Reflecting on that which makes me grateful
I am writing this column on Thanksgiving Day — I know it’s February for the most of you, but bear with me — and it makes me reflect on what I am grateful for in the world of wine.
First, I’m grateful to the man who taught me about wine when I first got into the subject that would become a lifelong, consuming passion, as well as my profession.
His name was Gordon Bucklitsch; he was the principal of the Grants of St James’s Wine School in London which I attended in 1975. A latter-day Falstaff, he believed that a cork had no further use once it had been drawn from the bottle.
Gordon had served in the Royal Navy during World War II and that experience had shaped his wine vocabulary. He would refer to the bouquet of Château Margaux as “tarred rope.” Among the valuable lessons he taught me was that Champagne is the antidote to seasickness.
In 1976, we were crossing the English Channel in a force 9 gale enroute to Champagne. The majority of the passengers were hanging over the ferry’s railings, losing their lunch. For a portly man he had no difficulty negotiating the deck in a rolling sea and he instructed me to follow him downstairs to the bar. I was feeling somewhat queasy myself, but I joined him below deck, where he ordered a bottle of Champagne and two glasses.
“Trust me,” he told me, “This will settle your stomach.” We stayed in the bar for the entire crossing, demolishing the bottle, and I felt as right as rain.
I am forever grateful to Dom Pérignon whose innovations in the production of Champagne in the early 18th century paved the way for the creation of an industry that has given more pleasure to more people down the ages than any other manufactured product — including the condom.
I am grateful to the Cistercian monks of Clos de Vougeot who, through trial and error, discovered that certain plots of ground created the best wines in Burgundy. They isolated Musigny from whose vines I tasted the finest red wine of my life: Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes 1964. The bottle was a gift from Gordon Bucklitsch and I drank it on February 13th, 1975, the night my son was born — the whole bottle, since my wife was somewhat preoccupied.
I am grateful to Emperor Napoleon III. The President of the French Republic instructed the merchants of Bordeaux to rank the best wines of the Médoc and Graves for display at the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. The only faux pas they made in their classification was to designate Château Mouton-Rothschild as a Second Growth, a blunder that was corrected in 1973 when Mouton was elevated to join Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion as a First Growth.
That was the year that Pablo Picasso died and the artwork on the upper part of the label for that vintage is en homage to the artist. Baron Philippe de Rothschild chose a reproduction of his Indian ink Bacchanale that resides in Mouton’s famous wine museum.
I am also grateful to the anonymous men and women who for centuries have rolled up their trousers and hiked up their skirts to tread the grapes that make vintage port.
And I am grateful to all the winemakers down the ages who have cocked a weather eye at the sky, praying for rain when they needed it and praying for none when they harvested. They are indeed God’s children, who, by some alchemy, can transform a perishable fruit into a nectar that can live as long as a human being.
And lastly I am grateful for wine consumers who have raised their level of knowledge over the years that I have been writing on the subject so that I will never again have to answer the question: “Should I swallow my gum before I taste?