Enthusiast's Corner May 2006

Enthusiast's Corner May 2006

Earlier this year, Philippine de Rothschild electrified the attendees at our Wine Enthusiast‘s Wine Star Awards dinner with her witty and gracious speech. In accepting her honor for Lifetime Achievement, the Baroness said, “I owe America an enormous amount. Which is simply my knowledge of  wine and the wine business.” One of the specific facets of the business she cited was marketing.

Marketing, of course, goes beyond label designs and advertising campaigns. In the wine industry, it implies image-building from the ground up, involving hospitality and one-on-one contact. And the Bordelais are catching on.

Roger Voss writes about the “new” Bordeaux—new in the sense that so many of the chateaus have opened their doors to wine tourists for the first time. New, also, because there is now a city to act as a home base with vibrant restaurants, shopping, cultural sites and street life. Bordeaux, the city, can be your portal to one of the greatest wine regions in the world.

Bordeaux is the only city in France where the drama of the place matches the drama of the wine. I was in the city last summer and it was almost like being in a theme park. I went to outdoor concerts, with the moon shining from the night sky, illuminating couples dancing in outdoor squares. Think of Rockefeller Center at Christmas, of the Proms in London, of San Francisco, any day. Bordeaux now belongs on that list.

The wine is, in my opinion, a bonus. Going to these chateaus is really a serious display of the good life. The first time I went to Bordeaux, I watched people being turned away from chateaus. Now the chateaus have Web sites, they have tastings, some even have cooking schools and restaurants.

In some ways, visiting a chateau in Bordeaux is like visiting any winery in the world: You are still just as likely to be taken into a room with a counter, glasses, a spittoon and maybe a faded map of the Bordeaux vineyard. And certain behaviors are expected: You should avoid wearing perfumes and colognes. You should be diplomatic in your remarks in front of the host or hostess, because it could well be an owner. You should not monopolize that person’s time if you’re not planning to buy some wine (a shipping and customs issue that’s too complicated to get into here). And do not underestimate the importance of the spittoon, the essential tool of the professional wine taster. You don’t all have to spit, especially if it’s a classified growth, but the designated driver does.

In other ways, though, it’s another world. Even though they now are more welcoming than in the past, most Bordeaux chateaus still retain an air about them. There is a sense of formality, echoing the 18th-century formality of the city. Tasting at a chateau is not a shorts-and-tennis-shoes event. Save the shorts for golf. For your hosts, it becomes a performance: the glasses laid out in military precision, the ceremony of the opening of the bottle, the pouring of the wine by the host or hostess.

In Bordeaux, wine tasting feels like a timeless ritual. Admiring the color, sniffing, the long slow intake of breath to get the best out of the taste, then the (often reluctant) spit of a great wine. I sometimes find these Old World trappings more memorable than even the most dazzling American tasting rooms.

Certain facets of wine—a red wine’s very structure, the balance of fruit, acidity, tannis and alcohol—have always felt timeless to me, but the times they are a-changing. The story featured on our cover: “Wine on Steroids” is one way of expressing the trend toward high-alcohol wines.Paul Gregutt examines the reasons behind the trend, the damage it may be doing to grower-winemaker relations and the possible downsides to wine itself, in ways that can be measured, to some degree (ageability) and more subjective ways (food-friendliness, being one).
A more positive trend is the increasing level of quality wine education that is taking place in so many spheres of American life. Dave McIntyre takes a look at wine education in retail stores. This is education for both consumers and the staff members. Our readers will notice this in the increasing frequency of tastings and special wine events at retail stores—and that the people behind the counter are much more knowledgeable about wine than their counterparts were a decade or two ago.

Enjoy the issue, and celebrate the coming of spring.

Published on May 1, 2006