I’m not going to lie to you: I barely knew Eric. Was in his presence maybe six – seven times, ever. And yet, I woke up just unutterably sad and it’s gotten worse as the hours pass and now, it’s really hard to write this. So, Not Lying, Part Two: Let’s just call this post what it is – cheap therapy for me. Yeah, this post is about me, just like nearly everything written about those who have Gone On is for those Left Behind, because they’re beyond sadness and we’re just entering into the pain.
I want desperately to understand how the universe decides to reclaim the nexus of electricity, chemicals, proteins, and magic that adds up to what we all knew as Eric Dunham. I want to believe that this inscrutable universe is knowable; that our lives are not all hanging on random fate. I can make the case that I have no business mourning a man I hardly knew, but, even as I think that, I know it’s bullshit. If we didn’t feel the loss and feel personally diminished when people we don’t know die, why does this entire country sink into mourning when someone like a former president or an actor or a sports figure dies? I know damned well that I will be incapacitated on that day when Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins passes on and I’ve never met the man. But his work reached out and grabbed hold of my heart and has held on for four decades. And so it is with Eric.
I love Washington; irrationally much. And I taste very few wines from this state that are just bad, wrong, and worthless. But those do tend to cluster. Two years ago, on an otherwise forgettable mid-week day at my office, I had visits from five wine reps and one winemaker. I tasted about 30 wines – against all odds, all from Washington. I was shocked. I found ONE out of the whole bunch that I decided to sell. ONE. Not that they were all bad (okay, three were) but just that they didn’t have…It. I went home that evening bummed. Opened the wine closet and saw a bottle of Dunham 2005 Cabernet. Looked at it, smiled, and grabbed it. Opened it. Sipped. Smiled some more. I remember the exact words that ran through my head as I swallowed: “Well…at least, if all else fails, there’s always gonna be Dunham.”
Eric Dunham was a great guy. Those who knew him better will tell you that for hours. He was kind, good-hearted, talented as hell, focused, accomplished, fair-minded, warm, and approachable. The last time Judye and I visited Dunham Cellars, Eric took time out of his day to be our personal tour guide. Judye, who is much more reserved than I am about letting people in, took to Eric in a hot minute, as Eric did to her. There are people in our lives who seem to resonate with us; to tap that tuning fork within our breasts and produce a sympathetic vibration that may just be what true happiness is. (I’m no expert on happiness, so take that with a grain of salt. Or a salt lick.) I just liked the man. No real reason except fundamental human goodness…of which I am not an example but know it when I see it. I reminded myself many times to get to Walla Walla more often and maybe ask Eric if he’d like to have lunch with us. He was a guy after my own heart: creative. Winemaker, shockingly adept artist (his paintings became labels on many of the winery’s Reserve Series wines), dog-lover, and, I’m sure, had a ton of other skills and interests that his friends could tell you about. Creative, intelligent people tend to be interested in a lot of things simultaneously. I’m betting that was Eric. Whatever was at the root of my irrational affection for him, it was there and I planned to do something that I really try not to do, in his case: make friends.
I deliberately don’t form close personal relationships with winemakers, brewers, distillers, etc., because I know me. I know that I may want to either buy for retail or review their products, someday, and I don’t want to suspect my own motives or conclusions. People ask me about conflicts of interest like that; about “appearances”. Hell, if I was worried about that, I probably wouldn’t spend as much time as I do pissing people off. I have a couple of close friends who are winemakers, both of whom I was already friends with before they made wine. I like a LOT of people in those three beverage trades, almost all of them, in fact. But I choose friends carefully and I would have bent that rule with Eric Dunham.
We all tend to fall back on clichés when somebody leaves us far too soon. “She/he is in a Better Place“, “…their pain is over“, “He/she is finally at peace.” I’m not going to dishonor a man as concerned with excellence and art as Eric Dunham with one of those. I cannot, despite my XL Ego, presume to say anything about what Eric is or is not as of today, less than 24 hours after he went Away. What I can say is this: I miss him already. The Washington wine community is not, in literal fact, a “smaller place” than it was this time yesterday. It’s just as big and alternately sublime/goofy as it ever was. But it absolutely is lessened, less joyful, a lot less benevolent, less artful and skilled and communal than it was…because a big part of its heart is gone.
As I write this, pissed at myself because I’m 62 years old and sitting here with tears obstructing my view of the keyboard from of the loss of a person I barely knew, I just glanced over and saw that my cup of hot chocolate is sitting on a ceramic coaster, given to us by a friend, which has a portion of the label of the 2004 Dunham Three-Legged Red glazed onto it. Honestly, I get a little tired of the universe’s madcap sense of humor, sometimes. As long as I don’t open that wine closet, I figure to have no reminders of the name “Dunham” this morning, so that I can possibly get through what is shaping up to be a frantic day without sinking again into the morass I’m in at this moment. And now that coaster.
Eric Dunham was better than his end. He was a literal Light within not just the Washington wine culture but the American wine community as a whole. No, I didn’t know him well at all…but I knew him, y’know? In the way that means the most to me. And his loss is inexplicable, numbing, explosive; like a latter-day Mt. St. Helens that turns these already-grey skies a lot more grey