WWC23 – Rob Reynolds, by Erica Landis

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This powerful entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, by writer Erica Landis, is a tale of loss, grief, recovery and transformation centring around wine-shop manager Rob Reynolds. See this guide to our competition.

Erica Landis writes Erica Landis started her writing career in Mrs. Kelly's second-grade class with a tear-jerking essay about a No. 2 pencil. In eighth grade, she went on to write herself and her friends into a 1980's General Hospital storyline. The notebook pages were passed around the lunch table like wildfire. She knew then that she was a writer. Erica is an experienced content writer in health, parenting, grief & loss, entertainment, travel, humor, and food & wine. She was a 2023 Fellow of The Meadowood Napa Wine Writing Symposium. Erica’s goals include leaving the freelance writing life behind for a staff writing position. She is also writing a book about her experiences of putting her life back together in a wine shop after the loss of her young son in an accident. 

We sat on folding chairs facing each other surrounded by the sounds of a wine store under construction. Drills, hammering, pallet jack hydraulics, laughter, shouting. He asked about my qualifications for this job. Snippets of the conversation are etched in my memory. 

“I worked in a small Pennsylvania winery twenty years ago and enjoyed it… I usually order white wine spritzers… and my son died less than a month ago in a swimming pool accident. He was almost two years old. I was a stay-at-home mom. I don’t know what to do and I always liked wine and I thought this might be a good place to start. I’m a fast learner. I think I need to keep busy.”

He looked up at me from his clipboard of resumes. He swallowed a little. 

“How are you with money and cash registers, things like that?” he asked. 

“I’m ok. I mean… I can count. But it’s not my forte,” I answered. 

He smiled. He made a note on my resume. “That’s fine. We can work around that stuff,” he told me.

I was hired. I called my husband as I walked up the slightly inclined parking lot back to my car. He was so proud of me. We were clinging to each other for dear life still in this nightmare, but I’d just been thrown a life preserver without even realizing the size of the ocean just yet. 

His name was Rob, and he was the store manager. My nametag said wine specialist and, along with ten or twelve other employees, this wine store where I would spend the next ten years opened for business in the middle of August 2010. 

I knew so little about wine. But Rob saw something else in me that was just as important as knowing appellations, varietals, and fermentation methods. He saw my need to throw myself into a whole other world that could give me some respite from my crippling new reality of losing my only child. What else other than wine can transport you around the world, provide endless readings of both technical and poetic descriptions, and blur your senses just enough? 

Rob needed a friendly face to help the customers. But even more, I needed to be that friendly face. And while it felt like I was playing the part of a normal human being who wasn’t spiraling daily from overwhelming grief, Rob was my safety net. If I needed a break after helping a mom with a young son in a shopping cart pick out a 1.5L of pinot grigio for a party she didn’t want to be throwing, Rob simply shook his head yes and said go, pointing towards the employee break room. 

My education was constant. Rob brought me wine books from his personal collection to keep underneath the tasting bar where I was usually stationed. In between pouring samples and directing customers through the racks of regions and countries, I’d flip through the pages feeling a momentary relief. The wine world was enormous. And while I was still confused and angry that the earth continued to spin and lives continued on without my son here, I couldn’t help but be swept up in what was left. I needed to be swept up. 

Rob turned my chardonnay into Meursault and my viognier into Condrieu. My nightly sleeve of cookies and milk was replaced by a small glass of 10-year-old tawny port and a chunk of angel food cake. And what Rob taught me, I then brought home to my husband. While not a wine drinker - or drinker of any sort really -my husband took a sip along with me and listened as I relayed what I learned that day. Winemaking techniques, varietals, historical facts. He knew I was emotionally safe amongst the shelves and racks all under Rob’s leadership. It was still so early in the loss of our son, and we clung to each other. But when we weren’t together, my husband knew that Rob was the gentle tour guide through my healing new love of wine. 

Rob taught me how to taste instead of guzzle. He encouraged me to come up with my own terms for describing wine. Earthy became aromas of petting zoo and a complex layered field blend became Willy Wonka’s Three Course Dinner Gum. Customers loved my terminology and Rob cheered me on. Yes, I was good for business. But he was equally concerned about what was good for my broken heart. 

Rob introduced me to salespeople as his point person, assuring me that I’m just as capable as anyone. I loved meeting the winemakers and winery reps on tour in our area. Rob knew that these interactions made my world bigger and more hopeful. He knew this was my therapy. 

As I tried to get pregnant again, Rob scheduled me to work around early morning bloodwork and procedures as the world of fertility clinics became necessary. And when I had the chance to qualify for a medical study that could help me have a baby, Rob was the second person I went to with the news. I needed to lose 50 pounds very quickly in order to qualify for this study. With our frequent indulgent vendor lunches and dinners, I needed a game plan. 

Rob assured me I could do it. And the very next day, as we sat next to each other at a vendor luncheon, Rob whispered I should order the carpaccio and moved the breadbasket out of my reach with a wink and a smile. He reminded me to spit with every taste of that day’s line-up of Barbaresco and Barbera d’ Alba. “Remember…BABY!” he would say if I was tempted to falter at the dozens of lunches and dinners that followed. 

When I got the positive pregnancy results from the clinic, it was still very early. I sat next to him at his computer as he entered inventory and explained how all the hormone levels needed to rise for the next few weeks before I could truly celebrate. 

He knew I needed to stay distracted and busy. He brought in his old study guide for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam, all marked up with neon highlighters. “Park yourself by the tasting bar and start reading. You can still help customers while studying. You did say you wanted some letters after your name, didn’t you?”

About two weeks before I was due, my husband insisted on driving me to work. It wasn’t only because my pregnant belly barely fit behind the steering wheel; but also, because Rob had organized a surprise baby shower with all my coworkers. Prosecco mimosas flowed before we opened that Sunday at noon. 

After my daughter was born, I took the allotted three months maternity leave, during which Rob would often text me pictures of what was happening at work. A sales rep’s lineup of chardonnay with the message ALL MALOLACTIC or a big inky shiraz with a funny Australian label he knew I’d love. 

I tried my best to continue studying for the CSW exam throughout my new (again) motherhood. I had the ultimate prize of a child again. But it sure would be nice to have some letters after my name. I sat for the CSW exam ten months after my daughter was born. When I found out I had failed by five points, Rob made sure I knew that a certification would not make me or break me. He knew how much my job saved me. How much the wine world saved me. 

But it all started with how much Rob saved me. He wasn’t afraid of hiring this broken woman sitting in front of him managing to smile and simply asking for a place to go every day. 

We worked together for ten years. Rob moved up the ranks within the company and I moved on to writing full time. We text and visit occasionally, and I’ve become quite friendly with his wife as well. Our history is unique. He gave me the chance to evolve like a bottle of wine that no one was sure would ever age, let alone age well. And I credit him with being the winemaker.

Image: Vectorig via Getty Images.