Acclaimed importer Joe Dressner passed away over the weekend. He had just turned 60, and had battled brain cancer for three years. He fought the illness with his usual pugnacity and wit, which was on vivid display in the cancer blog that he maintained, The Amazing Misadventures of Captain Tumor Man. Joe was a true original, and a beacon of quality and authenticity.
I didn’t know Joe well, but we had a good rapport, forged over one lunch—I interviewed him for my book—periodic email exchanges, and occasional phone calls. Joe seemed to find some merit in my work, and I thought the world of his. The man had remarkable taste in wine, and together with his wife Denyse Louis (hence the name Louis/Dressner Selections) and their longtime partner Kevin McKenna (hence the abbreviation “LDM”), he assembled a brilliant portfolio. A few years ago, I attended Louis/Dressner’s 20th anniversary tasting, and as I made my way from table to table, I was giddy with pleasure—it was just one distinctive, completely enthralling wine after another. Four hours of pure bliss.
It couldn’t have been easy, 15 years ago, to sell the kinds of wines that Joe represented. The market wanted big and lush; Louis/Dressner specialized in light, mineral-rich, and briskly acidic. Other importers might have accommodated themselves to prevailing fashion, but Joe was not the compromising type—you could see that in his wines, and you could see it, too, in the online spats in which he occasionally became embroiled. I once asked a mutual friend how it was that this irascible New Yorker managed to get so many outstanding French winemakers to work with him. “He is good to his growers,” I was told—he was fiercely loyal to them and protective of their interests.
All of his proselytizing on behalf of “real” wines had begun to pay off in recent years. A certain segment of the wine-drinking public, weary of fruit bombs, developed a yen for Pépière, Baudry, Brun, Clos de la Roilette, and other Louis/Dressner offerings. Suddenly, Joe was the hottest importer around. In a Slate piece two years ago, I quoted one Washington, D.C. retailer who said that Joe had become a role model for a new generation of importers. Joe told me he was flattered by the recognition, but he also made sure to let me know that he was irked because the article had neglected to mention that Kevin McKenna was a partner in the business (hopefully, this post has atoned for the oversight). My Slate column talked about the central role that importers such as Kermit Lynch, Robert Haas, Neal Rosenthal, and Terry Theise had played in developing the exuberant wine culture that we now have in the United States. Joe played a big part in that, too, and earned a place in the pantheon of American wine visionaries. “Better wine for all is his legacy,” reads the death announcement in today’s New York Times, “and for that we can be very grateful.” Very true.