When East Hampton resident Philip Whitley Churchill-Down, age 63, died last month in a freak clam-shucking accident, America lost its foremost oenological bibliophile and I lost a dear friend. “Whit,” as Churchill-Down preferred to be called, had crossed the pond from London to follow his passion for fine wines and rare books, or, as he put it, “grape juice and fancy words.” He quickly failed in his first job before achieving spectacular — and almost overnight — success as the pre-eminent dealer in fine double magnums and jeroboams, and rare books in which fine wines were mentioned. His sudden fortune allowed him to purchase a seven-acre estate on Georgia Pond where, in his typical eccentric fashion, he built and lived in an underground wine cellar that housed his 75,000 bottles and 125,000 rare volumes.
Below is in an excerpt from Whit’s forthcoming memoir, “In Veritas Vino,” in which he discusses his failure in his first job in the States:
I was one of those lads who took no interest in rugby and football. At an early age I fell in love with the written word. As Virginia Woolf said, “Language is wine upon the lips.” While pursuing my Ph.D. in literature at Oxford, I discovered my other grand passion — wine, the nectar of Bacchus! — subsequently attaining a Grand Master Sommelier certification.
During my time as Librarian at Large at the Royal Book Society, I longed for a way to combine my two obsessions. Through good fortune, I was offered the prestigious position of Conservateur du Vin at the James Joyce Room in Manhattan’s illustrious Grosvenor Bibliophile Society. I accepted without hesitation.
The Joyce Room has high ceilings, wood paneling, soft leather armchairs, and reading lamps with silk shades. But its popularity is due in considerable part to its unique custom of permitting members to enjoy the club’s wines while they read.
I began work in September of 1998. On my first evening I approached an elderly member, Mr. Johnstone, and offered my assistance. He put down his first edition of David Foster Wallace’s 1,100-page opus, “Infinite Jest,” removed his thick reading glasses, and said, “I’ll have a glass of chardonnay.”
His dry wit caught me off guard and I chuckled. “Clever, sir,” I said. “I’ll have to remember that.” I waited a moment, then said, “May I recommend a wine?”
“I’ll have a California chardonnay,” he replied.
I smiled politely — I don’t find it amusing when one milks a joke — but decided to play along and address his quip with some badinage that might suit his advanced age and American sensibility. “Pairing ‘Infinite Jest’ with a California chardonnay,” I said, “would be like serving a ‘61 Margaux with a banana split.”
I awaited his smile, but none was forthcoming. I suspected that Mr. Johnstone might be “on the spectrum,” as many bibliophiles are.
“What chardonnays do you have?” he said, flogging a dead horse.
“That won’t be necessary,” I replied with a modicum of immodesty. “Obviously, one can’t pair a full-bodied David Foster Wallace with an insouciant chardonnay grape — oaked or not. It won’t bring out the hues and complex undertones of Wallace’s prose. Indeed, his nonlinear narrative alone calls for something abundant in tannins and abounding with earthy, mineral notes.”
Mercifully, Mr. Johnstone was silent, so I continued: “We could explore Burgundies — perhaps with some success — if we were dealing with Wallace’s earlier work or nonfiction. But ‘Infinite Jest’ is lustrous, endlessly inventive, and best savoured for the richness of its language. Thus, a mature Bordeaux — not necessarily a first growth — is essential. I’m partial to the ’64 Petrus.”
He said nothing and I continued. “There are those who might find the Petrus too big to pair with such a hearty Wallace, but for me its magnificent aromatics blend exquisitely with Wallace’s resonant style.”
Upon inspection, it appeared that Mr. Johnstone couldn’t comprehend my words, leading me to wonder whether he could understand Wallace’s masterpiece. He finally stuttered, “I’m in the mood for a glass of chardonnay.”
I was aware that the Grosvenor was known for its many eccentrics, and I now concluded that Mr. Johnstone must be one of them. Perhaps he was setting a trap of sorts. I decided to accept his gambit.
“Of course you want a chardonnay!” I countered. “I can recommend a 1989 Louis Jadot Montrachet Grand Cru. It’s well defined, has a lavish mouth feel, and is intense without being imposing. Naturally, one can’t drink this with a volume as robust as ‘Infinite Jest.’ The thought of the two together is quite ghastly. So . . . allow me to suggest something in a Flaubert. Perhaps the short stories?”
Mr. Johnstone pretended to be confused. He actually used his cane to help himself out of his seat. “I want a buttery chardonnay,” he said.
I was growing weary of his infinite jesting and decided it was time to move in for the checkmate. “Clearly,” I said, “you’re looking for a warmer-climate grape — probably Napa Valley — French oak, and barrel fermentation. Since you’re not favourably disposed to Flaubert we’ll eschew modern realism entirely and try something in a James Thurber. It’s light but piquant and has charisma. The Modern Library edition will pair splendidly with a Rombauer Carneros, especially the 1991, which has overtones of vanilla cream and a surprisingly muscular finish.”
I let my words sink in, then said, “I shall return shortly with your order.” I picked up his edition of ‘Infinite Jest’ to return to the stacks, whereupon Mr. Johnstone lunged at me and began howling, confirming my original diagnosis that he was indeed somewhere on the spectrum. I called for the assistant stewards and the crotchety jobbernowl was gently escorted from the premises. I apologized to everyone for the disturbance.
Another member — an oenophobe who was reading one of Yeats’s later poems, “The Second Coming” — then called for my services . . . and asked for a white wine spritzer!
Things were falling apart; the centre could not hold. As I was slouching towards the wine cellar, I suspected I’d made a poor career move.
David Schiff is a writer and investigative journalist. For many years he wrote Schiff's Insurance Observer. He's been spending time in East Hampton since 1963 and can be reached at [email protected].