I opened the front door. There stood my old friend, Walter Pecardo, and his black Lab, Murray.
"I taught Murray to taste wine," Walter exclaimed excitedly. "What do you mean you taught Murray to taste wine?" They followed me into the kitchen. "He barely knows his name." I snapped my fingers. "Murray! Over here boy!"
The dog stared at a line of ants as they paraded across the floor. "I kid you not," said Walter. "The other night I was tasting those wines you gave me. You remember, there was a Cab, Merlot, Zin and a Pinot. Murray was sitting next to me…I assumed to catch scraps. But every time I tasted a wine, he would paw my leg."
"Is this story going somewhere?" I inquired.
Walter ignored me and continued his story. "’What’s the matter boy?’ I asked him. ‘Is everything okay?’ But Murray continued to paw away. So I lowered the glass filled with Cabernet and he stuck his nose into the bowl. Then he sniffed a couple of times and tapped the floor once with his paw."
I looked over at the dog who was now eating the ants. "Next, I put the Merlot in front of him. He buried his nose in the glass, sniffed a couple of times, and tapped the floor twice." Murray, unaware of the hubbub around him, continued to feast on insects.
"For the Zinfandel he tapped three times and for the Pinot Noir he tapped four. You get the picture?" I carefully avoided eye contact. "At any rate, the next night I was having a glass of Zin and Murray pawed my leg, so I let him have a sniff. To my amazement, he tapped the floor three times. He knew it was a Zinfandel!"
Walter wasn’t always so peculiar. In high school, he was quirky, but not yet peculiar. He officially became peculiar two years ago—the day his wife changed her name from Eunice to Futura and moved to Mendocino with their family accountant, who changed his name from John to Jon.
"Thinking it might be a lucky guess, I poured a glass of Merlot. Next thing I know, he takes a whiff and goes tap-tap with his paw." Walter demonstrated the tap-tap to make sure I understood.
I gave Walter the thin-lipped smile I normally reserve for Jehovah’s Witnesses or relatives selling Amway products.
"I know you think I’m nuts, but I’ll prove it. What do you have open?" I was drinking a Cabernet with my can of beef stew. He took a glass from the cabinet and poured a few ounces. "Come here, Murray." The dog was busy licking
himself because, as we all know, he could. "Murray, come here." The black Lab moseyed forward. Walter held the glass below the table. To my surprise the dim-witted animal buried his nose in the crystal, took a couple of sniffs and tapped his foot on the floor once.
"You cheated. You gave him a hand signal," I protested.
"I didn’t cheat. You try it."
I opened a bottle of Zinfandel and repeated the test. Sure enough, Murray tapped the floor three times. Over the next 10 minutes, the dog nailed an Argentinean Malbec and a Pinot Noir from New Zealand. It was the damndest thing. Here was a dog that once ate an entire Duraflame log now identifying grape varieties like a seasoned master sommelier. But I was still suspicious.
"Tell you what…let’s give him the brown bag test," I insisted. Walter shielded Murray’s eyes while I opened an old Pinot I had been saving for a special occasion. Next, I put the wine into the paper bag, poured a glass and held it under the dog’s nose. Sniff, sniff, nothing. The dog looked confused.
"Give him another smell," Walter demanded. Once again I held it under the dog’s nose. Sniff, sniff, nothing.
Walter was deflated. "Here, let me do it." He placed the glass under Murray’s muzzle and watched the dog sniff repeatedly and come up empty. "I don’t get it. He was perfect up to now. Maybe he’s tired. Yeah, that’s it, he’s got palate fatigue." I got up and ushered Walter and Murray to the front door.
"Wait a minute!" Walter exclaimed as they walked toward the car. "The only time he couldn’t guess the wine when it was in the bag. That can only mean one thing—Murray can read wine labels."
I closed the door, poured myself a glass of the old Pinot and adjourned to the living room. I leaned back into the sofa, held the glass to my nose and inhaled deeply. "Oh…my…God." I whispered. Here was a wine the critics had praised as magnificent. It was purchased from the winery and stored in my cellar under flawless conditions. It should have been hedonistic and mind-blowing. Instead it was corked beyond all recognition. I will never doubt Murray again.