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Burgundy Classics: Wheeling and Dealing

Over a tasty, triumphant lunch, bicycle-tour entrepreneur George Butterfield tells how he clinched a most unusual wine deal.

Why did the entrepreneur, the winemaker and the historian get together? This may sound like the setup to some dreadful joke, but in fact it identifies the participants at a very special lunch. The entrepreneur is George Butterfield, the Canadian co-owner of the sybaritic bicycle-adventure tour outfit Butterfield & Robinson. The winemaker is Claude Dugat, the modest genius whom Butterfield met quite by accident 10 years ago while leading one of his tours through Burgundy. The historian is their friend Chantal Leroux, who is an excellent cook.

On a glorious afternoon not long ago, Leroux invited the two men to her seventeenth-century home overlooking Beaune for a lunch of creamy escargots and rustic mushroom quiche. As for what wine to drink with this feast, well, therein lies a tale—one to which only George Butterfield could do justice. Here's his story, in his own words.

"I didn't have much of a connection with Burgundy until about 20 years ago, when we decided to run a bicycling trip where you stayed in the great hotels. That was really a revolutionary idea then. When I told these hoteliers we'd be arriving by bike, they looked at me blankly and said, 'You don't understand, Monsieur Butterfield, on arrive ici par Mercedes, par Jaguar, pas à bicyclette.'

"I met Claude when I was leading a trip about 10 years ago. The weather was a little iffy, so I knocked on a door right next to the beautiful church in Gevrey-Chambertin and asked this man whether, if it rained, we could have our picnic in his shed, and he said, 'Mais oui, monsieur, c'est normal.' We got to chatting and he gave me a tour of his wine cellar, and I said I'd like to buy a bottle of wine, thinking I was doing him a favor. But he said he had none to sell. I didn't know who he was. I felt sorry for the guy.

"Anyway, the day came and it rained and we used his shed. When the thing was all over, I offered to buy wine again, and he still didn't have any to sell, so we went on our way. Then about two months later I was reading in Robert Parker's Wine Advocate about Claude Dugat. Parker described how the room went hushed when Dugat's wines came out and then mentioned where he lived, and I thought: That's the guy! So I called up my co-guide, Melissa, and asked her, did we actually use Claude Dugat's place? And she said, 'Yes, George. I tried to explain...'

"So I went back and said to Monsieur Dugat that I'd like to buy some of his wines, but he still had none to sell. So I said, okay, then I'll buy what's in the barrel, but he told me: 'Tout vendu' [all sold]. So I said, ohh-kay, then I'll have to buy what's on the vines, but again he said: 'Tout vendu.' And I realized I was never going to get the man's wines. So I said, 'If I buy some land would you make wine for me?' And he said, 'Oui, monsieur, avec plaisir.'

"So I spent about a year looking, and I found a great property in Echézeaux—a grand cru appellation. I rushed up to Claude and said, 'Claude, I've found a property!' He looked at me and said, 'Mais ça c'est trop loin' [too far]. I said, 'But it's five kilometers away!' He said, 'Trop loin. I don't understand the terroir.' Oh, now I get it, I thought, not only have I got to buy land, I've got to buy in Gevrey-Chambertin. So I went looking again with the help of a fella named Didier Sangrois, who's the sommelier at one of Burgundy's great restaurants, Les Millésimes. Didier probably has the best Burgundy collection in the world—25-, 30-, 40,000 bottles. He's right next door to Claude Dugat, and he doesn't have a single bottle of Dugat's wine.

"So Didier finally led me to a little piece of land in Chapelle Chambertin—and we're talking about 2.2 vouvrays, which is a fifth of an acre, or eight to 10 rows. Claude walked up and down and looked at each one of the vines, and eventually he looked at me and he said, 'Oui, monsieur, ça marche' [it'll work]. So it's perfect, because Claude makes a barrel and a half from our little acreage, which is 450 bottles of wine. Claude gets 150, we get 300, and the great part is that Didier, who found me the property, now has some of Dugat's wine at Les Millésimes."

Published October 2002
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