My wife and I tucked our daughter into bed last night, our evening’s ritual resulting in our collapsing on the couch as we gathered our reading materials and flipped a coin to select our delivery menu for dinner. We wouldn’t change our routine for the world, for these are the times in our life that are most precious to us, these are the years we cling to as we watch our little M becoming her own self. We elected Chinese take out on this Thursday night, my wife settled in to her chic-lit novel and I re-engaged my new, most favorite book – the book my wife bought me for Valentine’s Day – a book by Alice Feiring.
When I read the pages of Feiring’s book I experience something truly surreal. I have traveled so many of the exact same roads, met so many of the exact same people, tasted so many of the exact same wines – and shouted from so many of the exact same mountain tops. So many times my writings to the few who read my newsletters and blogs have contained the same passionate expletives concerning the direction of wine and the business that I elected as my career path more than 25 years ago. When I read this woman’s words, I can very nearly literally imagine myself in a balloon, floating above her as she stands in these vineyards and as she tastes wines and as she shakes her head in front of the vultures of the commercial wine industry.
I read with great glee into the wee hours of the morning on this particular Thursday night, as the clock in the kitchen rang mid-night, as the next chapter beckoned me. My vinous soul-mate had now captured me for at least another half hour as she ushered me into the story of her relationship with yet another of my heros: Becky Wasserman. Any person who has ever known me is keenly aware of my affection for the Queen of Burgundy. I’ve written of The Woman and her wines for many years, publicly offering my thoughts with the launching of my blogs at the start of this year.
It was Becky’s wines, and those of Kermit Lynch, that fostered in my palate, at the ripe old age of nearly 18, a never-to-die love of the juice of Burgundy. It would be those precious wines that would find me saving every extra dime I could muster to sponsor my more than a dozen trips to the Cote D’Or over my career. So passionate for the wines from Gevrey to Santenay had Becky unknowingly made me that I found myself spending 2 harvests in Pernand Vergelesses just to understand this land’s terroir even better. For all my time here, the gracious Paul Cadieu presented me with a framed diploma, something I’m proud to hang on my wall, even if few understand its merit. So one may understand that reading the pages, discovering that Wasserman and Feiring are friends, well, it gave me joy – and great hope for my future.
Reading those pages also brought back the glorious April of 1990. I was working for one of the giants of the liquor industry, finding my footing, and the company paying my salary was a major client of Wilson Daniels. Just prior to that April, over the Christmas holiday preceding, I had sold so much wine for the company – Burgundy to be precise, thank you – that I had found myself in the company of one Mr. Haas, the son of the owner of yet another powerful Burgundy import company, this one called Vineyard Brands. I had familiarized myself with “lucky’s” brands – Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, and others – and had been selling them to my customers in a frenzy.
Young Haas and his side kick approached me in the wine section of this rather imposing liquor store where I was performing my magic and suggested I consider a trip to visit their producers. The seed was planted, I would not be deterred, I was off to Burgundy; the Mother Land was beckoning. I emptied my paltry savings account, with absolutely zero regard for how I would pay rent upon my return (WOULD I return?), accepted the bargain that came from my then-Mother-In-Law that allowed for us to use her frequent flier miles, and away I went. Burgundy, here I come…
I spent a full week in Burgundy on that trip, only wasting enough time in Paris to land, find a bus to the rental car location and hit the Autoroute. Contrary to what may seem obvious based on my town of current residence, I am not a big city fan, I prefer the country, so the quicker I could escape Paris, the better. Besides, I had spent the time on the flight memorizing the map of the Cote D’Or so I wanted to test my skills. Would I be able to recall, without looking, the Villages as we made our way down the R.N. 74? My travel companions, all 3, were not nearly the Burg-heads as I, yet I remained steadfast in my resolve; this was MY trip. Burgundy is our ONLY mission.
