One of the things I’m doing with my time these days is working on a book proposal. I won’t go into details because it’s (yawn) the best book idea in the history of Western Civilization and if I give it away here everyone will steal it and I’ll die in poverty-stricken anonymity.
Anyway, while researching the proposal I came across a period of Thomas Jefferson’s life that those who turn the American founders into demi-gods conveniently neglect. In 1787, while serving as minister to France, Jefferson had a midlife crisis. He fell head-over-heels in love with a much younger (married) woman who ultimately spurned him, was humiliated before Paris society, and — in a fit of self-pity — he abandoned his diplomatic post to go on a bender. For the next three-and-a-half months he traveled French wine country, eating and drinking and writing rhapsodic letters to his friends explaining to them how smart he was to do what he was doing, and how they needed to do it, too.
It’s a wonderfully human story with all the aspects of self-delusion that usually accompany mid-life crises, after which he eventually returned to his family and business associates, including an irate boss who didn’t think all that wine really belonged on Jefferson’s expense account.
Anyway, as a result of this I’ve put together a tasting that follows Jefferson’s self-indulgent travels. I’ve been to a lot of tastings, and have never been to one where there’s a central narrative story, with selected wines as touchpoints. I’m sure other people have done it; it makes sense, for example, that narratives of particular winemakers have become retrospective tastings. But it’s not something that’s common, and I wanted to test the concept because it’s part of my book proposal’s promotional strategy.
Saturday night at Daniel Chaffin Furniture Makers, in front of a friendly crowd of about 25 people, I took a first crack at it.
Bottom line: needs work. Or, more precisely, repetition. As they say in acting schools, I need to own the material. At this point, I’m just leasing.
Conceptually, I think I’m onto something. People loved the mixture of good wine (I’ll get to that) and entertaining narrative. I stumbled early, however, because I was excessively formal in my presentation. I had a script and I was reading it. I didn’t really hit my stride until the crowd — apparently overcome with pity — started asking questions about both the wines and the history. At that point we got into a give-and-take format with which I’m very comfortable. By the third wine we were in a rhythm: I’d pour wine while explaining the next part of Jefferson’s journey, then I’d explain a little something about the wine and how it is like or unlike the wines Jefferson would have been drinking, then we’d drink and break into small groups for a few minutes to talk, and then I’d interrupt with the next part of the journey.
We tracked Jefferson up to Champagne, down through Burgundy and the Rhone, over to Piedmont in Italy, then back across the Midi to Bordeaux, where his midlife crisis fizzled out in a guest room at Chateau Haut-Brion. After a couple of weeks drowning in First Growths, he had nowhere to go but home.
The wines in the tasting were:
Jean Vesselle Reserve NV Champagne — an excellent grower-produced champagne. I think sometimes that the only time people drink sparkling wine is at weddings and bad New Year’s Eve parties, when what’s served is generally cheap, bulk-produced schlock that’s there out of a sense of obligation rather than joy. The Vesselle was terrific: well balanced, with a light mousse that didn’t overwhelm the quality of the underlying wine. We served it in regular tasting glasses rather than in flutes, so the sometimes-prickly quality of the bubbles was de-emphasised. I may never use a champagne glass again. The Vesselle got everyone’s attention right out of the starting gate.
Picard Récolte du Domain Voarick 2006 Mercurey — very nice white Burgundy with a nice touch of oak. This had the effect of bringing everyone home to something familiar. French wines can intimidate people, and this tasted like something they’re used to — California Chardonnay — but better. It also gave me a chance to mispronounce a couple of French words, which broke the ice for everyone. I’ll have to remember to d othat next time, too.
Domaine DuBois Clos Margot 2006 Chorey-Les-Beaune — a light, sleek Burgundy that had just the right amount of Pinot funk. Dan Chaffin, the furniture maker and event host, liked it because it’s slightly oaky nose reminded him of planing white oak — which makes sense, since white oak is what wine barrels are generally made of. Dan’s observation had the curious effect of causing people to bend down to smell the furniture.
Veglio Nebbiolo 2005 DOC Langhe — Jefferson made a side trip to Italy under the thinnest of pretenses in order to sample Nebbiolo wine. On the tasting’s budget, we couldn’t go with a meaningful Barolo or Barbaresco, so we went with one of the new-age Nebbiolos marketed for those with New World tastes. This was a little disappointing to me, but I wasn’t being fair. Deep down, I was prepared for a reprise of a 16-year old Barolo we cracked open a while back, and this fresh young thing seemed thin and flat compared to my expectations. The product of temperature controlled maceration, it lacked the tannic whack that can render old-style Nebbiolos undrinkable for a decade. The wine went over well with the crowd, however, most of whom had never had a Nebbiolo. Jefferson referred to Nebbiolo’s “most peculiar aspekt,” and this certainly had it. I wouldn’t hesitate to crack open a bottle in the future. It was under 20 bucks, and unmistably Nebbiolo.
Chateau St. Martin de la Garrigue 2006 Coteaux de Languedoc — Knock me over: this $13 bottle was the surprise hit of the tasting. I put all my effort into the Burgundies and Bordeaux, and this is the wine that people loved. Me too. The brightness and medium weight of the Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend struck a chord; the dusty brown thing that usually annoys me about Grenache stayed down and out of sight; and as the wine opened it developed a beam of berry flavors that just plain rocked. It’s interesting to note that after the tasting, when people were draining the leftovers, the line formed in front of the St. Martin.
Chateau Haut-Bages Libéral 2001 — This was supposed to be the star of the show, and it kind of was. If the St. Martin was the ingenue breaking through for the first time, the Haut-Bages Libéral was the rock-solid diva holding more dignified court. It’s interesting to watch everyday wine drinkers confront a dowager Bordeaux. There’s a solid center of gravity that most Cab brands lack. That core demands attention and respect. Though decanted for almost two hours before drinking, the wine never opened the nose I hoped for, but that’s nitpicking. For a group of people unfamiliar with classified growth Bordeaux, this was almost overwhelming.
When the tasting was over, I felt as if I’d struggled the whole way. Keeping the narrative timed with the wines and balancing sufficient information about both without dragging was difficult. But afterward, everyone I talked to was highly complimentary and filled with questions, mostly about Jefferson but some about the wine. I’d imagined that a subject like Thomas Jefferson’s midlife crisis would touch a nerve, but the response to this was more than I’d hoped. People related to Jefferson’s humanity in a way that made me think I may be really onto something with this book.
We’ll see. I repeat the tasting in front of a small group of people who bought a couple of hours of my time at a charity auction last Winter. They paid almost $2,000, so I’d better get over the stumbling thing fast.