Notes From The Concrete Terroir: The Cataclysmic Apocalypse Edition
Editor’s note: As New York City begins to reopen, we reflect on the ways the pandemic has upended our lives, from the most shattering tragedies to the very tiniest interactions (or lack thereof). Contributor and wine rep Peter Zusman weighs in, from way back in the beginning of the shutdown.
The other day, I got an email from the wine buyer of one of my accounts on the Upper East Side, a large brick and mortar retail store, requesting a particular bottle of Chianti they were interested in tasting. This was nothing new, or all that out of the ordinary of a request, as I’m on the receiving end of emails, texts, and phone calls very similar to this one all the time. What made this special was that it happened right while we are all in the grip of a Global Pandemic called the Coronavirus aka COVID-19.
Even a World falling apart is not going to stop this Wine Rep.
That said, welcome to another installment of Notes From The Concrete Terroir (or more aptly, Notes From The Concrete TERROR?!): The Cataclysmic Apocalypse Edition.
“Sure,” I wrote back. “I’ll drop off a sample for you to try shortly.” And then, I went and spritzed a gooey glob of hand sanitizer into my palm at the mere thought of going outside. But what’s a Wine Rep to do.
What follows is a block-by-block dispatch of my adventures from the field on this, a bottle run through the emptied streets of Manhattan in the midst of all the chaos, uncertainty, social distancing, and silent mayhem.
Reaching for my trusty roller bag, I bundled up and prepared myself for the trek. For the germ warfare that I would soon encounter. Having already made the executive decision to eschew public transportation—i.e. the subway—for fear of undo necessary exposure to spores and sores of whatever variety in favor of good old fashioned engine by foot, I then mentally started plotting my route from the Lower East Side, better known as the LES, up to the UES, where my company’s office and said bottle was located.
A moment later, I was out the door of my apartment, and onto the pavement with the wheels of my bag skirting past rows and rows of buildings silent with morose desolation. And if I had a dollar for every sign I glimpsed hanging on all the locked doors of the currently non-operational businesses that read, “Temporarily closed until further notice,” then I could just about take that money and start planting grapes, to make some Chianti, or really, any wine, of my own. But that’s another story, err, column, for another time.
Taking Avenue B down to East 7th Street, I cut through Tompkins Square Park, which usually, is teeming with people no matter what time of day or day of the week it is, and yet, here it was lunchtime on a Tuesday on an otherwise mild early Spring afternoon, and go figure, I was the only soul around. Oh, wait. Something about a lockdown was in place. Something about the call of forcing to self isolate. And of course, I wanted to be responsible. To protect my fellow man, woman, and squirrel. I wanted to do the right thing. But I was also lucky enough to be one of the rare few still able to remain doing my job under the crazy circumstances, and so that’s what I was doing—though making sure I still adhered to the basic guidelines that had been recommended by the City’s Health Officials, that of social distancing, not lingering in a crowd, washing my hands, avoiding touching my face, etc, etc.
After exiting the park, I made a quick right onto Avenue A, and continued heading North until I reached East 14th Street, again, normally what typically would be a bustling hub of people and local commerce, but on this day was a virtual ghost town. Ce la vie. The Show must go on. The Serum must be delivered to Anchorage. The Chianti must be sampled…
I plodded on.
Heading west on 14th, at Third Avenue, I banged another right and the view of the once sprawling city, was a grid of vast sparseness as far as the eye could see. I could count how many cars were currently visible on the road on one hand. And much like me and the rest of the folks that work within the wine & liquor biz, those that I did witness were composed entirely of the diehard “essentialists:” the FedEx and UPS delivery personnel. DHL. USPS. As well as those of the food delivery brigade, a half-hazard bunch of helmet-clad kamikazes zipping their way through every red light, because I mean, why not. Some things never change even in spite of nearly everything else going all to hell. Their motorized bicycles acting as their steeds. Handlebar grips wrapped in plastic bags. Logos of Seamless, GrubHub, and Caviar visible in the form of careening billboards strategically placed on their velco-strapped delivery bags.