I visited as many of the Vineyard Brands’ estates as one could possibly fit into one week’s itinerary. Literally a dozen rolls of film, perhaps more, were exhausted, and I remember to this day the nearly knock down fight I had with my now-ex when we split; the photos of that trip and the couch were mine! We visited the 8 fingered Theirry Matrot, finger-less from rose trimming with his wife, if I translated him properly. And there was the trip to the gorgeous Chateau in the Cote de Beaune with its ivy covered cellar walls and limestone entrance. Probably the most memorable, though I couldn’t have known it at the time, was the meeting with the Father himself, Henri Gouges. This meeting was only a few years before his death and the personal attention he gave me on that day, allowing me a tasting of his wines from my birth year – 1966 – is one etched into the deepest corners of my mind. So many others were so very generous to me that week, exposing my mind and palate to the riches of this land I continue to adore. But it would be a late arrival to one stop – and the subsequent cancelled meeting – that would change my life forever.
In Burgundy, particular to this region and more so than any other I’ve visited in France, punctuality is demanded; not required, demanded. I arrived half an hour late for a particular appointment one afternoon that April to find my scheduled host departed. Deflated but undeterred, I decided to head to Vosne Romanee to try my luck. We had no appointment, but I knew some names.
In Vosne Romanee proper, the tiny little Village nestled at the base of some of the most sought after vineyard parcels in all of Burgundy – if not the world – there is an address of one Aubert de Villaine. Many a story has been told of this man’s famous history, of his family’s estate known as Domaine de la Romanee Conti, most tales certainly more glowing and illuminating than one I could dare to offer. Amazingly, however, as one reads tales of the history of this Domaine producing the much coveted $10,000 bottle of wine, there are precious few collections that include personal photographs of the cellar and chais. As yours truly waited outside for de Villaine to authenticate my credentials, such a lack of photographic evidence would not be this visitor’s err.
I had knocked at the door on this glorious day in April of 1990 and de Villaine himself, quite unusually, had come to see who was calling. In my broken French I explained that I worked for a client of Wilson Daniels, naming my employer of the time, and asked if per chance we could have a visit. Explaining that the Domaine took no visitors without express pre-arranged itineraries, but with a gentlemanly offer to check his cellar master’s availability (in perfect, almost British-like English) de Villaine asked us to wait, leaving us momentarily. My travel companion, the one burdened with photo-taking responsibilities, went to work.
The front of the building was covered to the second floor window with the most pristine and well kept budding red roses that I had yet to experience. Rounding the back side of the house, we gazed into the courtyard at what seemed so innocent. This was the entrance to the chais itself; the entrance to the barrel room housing finished bottles and resting barrels of Romanee Conti in Francois Freres oak barrels at nearly $7,000 per bottle at that time. It was all so quaint and unassuming; a yellow garden hose not quite rolled all the way in, little white flowers just in bloom at the entrance to the cellar itself. Yet everything, including the pebbled drive was immaculate. Is this really happening? I am really here?
De Villaine came round to find us, smiling, almost jovial, thanking us for being at the property. My initial reaction was one of grief. I just knew we were going to be escorted out with only photos to show for our daring decent on this dynasty. “Come with me”, he said instead, and we were escorted down the stairs into the cellars of the most remarkable Domaine in all of Burgundy. The cellar master smiled, grabbed the wine thief and my mind floated away.
I was not even 25 years old in that moment in time yet my palate was as alive and precise as it has ever been. I was tasting from barrel the 1988s and my amateur tasting notes from those memorable days, to this day kept in a file drawer with so many others I’ve collected over time, contain vernacular that include words we all come to recognize when in the presence of true greatness. My photo-taking travel companion, Marcy, shot one last photo on that day, God bless her, one that remains today thumb-tacked above my computer. As we finished our mind numbing affair on that glorious afternoon, just before exiting the chais I was photographed with my hand resting upon a perfect barrel of Romanee Conti. My eyes are just slightly glazed over, my circa-1980’s horn-rimmed glasses riding high on my nose, my Elvis hair-do in perfect form.
I had done the DRC.
I had done it; and the proof in pictures and on my palate was forever a part of my life.
All the best in wine and life,
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005