Vintage Wine Merchants was another popular merchant in our indie writing competition, prompting several contributions including one we've already published. Three others vividly portrayed Harry Fong and his shop.
Neale Barret describes a slice of life.
Is there a more likeable group of people running an independent wine shop? Is there a small shop that can consistently measure up to 'you won't ever find a bad wine there, no matter what the price point'? I imagine it's possible. Just not likely. And I've looked around a bit.
A little over ten years ago a self-confessed wine dummy strolled into Vintage Wine Merchants for the first time. I pretended as if I knew what I was doing, mainly because I hate looking like a fool. But proprietor Harry Fong (pictured here with Winemaker Cathy Corison) and his stellar crew soon put me at ease. It wasn't long (10 minutes, maybe?) before I felt secure enough to admit my lack of knowledge, and what's better than that, no one in Vintage Wine Merchants – staff, customers, visiting dogs – has ever made me feel as if my questions were somehow beneath them. Instead, something like 'Harry, how do I make sense out of a German Riesling label?' opened a whole discussion that only led to more questions, more discussion, and more great wines to experience.
The staff at Vintage Wine Merchants is simply incredible. By consistently reflecting the open nature of their leader, walking into the shop and finding something new is consistently a delight. From a boutique champagne to celebrate five years cancer-free or a graduation, to a Spanish white to consume outside on a hot summer day, to a big red to enjoy with a simply sinful rib-eye, to 'Help! What can I pair with roasted asparagus?' to something bubbly on a Friday evening, this shop and this crew has it all.
The proprietor, Harry Fong, along with his great staff, have been, and continue to be, one of the primary reasons I explore the wines I do. At any rate, these lines are a little slice of how much a part of me Vintage Wine Merchants has become. It's not great literature by any means, but it was GREAT wine!
Over there, two women are in deep, serious conversation about a bottle of California Chardonnay, and it must be a momentous choice based on their expressions, when suddenly the clouds lift – a decision has been made and they head to the counter, ask for it to be opened, and snag a table by the window. To my right, a man sits alone, sipping a glass of red (a Napa Cab), glancing around from time to time, and we make eye contact for a brief second, but nothing more. He is wearing all black. Tight, pencil-legged jeans that make his legs look like short stilts, a black mock turtle and black jacket (think "blazer" and you will have it about right). His hair is black as well… except for the bald patch on top, and when he turns around I see it is pulled back into one of those short curly pony-tails …a hair style I'm not overly fond of and (forgive me) I make horrible judgments based on this fact alone. A group of women across from me talk loudly about the men they are waiting for when, surprise! The men come in!
Of course I include myself in the scene, imagining how I appear from across the room: A tall, thin man, standing at the granite bar, drinking a glass of Pinot Noir and munching a dish of mixed nuts, chatting with Tabatha (who is poetry in motion behind the bar) and I would say I look a bit odd in that college lettermen's jacket (Which I have on, instead of the usual black leather jacket) and from my imaginary vantage point I think I hear someone… maybe one of the men who joined the second set of women – a good looking man, graying, and sporting a pretty significant cowlick on the top of his head (I now think I can see him as a boy, with that cowlick as proud as a character statement) – I swear I can hear him saying something like 'stuck in time over there' or making a reference to the glory days and how you can't go back. And maybe he's right. But not completely.
And besides, I don't need that editor or internal critic right now, and just then Charlie walks up to the bar, and I greet him and store these snippets of the picture. For use, maybe… later on…
After the Pinot Noir… which is rather good for now.
Thanks Vintage Wine Merchants!
Christine Franz is moved to poetry (and cussing).
I shall say to him Sir,
I don't remember the name of the village,
and I don't remember the name of the girl,
but the wine was Chambertin.
- Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc
Tucked off on the back side of Santana Row is the Vintage Wine Merchants – the place that I learned to love Champagne, wine and discovered many life-long friendships. The gentleman named Harry who built this business is quiet, humble and well-respected. I see him the same now as I did ten years ago: plump, round face, easy smile and tight haircut. His shirt is starch-smart, never wrinkled and there is a calm, refreshing security when, day after day, week after week and year after year, I walk into his place greeted by the reassuring warmth of his genuine and generous smile.
