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THOMPSON: A case of mistaken identity turns into a belated apology

July 20, 2020 - 12:04 PM

 


OPINION


I owe Hugh Johnson an apology. It is, in fact, long overdue...some 30 years. I have never actually met the man...though I think we once attended a black-tie wine event in New York City in the 1980s.

We share some interests...fine wine and dining...and we’re both writers. Otherwise, our lives couldn’t be farther apart. He’s English...born and raised in London. I’m American...born and raised in Florida.

At 81, he’s a bit longer in the tooth...I’m 70. He’s an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)...and I’m not. Also, he’s the most famous, widely published wine writer in the world. And for clarity...I’m not.

This story began 30 years ago...almost to the day. I was in Napa Valley with my then wife and another couple...friends. We were on a two-week holiday...visiting vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Valleys...shopping and dining in San Francisco and Carmel...playing golf at Pebble Beach.

While dining on a Friday night in Napa’s Auberge du Soliel restaurant...I was mistaken for Hugh Johnson by an entire family who - seeing the number of bottles on our table - assumed I was a wine expert.

The father asked if I might recommend wines for their dinner...“It appears you like wine...and we’re celebrating my two daughters’ engagements...would you mind?” They enjoyed the wines...and I suggested a few wineries for them to visit the next day...and “Please, use my name,” I said.

I told him Don Thompson...but apparently he either heard Hugh Johnson...or perhaps he just didn’t have a good memory and succumbed to the power of suggestion the next day when he visited the first winery and someone there guessed, “Hugh Johnson?” It’s still a mystery.

However, by dinner the next evening half the visitors to wine country were reporting Hugh Johnson sightings...only it was me. The man and his family apparently spent Saturday at the four wineries I suggested. More on that later...but some background might help readers at this point...or at least it might make me feel slightly less guilty.

California’s wine country has been a magnet since my first visit in 1978...and wine has  somewhere between hobby and obsession for nearly a half century. I’ve come to know winemakers and vineyard owners all over the world...visiting more than 400 wineries in California alone.

By the way, I might as well apologize to my ex, as well, for the many times over a couple decades for meeting winemakers and vineyard owners for barrel tastings when more sane people were drinking coffee. Also, she accompanied me as I sought and often found boutique wineries that not only lacked tasting rooms...but often had no signs...not even a mailbox with a name.

She sat in rental cars as I chased owners on tractors spraying vines simply to tell them how much I loved their wines. The winery folks - if surprised - were always forgiving...and usually became friends. My then-wife...somehow understood my passion...and forgave my rabid tendencies...and as she admitted, she benefitted from my passion for wine, too.

Those who grow grapes and make wine are - without doubt - among the most gracious and hospitable people on the planet. But, back to my apology to Hugh. You see, I call him by his first name...because...well, a lot of people think I’m him.

Yeah, okay, here’s where the apology comes in. Three decades ago, Hugh and I both had dark hair, a similar coiffure and eyeglasses...and perhaps...if you squinted...you might say, “Hey, these guys are look-a-likes.”

Now, returning 30 years to Napa and fast forwarding 24 hours from where I left the story at Auberge du Soliel. My wife and I and our friends decided to dine at Mustards Grill that night, a popular casual hangout for locals and tourists in nearby Oakville that remains popular today.

The restaurant was - predictably - crowded and as we waited a few minutes for our table...I noticed a man in the far corner waving dramatically, as if to flag down a passing motorist on a highway.

My wife noticed him and asked me, “Is that the man you selected wines for last night at Auberge?”

“Yes, I think it might be,” I answered, acknowledging him with a more demure wave.

We were seated on the opposite end of the restaurant, and just as I swirled and tasted our first wine of the evening, the man made his way to our table...with a smile bigger than I have ever seen...even to this day.

“You son-of-a-gun! I guess you do know a little something about wine...the world’s top wine writer,” shaking my hand as if he were pumping up a flat bicycle tire. “The wineries you sent us to...we were treated like royalty...special tastings...meeting the winemakers and owners. Again, thank you so much...you made our trip!”

By now people within earshot were craning necks from their tabes to see...who is this guy?

The grateful man, whose name was Michael, then said before walking back to his table, “Look, Hugh, I just bought your book before coming here...would you mind autographing it?”

My wife shot me a glance...the kind you might get if you accidentally farted. I returned what was now a full-blown stare...with that indignant look that you might ask, “Did someone fart?” There we were...four friends sharing glances...and then with one final double-take with my wife, who somewhat incredulously inquired, “You’re not going to sign his book?”

I shrugged, and in a moment that I can only defend with what I answered my wife...“How can I disappoint this guy?” Michael returned, book in hand, opening the hardback cover and giving me a pen...that huge smile still on his face. I, of course, had my own copy of the book at home...and knew the real Hugh Johnson’s photo was on the inside back cover.

Even so, with a flourish that perhaps only the real Hugh Johnson might have mustered, I wrote across the entire page: “To Michael - May you long remember your visit to Napa and your new friend...Hugh Johnson.”

But, it did not end there. A couple minutes later, Michael, before leaving with his family, grabbed a knife and clanging on his wine glass with one remaining sip...stood...and with 80 patrons looking on, announced “Ladies and gentlemen, to one of the most gracious and generous wine experts in the world...Hugh Johnson.”

I’m unsure what ran through my mind just then...perhaps - and I’d like to think it was something like - “You owe it to Hugh.”  Regardless, I stood, wine glass in hand and with a look of humility, smiled, nodded and returned the toast.

I recall my wife and friends staring straight ahead...blankly. I shook a few hands as we all left Mustards ten minutes later...and I’m pretty sure I signed another couple of autographs.

Still, with my somewhat perverse sense of humour...on occasion I think about Michael and his autographed copy of “Hugh Johnson on Wine” on the bookshelf of his den...a likely family heirloom. I think, too, of the patrons at Mustards that Saturday night in July of 1990...who no doubt re-counted to friends...their own encounters with Hugh Johnson.

Really, Hugh, my sincere — if somewhat belated — apologies.


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