October 15, 2019

Travels with Lora

When I first met Lora Zarubin I never could have imagined that we would find ourselves locked in adjacent cells in the police station of a provincial French town at 3 in the morning. In fact I never thought I’d see her again after our disastrous first encounter, which took place in 1995 at the Grill Room of the Four Seasons hotel. My friend Dominique Browning had recently been appointed editor in chief of House and Garden and she’d decided to ramp up the magazine’s coverage of food and wine. She’d already hired Lora as food editor and Lora was quite adamant that there should be a regular wine column. Dominique, a longtime friend, knew about my passion for wine, and she thought it would be interesting to have someone outside the field write about it. When she proposed me, Lora and some of the other editors were aghast. I was known for, among other things, for writing about people who abused controlled substances and Lora found it hard to believe I knew much about wine. I had a reputation as a party animal; no one had ever accused me of being a connoisseur.

When we got together for lunch with Dominique, I confirmed all of her worst suspicions. I’d been out until the wee hours with my friend Bret Easton Ellis the night before and I was not, as we say of certain wines, showing very well. I was kind of a wreck and not entirely able to hide it. We were in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons, surrounded by moguls sipping mineral water. I felt seriously misplaced and miscast. There were Mort Zuckerman and Mort Janklow and Henry Kissinger. And downtown fuckup brat pack novelist me. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk about wine, much less drink it. However, I was eventually able to impress Lora somewhat with my knowledge. Despite my condition I guessed the provenance of a glass that was given to me blind. I think the only person more surprised than Lora when I identified the wine correctly was myself. One would have to say it was a grudging admiration at best, and I believe Dominique gave me the job over Lora’s protests, but suddenly we were colleagues. Neither one of us could have imagined how intimate that association would become.

Lora was appalled at my lack of knowledge and enthusiasm for California wine so she dispatched me there to begin my education. From the start our respective roles in the Conde Nast hierarchy was ill defined. As food editor and full time employee she had a kind of supervisory role over my column. I guess she thought of herself as my boss, whereas I thought of her as my assistant. Luckily, I knew more about wine than she did. Not much more, but enough. On the other hand she had an extraordinary palate; she was a great blind taster and was able to parse out the scent and flavor components of wine better than almost anyone I’ve ever known. She was also a great cook, an utterly passionate about food; I didn’t know all that much about food, wine’s boon companion, and Lora, who had once owned a restaurant in the Village, was to become my tutor in the joys of cooking and eating, although not without a fight, or rather, many fights along the way. So far as I know we were the only two Conde Nast employees who were sent to couples counseling by our editor.

I’m still not sure how Lora became my travel companion, how she convinced Dominique to pay for her to accompany on all wine-related trips. I think she must have suggested to them that I wasn’t to be trusted on my own and it’s true that I’m very absent minded and badly organized. Lora is the opposite. I don’t want to say she’s anal retentive, but on the other hand I can’t think of a better phrase at the moment. She organized the trips, made the calls, held the tickets until the gate, and drove the rental car. She hated my driving and early on banned me from the driver’s seat. I was happy enough to be the navigator and happy to have everything taken care of. For the next twelve years we logged tens of thousands of miles across Europe, the States and South America. We visited the best winemakers in the world, people like Angelo Gaja, Robert Mondavi, Richard Geoffroy (of Dom Perignon) Helen Turley and Baroness Phillipine Rothschild. We became friends with these people, some of them early in their careers. We dined with them at some of the best restaurants in the world. We drank too much with them. We even flirted with some of them. At least I did, and in fact I would have gotten lucky on a number of occasions if not for Lora’s interference. Just when I thought she was asleep, she would rise and bang on the door of my hotel room to ruin my seduction of a hot young Prada-wearing winemaker in Barolo. She was determined not to see me sleep with anyone I shouldn’t be sleeping with, although she didn’t always succeed. She claimed it wasn’t professional, but her own vehemence seemed strangely personal, her ostensible jealousy all the more interesting since she was gay.

Lora somehow imagined that she was in the closet when I first met her, or else she imagined that I was too much of a heterosexual clod to notice that she was gay. About two years after we started working together we were on a wine trip in the Napa Valley and she made me sit down and watch the two-hour “coming out” episode of the Ellen Degeneris show. It was her way of letting me know. “Well, hon,” she said, afterward—she called everyone hon—“can you guess what I’m trying to say?” I pretended to be surprised, and we had a weepy, huggy scene and opened a bottle of Dom Perignon. I became the confidant of her love life, and she of mine. My third marriage was starting to unravel during the years I first traveled with Lora and she listened to the whole story. She was a wonderful confidant and advisor, and probably should have gotten extra pay for all the listening she did.

