“Wet behind the ears” is an understatement in describing my experience in the wine and spirits industry back in 1977, but I was excited to undertake the task of promoting/selling the wines of Alsace, a lesser known and somewhat maligned category of wine at the time. I was advised to focus on the restaurant industry, for it was there, I was told, that influential customers will learn to understand and appreciate the qualities of a Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Knowing this, I created a plan that would take me to every “Grand” restaurant in New York City, from ‘Windows On The World’ in lower Manhattan to about 90th St., from the Hudson to the East River. Naturally, the newly established, upscale Le Cirque in the Mayfair Hotel on East 61 st. was going to be one of my very first calls and a cold call at that. I figured that if I just walked into a restaurant I would have the element of surprise and could strike up a conversation with a waiter or Maitre d’ who would then escort me into the office of the wine buyer. Some of my visits that week resulted in verbal abuse, others in rejection of the physical kind, as in being grabbed by the collar and thrown out the front door.
It was about 10:00 a.m. Hesitantly, while quaking in my boots, I approached the imposing doorway covered by the iconic white and black Le Cirque awning. As I opened the heavy glass doors, I spied a most elegantly dressed tall, thin man with an intimidating chiseled face standing behind the Maitre d’ stand. He reminded me of a wooden statue, but smiled politely (probably because I was dressed in a suit and tie and might have been perceived as a potential customer), and introduced himself as Sirio Maccione, the owner. In a quivering voice, I told him that I was there to talk about the wines of Alsace, after which he invited me to sit down and offered me a coffee. I am sure he could see that I was totally intimidated, so he put me at ease by sharing his enthusiasm for the wines I represented and we had a pleasant fifteen minute chat. As a twenty-five year old novice wine promoter, I was flattered that this soon to be legendary restaurateur, formerly of the iconic Delmonico’s and The Colony, treated me with a kindness, gentleness and elegance that I had not experienced from the rest of the industry. His knowledge of wine was impressive in that I could have a real conversation with him about Alsace, the wines, the people and the region. Mr. Maccione was from Tuscany, he knew his wines and he knew that many of the world’s greatest chefs were from Alsace, so he had a deep appreciation and understanding of what I was trying to accomplish.
Attempting to get into his good graces after our cordial chat, I asked Mr. Maccione if he had a table available for lunch. Without missing a beat. and with his usual charm and elegance, he escorted me to a two top.That was my very first meal at Le Cirque, but it was not to be my last. Sitting alone within the dining room of this bastion of high society and haute cuisine, I was basking in the glory of this newly established celebrity haunt, which succeeded because Sirio himself had a coterie of loyal celebrities and dignitaries from the famed Colony Club, long before Le Cirque served its first meal. Wherever Sirio went, the faithful would follow. As I recall, I shared the dining room that afternoon with Henry Kissinger and a group of his cohorts. After lunch, I was introduced to Chef Jean Vergnes, the first of Le Cirque’s famous chefs and like Sirio, an alumnus of the Colony Club.
Over the next nine years, my meetings with Sirio continued, but not as frequently as during that first year, since the focus of my work turned nationwide. But the relationship continued and I followed as Le Cirque moved from The Mayfair to the glitzy New York Palace Hotel in 1997, where it was renamed Le Cirque 2000, and then again when it moved from the Palace and opened in the Bloomberg Tower condominium complex in 2006.
In 1986, Sirio and I collaborated on the Statue of Liberty’s 100 th Anniversary Celebration during which we placed Chef Marc Haeberlin from the great Alsace restaurant L’Auberge de L ‘Ill at Le Cirque for a one week stint as guest chef. This was a celebration not only of The Statue, but of the Alsatian who sculpted it, Auguste Bartholdi, and helped to raise awareness of the wines and the great cuisine of the region. Once again, he was gracious and appreciative that he was asked to participate in this city-wide culinary extravaganza, that brought the greatest Alsace chefs together with the great chefs of New York.
My last conversation with Sirio was in 2010 when I organized a Dom Perignon, Krug and Veuve Clicquot champagne white truffle dinner in the Le Cirque kitchens at One Beacon Court on East 58th St. The kindness and warmth that I remembered from those very early days were still there, as was Sirio’ s larger-than-life stature. He was not as vigorous as he had been, but his strong presence and control were obvious. As I was leaving the restaurant that evening, I reminded him of the encouragement he gave to a young wine promoter in 1977, helping to launch him on a career that had spanned thirty-four years. It was a fitting adieu.