With the passing of Alexander "Sandy" Block due to cancer on Nov. 21 at the age of 72, the wine and hospitality world has lost an undersung hero. Block was vice president of beverage operations for Legal Sea Foods, the Boston-based restaurant group he joined in 2004. In 1992 he had become a Master of Wine—the first to hold that coveted title on the East Coast—and though not well-known outside of the wine world, within it he was seen as a person of great knowledge, influence and generosity.
While working on his doctoral thesis, Block took a job washing dishes in a restaurant. He soon saw wine service as more appealing and moved in that direction. When the sommelier quit, Block got the job because he was the only server who spoke French. His intellectual rigor and studies quickly shifted from PhD to MW. As he told WineSpectator.com last year, "I started to go to wine tastings and eventually fell in love with wine. It combined theology, chemistry, biology, history, language, culture and gastronomy, and it seemed like it was an endlessly fascinating subject. You can't ever master this stuff."
Block is survived by his wife, Joanie, sons Daniel and Matthew, and brother Stephen. In a telephone conversation last week, Daniel expanded on that love: "Although his career moved from academia to the wine world, there is a common thread throughout his life, which was an appreciation for writing and learning. As he entered into the wine world his appreciation for knowledge of history was so pivotal to his understanding wine. He also deepened his mastery and love of writing, which contributed to his ability to be a strong communicator for the wine industry. He wrote hundreds of articles in different publications. Later in life he returned to a first love of his, which was fiction writing, and in the last decade published over 45 short stories."
Legal began as a grocery store in 1904, adding a fish market in 1950 and a restaurant in 1968. Legal's now more than 30 restaurants, seven of which hold Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards, were run for decades by Roger Berkowitz, the grandson of the founder (in 2020 Berkowitz sold the restaurant portion of the company but retains retail and online sales). Julia Child was a regular, and in the days of Almaden carafes she suggested that Berkowitz serve Vouvray and Muscadet. This started an ongoing wine ethos at Legal: Serve wines other people aren't and sell at a lower markup.
Block hewed to that and brought to it knowledge and a joy in discovery, which he shared through staff education. (He also taught wine history at Boston University.) He was a great believer in blind tastings with staff and distributors. He also instituted an 18-hour class on overall wine knowledge, service and matching. He estimated that in total several thousand people took the class.
I have enjoyed the benefits of this a number of times. On my first visit to Legal ages ago, I was astonished at the quality of advice a very young polo-shirted server gave me regarding matching an Austrian wine flight to my curried fish.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Berkowitz and Block for a menu story I wrote in 2017, and also spending a day with them photographing the dishes, wines and the Legal team and family at Berkowitz's house on Nahant outside of Boston.
In person Block was warm and personable; lots of eye contact and the twinkle of someone who knows a lot but is humble too. I especially remember one moment: We did several set shots with people that day. Everyone was dressed up and we would position them and then the photographer would fire off a bunch of shots, reposition people and shoot more. Being the subject of such work can be awkward. When we did an opening shot of Berkowitz, his parents and Block it felt uncomfortable at first. Cameras seem to get intimidatingly large when pointed at you.
Then Block poured everyone Champagne and started speaking smilingly to the group and it was as if the camera shrunk. He'd simply offered them a glass of wine and engaged them in conversation, an act he had performed countless times over decades. A career and a life built on service, hospitality and understanding.
So I encourage you to honor Sandy Block's works and his memory by raising a glass of Taittinger Brut Champagne La Française NV, the wine he poured for his friends on that beautiful day by the sea.