

Will the stockbroker and Janusz discussed the traditional rule that the retail price of a bottle of wine is multiplied by two to get the restaurant price. Will claimed the multiplier had jumped to three. “Three years ago a 1979 Gruaud-Larose was $19.99,” he told us in a voice usually reserved for ghost stories. “And I went to Geja’s recently and it was listed for $90.”

“Thieves,” hissed Janusz.

When I left Janusz walked out with me. “So what’s going on?” I asked.

“Al’s leaving,” he grinned.

I congratulated him, then asked, “Did you have anything to do with it?”

Janusz shrugged. “I was slinging axes and knives at him, but he was doing the same thing to me. I think the last straw was the inventory last week. Al always does the opposite of what I tell him, and since we were about to do inventory I said, “Don’t buy a lot right now.’ So of course he goes and orders everything, and it just keeps coming and coming, and the owners were like–” he popped his eyes, imitating the horrified owners.

In the parking lot the attendant took my ticket and kidded me, “All that time and you only bought a paper?”

“I drank a lot of wine,” I claimed, though my intake had been sadly small since I had to drive home.

“Oh right, the wine tasting!” he remembered. “I keep meaning to go to that, but I’m always working.”

“Get your schedule changed,” I advised.

“Yeah, I think I will,” he said, smiling.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.