Food was an important part of our bond, almost as important as wine, though we didn’t always agree on what, or how, to eat. A disciple of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, Lora believed in simplicity of preparation and presentation. She loved to grill over an open fire; she often told me that one of the most memorable meals we shared was an outdoor asada, a cookout of virtually ever part of a recently living cow on the slopes of the Andes in Chile. She believed that the best restaurants in France were one star or no star, that these were the places one was likeliest to find honest, regional food, whereas I loved the haute cuisine and drama of the two and even three star places. We were always struggling and clashing on this front. As she told a friend recently, “Jay believed in treating himself well, very well. We might have had four hours of wine tasting along with eating the food that gracious vintners always offer but Jay had to end the day with a two star meal. Often Jay ended up eating alone or inviting a stranger to join him, even if that stranger spoke a language he didn’t in a country we knew little about.”

One night I convinced her to go to a famous two-star restaurant in Avignon and it was hard to know who she was madder at—the chef, or me. “This food is so phony,” she said, loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear. “It has no soul. It has no sense of place.” She was right about that one, though she grudgingly came to admire Alain Ducasse’s three star restaurant in Paris, one of my favorites, even as I came to see the point of her no star crusade. One of the best meals we ever had was a lunch at Elizabeth Bourgeois’s unstarred restaurant in Provence, sitting out in the courtyard surrounded by birdcages and trees laden with cherries. Laura somehow knew about the place—I think she’d been there before. We started out with the best tomato soup I’ve ever had in my life, accompanied by a local Viognier, and later, after one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life we drove a few miles up the road to visit the man who’d made the Ligonier and taste more his wine.

Our split on the Michelin star issue may have partly reflected the fact that she was the keeper of the expense account, the one who had to go back to New York and try to justify a nine hundred dollar meal at Taillevent. We both became prisoners of our roles in a way, me acting the part of the spoiled epicure, Lora taking the part of the disciplinarian, although were usually able to see the humor in the clash. Not infrequently we would drop the roles and collaborate, when we saw a particularly amazing bottle of wine on a list, calculating how much Conde Nast would be willing to bear and how much we would thereafter chip in together to get what we wanted. Such was the case when we were dining at Beaugravieres in the Rhone Valley, which is famous for its wine list and for its way with black truffles during the season. We, naturally arranged to arrive during truffle season. We knew that the 1989 Chateau Rayas on the list was a relative bargain at around two hundred dollars but we knew there was no way the magazine would pay for that and the truffles so we asked the proprietor to cut the bill in half; the magazine would pay for half and we would split the other half.

Memorably, there was no argument about the bill or about anything else when we shared Easter lunch, 1999, at La Tour D’Argent, looking out the window at Notre Dame and listening to the bells. (I wasn’t even annoyed when she told me that I didn’t know what it was like to be raised a Christian. I had to remind her that Catholics were Christians; Lora had been raised in a strict, fundamentalist household, a source of much guilt and torment later in life.) We agreed that the pressed duck wasn’t the best thing we’d ever eaten together but it was absolutely essential that we order it, the restaurant’s signature dish.

As with so many other foods, Lora introduced me to black truffles, and decided that we should make a pilgrimage to the source, namely Perigord, also noted for its gut-busting cuisine, much of which involves ducks, geese and their livers. (I’d discovered white truffles on my own, more or less by accident, when I was on a date shortly after I arrived in Manhattan and a waiter offered to shave them on our pasta. I nearly had a heart attack when the bill arrived but I craved them from that day forth.) Lora had somehow befriended the Peyberre family, truffle dealers extraordinaire, and we had we had an extraordinary dinner at their home in Perigueux during which we stood beside the stove with Madame and learned seventeen uses for black truffles, while drinking copious amounts of Cahors, the inky Malbec of the region.

Typically, somewhere around the fifth or sixth day of travel, of eating two big meals a day and drinking like fish, Lora’s liver would give out and she would have a meltdown. She would scream at me, threaten to go home, threaten to quit her job. Sometimes it would happen when I failed in my role as navigator and we found ourselves stranded on a dirt road in Tuscany with no clue as to our whereabouts. Sometimes it was a disagreement about a particular wine. Sometimes it was the matter of the hotel room. She was convinced that sexism was at work whenever I got a better hotel room than she did. A simpler explanation, possibly, was that my reputation as a novelist was sometimes responsible. My books were very popular in France and Italy, which were our most frequent destinations. But when I tried to suggest this to Lora she told me I was being self important. One of the more curious aspects of our relationship was her conflicted feelings about my reputation as a novelist. At times she would brag on me, and my novels, and at other times she would seem to deny that it was possible that anyone could possibly be aware of my other line of work. I think its possible she was jealous of this other career, the one in which she didn’t participate.

