On Saturday morning, September 2nd, I woke up to the news that Jimmy Buffett had passed away. This sad revelation reminded me how his music helped an 18 year old boy from Pennsylvania come to appreciate and love Florida when I moved here in 1985. I can still recite the lyrics to every song from his album Floridays nearly forty years later. While I do not have his music on constant play in my car anymore I still find myself humming his songs anytime there is sea spray in the air and sand under my feet.
A couple of hours after learning of Jimmy’s death I was rocked again by the news that our friend Mel Master had also passed. Many of you will remember Mel, and his lovely wife Janie, as participants in several events with us at the Orlando store, including the dinner above (where he is seated on the right of the picture) and a virtual tasting during the pandemic. Mel always shared fantastic stories of his long career, which inspires me to call him the Forrest Gump of the wine business. Through a sixty year career he was somehow front and center in many of the seminal moments of the modern wine industry, with a vision and spirit that has no compare.
Mel Master’s beginning in the US was his first challenge, being one of the first to import petit chateau Bordeaux into the US in the early 1970s. He faced a daunting task as then the small amount of French wine sold in the US was either expensive classified growth Bordeaux or Burgundy. He had to convince consumers that cheap wine could actually be good! Then, at the urging of his friend chef Paul Bocuse, he began shipping the wines of George Duboeuf to America. Beaujolais was practically unknown in the US, so Mel again showed that unknown and inexpensive wine could be delicious. While growing that business he also found time to co-author the Faber & Faber book, Wines of the Rhone, introducing the wine world to another under appreciated, value category. This was one of the first wine books I ever read, while still in college.
Then in 1980 Mel and Janie moved to California where he would become the first national sales manager for the Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley. To my knowledge this is his only tenure selling premium wines but the foundation he laid established them as a sommelier favorite to this day. It was also during his time in the Golden State that he met Jonathan Waxman, and together they moved to New York and opened Jams (a combination of their names.) This iconic restaurant introduced California cooking to New York ,and was a launching point for many more concepts the couple would open across the country.
Feeling the strong pull of the wine business, Mel and Janie then created a value French wine brand called Les Jamelle (again, a combination of their names) based on wines from the then little known Languedoc region. It was during this time, in the mid-1990’s that he was in Florida to sell his wines which were brokered by a friend of mine. When we had our first meeting I was star struck by his restaurant resume, but during our tasting it became apparent that Mel understood value wine better than anyone I had ever met. That tasting is still a highlight of my career, and the wines sold for less than $10 a bottle! Since that time I have met Mel, and often Janie, many more times and each meeting included great personal stories about many of the icons of our business.
Our prayers go out to the Master family during this difficult time. Thankfully, Mel and Janie’s son Charlie has been the driving force of their company, Master wines, for several years, so the pipeline of great values will continue. We look forward to his new discoveries and continuation of their legacy.