This has been a rough day for us at K&L. Jim Barr, "the Master" as we've called him for longer than my tenure at the company extends, passed away today after a valiant battle with cancer. Since I received the news earlier this afternoon I've been trying to think of great stories I could tell, or a few adjectives that would help others understand what an individual he was, but I don't think mere words at this point would do him justice. I'd never met anyone like Jim in my life before working at K&L and I don't think I'll ever meet anyone like him again. He was a living, breathing character from a comic strip come to life, a memorable and loveable savant from an offbeat comedy film. He made me laugh every single day that I worked with him and I'm pretty sure he hated me for the first few years I knew him. Jim was a great judge of character, which is why he saw right through my bullshit right away. I remember the day he called me out: "You're an arrogant, self-centered kid; aren't you?"
But he said it with a twinkle in his eye, like he did most things.
It took awhile, but we eventually bonded. I worked with Jim for over ten years at K&L, but Jim spent thirty years with the company, growing in legend and stature as time continued to pass. Everyone knew him in Redwood City, from the casual shopper to the regimented regular. He had customers and clients in their eighties and nineties coming into the store all the time, asking specifically for him, unwilling to even consider the recommendations or advice from my fellow colleagues. For good reason, too; Jim was indeed a wine master. He wasn't just a wine store clerk or your average sales associate. Jim was a wine pioneer in many ways. In the early 1990s, after an inspirational trip to Burgundy, he purchased a piece of land in the Anderson Valley and decided to plant Pinot Noir. People thought he was nuts, but fifteen years later he sold the property to Husch and the winery still uses Barr's Nash Mill designation today for its single vineyard expression (I wish to God I had a bottle of it to drink in tribute right now). Beyond his expertise, however, most of us youngsters at K&L got a real kick out of picking his brain. He had interesting and insightful opinions about both wine and life, if you bothered to ask him. He was hilariously kooky in an almost innocent manner, an endearing trait that I took great relish in bringing out of him whenever possible. I don't know if he ever really understood how funny he was.
What ultimately bonded me to Jim was not a mutual appreciation for what we liked, but rather a shared hatred for the things that we didn't. We never really clicked in terms of out similar interests, but man did we both have it in for the things that we loathed. I used to love coming into work in the morning with a real juicy tidbit from the news. I'd lay it on Jim thick: "Did you hear about.....?" He'd look at me in horror, shake his head, and the onslaught would commence from there. We'd vent about politics, world events, wine experiences, and society in general. It would go on all day; sometimes for weeks. Eventually we'd work through whatever frustrations we held in common and by the end we'd be laughing. When I think about how much time I've spent with Jim in the store it's almost inconceivable. K&L colleagues are like defacto relatives; I've spent more time with Jim on the sales floor over the past decade than most of my friends and family combined.
I went to visit Jim at home this past Saturday. He was resting on the couch, his eyes closed and it was clear he was tired. I tried to keep the conversation light, but eventually he turned to me and said intently: "Make your mark now, David. That's all I have to tell you."
I dodged the intensity of that moment, responding with something lighthearted and whimsical to deflect from the emotion I felt in that instant. Less than a week later he was gone. I know I speak for everyone at K&L right now when I say we're never going to recover from his absence. Jim Barr was K&L for thousands of customers over the past three decades. He was a kind, generous, unpretentious source of knowledge for people who loved wine and enjoyed the simple things in life. Few people took the time to bestow the care and attention for wine appreciation that Jim did, which is what we all loved about him.
We're going to miss him dearly.