Lora was a witness to the disintegration of my marriage; and when I finally sold the four bedroom apartment uptown that I’d shared with my wife and kids, she found me an apartment in her own building, the London Terrace in West Chelsea. We liked having one another as neighbors although she came to regret the fact that I was directly above her; she claimed to be able to distinguish the mating cries of the different women who visited me, and even when I was alone she claimed that I thumped and stomped on her ceiling. At least once or twice a week though, finding myself alone, I would go downstairs with a bottle of good wine and she would cook for me, a ritual we repeated on Sept 11th, 2001, after we watched the towers fall from our picture windows. She ran upstairs to wake me after the first plane hit, but I was already up, earlier than usual, and I’d seen the first plane hit while I was standing on a chair in front of the window trying to fix the chain on my blackout shade. That night we opened the best stuff we had handy, a bottle of 1982 Lynch Bages from my stash, a bottle of 1990 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle from hers. We figured we’d better seize the day, the future being very uncertain. It’s a principle I have tried to continue to observe ever since.
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That fall, on a trip to Alsace, we spent the day with the great Olivier Humbrecht and his beautiful English wife, drinking old wines and eating the first white asparagus of the season. I think we were both pretty hot on Olivier’s wife. We had some the best white asparagus I have ever had in my life, washed down with a spectacular 1990 Zind Humbrecht Muscat. That afternoon we drove two hours south to visit Bernard Antony, a great affineur, or cheese master. Antony served all cheese dinners for a perhaps a dozen guests a few nights a week and Lora was determined to dine there, distance be damned. We had a hell of a time finding the unmarked house in the little town of Vieux Ferrette, but eventually found Antony, who took us on a tour of the caves under his house and eventually served us some forty or fifty cheeses, and a great deal of wine. Antony kept opening special bottles for us once he learned that we were wine buffs. I remember a perfect farmhouse Munster, which he served with a Riesling from Boxler, and a soft, creamy Brie de Meaux with a Trimbach Pinot Noir. After a three-hour cheese bacchanal Lora once again insisted on driving us back to Strasbourg. An hour later we were pulled over at a roadblock. The cops had no choice but to arrest Lora once they got her blood alcohol reading.

“What about your husband,” asked one of the cops hopefully? “Maybe he can drive.” The last thing they wanted was the headache of dealing with foreigners, of processing our arrest. Unfortunately my blood alcohol level was higher than Lora’s. So we spent the next few hours at the police station, talking with the cops and periodically blowing a new test. We spent our first hour in adjacent cells but eventually they deemed us harmless and let us hang around the office. None of the cops seemed to speak English and we both speak pretty bad French but I recall a lively and intricate conversation with the gendarmes that night. I remember that Lora kept telling that I was very famous writer, which seemed to impress them, France being one of the few countries in the world where writers rank high on the social scale. Finally, close to dawn, they dropped us off near the car and told us to get out of their jurisdiction. I promised I would get my French publisher to send them some books but somehow I never got around to it.

Every year or two one of us would threaten to quit the magazine after suffering some slight at the hand of the other. After I missed a plane to Paris, where I was supposed to meet Lora to write about wine stores, I explained that the fax they’d sent me had been blurry and I read six thirty as eight thirty. (Actually true, I arrived at JFK at six thirty, having just missed the flight, and finding that the cheap ass ticket they’d bought for me was non transferable.) No one, especially Lora, seemed to believe me. I was unable to reach her that night and she went absolutely ballistic when I reached her in Paris the next morning. Indignant at this lack of trust, I threatened to quit. When she finally returned Dominique prescribed—insisted upon—couples counseling for the two of us, and offered to pay for it, or rather to have the magazine pay for it. We did three or four sessions and they helped a lot, though we still had one or two breakdowns to go.

I was staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel in October 2007, doing a gig at the LA Library, when I got an e-mail from Lora with the subject line HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THE MAGAZINE? When I reached her she told me she’d been called into a meeting in Dominique’s office that morning where the staff had been told that the magazine was shutting down. We’d been hearing the rumors for years and were almost inured to them. Almost from the moment Dominique had taken over the magazine her rivals had been predicting its failure, but she’d lasted for twelve years, as had I, which, when I thought about it, surprised me. Writing a wine column seemed like a lark and I certainly hadn’t intended to stretch it out this long. I didn’t know until it was over that it had been one of the great adventures of my life.

I was fortunate in having a parallel career, but I worried about my colleagues and about Lora in particular. Eventually, she found a job with the L.A. Times as a Food Editor, just in time for its bankruptcy filing. She commissioned wine pieces and complained to me about the quality of the writing. I saw her a couple of times on trips to Los Angeles. We went to the opening of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Los Angeles, but it only served to make us nostalgic for the multi-course feasts we’d shared at the French Laundry in Napa. I’d made the mistake of inviting a group composed of individuals all of whom were easily as high strung and neurotic as Lora herself—not that hard to do in L.A., actually—and no one really seemed to click. Lora seemed to be in a bad mood; she eventually told me the newspaper was hemorrhaging and that her salary had been cut in half. In 2010 she moved back to New York to work as a personal chef for Annie Liebowitz, an old friend. She’s recently been working hard at creating the perfect loaf of sourdough bread and judging he samples she dropped off at my house in the Hamptons this summer I’d say she’s getting close. We talk about doing a project together; a movie producer who was at the dinner at Bouchon later expressed an interest in commissioning a screenplay about our travels together but that idea seems to have gone the way of most Hollywood pitches.

Now, when I visit a wine region, I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s itinerary; there are no fights about driving, or choosing a restaurant, or expenses, no jealousy about rooms or waitresses. I still love to discover new wines and to meet the people who make them, to share meals with them and walk their vineyards, although now and then on these journeys I feel something, or rather, someone, is missing.

An Essay from THE JUICE 2012