I don’t know how many wine lovers in the valley ever had an opportunity over the years to sit, sip and talk about wine with Shirley Sarvis.
One of the most gracious ladies in the media world I’d ever met, she was someone you’d remember from the moment you were introduced. This writer was immediately taken with her years ago when we toasted one another at a promotional tasting hosted by Robert Mondavi.
For me, the introduction to Shirley Sarvis proved fortuitous. Shirley had a great palate and certainly was — as far as this relative newcomer to the valley at the time was concerned — a wine expert.
But Sarvis didn’t flaunt her knowledge. She found ways to share it with others, particularly those who were just beginning to get a handle on wine, those who were afraid of making blunders when ordering a bottle or glass of wine in a restaurant.
I recognized Shirley’s eagerness to make others comfortable in the then-foreign world of wine — where many felt snobs held sway — when I attended one of her easygoing food and wine pairings in San Francisco many years ago.
For those who didn’t know Shirley, she earned her stripes as a home economist and food writer at Sunset Magazine from 1957 until 1962 and then freelancing as both writer and consultant for more than four decades. Her articles were published in numerous magazines, including Gourmet, Food and Wine, Travel and Leisure and Woman’s Day. In addition, she authored, co-authored or collaborated on a dozen cookbooks.
An acknowledged pioneer in pairing wine with food, her seminars and tastings in some of the best restaurants and hotels in San Francisco — as well as in other parts of the country — were innovative and well attended.
One of those tastings came to mind last weekend when I learned that Shirley Sarvis had passed away at her home in San Francisco three weeks ago.
Shirley had invited me to attend one of her pairings, scheduled in a restaurant that no longer exists. I recall some two dozen curious consumers were present and Shirley had asked me to take a seat across the way so she could bounce ideas off a new media friend.
I was impressed with the tack she took in setting up the food and wine pairing. There were at least 10 wines – sparkling, white, red, dessert — and all but the sparkling wine had been poured prior to participants taking their seats. As staff filled flutes with sparkling wine, Shirley explained that she hoped everyone would feel comfortable in voicing likes and dislikes. She assured all there would be no wrong answers, no scorecards, no tsk-tsking or raised eyebrows.
We were asked to taste the wines paired with the respective plates of food she’d ordered the kitchen to prepare. Not only that, she insisted that we try every wine with every dish if we wanted to. She said there was plenty of wine, and it was possible to have the kitchen replate several food options as chefs had made more than enough for the gathering.
At first, Shirley and I exchanged thoughts — well, let me clarify. Shirley described each wine, provided descriptors and asked for our thoughts. As most were reluctant to offer opinions at the outset, Shirley asked me to comment on the pairings, and what I thought of the wines. Slowly, others piped up. And even when someone uttered something that made no sense or was completely off the mark, Shirley found a way to complement the speaker, turning the comment into a question asked of the rest of us, drawing all into the conversation. Before the end of the evening, we became fast friends, all of us applauding Shirley for opening our eyes — and expanding our tasting experiences — in the world of wine.
Shirley did the same for others on countless occasions.
She also had a knack for turning calamity into what she liked to call “an adventure.”
A few decades ago, Shirley, Marin County writer Fred Cherry and I had been invited to attend the huge Italian wine fair, VinItaly, in Verona in the spring. The arrangements were made by the Italians, which meant anything could go wrong. And did. The three of us flew to Kennedy Airport in New York City, there to board an Alitalia flight to Milan. Our transcontinental flight took off and arrived late, so, without sufficient connection time, we missed the Alitalia flight. Well, it was still on the tarmac but would not return to the gate to fetch three forlorn writers.
Shirley took it in stride, noting that now we were all “having an adventure.” That adventure included getting rebooked the following day — Alitalia had but one flight a day from JFK to Milan — and finding a place to spend the night, hopefully on someone else’s dime. She sized up the trio of Alitalia employees assigned to customer relations and came up with our game plan.
She noted there was a nice young man among the three employees and felt it best that she get in line to find out what Alitalia might do for her. She explained that she was certain this nice young Italian would do whatever he could to help a lady in need of a rebooked flight and a room for the night. Once he’d accommodated Shirley, she said with a relaxed smile, he certainly would have to treat Fred and I equally.
And she was right. Even though the next day’s flight was packed with school kids on a spring holiday, we were rebooked — even though we were informed again and again that the fault for us not making our connection was not Alitalia’s — and sent to an airport-area hotel with, if memory serves, a $20 meal chit for dinner and the next day’s breakfast or lunch.
Fred and I were all smiles. Even the next day when we learned they’d assigned our statuesque, long-legged traveling companion a seat in business class and relegated us to the cheering section in coach.
For the record, it was Shirley as well who had thought ahead in changing dollars to liras — liras that we needed to pay the taxi driver who took us from Milano to Verona as no one from the wine fair sent a car to pick us up.
Traveling with Shirley was as much fun as sitting across a restaurant table to share a glass of wine. Yet, it was more, because time spent with this remarkable friend of wine was always an opportunity to learn something — to tuck away a bit of wisdom from someone who believed in sharing.
The sharing as well as pairing of food and wine is enjoyed even more today by untold numbers of Americans whose lives were touched by the optimism and embrace of this lovely woman.