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Wednesday, 08 October 2008 20:00

If you're looking for a post about some great Michigan wines or wine-related controversy, this is probably an excellent time to click a different link.

Because there's a reason this entry is late arriving. On Tuesday, I was at the funeral of one of the great wine lovers I've known: my father-in-law.

Lewis spent the bulk of his adult life -- about 50 years worth -- in South Africa. The first time I met him, already married to his daughter and arriving in Johannesburg for our religious wedding ceremony, he threw his arms around me and exclaimed, "Welcome to the family!"

And then, with his next breath, "You've got to taste this incredible Sauvignon Blanc I picked up to serve at the reception." Lewis Rome

He was like that.

In those days, he knew most of the folks worth knowing in South Africa's small wine circles. He chaperoned my first trip to the Cape winelands, arranging an afternoon with old friend Tim Hamilton Russell, founder of the eponymous Pinot Noir producer.

Tim -- proud maker of the first South African wine to sell for 100 Rand a bottle -- loaded us into his Land Rover for a cross-country bounce through the feinbos to the edge of his property, a ridge overlooking the small town of Hermanus with the Indian Ocean in the background. While Lewis beamed beside us, Tim explained how he'd spent years locating the perfect terroir to grow Pinot Noir -- a far-south setting where all the experts told him he'd be crazy even to try winemaking.

Years later, visiting Chateau Margaux, our guide -- asking where we resided -- responded to his "South Africa" by saying they had a young South African winemaking intern at the Chateau. Dragged from the back where he was playing cellar rat, it turned out to be David Finlayson, son of Walter from Glen Carlou winery -- and Lewis proceeded to regale Finlayson fils and the rest of the company with tales of visiting his father back when David was a young child.

His great joy was the annual "Budget Tasting" he conducted for the South African Society of Wine Tasters (SASWT) a group he and my mother-in-law helped to found decades before. His eyes gleamed with pride whenever he could pronounce a wine both "excellent" and "only 10 Rand" in the same breath.

Several years before they departed South Africa for Ann Arbor, the SASWT inducted them both as honorary life members. Upon arriving in their Ann Arbor condo, one of Lewis's first tasks was to hang their award certificate just outside the basement closet he planned to convert into his wine cellar.

He was -- ummmm --  charitable in his attitude toward Michigan wines on his early visits. Back then, he and I strongly disputed the relative merits of St. Julian versus Fenn Vallley Chancellor, two of the state's better reds of the day, and agreed to lay down bottles of each for several years to settle the debate. Ultimately the contest resulted in a draw: neither wine was drinkable when we eventually uncorked them to settle up.

Fortunately, he lived long enough to see Michigan begin to make superb wines. His last winery visits came in late August, when he was already quite ill, to nearby Pentamere and Cherry Creek, and he expressed great admiration for several wines we tasted at each.

In his final weeks, we unfolded a card table in the bedroom so that we could enjoy dinner -- and wine -- together. Just a week before he died, he dragged himself to the table, took a taste of whatever cellar gem we'd uncorked for him that evening, and said -- with a glint in his eye -- "Ah! That does wonders for the optimism factor!"

So here's to you, Lewis. I hope you're in a place where all the wines score over 90, and the vintages are never difficult.

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KIM'S SECRET STASH

Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.