ALFIO MORICONI had been waving his fork around with Latin ardor between bites of rockfish and the lusty sips of white wine that seemed to ease him over the oratorical rough spots. He had been trying to make a point, and all the while thoughts had been tumbling from his mouth like hounds after a fox: eager, relentless, cacophonous, excited.
Finally, seeminlgy breathless from the chase, Alfio's eyes suddenly lit on the carafe of pale yellow wine that rested serenely in the middle of the table. He put his fork down triumphantly and beamed.
"That," said Washington wine-lover-merchant-importer-consultant Alfio Moriconi proudly, "ess my behbee."
A casual glance around the dining room would have proven Alfio quite a father. Just about every one of the two dozen tables at the Georgetown restaurant La Chaumiere sported gleaming carafes of red or white wine.
But statistics show that it didn't stop there. At that moment, in the finer restaurants across mid-week workaholic Washington, wine was the preferred alcoholic beverage of the adult customer. Cash registers in supermarkets and liquor stores were ringing up sale after sale, and that night, around dining tables in Georgetown, suburban Virginia, and the inner city, corks were being pulled from bottles of wine by the thousands. In fact, from lunch on through late evening, the Washington area was consuming wine at the prodigious rate of one and a half bottles every second.
"It's the biggest thing to hit American Palates since the pizza," said one gushing trade association official. "And the frightening thing is, it's just beginning."
Addy Bassin, owner of MacArthur Beverages in a fashionable corner of Northwest Washington, keeps a scrapbook in his under-the-stairway shiny store office. It chronicles his days, in the 1940s, as an all-Metropolitan football player at Coolidge High. With a little prodding he'll shuffle around the jumble of cartons filled with rolls and rolls of cash register receipts that record each of the tens of thousands of wine and spirits sales made in his store in a year and - with luck - find it. He smiles sheepishly, a Bassin trademark and then turns cocky, the young gutter punk again.
"I was the quarterback in high school," asserts Addy, self-assurance exuding from his small-by today's football standards-frame. "And in the wine business, I'm still doing the same thing: callin' the plays."
They still remember him in New Orleans. From the auction.
Slingin' Addy faked them all out. Instead of calling the safe plays - a low starting bid here, raising conservatively on subsequent bids - Addy went for the bomb on first and ten from his own twenty.
"Ten thousand," called out Addy when the bidding opened on the jeroboam of 1929 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild at the Heublein Premier National Auction of Rare Wines this spring.
The roomful of wine experts, many of whom were hoping to land the over-sized bottle for themselves or a special customer, were shocked into silence. Before they could recover to make their own bids, time ran out and the auctioneer had rapped the bidding closed.
A photographer rushed up to catch Addy's sheepish grin, no doubt prompted by the thought that he had just snatched from under blue-blood noses one of the few remaining bottles of what many consider the finest red wine of the century. A bargain at $10,000.
With some justification, Addy Bassin can likewise claim to be the father of the wine mania that is driving Washingtonians to crowd liquor stores. After all, he was tasting wine in the late 1940s when he was just out of college and taking over his father's liquor store business.
But neither he nor Alfio, nor Walter Eisenberg of Pearson's Liquor and Wine Annex, Marvin Stirman of Calvert Liquor Shop, nor Eddie Sands of Woodley Liquors, will seriously press their claim, though all have played a part.
They're too busy. They have to travel to Europe to taste new vintages, visit London to catch the latest auction of rare wines at Christie's, badger wholesalers or importers or French negociants for still more table wine. And they have to count their money. After all, the Washington area boasts the two wealthiest counties in the country as part of its sales market.
"When we bought this store in 1966, they were doing $100,000 business a year in wine," Eddie Sands recalled with a smile - in between a half-dozen phone calls from and to wholesalers over orders for more wine. "Today we do millions.Millions."
"I bought a horse for $17,500," boasted Addy, "and nobody raised an eyebrow. I buy a bottle of wine for $10,000 and the whole world notices."
There are 370 operating liquor stores in Washington and there would be a lot more if their owners had listened to Bernard Rosenberg thirty years ago.
Bernard Rosenberg was telling them even then that wine was where it was going to be. As a 19-year-old immigrant from France, he bought with him his continent's love for wine when he came here in 1915. He was a voice in the wilderness of Prohibition and then in the era of hard liquor during the Depression.
A few listened. They're the biggies today. Many didn't and a lot of them are gone.
The bottom has droped out of the old liquor business in the last ten years.While the area's population has soared, hard liquor sales have plumeted twenty-two per cent, down from the nearly six million gallons sold in 1967.
"Sales of liquor are drastically reducing," said House of Wines wholesaler Buddy Rosenberg, whose pioneering father Bernard died in 1973. "I've heard where some stores are finding liquor sales dropping by ten per cent each month. They're just holding their own because of wine."
The plight of the old-fashioned hard liquor store is being exacerbated by the cut-rate wars in which the bigger stores use liquor sales as "loss leaders" or "store traffic pullers." They sell the liquor at or below their own cost just to draw customers, who then hope to pick up a bottle or two of wine while buying their liquor.
