Up until a few years ago, the dinners at The Fountains at Millbrook retirement community in New York had been a somber and sedate affair. The 60 residents would arrive at precisely 5 p.m. The seating plan, menus and social rituals had become, understandably, routine. It was the social highlight of the day, yet there was a formality and predictability to the dinner hour that could become wearisome.
Then, a new arrival at The Fountains, a charismatic, well-dressed and vigorous octogenarian, began entering the dining room toting a cane in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. One night it might be a Tuscan red, the next a Zinfandel from California, the next a crisp Sancerre. Heads would slowly yet eagerly swivel to see what she had brought that night.
For many of these senior citizens, fine wine is a revelation. During their youth, as they coped with the Depression, if there was wine at the dinner table, it would have been undistinguished jug wine. As they matured and dealt with the deprivations and tragedies of World War II, stepping up to the bar meant a beer, a shot of whiskey or some other hard concoction. The drinks of their day were the martini, gin and tonic, Tom Collins and Manhattan, not Meursault and Merlot.
But to the residents of The Fountains, just as their world was shrinking, a whole new world of flavors, textures and conviviality opened. This spunky, well-spoken old lady started sharing modest pours of a variety of quality bottles, introducing many of her new friends to the pleasures of the vine. What had formerly been a quiet dining hall was now alive with banter about wine types, laughter and shared memories.
Her name was Gertie, but they called her “the wine lady.” In a matter of months her influence had become so pervasive that many of the tables in the dining room already had their own uncorked bottles in place by the time she arrived for dinner—residents began acquiring their own bottles, often by asking relatives to bring some wine when they visited. Furthermore, Gertie organized a wine club of sorts which she dubbed the Fountains’ “OWLS,” or Old Wine Lover’s Society. Members met once a week and each participant brought a bottle; they enjoyed discussing the virtues and nuances of the various wines.
It didn’t take too many glasses of wine to establish Gertie as the most popular dining companion at The Fountains. Almost every day she received a phone call from one resident or another inquiring as to her availability for dinner that evening. And it didn’t stop with the residents; the kitchen and wait staff would hover around her table, knowing that out of kindness she would make sure to save a taste for each and every one of them before the evening was through.
This introduction of wine changed the attitudes and lives of many of the members of this community by adding simple, delicious pleasure, helping to forge new social bonds, awakening memories of good times gone by and perhaps in some instances, numbing the pain of aging.
Wine is in a special position to do so. There’s nothing wrong with the whiskies, white spirits, beers and cocktails that this generation is identified with. But wine is about the dinner table, not the local bar. It’s about family and food. For Gertie to place a Brunello in the center of the table for everyone to enjoy said something completely different than if she’d placed a bottle of whiskey. Enjoying a sip or two with dinner gave residents an option, permission, if you will, that they might not have had otherwise, given the medical therapies many were on.
Even for this proud generation of Americans who built a great nation and defended it with their lives, who were some of the last remaining parents of today’s “baby boomers,” it was not too late to learn about the pleasures of wine. All it took was one passionate wine enthusiast to influence and bring happiness to all of those around her.
The members of what was deemed the “Greatest Generation” (in the superb book by Tom Brokaw) were united by a common purpose and common values, many of which have been lost today—duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country and above all, responsibility for oneself. We can still learn a lot from them, even as they leave the stage.
In Loving Memory of Gertrude M. Strum