Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Henry Bishop & Me

The first time I met Henri Bishop was at Spiaggia in 2001, a few days before the towers fell. I had just landed a server position at Blackbird, and was taking myself out to celebrate. I was younger, exhausted and had spent the month of August packing up my life in Seattle and hauling it back to Chicago. Weary, the single mother of a very active five year old, depleted by a desultory divorce, and living in the basement of my parent's Rogers Park home, I just wanted to experience a few hours of civilized fanciness; hours that did not involve time-outs, the throwing of sticks or the constant urging of my Mother's voice, echoing and cavernous in my new subterranean home.

The other thing is that I was very poor.

It was early, like 5 o' clock early, and I remember a gorgeous, full autumnal sun flooding through the cafe windows, even though they face east, such was this sun. I had a lovely server, and ordered two small dishes, and started to ask her a million questions about their intensely sophisticated wine list. She said to me "I had better go get Henry" and disappeared.

I sat happily crunching a grissini when a tall, imposing figure suddenly, and stealthily appeared at my right side. This was Henry Bishop, and for some reason I remember him wearing some kind of crazy green captain's uniform with gold, braided epaulets (could this memory be true?!?) and big brass buttons. Henry had a soft mumbling way of speaking and we began to talk about things and Friuli came up and this was a relatively unknown region to me at the time.

Now this tall, serious guy was smiling and animated, because this is what happens when you love wine and you find people that love wine like you do. I expressed my budgetary limitations (probably $25 for wine at the time) and gave him the reigns. Pretty soon I had about 10-15 small pours of wine in front of me, in elegant stemware, mainly from the borders (he loved the 'borders', where one country met another, especially in Northern Italy, where Swiss, Austrian and Slovenian culture bled into the Italian mountain cultures) and also, from Ohio. Oh, and Virginia.

When I got the bill- the wine was all free. That was Henry.

So began our friendship. I took my son on many 'dates' there-- the cafe was perfect for a child (well-behaved but only in restaurants!) and Henry always came over and showered me with wine for which I was not allowed to pay. He apprised me of great dinners (Movia before the revolution), and when I got the job running Que Syrah Fine Wines in Lakeview- he was a steady customer (for beer, he liked my beer selections). He would drop little hints about Italian wines at the counter, wines he thought I should buy. One of my greatest joys and proudest moments was his approval of my Italian section there, after two years of hints I finally got it to where he wanted it!

Henry was awkward and stiff sometimes in social situations, not much of a hugger. He collected things; he once expressed to me a desire to find the first Sex Pistols record on 8-track--I don't know that he ever did because soon after that conversation he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Henry died in March 2009. I never saw him in hospice care because I didn't think I could bear it, although I regret this selfishness now.

This November 14th (it's a Wednesday) I am participating in a Somm Smackdown at Spiaggia, a fun competition of sorts that pits various Chicago somms against one another in a course by course contest. Full details here. Part of the proceeds go to Cancer research in Henry's Bishop's name. You can buy a ticket if you wish and come and be a part.

I am unsure Henry would have participated in something like this, but rather may have watched, with his wry, shy smile, from the sidelines. Mainly, because he would have kicked all our asses, and he knew it.


  1. Beautiful; a great tribute to an unforgettable person. We lost him too soon!! I'm going to listen to the Pistols tonight w/some 'border wine' and toast his memory.

  2. Thanks JQ. I've been thinking of him all day.

  3. I have just discovered your marvelous writing in the form of this blog, and I've sat for the past hour or so reading through every marvelous post. I have sighed with recognition on many levels, and sighed at the magic of your well placed words. A fan letter.

  4. Debbie- thank you for your gracious comments. It helps sometimes, to know.