Financing the Louvre when Mona Lisa gets Tossed Out

Stop for a moment and consider the impossible.  Consider for just a moment that you found yourself the owner of a boutique business (that’s not the impossible, stay with me).  Perhaps that business was centered around the world of art.  Or perhaps you were one of the independent entrepreneurs of my time, the 1980s, who decided to have a go at the wine business.  Perhaps you have a passion for designing the world’s finest all natural soaps, hand towels, children’s shoes or designer gowns for the elderly.  Simply stop for a moment and imagine yourself an independent owner of a boutique business where there is ONE piece of your inventory that everyone considers virtually priceless – or at the very least, a piece of your inventory that is routinely considered your prized offering.

No matter the field of work, no matter the business we’re in, someone, somewhere, for some reason became THE expert in our arena.  And with every expert, there comes the dissenting opinion.  In America, the dissenting opinion is viewed with as much consideration, when it comes to matters of a commercial nature that is, as the words of the so called experts.  As an example, consider how foolish it would sound if only one brand of children’s clothing were considered suitable for every child in America.  Taken one further, no one in their right mind would settle for being told that there is only one type of steak worth buying; hell, on a given day of tasting wines with my suppliers, half of them are vegetarians; one a pure Vegan, one loves eggs.  The point of this exercise, while appearing to move off-center, is that “experts” in a given field of ANY kind are always allowed only the amount of power we as consumers place upon them.

So I’ve come to a real cross-roads in my career.  I’ve come to that moment, that impossible moment I asked you to consider, where I’m just not certain that the Mona Lisa is as beautiful as everyone thinks.  I own a lot of Mona Lisa pieces.  Who is going to finance the museum if the things everyone thinks are so beautiful are found not to be so, well, beautiful?

Perhaps being a tad melodramatic here, I’ll admit, but my thought process began with trying to figure out why a certain chain of events brought me to this point in the first place. 

For as long as I’ve been in the wine business, from as far back as 1984, I have always respected Robert Parker, Jr., the man who authors The Wine Advocate.  As a lad in the business, I read every page, every tasting note, every article, every book written by the man that I could get my hands on.  I’ve also read countless other books and have multi-year subscriptions to every major and minor wine publication one could imagine – several that most folks have never heard of nor ever read.  My respect for Parker came from years of reading his prose and knowing that those were HIS words and true feelings.  Never once did he attack another person in the business of wine critiquing in the early years I read his magazine and never once did I hear a customer complain of a Parker review.  Naturally, then, when I opened my wine shop ten years ago, there were to be found many, many references to Parker on the shelves and display cases.  I pride myself on tasting every single wine before I add it to my collection, but once I did, if a note from Parker was available, so much the better; the shelf talker made my choices easier to sell.

As these ten years have gone by, many an importer has presented themselves to me, offering for my consideration their discoveries.  One of my most favorite discoveries several years back were the 1999 Red Burgundies offered by Neal Rosenthal.  So struck by these wines, offered to me by Neal’s then national sales manager Josh Raynolds (now a co-author for Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar) that I bought and sold some 300 cases spanning every appellation and producer Rosenthal had to offer.  And when one considers the one-man operation that my shop operates as, that’s a lot of 1999 Red Burgundy!  That offer turned into another, this time Rosenthal’s offers from Cuilleron and the Southern Rhone, and the collections just continued to amass.  Rosenthal’s Loire wines?  An other-worldly experience that my palate continues to long for, to this day.

There were countless other importer’s wines I fell in love with as well.  And many times, as in the case of Weygandt, the wines were adored by Parker.  These are my Mona Lisa.  And now, I stand at my fork in the road.

I’ve recently finished a book, a book by Alice Feiring.  Those who have read the book know it well.  Those who have listened to my thoughts on the book know that I share with Feiring many, many passionate thoughts.  In particular, I have a great affection for the wines of Eric Texier.  I have been drinking and selling the man’s wines for more than 5 years now.  Also a love of mine, D’Oupia, Pinon and Radikon will be part of a focus tasting here quite soon.  I carry many a wine from Wasserman, as well, as my long-time clients are fondly aware, having first made Becky’s acquaintance in the very early 1990s.  I adore the wines of the Loire Valley, as does the great Feiring, having collected Joguet for more than 2 decades.  Summarizing, I love great wine, and Feiring and I are very much on the same wavelength.  Many of these wines, too are my Mona Lisa.

I visited the Louvre on a buying trip to France one year, returned there again a couple of years later while simply visiting an importer friend, Siler.  Both times, I waited in line to view the Mona Lisa.  Both times, the line was as long as the time before.  This is a piece of art, a piece of inventory that keeps the folks walking through the door, this piece of work keeps the tails in the chairs, as my Grandfather said to his congregation.

I found myself posting little phrases from Feiring’s book to a social network sight I belong to as I read through her book.  Her words have a way of moving me and I wanted to share these words with anyone who cared to follow.  One of my followers was a man who has contributed more than 10,000 entries to Robert Parker’s online bulletin board.  Additionally, this man has as his avatar at Parker’s bulletin board a photo with himself and Parker; I’d say he and Parker are at the very least close acquaintances.  After my third or so post to my humble social network site, sharing my tidbit from Feiring’s book, this man, this Parker buddy, un-followed me.  Coincidence?  I personally do not believe so.  Why?  Ask Feiring.  She was kicked off the bulletin board in 2007 for posting an opposing viewpoint.

Oh, such drama, my cross in the road.  My decision to make.  I sat watching the sun go down last evening, wrestling with this demon, pacing the floor, searching for answers.

Then I came to work today and set about my daily routine.  I offered for sale a group of wines.  Some with Parker reviews, some with Tanzer reviews, some with no critical reviews at all.  Some that simply were attractive to no one but me.

Each and every one of these, to some degree, sold.  Each and every item, well priced and offered to our clients honestly and with no thoughts of the politics of Parker and Feiring behind them, to some degree, sold.  No one had to throw Mona Lisa out, no one had to sell only the crown jewel as considered such by only ONE journalist or author.  Parker would probably have not liked one of the wines, Feiring would have probably hated 4/5ths of them.  But each of them sold.

I decided that my story of the day, even if not a single person reads it, should be a tale with a moral; an entry into a blog that acts as a personal reminder of the reality of the retail world I call my daily job…

Our customers will decide the Mona Lisa of the wine world; our customers decide what author is their vanguard.

We merchants should just have fun watching the wealthy authors duke it out.

Twenty Four and At the Door – My Afternoon at DRC

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,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005