Give the lady what she wants, if she even knows

She came through the crowd in a half turned way that happens in busy bars, one arm on the bar and the other pointing off into the crowd somewhere. A bartender gets used to talking to sideways people, both literally and metaphorically.

“I want a white wine, a beer, a martini and a …” she leaned out into the crowd and, in the other direction, asked “What?” before turning back to me, adding, “and a cognac/Armagnac.”

We then weeded out the “whats” — what kind of white wine, what kind of beer, what kind of martini — before we tackled the big one.

“Which brandy would you like?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Cognac and Armagnac are two different brandies.”

“Armagnac/cognac,” she said, as if reversing the order of the words changed anything.

“Those are two different things.”

“No, they’re not.”

In psychology they call it cognitive dissonance — when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. I call it a rock and a hard place.

“Give the lady what she wants!’ is a time-honored customer service maxim established by millionaire department store magnate Marshall Field in the late 1800s. In an era of “buyer beware” his was a breath of fresh air. Field has also been credited with saying “The customer is always right” although it seems clear that Cesar Ritz’s “The customer is never wrong” predates that.

No matter, because Field was a pioneer in his field, instituting retail policies that revolutionized customer service, many of which are still in existence today. These included clearly posting the prices of his goods, which did away with haggling. He also offered refunds for any reason, provided home delivery and catered to urban women, ones who could while away the hours at his luxurious six story emporium in downtown Chicago. Some of his revolutionary innovations included things we take for granted now: electric lights, restrooms, lounges, restaurants and female sales clerks.

On the other hand, cognac and Armagnac are both French brandies made in the regions for which they are named. Both are made from white wine grapes. Cognac for the most part uses only the Ugni blanc grape (also known as Trebbiano) while Armagnac also uses folle blanche, colombard, and Baco blanc. The two brandies are distilled differently, cognac twice in alembic pot stills, while Armagnac is distilled once in a column still called an Armagnacais. Cognac is aged in barrels made from wood harvested in the Limousin and Tronçais forests, while Armagnac is aged in oak from the Gascon forests. Armagnac can be aged for as little as one year to meet the VS label standard, where cognac has to be aged for at least two years to reach that same designation. Armagnac will sometimes reach 100 proof while cognac is always sold at 80 proof. Finally, while cognac is readily available here in the U.S., Armagnac is usually harder to find, often making it more expensive. Oddly, in France the reverse is true and Armagnac is often cheaper than cognac. Go figure.

“That doesn’t exist,” I said, weaker, to be sure, than the first time.

Luckily my co-worker swooped in and offered her our Germain Robin XO. Made in California from primarily pinot noir grapes it is a fine-top-notch brandy, but it is neither cognac nor Armagnac. What it is, however, is ridiculously expensive. In fact it is our most expensive brandy by far.

She was more than pleased.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• After Marshall Field died his company changed hands several times; first sold to a London firm, then to the Dayton Hudson Corp. (which became Target) and finally to the May Department Store Co., which converted all remaining Marshall Field stores into Macy’s.

• Armenian cognac is still made from local Armenian grapes and is popular in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. However if it is sold in EU markets or the U.S., it must be called Armenian brandy.

• Marshall Field was virulently anti-union, believing that the customer was far more important than the employee.

• Sometimes, “giving the lady what she wants” has nothing to do with reality but with what she believes to be true about herself. And that goes double for men.

• Cognitive dissonance sometimes leaves one at a loss for words.

• Thank goodness for co-workers.