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$25,000 Wine Week: A Tale of Excess

Writer Alan Richman discovers remarkable selections of wine—and witnesses staggering displays of ego—when he joins a small group of connoisseurs on a weeklong, break-the-bank tour of France's most exalted restaurants.

I have friends who regularly travel to Europe on wine-drinking pilgrimages, excursions into decadence that leave me gasping with envy. After hearing their stories, I find myself delusively imagining I'm one of them. I see myself picking up a wine list at a magnificent restaurant such as Monaco's Louis XV and ordering a grand cru white Burgundy with a rim as golden hued as the Limoges china. There I am, gazing upward, as the bouquet of my perfumed Corton-Charlemagne soars toward the nymphs and angels gamboling on the 25-foot ceiling.

This past January, I gathered up my courage and my bankroll and informed my friends that I would be joining them on their upcoming trip to Europe. The itinerary included La Beaugravière in Provence, a restaurant that is unstarred by the Michelin guide but has an enthusiastic following among wine drinkers, as well as four of the most esteemed establishments in Europe, all with three-star ratings: Le Louis XV; Troisgros, in Roanne; Paul Bocuse, outside Lyon; and Guy Savoy, in Paris.

My fantasy was not just to be with wine connoisseurs but also to be one of them, and it was at the distressingly appointed La Beaugravière, which looks as though it was transplanted intact from Guadalajara, that I thought I would succeed. I'd spotted a treasure on the wine list, an old-vines Châteauneuf-du-Pape from a fabulous vintage. I expected my companions to carry me to the dinner table on their shoulders. I gulped my gougère and tried to get their attention.

Everybody was sitting around perusing wine lists, a predinner ritual of ours. The man I'll call Sommelier No. 1 was asking the man I'll call Wine Merchant No. 1, in a wine-weary sort of way, "Do you like Clape's wines?" Auguste Clape is a renowned producer of Cornas. To the group of connoisseurs I was with, however, Cornas is just a simple, heat-soaked Syrah of little consequence.

Excitedly, I interrupted: "Look, the 1989 Domaine de la Janasse Vieilles Vignes, only $120!"

Nobody looked up. The merchant turned to the sommelier. He replied, "I find them rustic, never really appealing."

I was beginning to understand my place as a noncollector. The sounds I made were as insignificant as those of a distant train or a small forest animal rustling leaves. That evening we did not drink my wine discovery. It did not even rate consideration. I was among my betters, as far as selecting wine was concerned.

I spent a week dining with these men, all of whom I still call my friends, which demonstrates my forgiving nature. Of the five restaurants we visited, three—Louis XV, Troisgros and Beaugravière—had extraordinary wine lists, both in scope and value. The wine service was perfect at Louis XV, Troisgros and Guy Savoy. Great wine service in France is unrivaled, because it encompasses discreet attention, appropriate glassware and formidable knowledge. I anticipated exquisite service, even though we were American tourists, and for the most part we got it. French restaurateurs, like all restaurateurs, are very polite to customers who spend $3,000 to $4,000 per night on wine. (Prices have been rounded off to one euro equaling $1.10.) I felt the sommelier at Beaugravière could have been more congenial and the glasses at Bocuse washed with more care.

Our meals typically lasted five hours, including the time we spent studying wine lists, often in cushy anterooms with complimentary hors d'oeuvres. On the single occasion when one of my friends knocked over a glass of wine, the sort of accident one might expect, the person soaked from neck to waist was me. I told these men I would protect their identities, describing them only by their professions or hobbies, and it was Wine Collector No. 1 who marinated my Giorgio Armani Collezioni shirt ($175, on sale) in 1990 Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($710, in magnum).

I can only demonstrate so much restraint. Thanks a lot, Alan Belzer.

The group included two wine directors from top New York City restaurants, two principals in one of the most prestigious wine shops in Manhattan and two wine collectors. Five of the six characterize themselves as bargain hunters. The sixth, Wine Merchant No. 2, says he refuses to spend excessively but is mostly interested in finding once-in-a-lifetime rarities. To them, seeking out well-priced wines means paying less for a bottle on a list in France than they would pay for it in a shop in America. For the most part, that meant drinking cult wines by Coche-Dury (white Burgundies), Henri Jayer (red Burgundies), Guigal (single-vineyard Côte-Rôties) and, to a lesser extent, Jaboulet (Hermitage).

I've always believed that rational persons should not consume magnificent wines in high-priced restaurants, because of excessive markups. That proves I've spent too much time dining in New York. At Alain Ducasse's Louis XV, a soaring restaurant with gilded 18th-century accoutrements, the 1992 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne, a mineral-laced bombshell of a white, cost $400. Wine Merchant No. 2 said, "Any time you see Coche for $400, you should drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This bottle is about $1,000 below the retail price in New York."

At Troisgros, we paid $825 for the 1990 Jayer Cros Parantoux, a stunning (although youthful) red Burgundy. On the generally well-priced wine list of Washington Park restaurant in Manhattan, the same bottle is $3,750. None of these men, no matter what they already had in their cellars, was able to resist a bargain, much as a woman with a dozen pairs of $800 Manolo Blahnik shoes in her closet cannot stop herself when she sees another pair on sale for $400. To them, Henri Jayer is the Manolo Blahnik of wine.

