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Scenes from Several Cellars:
Alan Richman's Rules for Wine Tasting
Our correspondent tastes wine in Burgundy and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and comes home with five rules for behaving in a professional manner. Also, one family secret, one confession, and one startling statement
BY ALAN RICHMANNovember 3, 2011
The confession: I can't say my own behavior was exemplary in the cellars of the estates I visited: Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, Chandon de Briailles in Savigny-les-Beaune, and Château de Beaucastel in Courthezon. At Drouhin, I knocked over a bung—the French call it a bonde—which is the oversized cork used to plug the oak barrels in which wine is aged. It rolled away, never to be seen again. Then I dropped my pen. It also spun away, but not so far that I couldn't retrieve it by getting down on my hands and knees on the cellar floor and reaching under a barrel. The staff revealed that they had never seen such clumsiness. My unimpressive behavior convinced me to ask the winemakers I met and the colleagues traveling with me to offer suggestions on proper conduct in wine cellars. Clearly, I had not set an example.
Rule Number One: Try Not To Be An [Jerk].
One of my colleagues recalled a trip to the E.Guigal winery, in the Rhône, where one of his companions committed two fatal errors. (The guy was a professional bond trader, which explains a lot.) The first error, obviously inexcusable, was to piss on the stone wall that surrounded the parking lot across the street from the winery. (Wineries have bathrooms. You need only ask.) A worse and more subtle gaffe occurred at a Burgundy estate. The trader was handed a glass partly filled with Musigny, a rare and costly Grand Cru. After swirling the wine and swallowing a sip, the fellow said, "This is good," and tossed down what remained in the glass. Protocol at barrel tastings is to return the untasted contents of the glass to the winery employee who is escorting you through the cellar. He will then pour it back into the barrel. (Yes, some of the most precious wine in the world gets recycled, simply because so little is made.)
Rule Number Two: Act Like You've Been There Before.
Don't giggle nervously. So many visitors do. Don't do the opposite, behave like a know-it-all and say things like, "Quite good, but it could be better," or, when looking over the wines in the salesroom, comment loudly, "This is too expensive." Don't try to trick winemakers into saying their wine is better than that of the competition, since the presumed rival is probably a dear friend. One winemaker said to me, "People are always saying of the wine of competitors who are my friends, 'I think theirs is too tannic,' hoping that I will agree." The winemaker escorting you through his cellar wishes you to judge the wine on its harmony and balance, and, if you feel qualified, on its potential to improve with age. "To taste wine," one said to me, "is to be open-minded, to be respectful of all the work that has gone into the wine, and I don't mean just by me, I mean by all the generations before me. Wine is full of discoveries. It is not a science. It is not an art. It is craftsmanship." Another said that trying to astound a winemaker with your knowledge of the estate or of local vineyards is not what they seek from guests. "We have visitors with impressive knowledge who know every producer, what the soil is in every vineyard. While that's remarkable, all that thinking takes away from the beauty and joy of drinking wine."
A family secret from Laurent Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin: "We have had people coming through our cellars who pass out," he said. "It is not because they drink too much. It is because they hit their heads." Ancient wine cellars like those in his family often have low doorways and passages, and they are made of rock. Laurent has hit his head. So has his father. This is a very tall family, with Laurent almost 6'5. You would think the members of the Drouhin family would always be aware of their height, but despite the wisdom of the generations, the rocks overhead continue to extract a toll.
Rule Number Three: Think Before You Ask.
A member of the Perrin family, owners of Beaucastel, said he cringes when the first question asked of him is "Do you have Merlot?" I asked who the offenders might be, and he looked me up and down. Clearly, he meant Americans. In fact, Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds are made with as many as 13 different grape varieties—none of them Merlot—and a quick perusal of the winery website would prepare any visitor. If the question had been, "How come there is no Merlot among your 13 varieties?," nobody at the winery would have been upset. Guides love to be challenged by anyone trying to learn.
Rule Number Four: Don't Behave Like A Bad Wine Writer.
A classic dumb question: "What's the pH of this wine?" (Answer: Who cares?) One of my guides said, "What I particularly don't like is when a journalist says something like, 'You should have picked later,' or 'You should have bottled earlier,' anything like that. Maybe he is right. But I would think more of such a comment if the journalist had ever made wine himself. I always answer them, 'Okay, maybe you're right,' but what I am thinking is, 'I wish you had ever tried to do what we do.'"
Rule Number Five: Don't Show Up Drunk.
One winery owner said, "We hear it all the time: I don't like Chardonnay but I love Pouilly-Fuissé." (Note: Pouilly-Fuissé is made from Chardonnay grapes.) He added, "It's not really about bad behavior. It's usually from too many tastings during the day by people who don't spit, which is why we prefer to hold tastings in the morning. Late in the day, after a tasting, a lunch, and another tasting, the visitors get a little bit loud and tend to ask questions that have nothing to do with wine."
An Unexpectedly Kind Comparison in Which Americans Come Out On Top.
"U.S. people like to ask questions," said Claude de Nicolay Drouhin (aka Countess Aymard-Claude de Nicolay), overseer of Chandon de Briailles, "They want to learn. French people don't ask questions—they think they know everything."
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