Mr. Spruce once returned a vodka on the rocks because he said the bottle had been open too long. He said you could taste the difference and this had gone bad. This is a true story.
Mr. and Mrs. Spruce would come in often, maybe five times a week. They always sat at the corner table by the window, and they never ordered more than a glass of wine. Their special requests were legendary. "No extra salt" was just the beginning of a soignee document that ran the length of a forearm. James, the waiter who most often took care of the couple, had a killer impersonation that he would pull out after shift: "James," he would intone "bring me the cooked rib of a 12 year old boy, simply roasted potatoes with lemon, stewed greens, and NO extra salt." I avoided their table as I might avoid a school bully intent on stealing my lunch money.
One afternoon Mr. Spruce had a wine request. Where is the sommelier? You are the sommelier? Yes, I am the sommelier. Well, we had a wonderful wine at our club the other day, and I don't see it on your list here. We want the Lewis Cellars Chardonnay Napa Valley 2001. Mrs. Spruce really enjoyed it with her meal. The Lewis Napa Valley 2001. See what you can do. Yes Sir, Mr. Spruce.
The manager pulled me aside, "just make sure we get him what he wants, I don't want to hear about this all week and all month that we couldn't." No problem.
I called the distributor: the Lewis is all sold out. You know how it is with that wine, it comes in and it goes out. Allocations are tough right now. We don't have any more. Unless you'd like the red, we have some of the red.
I called the winery: Randy was sympathetic. Gee, I'd love to help you out here, but we don't have any more 2001 at all, not of the Napa. Would you like some 2002? I could have a case sent out special for you. Well yes, the new vintage, thank you that would be great!
Two weeks later and the wine was in the cellar. And Mr. Spruce was at the table. Did you find my wine? YES Sir, Mr. Spruce, and I paraded the bottle to his table, triumphant. Ah! Here you are Mr. Spruce! Hmm, let me see. The Lewis Cellars Chardonnay, good. Let me see the other side of the bottle. Hmm, the Napa Valley, good. But this is 2002. Where is the 2001? Oh, I see. They didn't have the 2001. Couldn't get the 2001. I see. Couldn't get the 2001. I see. Couldn't get it.
Mr. Spruce drank only vodka that day.
A few days later Mr. Spruce arrived at the restaurant. "I'd like to speak with Levi." I went to the host stand. This would be bad. "I have a gift for you, Levi, something I've got for you." And he handed me a brown paper bag. Well, uh, thank you, Mr. Spruce. That's nice of you. He left. And inside of that bag was a bottle of Lewis Cellars Chardonnay Napa Valley 2001. And just like that Mr. Spruce had taught me a great lesson about trying, about giving people what they ask for, and about sweating what seems to be the small stuff. Bringing someone something different than they asked for isn't bringing them what they asked for.
After this I looked after the Spruces as I might an uncle in my own family. He had, I came to find out, escaped the Holocaust and although he had achieved great wealth, he had arrived in America penniless. Much later we had lunch together, before I left for New York. A sort of goodbye. "We will miss you," he said. "We were glad to have met you, and of course we wish you great luck, but we will miss you." I'll be honest with you, it meant a lot to me that he said that.
Mr. Spruce died about a week after that conversation. It had been easy to forget his advanced age because of the strength of his personality. His wife called to cancel all of their future standing reservations. It was something like 300.