A civil rights leader, a liberal journalist and a segregationist governor walk into a wine shop…nope, it’s not the opening line of a joke, but a true wine story involving Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was certainly not a wine snob, but he did have an above-average appreciation at that time. As a student in Boston, a friend who was a collector of fine wines would often taste with Dr. King.

Dr. King also had an affinity for pecan pie, his favorite, and on the night of his wedding anniversary in 1961, he went to the establishment of Jim Sanders, the foremost wine importer in the South at the time. He was shopping for a Sherry to go with the pecan pie, although Sanders noticed he was wistfully looking at the Burgundies. Dr. King walked up to Sanders, who was sipping a Rosé with the already coincidental grouping of Marvin Griffin, segregationist and former governor and one of his biggest critics, and liberal publisher Ralph McGill (you never know who is standing next to you in a wine shop).

Dr. King was invited to join them (all real men drink rosé), and although the conversation was not warm and fuzzy, it was described as civil, which taking into account the times and those assembled, is truly remarkable or sadly, might be considered remarkable today.

The ensuing conversation turned towards wine, and Sanders gave a sample of how three wines with the same name, in this case, Sauternes, could be very different. He poured a jug wine, another from Ohio, and then the real deal from Bordeaux (Note: This was prior to protectionist laws that prevented wines from being called names that had nothing to do with their place of origin; for example, Paul Masson Burgundy, which some of you may have sampled in the 1970s.). Dr. King referred to the real Sauternes as “the best cantaloupe you’ve ever tasted compared to damp pasteboard.”

How does the story end? Dr. King had been longingly looking at perhaps the finest wine in the world, a 1957 La Tâche from Burgundy (the real Burgundy) when he first walked in. Sanders recalls opening a bottle and pouring a glass for the three unlikely drinking partners, and in this amazing wine, arguably one of the world’s finest, they found a common ground.

I often speak of wine as something social, something personal, something connective. I love the history of wine and how wine appears in history. I often say everyone has at least one wine story. Jim Sanders has one of the more incredible wine stories I have ever heard, and he asked Doc Lawrence to share it, and Lawrence has asked everyone to share it as well.  In my belief in “pouring it forward,” I share this story with you. If people so ideologically opposed sixty years ago could put differences aside even for a short while when it was expected to not do so, it shouldn’t be nearly as difficult today. I am reminded of one of Dr. King’s famous sermons, and maybe it makes some sense because the sermon was delivered on a Sunday in early 1962, not long after this story.

“Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.”—Matt. 9:17.

Click to listen to the entire story narrated by Doc Lawrence, a well-known Atlanta based food and wine journalist, who was given the typed story from Jim Sanders in 1999, prior to Sanders’ death.

Loved reading this excerpt by Hank Zona? Check out more articles on Food52.com and follow him on Instagram @thegrapesunwrapped.


Hank Zona is a wine-themed event planner and speaks and writes about a range of food and drink topics. You can currently find more from him on social media, Food52 and in his “Raise A Glass” column in Jersey’s Best magazine.

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