“Life gets a lot less complicated if you surround yourself with people you like” — Patricio de la Fuente Saez
Patricio de la Fuente Saez died in Hong Kong on Tuesday after a long fight with illness, a fight in which he showed more spirit than most of us do when perfectly healthy. The word spirit defined Patricio, widely known as the head of Links, as a champion of family-owned wineries, as a loyal partner and fierce competitor, as a loving father, son, brother and friend, and as an elite party animal.
For me, Patricio was the Hong Kong friend who made business trips to Beijing where he worked all day, oversaw wine dinners at night, took everyone out for drinks until 2 AM, then got on the phone at 9 AM to those not yet at the office. He was the poster child for the ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy, the man with the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ mantra. True to the quote above, he focused on people he liked.
I met Patricio a few dozen times, and talked to him by phone a few hundred more, thus my view is more remote than that of his closest friends. But I saw how much they loved him during his fortieth birthday party, complete with a disco theme. And by how many flew the ‘Super Pato’ logo to support him during these past 18 months.Patricio could be effortlessly capable and carefree. We once drove around Hong Kong while he worked the phone to arrange deliveries of rare wines and then, deals done, acted like the kid with the biggest bag of Halloween candy. Between those deals were calls to his family, friends and clients, thus pairing his efforts to make the business thrive with a desire to keep his intimates happy. In pursuing this, he launched a great many careers and sold a great deal of wine, all while stressing loyalty and fairness. Those he felt had betrayed him were exiled, though he did believe in redemption.
“Will you ever forgive him,” I once asked about a former employee.
“Never!” Then five seconds later: “At least not for a very long time.”
During that first meeting in Hong Kong, we toured the family wine cellar, a whisky room the size of a convenience store and, finally, a large cigar room. With a grin, he pointed to stacks of cigar boxes and asked me what I noticed.
“There are lots of them?”
“Read the labels.”
“Hand-made in Havana.”
“That’s right. It’s in English. These predate Castro,” he said with glee. He put several in a shopping bag and pocketed it for later. What good are rare cigars if you don’t smoke them with your friends, right?
He showed the same enthusiasm whenever we met in Beijing. I live near the sprawling Parkview Green complex, with which his family is well-connected, and visited a half-dozen times before it opened. Patricio would call me when in town, I would walk over, and we would marvel at that city within a city. We would look down from Eclat Hotel’s top floor at the offices, shops, walkways and art below. He would reach up to the thin shell encasing the complex.
“It’s the same material as The Water Cube [Olympic swimming stadium],” he would say, and shake his head in wonder. “Hey, you have to see the new sculpture in the gallery. It’s amazing.”
We also met at his office, at coffee shops, at bars and restaurants like Suzie Wong, Xiu and ROOM, and at the Capital Club and Hong Kong Jockey Club. We met at a Links wine dinner that featured a cigar-maker performing his craft. At the opening of Parkview Green with free-flow Louis Roederer and a Cirque du Soleil performance. At a hotpot restaurant where we tasted a lineup of local wines. You might find yourself with Patricio pretty much anywhere.
If some of this sounds extravagant or I sound self-indulgent, it is meant to underscore a point: someone in Patricio’s position could have easily turned up his nose at someone in mine, namely, on the fringe of the wine trade. But he didn’t. He was gregarious and generous, positive and inclusive, endlessly supportive. He wanted to share that rare bottle, the new art gallery addition, the vintage cigar, the wonder of a thin shell that could protect a miniature world.
He was always on the move, relentlessly looking after friends and clients, someone who lived life big and wore the emotions to prove it. I saw his concern when a mutual friend was in trouble or a salesperson got into a fistfight with a competitor or a visiting wine-maker held a club owner upside down by the ankles as a joke. His anger when a valued employee quit or a winery partner failed to come through or I spoke the name of a distributor he believed had stolen a client. And his delight in talking about his family, about customers who enjoyed his wines, about taking his staff abroad. Mostly I recall his grin, usually due to enjoying life with people he liked. His idea of fun: seeing other people have fun.
I once joined a Links trip to Barossa Valley. I assumed the company had invited other blog, newspaper and magazine writers and I would soon meet them. When I realized I was the only one, I found the situation awkward.
“Then don’t write anything!” he said. “We’re here to party!”
That was Patricio. And party we did, enjoying superb wine and food and comradeship.
Patricio fought hard during his illness. He called me a few times, carefully and efficiently constructing his sentences, and made me believe a miracle was in the making. The reality is I’ll never answer the phone again to hear, “Dude, you won’t believe what we drank last night!”
I’ll never forget him nor will many others. He created a legacy that will endure. Rest in peace, Patricio. You were as unique as the sole surviving bottle of a great vintage. By knowing you, we learned to live better, and fuller, and with a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.
Note: I posted this interview with Patricio de la Fuente-Saez in 2015 as Links marked its fifteenth anniversary: he starts by saying the company’s number one rule is “don’t work with assholes” and then goes from there. I also interviewed him in 2009: part one is on the general China wine scene while part two covers rare and intriguing wines he tasted.