The People Series – DON TAY – Goodbye Sifu, we’ll have a drink on the other side

The place was a maze.

Stacks and stacks of shelves of wines with a myriad of labels with exotic, some unpronounceable names.

There were also unopened crates of wines scattered around in a, to my unpracticed eye, somewhat mysterious and haphazard fashion. They seem druid like, perhaps hovering over some spots of energy and mysticism.

How could anyone find anything here ?

Still, they seem to be arranged in an albeit strangled, yet strangely purposeful fashion.

Perhaps there might be a method to the madness?

The place was empty as I had ambled in at an odd hour after lunch. A middle aged man with a receding hairline was there alone, seemingly intent on looking through some paperwork, frowning in furrowed concentration.

He looked up.

“Need any help ? I’m Don.”

And that was the moment when I met the man who later turned out to be my wine spiritual adviser, my oenological Guru but more importantly, a really dear and good friend.

He was “The Don” as many of us affectionately called him. But this Don needed no reverence, no ring kissing. He treated the well heeled, the wine experts, the opulently wealthy, the same way he would treat a bumbling 30 year old oafishly staggering around looking for a cheap bottle.

And that is the magic of Don Tay and why everybody loved him.

This gentle, kind, extremely low key wine connoisseur, extended friendship to all and sundry.

And many were proud to call him a friend.

His quiet humble demeanour belied a wonderful mind expert in all things oenological.

And there was his infamous line “Never mind take first, we settle later”.

I thought I was the only one until I learnt that similar friends of Don were chasing him to make payment. It was like he wasn’t particularly interested in making money, just driving the message of love through wine.

I became alarmed when one day I chased him for the amount to pay when I was at his shop. He paused and blinked and said “ I can’t remember – do you remember how much ?” Thereafter, I insisted on paying before taking delivery.

He is really one of a kind.

BACCHUS wine shop. That name where we could find The Don. And asked for vino favours.

Bacchus is the name of the Greek god of wine. It was conveniently at the basement of Paragon.

A place we would furtively visit after telling the missus “you go shop honey I need to run an errand”.

Like an illicit mistress – a place where I, and I know a lot of men, spent many happy Saturday afternoons browsing and shooting the breeze with The Don.

I started off not really knowing wine from a bottle of ketchup. Everything I learned about wine was from the tutorship of Don.

He delighted in introducing me to the most low priced but good value wine, seemingly oblivious to the concept of making money.

He would tell me why that particular bottle was good, it’s taste profile, sometimes about its maker, and why I might like it.

After about a year or so, I was starting to want to buy some better wines and he would seek out those that were just below my then budget of $100. He never pushed me to buy something more expensive.

And up to this day, some of my favourite wines were those sold to me 20 over years ago by Don between the $60 to $100 range.

Delights like the second growths, second wines of the first growths, lesser touted but extremely good value wines of Bordeaux – carruade de lafite, pavilion rouge, lynch bages, les forts de latour, the three leovilles, the pichons, grand puy lacoste, cos de estournel, Domaine De chevalier in Pessac Leognan

All moderately priced then but no less stellar.

He introduced me to my favourite Sauternes (French sweet wine) to this day – Chateau Reuissec, half the price of the famed Yquem (and, in my view, just as good).

I was to buy Chateau Rieussec en primeur every year for many years thereafter, and my kids grew up sipping Chateau Rieussec ( I only started them from about age 6 onwards, I’m not a monster)

Don humbled me and made me understand that there is a magical world of new world wines out there.

From the beginning, Don was busily introducing me to incredible new world wines then priced at the $60 to $80 range – Don Maximiano, Almaviva, Sena, Mount Mary, Jim Barry Armagh, Penfolds and Henschkes.

Later on in life when I was seriously collecting, my collection was eclectic and extremely varied.

I collected top Chileans, beautiful Australian shirazes, some Argentinians.

And I had a large collection of US wines and probably the most prolific collection of the famed Harlan Estate in Singapore. In the early years, Don had introduced me to US wines and the delights of Joseph Phelps Insignias, Caymus Special Select, Hillside Select, Dominus, Opus One – the list goes on.

And then there were the Super Tuscans.

He knew then that I had just succumbed to the feminine wiles of “ Sassicaia” a famed super Tuscan. It was a sultry seductive feminine wine, much like the Australian feminine “Hill of Grace” which I have also fallen head over heels with.

Don asked me ‘Have you tried the “Solaia” ? I haven’t at that stage.

He told me the vintage that just arrived 1997 was excellent and he could spare me one or two bottles only as he didn’t have many.

We wandered around his shop crow bar in hand, Don muttering under his breath as he tried to remember which secret corner he had stashed it.

I persuaded Don to sell me 3 bottles instead of 2 as he was prying the case open.

The legendary 1997 Antinori Solaia – declared the best vintage ever in Tuscany and probably the best vintage Solaia has ever made since it’s existence to date.

Declared Wine Spectator Wine of the Year.

A Hedonistic heady wine – chewy plummy black fruits, a hint of cedar, minerals and a slight forest floor, damp earth overtone.

Glorious and majestic.

All for the princely sum of $180 per bottle.

Today I look at the pricing of that bottle and think of Don with tears in my eyes.

I think I probably have one bottle left somewhere. I’m going to find it and drink it remembering Don my good friend.

I can’t believe you’re gone.

I speak about you to people more than you will ever know – whenever it was asked of me how I got into wine.

Here’s raising a glass to you Sifu.

Open a bottle wherever you are and let it breathe.

Wait for me and we’ll have a drink on the other side.

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