While walking, a scene from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid suddenly came to mind: Butch and Sundance are on their way with a local Guide to pick up some gold. The three of them are riding donkeys down a mountain in the Bolivian countryside. The two legendary theiving Gringo’s seem nervous & apprehensive scanning the brush for any sign of trouble. Noticing this, the Guide stops, and turns to them. “There’s nothing to worry about coming down the mountain. We are not carrying any gold yet. It’s going back UP the Mountain when we are holding the gold that you can start to worry.”
And I take note that I’m still not holding any gold yet. That I’m still merely walking down that mountain.
About an hour later, I stop off at one of the only places I see open to grab (and go) a cup of coffee. It’s a little cafe just past Grand Central. The counter guy is a young kid about college age. Thin and friendly, he lets me know that I’m officially their last customer.
“Really,” I wonder aloud. “Is that so??!”
“Yup. Management just called to say that it makes no sense to try and stay open.” He hands me a large.
“Oh, wait. I only wanted a small.”
I throw some bills into the tip cup.
“Stay safe,” I say.
Eventually, I make it the rest of the way uptown to the office, and once there, standing in the entrance way, one of the Sales Manager’s immediately hands me a pair of paper blue booties like the ones you wear when visiting a hospital.
“Here,” he instructs, “put these on your shoes, and before you do anything, please go and wash your hands.”
Slipping the booties on, I am fully creeped out, but completely understand the reasoning and precautions behind it.
“Yes, yes,” I agree, sliding a sneaker clad right foot in.
I got the other one on, and hoisted my wine bag up onto my shoulder, sliding with the booties on the pristine, freshly mopped floor towards the stockroom, where the inventory of wine samples are housed, shipped in from a warehouse in Jersey.
Nabbing the Il Balzo, and for good measure, I also purloin a couple of other Chiantis, such as the Castello di Meleto Classico, and the Ellera Collie Chianti Senesi, so there might be some additional options just in case (not pun intended), then stuffing the lot of them into my bag, I lock up the stockroom, and shuffle back down the stairs, making a quick pit stop to wash my hands once again. On my way out the door, I remove the blue paper booties and drop them into a plastic bucket, which may as well have been labeled Biohazard, for dismiss. Gladly.
Back out on the street, Lexington Avenue awaits. Still heading north, I take it further uptown, and here, the view and mood is more or less the same as it was downtown: Somber. Subdued. Sideswiped and side wiped. The wheels of my wine bag, now weighted down with a few bottles from one of the countries that were hardest hit with this elusive and insidious disease inside, clicking along. Somehow, it gave me added incentive in wanting to help this little boot-tipped lady out in whatever small, imported and distributed way that I could. Italia, oh, Italia…World, oh, World…Wine, oh, how I whine.
When I get to the shop, Mr. Wright’s Fine Wine & Spirits, there are a few harried and concerned-looking customers inside. Good for them, I thought, eyeing the mini-throng lassoing bottles off the shelves with a kind’ve reckless abandon. At least this shop is doing a bit of business, while there are a lot that are not. A lot have their quarantined customers stuck at home too worried to venture out in the slightest. They are too consumed with counting down the hours and the days and the weeks, and most likely, though I certainly hope not, perhaps even the months that are painfully and fearfully lying ahead, until this whole Global nightmare is over.
But thankfully, there are still some of us Wine-a-holics left out there in this fractured state.
I find my contact, Aaron, the Buyer, and pull out the Tuscan treasures. If only 100% Sangiovese, could be the necessary antibiotics needed, the penicillin to all this. But this is just wishful thinking—wishful drinking?!— on my part I surmise, putting the Il Balzo and the others down on the counter, carefully not to touch any part of the counter’s exposed surface with my naked and vulnerable hands.
Surveying them all, Aaron thanks me, and says he’ll taste them later that night and let me know.
“You realize that you’re one of the only reps still out there and coming around,” he relays.
“Need to work,” I tell him.
“Yes,” he adds, waving his arms around to indicate the movement in the store. “As we all do.”
At this, we both chuckle a little. A little.
And with that, the desperate streets back downtown beckon.
Peter “Blue” Zusman is an artist and wine & spirits enthusiast living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He places equal importance on both a finely-aged single malt and a medium bodied, earthy red. Summer is always about Provence. He was formerly a contributing wine writer at grapecollective.com.