They almost always drink Burgundies and red wines from the Rhône, and they seldom, if ever, believe Bordeaux is worth the price it commands on wine lists. Even though the three greatest reds I've ever tasted—1953 Margaux, 1961 Trotanoy and 1975 Pétrus—were all Bordeaux from their personal collections, we did not drink a single Bordeaux on this trip. Explained Wine Merchant No. 1, "None of us particularly enjoy young Bordeaux, and the ones that are ready to drink, the pre-1982s, are always too expensive."

Almost every wine we ordered came from a memorable vintage, although we did have 1991 Comte de Vogüé Musigny ($620, in magnum) at Louis XV because my friends knew that the estate had produced a long, sweet, beautifully colored Burgundy in that difficult year. They know years the way rabbis know the Ten Commandments, the way Roman Catholic priests know the Stations of the Cross. They know when hail fell in the Côte de Nuits (most famously in 1983) and when labor shortages caused difficulties with the harvest in Germany (most infamously in 1945). On impulse, we sent a glass of the 1991 Musigny to a man dining alone, and he sent back a charming note wishing us luck and thanking us for making him feel a part of such a fortunate group. "Doing something like that makes me feel like a god," said Wine Merchant No. 2, an unintentionally perceptive remark, because wine collectors, I've found, often see themselves that way.

Their weakness where wine is concerned is a disinclination to experiment. At Louis XV, I spotted a bottle of 1982 Cotnari Grasa Sélection de Grains Nobles in the La Moldavie section of the list, a sweet wine none of us had ever heard of, selling for $70. (1982 was a famous year in Bordeaux, and perhaps in Moldavia too.) Although I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, I could not have resisted the call of an authentic Marxist-Leninist wine produced in Romania during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausüescu. My friends refused to order it. Wine Collector No. 2 said, "We seek out opportunities we will remember for the rest of our lives. We are not here to rough it."

Only once did they drink a wine of my choosing, and that was because I arrived before they did at Guy Savoy—they took taxis, I rode the Métro. I selected a 2000 Ostertag Pinot Gris (overpriced at $140, but these connoisseurs would have sneered at something inexpensive), and the sommelier agreed to serve it blind.

They guessed the grape. I never said they weren't good.

Wine collectors are not like stamp collectors. They are not passive or diffident, and they do not hoard. They are aggressively social, and their labels are their calling cards. They come accompanied by Baron Rothschild of Bordeaux and René Dauvissat of Chablis. They do not serve their wines; they trumpet them. When a half dozen wine collectors of equal stature get together, not one will entirely agree with another man's choice. They want to drink what they like. They are type A-plus, one and all, correctly perceiving themselves as winners in the wine world. The three words you will never hear one wine collector say to another are these: "You know best."

My friends frequently argued over who was getting to pick the wines and who was being ignored, but these discussions always took place at lunch, when the wine was not too serious—a modest vertical of $200 J. L. Chave Hermitages, for example. Dinners were amiable, no matter how much wine was consumed; the men all seemed to become more mellow the more they drank, as though the wines passed along their harmonious qualities.

Wine collectors are seldom aware of their shortcomings, because they are rarely pointed out. They always assume they will be admired wherever they go, and the fact that they arrive with their wines makes it so. They are certain their ability to drink well and converse articulately about what is in their glasses makes them desirable companions. So self-assured are they that they believe people in less fortunate wine circumstances are pleased to have them around. Generally speaking, they are correct.

I have sat spellbound, listening to their tales of excess. A few years back the two merchants and the two collectors lunched at Alain Chapel and noticed a 1929 DRC Romanée-Conti on the list, although without a price. They inquired, and thought they heard the sommelier say 14,000 francs (just over $2,000). When the bill came, the price was 40,000 francs. Even after paying just under $7,000, they reveled in their good luck. The wine was that wonderful. It is probably unnecessary to add that these gentlemen are willing to spend fortunes on wine but nothing on French lessons.

So it was on this trip when the connoisseur of rarities noticed a 1929 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle on the list at La Beaugravière for $1,300. By reputation, this is a wine of majesty, produced in a region beloved by Thomas Jefferson and the Russian imperial court. The owner of Beaugravière announced that it was the last of a full case of 12 bottles that had been topped off and recorked at the winery in the 1990s. Knowing something is the last of anything makes my friends want it all the more.

A bottle that old is not a guarantee of pleasure but a venture into high-stakes poker. If it is as magnificent as the Romanée-Conti they drank at Alain Chapel, the experience can be existential. If not, it is merely expensive.

Sommelier No. 2 accepted the responsibility of tasting the '29 Hermitage.

Merchant No. 1 whispered to me, "I wouldn't order it, because I don't want to take on the responsibility."

Sommelier No. 1 disagreed. "It's worth having so we don't regret not having it for the rest of our lives," he said.

