East Orange–Part One

Last month, we started the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC2), which was won by the Armchair Sommelier. This month, she therefore has the burden honor of hosting the Challenge and choosing the new theme. Her choice, “Trouble” first gave me some pause, but like Talk-a-Vino, when I mentioned it to my wife, she gave me the stink-eye, laughed, and said “Oh, I am sure you can come up with something.”

Even though the rules state that the post should be under 1000 words, I have not been one for following rules much. Thus, here is part one of my entry, part two will grace this spot next week.

I am a bit of a wine scavenger–I will buy wine from just about anywhere. Many people have told me how risky this is since you never know how the wine has been stored, but I essentially don’t listen. Only on a few occasions have I been disappointed with the wine I have acquired through these “alternative” means and most of the time I come out far ahead (e.g. a 1985 magnum of Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque for $50 that was fabulous).

Even though it is not always that fruitful, I often peruse Craigslist for people selling wine. Most of the time, the people trying to sell the wine there are looking for a sucker: I can’t count how many times I have seen a wine (particularly champagne and specifically Dom Pérignon) for well over what it is worth ($600 for a 1999 Dom? Seriously?).

I look nonetheless.

Several years ago I saw an ad on Craigslist:

“Vintage Wine for Sale $1”

At the time, I was in the process of writing my dissertation and therefore bored out of my skull. I decided to play along and clicked on the link and this was the ad:

"Five bottles of vintage wine for sale: 1952 Lafitte Rothschild, 
1961 Chateau Margaux, 1964 Chateau Haut-Brion, 
1966 Chateau Haut-Brion, 2005 Crane Lake Merlot. 
Serious inquiries only."

There was no price indicated, no photo, that was it.

Since I was at a point in my dissertation that I would rather cut out my own tongue with a dull rusty spoon than write another word, I decided to dig a little deeper and research the wines a bit.:

  • ’52 was not a particularly strong year in Bordeaux, but still, it was a Lafite, for chrissakes! Probably worth around $150-200.
  • Both of the Haut-Brions came from respectable years (and I was born in ’66) so those would likely fetch in the $250-350 range, maybe higher.
  • I knew the ’61 Margaux was an epic wine–entire books had been written on that singular vintage of that particular wine. A pristine bottle was likely worth around $1000 (or even more).
  • For the longest time the Crane Lake had me stumped. Then I found it: $5.99. Six bucks. As in Six whole dollars.

[Warning sign number one?]

I sat there and thought about that for a bit. Why on earth would someone include the Crane Lake? You have four wines that together could fetch close to two grand and you include a bottle of complete swill? Was it meant to “sweeten” the deal? The only explanation that I could come up with was that this guy had absolutely no idea what he had or he was a complete moron.

Or both.

I decide to respond to the ad, since I figured how much trouble could an email get me in? My wife cringes every time that I respond to a Craigslist ad since she figures it will end up like THIS.

I asked how much they were looking to get for the wines, how they had been stored, and whether he could provide any pictures.

The response:

I was figurin [sic] on about 500 bucks for all of em [sic]. 
I can send you some pics as soon as I get my cousins [sic] camera.


I emailed the next day and asked again about the photos and he sent me some pictures shortly thereafter. The photos were of Ernesto (I assume) holding the bottle in his hand in front of the camera. The bottles were quite blurry, but clear enough to make out that they were indeed the wines he advertized.

The background of the pictures was not blurry, however. They appeared to be taken in a dilapidated vacant lot–overgrown weeds, crumbling concrete.

[Warning sign number two?]

After taking a bit of time to consider my next move, I eventually decided to try and low-ball. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, I had no idea about the provenance of the wine–it could have been stored in someone’s 90 degree garage for all I knew.

I am also a cheap bastard and on a grad student’s budget at the time.

I wrote back and told Ernesto that I was interested, but all I could offer was $100. I explained that there was no way of knowing the condition of the bottles and that the $100 was more or less for the sake of curiosity.

