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Remembering Archie McLaren

He brought flair and generosity to the table
Archie McLaren was lauded for his generosity, passion and sense of style.
Photo by: Paul Wellman
Archie McLaren was lauded for his generosity, passion and sense of style.

Posted: Feb 22, 2018 6:00pm ET

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, QuinceCoi 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.

Tor Kenward
St Helena —  February 24, 2018 12:20pm ET
Wonderful acknowledgement of an extraordinary man. Thanks, Harvey.
I will sincerely miss his story telling, wild shoes, scarfs; all that Arch haut couture. I also miss Archie’s family with Arch in the center of things. As a friend and vintner, I spent decades attending Archie’s circus as they performed an anything is possible/we can make every and any wine high wire act. Many pulled it off, and are still performing. The Founding Fathers and Mothers.
But its not the same without Arch. He was a ring leader, their champion. I can smell the salt air of Avila and see his beret in the crowds moving from winemaker to winemaker, sharing his version of English, flamboyant and metered in a way not one else can talk. It was like he was half laughing as the words smoothly trickled out, three syllables preferred over two. Funny, but when I pause now I can still hear that voice. As I listen I know it will be impossible to forget. Like an echo endlessly bouncing off canyon walls, Archie’s voice will us for a very long time.

Carol Stobbs
Paso Robles —  February 27, 2018 1:47pm ET
Archie treated me to my first pinot noir back in the early/mid 1980's; a 1971 DRC, Romanee Conti. That wine made me understand the description "peacock feathers." And what other friend takes you to dinner for your 50th birthday and brings a 1962 (my birth year) Chateau Margaux to celebrate? Archie treated me to some amazing wines over the years. But more than that, he was a friend I could count on and confide in. He will be missed.

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