"It's imperative that you be a wine store," said Marvin Stirman, whose father ran an old-style liquor store until Marvin shifted its emphasis to wine beginning in the late 1950s. It was Stirman who hired Alfio as one of the first liquor store wine consultants for customers in Washington way back in 1963. "The wine business has saved the liquor business. No question about it."
Stirman calls himself one of "The Young Turks," but the first of them, almost everyone agrees, was Walter Eisenberg.
Walter Eisenberg. In 1956, at 21, he entered his father's business: Pearson's Liquor store on Wisconsin Avenue. Some eighteen or nineteen years before, his father, then a pharmacist, managed to scrape together enough money to buy Dr. Pearson's drug store. He puts in a shelf or two of liquor to augment dipping sales, then went 100 per cent cut-rate liquor. In the midst of the Depression and then World War Two his liquor store became a tremendous success.
Then the son came in, wanted to take over, make his own mark and build his own claim to success. Young and cocky, straining at the leash, Walter worked in the store side-by-side with his father for one year before his exasperated dad had had enough.
"Look, here's the wine side of the business," Walter remembers his father telling him. "You handle that, okay?"
"In those days we were no factor in the wine trade here," recalled Eisenberg, at 42, now the owner of a wine store in Atlanta."All the same, I was interested in it. Whenever [nationally known wine experts and importers] Alexis Lichine or Frank Schoonmaker visited town, I always talked with them. I kept pestering my father. 'Send me to Europe," I kept telling him."
Finally he did. In 1958, Eisenberg left for Europe for six weeks, returning to build an impressive stock of good table wines. It was just the beginning.
"Everybody used to come from all over the United States to buy wine in New York," Eisenberg said. "It seemed to me that we should be able to do the same thing in Washington. After all, we were (and the city still is) the only place in the country where retailers could import wine directly from Europe without having to go through wholesalers, like you do in New York. We could do it cheaper."
So Walter Eisenberg decided he would sell wine futures on wine he would import himself.
It had never been done here before on a such large scale, this selling to customers of wine that hadn't even been bottled, much less shipped. But after some discussion with friends and family, Eisenberg decided to advertise in the Wall Street Journal: cases of fine wine for sale for $20 (they sell for up to $200 today), with delivery the next year.
"It was incredible," Walter said. "For the next six weeks straight we got sixty letters a day from people all over the country who wanted to buy futures. Overnight we became a nationally famous wine shop."
And overnight, Washington was recognized nationally as an import center.
Down the street a few doors from Pearson's toward Georgetown, Calvert's Marvin Stirman, was watching. Like Eisenberg he was young and eager to take a successful family liquor store and make it even more of success.
"The thing that sticks in my mind was a picture of Walter Eisenberg that ran with an advertisement Pearson's did for its wine," Stirman said, leaning back in his large office, cluttered despite its size with cases of wine and papers. "It showed him boarding an airplane for Europe - TWA, I think it was - and it showed his father giving him blank check to buy all the wine Walter wanted for the store's wine customers.
"That's when I knew we had to get going, too," he said.
While Pearson's has faded from the wine business lead in the eyes of many Washington area wine connoisseurs (though in its chilly back rooms you can still find rare vintages few other dealers have), Calvert Wine and Spirit Shop bustles with business. Part of it is due to the cheese shop Stirman put in - one of the first in the area. But most customer come to browse along the racks of some of the most varied wines in the city.
Stirman, short-sleeved and brown-haired with mutton chops a litle too long to be considered fashionable, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] unconcerned with his [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. He does not [WORD ILLEGIBLE] like a Bassin, he does not gesticulate like an Alfio. Stirman is concentrated, focused, dedicated to his business.
Stirman had been stationed in Germany as a soldier during the Fifties. He traveled around, tasted wines, learned a bit about what there was to offer. When he came back to get involved in the family store, he began to read books on the subject (Lichine's Wines of France was the first) and on a lark he set up a lecture series with a group of five interested Northern Virginia doctors.
"I didn't know very much about wine, and I had to read for hours before I dared go over and lecture to them." Stirman laughed shyly. "I brought over bottles of different kinds of wine for them to taste for free. I think that's why they came."
It was a start. He expanded his stock of wines a few years later when the owner of another store sold out his interest and Stirman guessed rightly that the customers might look to him for advice.
Soon people become more sophisticated and started asking questions that Stirman couldn't answer.
"I needed someone with an accent who knew wines," Stirman said. So around 1961 he hired Robert Gourdin, the first wine consultant in Washington. "I told Robert I never wanted him to wait on liquor customers. Only wine customers. The first day everybody was afraid to talk to him," he recalled. That soon changed.
Together the two founded Les Amis du Vin, a wine-tasting club, partly as a ploy to help them get around laws that prohibited wine tastings in wine shops. It went from zero members to 1500 in a year and a half and today is the biggest national wine tasting club in the country with more than 200 local chapters.
