It's been more than 40 years since I first encountered Archie McLaren at a first-growth Bordeaux tasting in Los Angeles. Archie made quite a first impression with his jaunty beret, colorful shoes, patterned vests and scarves, and cemented it with barely believable stories from his past. He left us all smiling with his generosity and quick wit, delivered in a honeyed Southern drawl.
Archie and I became friends over wine (often from our respective cellars) and food, leavened with conversations on blues and jazz, sports and politics, and many chances to share it all with friends and newly made acquaintances.
Archie's death at 75 on Tuesday from bone cancer will come as a body blow to those who hadn't learned of his diagnosis. It's a death sentence. I only heard about it when he emailed me (with his usual salutation of "Frère Harvey") to explain why he could not make it to San Francisco from his home in Santa Barbara for a charity dinner we were to present together in January. He made me promise not to tell anyone.
He still sent a treasured bottle of Penfolds Grange 1990 from his cellar for the dinner. Longtime friends of his offered heartfelt toasts.
Archie experienced enough to fill several lifetimes. A Tennessee high-school state champion in tennis, he went on to law school in Memphis, was active in the civil rights movement, taught in segregated schools in Mississippi and liked to say he was run out of the state by the KKK for being the only white guy on the otherwise African-American faculty basketball team. He arrived in California in the 1970s to work for a law publisher. Having discovered fine wine, he did a radio show for 20 years on KCBX in Santa Barbara, and organized a wine auction and event for the NPR radio station, which became the Central Coast Wine Classic. It was Archie's baby, and over its 32 years he made it into a must-go for serious eaters, drinkers and wine collectors.
Archie was insatiable about wine. His cellar bulged with classic Bordeaux vintages, collectible California wines and luxury Champagnes, but he also eagerly explored and acquired wines from Australia, South America, Italy, Spain and Germany. I helped him make vintner appointments on a recent Australia trip. Within hours of hearing of his death I heard from several friends with fond memories of his visits.
About 15 years ago Archie corralled me into offering an auction lot with him, selecting wines from our respective cellars to consume over dinner at a San Francisco restaurant of my choice. Wine Spectator Grand Award winners Acquerello, Murray Circle and Spruce, along with Best of Award of Excellence winners Michael Mina, Quince, Coi and Boulevard were among my choices. Archie made sure the auction paid for the meals, too.
A couple of years ago Archie suffered a stroke. He recovered, but he could no longer drink wine, only take sips. He often complained about losing his memory. But he kept the cancer diagnosis from "Frère Harvey" until he had to explain why he couldn't attend our recent dinner.
In a followup telephone conversation he said he was "preparing to leave the planet." Anyone who met Archie knows that he left it a better place.