The cork came out, perhaps too easily. The wine burbled into the glass. The designated taster sniffed, then breathed deeply. I looked at his face, and I did not see rapture. I saw $1,300 worth of perplexity. I saw costly indecision. He chewed. He stared. His eyes went down. The table hushed. He spoke the three words I would soon learn to loathe.

He said, "Tastes like wine."

I felt as though I had opened the door to greet my mail-order bride and the best I could utter was, "Well, it's a woman." (Did I mention the testosterone level of wine collectors?)

He tasted again and added, "Wine's been cooped up a long time. A slight Madeira and chocolate to it."

Madeira and chocolate are not a $1,300 food-and-wine pairing. To those notes, I'd add tea. We had a $1,300 bottle of Lipton's. La Beaugravière's owner tasted and pronounced it fine, one of the best bottles from the case. Added La Beaugravière's sommelier, "Very good." I felt these were not disinterested opinions.

We drank it in silence, and silence is a bad thing at dinner, particularly the silence of despair.

In the course of our trip, we sent back just one bottle, a 1989 La Mouline from Guigal that was indisputably corked, and we accepted many that I would have sent back had I any influence with the group. I wondered why they accepted so many flawed bottles and decided they were so proud of their ability to make excellent selections they were ashamed to admit they had erred. Most of the wines I thought unacceptable were either tired from age, technically flawed or had low fills (the wine barely reaching the neck of the bottle). The attitude of the group seemed to be that if it was still a wine, they were obligated to pay for it. Their most charitable act, in my opinion, was accepting a bottle of 1967 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape that cost $380 at La Beaugravière.

It came to the table with such a low fill that I would immediately have said non, had I spoken French. As the bottle was being opened, the glass collar that holds the cork, in essence the entire tip of the bottle, snapped off. To me, this constitutes defective goods, since I'm the kind of picky fellow who doesn't like drinking beverages containing shards of glass. The wine was accepted and it was surprisingly good, with a lovely, complex nose and fast-fading, dark berry flavors, more Burgundian than Rhône-like. Nevertheless, drinking it gave me the willies.

The worst bottle we accepted was at Paul Bocuse, the gaudy shrine to the most famous chef in the world. (The napkins there are awesome, only slightly smaller than the tablecloths.) For sentimental reasons, Sommelier No. 1 wanted to have 1976 Guigal La Mouline ($770). He told us he was working as a waiter in 1983 when he bought this wine in a shop for $30. It convinced him that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the wine business.

Although the wine was still full of fruit, it was also cloudy and murky, so dark and ugly that it could be studied only by someone wearing a miner's hat. The Paul Bocuse sommelier insisted it had been stored impeccably, but we decided the only way it could have looked the way it did was if the waiter assigned to bring it up from the cellar had tripped on the steps and shaken up the sediment. I found it entirely without pleasure and left almost all of my share in the glass.

If the finest white wine (and possibly the best value) of the trip was the 1992 Domaine Jean-François Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne at Louis XV, the two best red wines came from the cellars of Troisgros, a restaurant of unparalleled finesse, where everything is impressive except the attire of the male customers, who all appear to be regular visitors to the church thrift shop.

Unrivaled was the 1971 Romanée-Saint-Vivant Marey-Monge ($700), a profoundly rich, impeccably aged Burgundy with a hint of pleasing gaminess. The moment I tasted it, I said, "This is it." Almost as impressive was the 1985 La Turque ($820). The release of this celebrated wine in the late '80s caused a stampede among collectors, but since then it has largely been ignored. I tried it young and thought it was good. This bottle was magnificent. It had hints of smoke and licorice, and the structure was unusually elegant for a Rhône.

Finally, my time came. Weary of my complaints, my friends at last announced that I could select all the wines at Guy Savoy, a small, austere establishment down the street from the Arc de Triomphe. I went to the restaurant early. I grabbed a wine list. A kindly captain served me slivers of foie gras while I made my choices. My budget was $3,000.

By now, I knew what everybody liked, and I was sure I could come through. The Ostertag Pinot Gris served blind to begin the meal was just a tease. I planned to follow it with 1995 Gagnard Bâtard-Montrachet in magnum, several 1985 Domaine de Montille Pommards and a magnum of 1985 Dujac Clos de la Roche. If they wanted to go for the jackpot, I would suggest 1947 Gaunoux Pommard Rugiens ($1,470).

I announced my selections, and praise came showering down upon me. I was declared a man of perception, taste and thoughtfulness.

Then they picked up their wine lists, chatted with the sommelier and changed everything. They didn't order a single bottle I wanted. When I requested an explanation, Wine Collector No. 2 said, "I have to say we didn't find the wines we really wanted until the professionals got here." By "the professionals," I believe he primarily meant himself.

Later, I asked my friends what I had done wrong. One told me I hadn't spoken loudly or authoritatively enough. Another said I had lost confidence in my own selections. I was about to protest, but then I remembered something.

It would do me no good to complain. Wine collectors never admit they're wrong.

Alan Richman is an award-winning restaurant critic.

Published July 2003
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