I started going to this place as a place to go enjoy a little wine and try to better understand this little wine journey. Back then, my wine preferences were fairly simple – if there was a good level of alcohol, I was a happy camper. I started noticing the free flow generosity and carefree spirit that surrounded this guy, Harry. Always with a smile on the face, always with pouring the most interesting wines somewhat generously and without abandon.
I have always been a wine novice and I probably never intended to get hooked on the finest wines of the world, but that is the curse of Harry so to speak. He pitches the finest wines of the world and, if you hang around him long enough, he's bound to share and take you down the path of vinous righteousness. He's helped me define my taste and move my profile from robust California of Shafer, Caymus and the like to the complex power and elegance of Puligny-Montrachet and Musigny.
Still, there is an air about drinking the world's most coveted wines, but meeting Harry and getting to know him, the word pretentious never entered my head. When prodded, he'll talk about sharing wine to some rock star athlete, big time CEOs or other 'famous' folk, but he's not that type of name-dropper guy. He's shy about the fans that fly in from around the world and make a point to visit and share a bottle of wine with him. He's shy about the places he goes and the wine he drinks. At the end, more than anything else, he seems rather content on making everybody else happy with genuine warmth, a great bottle of wine and minimising his role.
I still recall on the event of my 43rd birthday, Harry shared a bottle of the legendary 1982 Krug Clos du Mesnil. I remember those first sips: resounding power, deft elegance and delightful effervescence. The memories of the taste and the luxurious elegance keep me searching to recapture that taste. Damn you, Harry!!! You've corrupted me again!!! Will I ever experience that taste, that feeling, again?? I will keep searching and so continues my wine journey.
And while I have bottles and bottles to go before I sleep, when I am called before my Heavenly Father, I shall say to him, Sir, 'I don't remember the place, I don't remember the wine, but Harry was the wine merchant and my dear good friend.'
Barb Kelly describes an old Navy vet with a can-do attitude.
In the summer of 2005, I met Harry Fong, the soft-spoken, unassuming partner of Vintage Wine Merchants. Neatly tucked in San Jose, California's marquee shopping center, Santana Row, VWM was barely two years old and struggling to succeed in a competitive market. When the recession hit hard a few years later, and VWM's co-founders jumped ship, Harry stepped up to the helm. 'I had to figure it out', he said, 'I'm an old Navy vet with a can-do attitude.'
Harry's devotion to his customers, and his substantial hand-selected inventory, is World Class. At any moment, travelers might find him in France, Germany, or the caves of Krug, ferreting out the best of the best for his customers. While his shelves carry labels such as Domaine de le Romanée Conti, Vogüé, Leflaive, Harry's main focus is on offering first-rate, modestly priced, every-day offerings for wine-lovers with slender wallets such as myself.
Having known Harry for many years, and having spent countless hours enjoying the fruits of his labors, I've learned that the one thing separating this wine merchant from the rest is his exemplary customer service. He has taken time to teach me more about wine than I ever thought possible. But I am not alone; each VWM guest, be they Fortune 100 CEOs, pro athletes, visiting celebrities or the enthusiastic wine novice such as myself, can expect to be treated with the same level of respect. It's Harry's genuine concern for our needs that keeps us coming back. He queries our preferences, the occasion at which the wine will be poured, and our budget (his goal is to come in under budget, which he often does). One of my favorite stories about Harry is of the partially blind, home-bound senior citizen whose wine-budget tops off at $5 per bottle. When he calls, Harry takes the time out of his day to make it happen, and often delivers the goods himself.
Having relocated to a distant part of the state, I can no longer consider myself a regular. Yet, those ties have never broken, and when good fortune takes me through the doors of Vintage Wine Merchant, I know that a glass of my favorite California Chardonnay is already being poured for me.