1929 Chateau Cheval Blanc, Saint Emilion, Fr.
TASTE AS AN ACQUIRED LIFE
I remember reading about the great vintages in my early days of my love affair with wine. Andre Simon, Alexis Lichine and later, Gerald Asher were my tutors. My curiosity and willingness to part with sometimes-unreasonable amounts of money were my guiding instincts. That and a craven desire for sophistication and erudition led me to for a while there, to buy wines because the label looked important (a fundamental tenet of ‘packaging’). Of course, most of what Messrs. Simon and Lichine conjured in terms of wine descriptions were simply words without meaning to me. What Cassis? What Blackcurrant? I could not taste the fruit of which they spoke. They could not be enitrely crazy because they were using the same argot, but where was it? I’d swirl and look in the glass, smell, and taste…or at least, I thought I was tasting…but I could not find the flavours they were writing about.
I was raised on sweet drinks with meals and plenty of sweets in general. I was a case study in what I’ll call the ‘dormant palate files,’ my taste buds dummied down and anesthesised by the years of coarse, hammering flavours. (For more on the palate as a muscle of perception, I humbly direct you to ‘The Case for The Home Cooked MeaI’ on this blog.)
One day, about nine months into my journey with my new-found love, wine, it hit me. It was a Thursday afternoon. It was raining (Portland Oregon, after all) and I wandered into Elephant’s Deli, where I picked up some triple crême cheese, a baguette and a little known (to me) Bordeaux with the all-important seeming label and the unforgettable name of Chateau Balestard La Tonnelle from the village of St. Émilion… Unforgettable because that particular bottling completely changed my life, a wine harvested in a so-so vintage where a fair bit of rain had ruined some perfectly laid plans for more than a few. Later that afternoon, sitting by myself in the kitchen while it rained outside my window, reading something (a book that no doubt was going over my head) the wine tapped me on the shoulder and slowly revealed itself to me. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say I was gifted that day. For there, in my basement apartment the light shone in and I slowly realised I was perceiving a “fruity” element in the beverage at hand. The moment was not entirely unlike looking up and realising someone is smiling at you. I was suddenly pulled me out of my book and I sat up, poured a bit more, swirled, sniffed and excitedly tasted again. I sure enough was tasting fruit there. ”This wine is fruity!” I exclaimed to myself. Too bad I was all alone. If I were to write a musical about the subject, that moment could possibly rival the sequence in ‘My Fair Lady’, where Rex Harrison has his big epiphany (I forget what about) and begins to sing “I Think I’ve Got It!” Or words to that effect.
I sat there, utterly besotted and somewhat in awe of a beverage that could pack such mystery and delight, containing as it did, a certain narrative element, with a beginning, a clear middle and an ending. The label suddenly grew in importance before my eyes. I was transformed.
There were other moments along the way. In the early days, I could never taste Chardonnay “flavour” and therefore thought for time that I was a “red wine drinker”. Alas, I had made a decision, drew a line in the sand, and had taken hostages, the prisoners being a good portion of my taste buds.
That is, until I nearly fell off my chair when tasting a 1976 Martin Ray Chardonnay. That moment is forever ingrained in my mind like a photograph, we were at Ted and Paulette’s, it was a Sunday afternoon meal, in their dining room…I sipped, leaned back and exclaimed “Wo!” and they looked at me as if a bee had stung me. Why did I choose a Chardonnay if I was truly a “red wine drinker”? All I can say is, curiosity must have trumped the line in the sand. I had read about Martin Ray and his pioneering ways, how he sourced his bottles from the same maker Louis Latour used. He seemed a fascinating individualist and individual, and therefore, a guy after my own heart. (Years later, over a few meals and wines shared with Paul Draper during my friendship with him, I was to learn some colourful anecdotes about Mr. Ray and others that paved the way for greatness in California wine making. Of course, plenty has been written about the soft spoken, utterly gracious Mr. Draper and what a meaningful, lasting contribution he made to California wine; what a towering figure he became.)
But back to the epiphanies.
The Martin Ray Chardonnay blindsided me, redolent as it was with buttery, honeyed complexity. It was so delicious; I can almost still taste it, some 25+ years later. And it served to prepare me for white wines I was to inexorably love, the big-shouldered, minerally Corton Charlemagne’s, Meursault and Montrachet… And every time I drank an Edna Valley Chard with my dearest friend Tony, I would invariably think back to Martin Ray’s wine, the one that opened the door for me on the Chardonnay horizon.
And so it is with other wines that leave an unforgettable impression, like a love affair never forgotten. I can look at the labels and almost taste the moment again. I momentarily see who was there with me at the table. The ’61 La Tâche that managed to silence the room is another unforgettable photograph. We were with Greg Zancanella and Pat and Joe Campbell who had just begun to harvest at their nascent Elcove Vineyards…for a moment we were all held in the throes of a bottle that seemed to glow and light up our faces. I can’t remember what we ate, but I certainly remember the wine and our reaction to it. Every time I recall that wine, I momentarily re-live the moment. Hence, when I do think of the Balestard La Tonnelle I do so with affection and gratitude, for it set me on a path of greater appreciation.
I recently met and had a conversation with James Young, who represents the very fine Torbreck wines here in Australia, and we discussed how some wines are “blue-fruited”. Nice to run into someone who speaks the same language, I thought. (It occurs to me, Lichine and Simon shared the same language, one I did not understand at the time.)
Which brings me to the 1929 Cheval Blanc, which when tasted nearly 60 years after harvest, still retained a soft core of blue fruit; its glow diminished yes, but still erect, stately and graceful. It was like a woodsy, Old Gent at the table. Every time he spoke, I couldn’t help but sit in silence for a few seconds, taking it all in. It was a taste, an essence I still have not forgotten, lodged as it is in my catalogue of memories, as real and vivid as any other.
And this is where my love affair with wine renews itself. It is an ongoing narrative, a way of measuring moments and imparting them with quality and the quality of remembrance; a way of communing with friends, whether permanent or transitory; a way of tasting life, history and getting a sense of what is possible and attainable in far-off lands.