After several days, I got his response: the minimum he could take would be $200.

I froze. I did not expect him to counter with an offer that I could realistically consider. I had long since stopped consulting my wife over such decisions since she would say that I had completely lost my mind if I was considering buying something off of Craigslist. I did consult a friend of mine (Frank) who agreed to go in on it with me and we would split up the wines (but likely drink all of them together).

I wrote back to Ernesto, accepting the deal and he responded with his address, which was in East Orange, New Jersey. I take pride in knowing very little about the state that is only three miles to the East of us, so I had never heard of East Orange, but I thought it prudent to conduct at least a little research on the town. Besides, it was a perfect reason to procrastinate on the dissertation (not that I actually needed a reason). From the data I could find on the internet, it seemed as though East Orange was a bit of a blue collar town that had fallen on some hard times recently (trying to give it the benefit of the doubt). I asked a few friends who were much better versed in all things New Jersey, and they independently made the “Oh-you-don’t-really-want-togo-THERE” look.

[Warning sign number three]

Nonetheless, I pressed on. I discovered that Wine Library, Gary Vaynerchuck’s store was in Springfield, NJ, just a few miles away so I figured we could stop there along the way, as a pilgrimage of sorts. My friend Frank was coming with me, so how much trouble could we encounter?

I grabbed a stryofoam wine shipper to transport the bounty home when I got a call from Frank:

“Hey. Sorry, can’t make it today, something came up and I can’t go.”

I replied “Oh, OK, no problem,” but I was really thinking “Are you effing kidding me? You were supposed to be my wing man! I am driving to my certain doom and you will not be there to at least give a description of the perpetrators to the cops as they stand over my lifeless carcass.”

[Warning sign number four.]

I hung up the phone and stood there for a second, wondering if I should scrap the entire escapade.

“Nah,” I thought, “how much trouble could I get into?”

I threw the wine box into the Prius and I was on my way.

Go on to Part Two HERE.


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, Wine and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to East Orange–Part One

  1. talkavino says:

    oh, wey… Wine… it will get you [us] in trouble : )


  2. awww, come on. Are you seriously gonna make us wait another week for the ending of the story???? At least tell me you let them keep the crane lake as a gift from you! 😉


  3. Intriguing. You’ve got “suspense,” as a narrative tactic, nailed. Is that one of the judges’ categories for the writing contest? If so, it will probably get you over the hurdle of having broken the word-limit rule, if the judges are kind-hearted.

    Oh, wait. I’m one of the judges, right? And I’m kind-hearted; now I’ll have to figure out how/where to vote.


  4. tomsimard says:

    You’ve got me hooked. I can’t wait to hear the rest.


  5. paigesato says:

    OMG, I LIVE near EO, and am DYING to know how your trip turned out!!!


  6. I am intrigued and caught up in the narrative. I think that I am lucky that I got “raconteur” first, as I have encountered many that can best me.
    – John


  7. foxress says:

    Ruh, Roh…I guess since the topic is ‘trouble’ this won’t have a good ending.


  8. Fabulous interpretation of the trouble theme, Jeff! I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how this trouble sorts itself out . . . Salud!


  9. New name for your blog… the “Sommelier of Suspense”. You’re killing me.


  10. Sally says:

    Sounds like a chapter of Brightness Falls! Looking forward to part 2…


  11. Stefano says:

    Oh man, you seriously need to consider publishing your stories: this sounds as good as the OMG series, only more veering to the thriller side… 🙂
    Now you put me in… trouble 😉 as to which post to vote for. Before yours my mind was all made up – now I am undecided. I guess part 2 will tell me which way to go! 😉
    Great story, Jeff.


  12. Brilliant! Can’t wait to find out what happened next.


  13. Definitely reminiscent of the OMG series in the fact that I can not wait to read the rest of the story!


  14. Pingback: East Orange–Part Two | the drunken cyclist

  15. Pingback: Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #2 . . . VOTE! | The Armchair Sommelier

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