On a Jet Plane, Boss
By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Land O' Lakes, Florida
London, in 1972, was absolutely exciting, as I was still a novice, in the merging international trade world, as an entry-level manager. I still had to pinch myself that I was being paid to travel, and here on this to England was in the front of a 747 cabin. Of course it was costly, and our travel policy directed us to travel economy class. But this trip was with the big divisional
boss, Jerry, and he had me in tow as I was being introduced as the new
regional manager to the major European accounts. What made this trip so
exciting was that traveling with the big boss was all the attention
we were given from the travel world and local business’ managing
directors. Our meetings, negotiations, and dinners was really very special.
I started off in Madrid and then on to London and the continent, to see how European plutocrats enjoyed life. The WAR had ended 27 years before, and it was my first encounter with the continent that suffered so much in the middle of the century. For Jerry, who had lived in Europe and the Middle East, it was a return to his earlier career. I was able to meet people that
were way beyond my scope of influence. I recognized that I was making a
first impression, and being with the International Division leader was
a continuing part of my growth and development. The major focus was
introducing me to new counterparts and knowing that I was the chosen
one to take our products to Europe.
I was still forming my expectations and when this opportunity came up.
I jumped at the chance to take the responsibility for sales to Europe.
It was a product development and market development opportunity.
Following the advertising tasks in New York, and now seeing how Europe worked was going to be very challenging.
Traveling to New York had enabled me to learn about top restaurants and
French wines and cuisine. From my Italian friends I picked up a lot
about Italian foods and wines. What really intrigued me or I think my
expectation was traveling to London. All of the pomp and circumstance.
I knew that the business travel was to get me up to speed, but here I
was trying to get my personal objectives down for my new assignment.
Focus on the differences of Americans and the British, look for
differences of the Spanish from the Spanish America I knew, and
understand the Dutch and their culture as it relates to the America
that stopped the Nazi’s. As for the food, I knew little of Swiss,
Dutch, and English food.
The London portion of this trip was a wine and food eye opening
experience. It was a lesson in fine wine, food and English manners. .
The one night in London that had the greatest impression on me was the
night that Jerry’s former Syrian distributor invited us to a festive
evening in London town. He now lived in London and was a partner in a
major stock investment company. He collected us, as the Brits say in
his Rolls Royce, at our hotel and we went to a top gambling casino in
mid-London. Of Course it was very up-scale and superior to anything I
had seen in New York or Chicago. As our host played the roulette
briefly I noticed that he played but for a couple of minutes but very
successfully. Our host accumulated over £35,000 (The exchange then was
2.40 to 1). He was very amused by his good fortune and declared dinner
was on him. We were off to a famous Michelin 3 star French restaurant
for the best meal I have ever had. The host ordered the wines and the
meal for us.
Jerry told me the next day that what I experienced was common in Europe
when invited out on the town. The dinner was ordered to apply to the
guest of honor (Jerry). This type of fare was not normal and I should
just roll with it. The First course was fresh oysters and piquant
sausages. The white wine that matched this was Bordeaux: a Cru Classé
from Graves - Chateaux Carbonnieux. And for the second course we had a
filet de Bouef with a green pepper sauce with Potatoes and steamed
vegetables. The red Bordeaux was a Premier Cru from Medoc: a
Lafite-Rothchild, considered the best wine in the world by the world
and English oenophile. Jerry emphasized that people of means do not
look at the cost, as this was the most expensive meal I would ever have
with the world’s best wines, but shared with us because this was
pleasing to the palate and was in honor his friendship.
I had been drilled and groomed for this day, and when it came it was a
big surprise. This repast was phenomenal. In those days having been in
New York at some of the best restaurants, I expected to have been on
the pinnacle of “gastronome,” but this did not happen and I sat back
as if I were ‘Dorothy going down the yellow brick road on my way to
emerald city’. I am sure my mouth was open as I gapped at the regal
The oysters and sausages were perfect and service was impeccable. But
the piece de resistance was the bouef. One piece was served to all
three, I imagined it was a Chateaubriand, cooked to absolute perfection
with a poivre sauce that had a trace of calvados and was very
palatable; and then came the potato croquettes which were new to me.
The wines were crisp and velvety and matched perfectly. I can still
recall the savory sensations.
This is not to minimize the rest of the stops I was taken along the way
to meet new people and cultures. Some of my other ports of Call were
Madrid and Holland and Switzerland. All had a great warm welcome for
us. I learned about a lot of differences, remembering the rules I was
taught by the mentors. Always look for the differences. The Swiss were
a big challenge, as they spoke English well, and I kept soaking up new
experiences in business, culture, wine and food.
I enjoyed visiting a little restaurant in Lausanne that became a good
rendezvous point for overseas guests. We met with a friend and
corporate counsel at a little place called the grappe d’or. The name
fascinated me because of link to wine. The golden grape (bunch). Of
course the history of that area is very intertwined with Rhone in
France and the wines of Switzerland.
Our host ordered a magnificent red Rhone wine that went perfect with a
red meat platter. I had not had a lot experience with Rhone wines and I
loved the intensity of the Grenache varietal. We savored also the Syrah
and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There was tremendous pride on the wines that
were harvested only a few miles away from there.
In Spain the Managing Director of our distributor also wanted to put
forth the best of the Spanish cuisine and wine for Jerry’s visit and he
ordered a beautiful Rioja Reserva: Marques de Riscal that went with the
legendary lechon – baby suckling pig. Fantastic!
Two valuable lessons I learned -– differences. Look for them, even within
the same culture. I thought learning in school, the university, and
grad school was complete, but it was not true. The French are a mosaic, as
were the Swiss, English, and Dutch. And after my one visit in these
countries, I could write a book. But in the year I traveled I could
write with certainty about each country less and less. The more your
learn the less you know.
I was seeing Europe through my mentors’ eyes, but soon I would learn
more through my new business associates eyes. There is no question when
it came to food each country has its own likes and dislikes. I also
learned as I learned the locals learned about Americans through me. The
number one issue is that the local knows more about America than I know
about the local country. I think that is a general assumption that most
Americans would question, but I took my first steps through England and
Europe I had to tack it up in a memory cell.
At the end of the trip I counted my many fortunes of learning and
travels of my new experience. Here I was and had tasted the reputed
No. 1 wine in the world. The Steak au Poivre and wine would be
the most expensive dinner I would ever consume. As I traveled I was an
American, spoke American, and represented American values.
(Ron Alonzo, The Philadelphia Junto's wine and food critic, writes under the name Don Merlot. He welcomes queries, and may be contacted via Writers.Clearinghouse@comcast.net).