The next year, Gourdin left to pursue other interest, and Stirman hired Moriconi.
By 1972 Stirman and Moriconi had bought a French vineyard in Entre-Deux-Mers, near Bordeaux, guaranteeing the store and the importing business a constant source of inexpensive - and pleasant - table wines. Stirman's import wines are now selling at the rate of 1000 cases a month to customers, other stores and restaurants.
With a little help, Alfio had finished off the carafe of white wine and was working on a carafe of red. The wines were from the French vineyard he and Stirman were involved in. "I would serve theess to my friends in my home," Alfio was saying, meaning Italy. "Theess is good wine. I would serve it to a friend."
Alfio snorted. "Jee-soos Christ, Americans are cray-zee , excuse the phrase. Because they used to buy Lafite instead of something good and cheap like theess wine here. They are changing off . . ." His voice trailed off and he puckered his lips with disdain, lamenting the passing of the day when a fine chateau bottle of wine cost only $4, before Americans drove the prices through the ceiling.
"There ees a different approach to life between Latin and Anglo-Saxons, I think. Latins, they work to pay for their joy. Besides sex, wine and dining is to Latins, dammit, very important."
The restaurant was emptying now.But Alfio was warming to the task.
"Today, if I weren't marreed I would be spending more time selecting wine and food then chasing women. But Americans. Jee-soos Christ. To them pleasure ees almost sinful." We paused for a sip of wine. Alfio snickered. "Look at Prohibition! Ha!" he snorted again, resting his case.
Addy Bassin was going back to London. For another Christie's auction. He sauntered down the aisles of his handsomely designed store, hands shoved into his front pants pockets, shoulders hunched, elbows out. At Christie's, one of the most famous names in auctioneering, they reserve for Addy Bassin bidding number 33, the number he wore on his high school jersey. Addy is a valued customer. He buys a lot of wine at their auctions. Over the last two years he's bought over a $1 million dollars worth in London autions.
"When I go to London, I hold court," Bassin said, his eyes taking in the steady business, the wine stocks, the layout of his store. "I go three days early and get a suite in one of the finest hotels and then every two hours I see a broker in my room. They come to me. I tell them what I want. They tell me what they have. Then maybe we make a deal."
Bassin is 52. Almost twenty years ago he had a heart attack: residents of the MacArthur Boulevard area where Bassin wanted to build his new shop were vehemently opposed and the protracted legal battle took its toll. But Bassin won, beating his opponents and the heart attack, as well. The final ruling of a District judge clearing the way for his shop to open is preserved in a small frame in his store office.
Since then Addy has turned to wines heavily, especially bordeaux, carrying to the field an intensity, a swaggering self-confidence more familiar in a star athlete than a businessman. He proudly calls himself a Chateau Latour "freak." (Chateau Latour is one of the finest and most expensive of the great French wines.) And he laughs about how he won't let his wife taste any of the super wines "so that it won't spoil her ability to tell me whether the general public will like wines we try in Europe"
Ruth Bassin takes her role seriously: "If I don't like them, he won't buy them."
Over in the corner, Elliott Staren had been watching Addy with deference. After all, thanks to Addy, Elliott was, at 32, sitting on top of the heap. The most powerful people in Washington, and therefore some of the most powerful men and women in the world, come to him routinely for wine advice.
"Call it luck, whatever. I hit it at the right time," said Elliott, an expert in German wines. "People come in here because they want to BS with you. There's mutual respect. People making $200,000 a year want to pick my brain."
It's a long way since the days when Elliott drank "Purple Jesuses" at University of Maryland fraternity parties.
Elliott's part of the new generation of wine drinkers, the ones between 25 and 40 years old who are pushing the sales of wine - here in Washington and throughout the country - ever upward. They've foresaken the Purple Jesuses and the Ripple of their college days and turned to more sophisticated wines as affluent young executives, attorneys, businessmen.
Elliott had worked in a men's clothing store before his interest in wine - casual, but growing [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] a wine importing firm. The [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to its school on wines where El [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] happened to be a relative of [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] years ago Addy asked him to join [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Arthur Beverages.
Nine years ago, when I started, there were no young men in the business," Elliott said. "Now we get guys my age coming in here all the time trying to get a job like mine."
Now Elliott helps Addy in the burgeoning port side of the wine business. A year and a half ago Addy tried selling 300 cases of port he had purchased in London. They were snapped up before they got to the shelves. As a result, Addy is rapidly becoming the largest dealer in ports in the country. During port sales he'll move 500 cases of a particular brand of port at a time.
Bassin paced the floor like a prize fighter waiting to get into the ring, his combativeness growing. "The chase is the thrill," he said, looking his questioner in the eye. "Beating my competition at the auction is what I enjoy."
A few miles away in his tiny office overlooking the store below, Ed Sands of Woodley smiled at the mention of Bassin and Stirman. "I wouldn't doubt it," Sands said. "Washington's got to be the most competitive market for wine in the country."