Friday, January 30, 2009

The Siren Calls of Chateaux Nights

During the annual Primeurs barrel tasting the first week of each April and during VinExpo every other June, hotel rooms in Bordeaux are as scarce as free samples of Chateau Le Pin, as wine writers and the wine trade flock to southwest France from the four corners of the wine bottle.

Fortunately, during these few lodging-challenged weeks, many chateaux owners, normally a somewhat private and reticent lot, drop their draw bridges and throw open their iron gates to welcome us hordes of purple-toothed eno-fans longing for a free flop. All in all, it's reminiscent of the youth hostel scene, as we rush from chateau to chateau (is my bag half-packed or half-unpacked?) for a few hours sleep; if it's Wednesday, it must be Chateau Guiraud.
There is a charm in staying for a night or two in a chateau built with stone blocks -- some were born as castles -- that were constructed before my ancestors, generations back, decided to depart England for the colonies, whose ceilings are three times my height, and which were retrofitted with electricity and plumbing perhaps three-quarters of a century ago. Air conditioning is often an open window that may not have any drapes of blinds (are there peeping Toms among the vine rows?), the loo may be down the hall, and showers often require a bit of contorting.

Not that there isn't excitement and glamour. Sometimes the room next door may be occupied by an aging Brit writer whose book you brought 20 years ago or a tales-spinning wine merchant of Hong Kong. While a chateau may only have two or three such guests, a dinner there can be a 1940s-style grand soiree with a dozen or more invitees -- some staying at other chateaux, others the people who own the chateaux next door and are sans guests -- roaring up the finely graveled driveway for an evening of foie gras, duck breast, a string quartet, and ancient vintages being brought up from the cellar. Once, in a rare rejection of Bordelaisian ethnocentrism, a host actually served a fine white Burgundy with the fish course.

In short, if you get an invite for lodging or dinner at Pontet-Canet, Issan, Grand-Mayne or Ormes de Pez, don't tic the "decline" box -- although at Ormes you may have to suffer a meal at the Cazes family's companion domaine, Chateau Cordellian-Bages. (:>)

Not that chateau living can't be strange and scary. Once, I was staying at a small country castle in Sauternes, which the family had already fled, and the caretaker had to leave for a family emergency. As the only guest, I was left to lock down the place for the night by myself. And if you think your house has a lot of creaks and thumps in the night, imagine waking up in the midnight hours to the moans and groans of a 500-year-old pile of rocks and ancient timbers. Haunted chateaux? I haven't experience those, but I've had other writers tell tales around the campfire -- I mean, fireplace -- about hearing voices and seeing things that couldn't be attributed to too much espresso and Cognac.

Which brings me to a little tale that starts off, in the Hitchcockian manner, with an innocent, bon joviale prelude. I was having a Saturday night sleepover at a Medoc chateau in April 2006 when tout le Bordeaux was crammed and atwitter in anticipation of the barrel tastings of the marvelous 2005, no doubt the first of many such vintages of the century. Dinner was spectacular -- with a blend of people from various countries, occupations, and ages -- and lasted just long enough, but not too long.

Again, I was an only guest, so the host told me before he retired to his wing of the castle that we would have breakfast around 8 in the great room -- although we would be left to our own means, as the caretaker-cum-chef had the day off.

Sunday morning awoke bright and sunny -- I had parted to drapes before crashing -- and I was in a leisurely mood as my first appointment was hours away over lunch in St.-Emilion. The shower was in my room, but the toilet was outside and a few steps down the hallway. I scratched my head and other appropriate parts and headed in that direction.


Like a flock of giant birds with terrifying cries and crashing of wings, the burlar alarm sent waves of noise bouncing off stucco walls and parquet floors. Stunned, I retreated into my bedroom and started throwing on clothes in anticipation of the arrival of the French Foreign legion or at least Margaux gendarmes. Where was my host? Maybe he wasn't in the other wing after all, but was sleeping in his private retreat elsewhere on the estate.

And, just as suddenly, the clamor stopped.

Half-dressed, I inched back toward the door. My hand emerged waving like a refugee with a white flag. Nothing. Next my head. Still nothing. A whole body, somewhat cowering. Nothing at all. Of course, by now I really needed to go to the toilet.

A half-hour later, I was dressed and refreshed. Crisis over. It was only about 7:30, so I would go into the great room and try to decipher my notes from last evening while much-needed coffee was brewing. I strode confidently into the quiet hallway, paused to look out the windows at the budding trees, then set foot inside the room where we had sipped Champagne and munched finger food a few hours ago.


The birds were back, and this time they brought with them an instant fog that came gushing out from the walls! In seconds, the room was becoming obscured. Was I now being gassed as well? I fled the hall and went rushing down the giant stones steps to the first floor and the front door -- which was barred! I had noticed when I arrived the previous afternoon this gigantic piece of metal leaning inside the entryway, but now it was firmly slid into sturdy clasps on either side of the massive doors.

Feeling like Michael York in The Three Musketeers, I fought bravely to free the bar and myself. Would there now be stag hounds outside to rip me apart, or would I merely be epee-d and foiled? The barrier was finally flung free, and I escaped into the sun and ran across the gravel, the sound of the birds flying out the door in pursuit.

About this time, the door was flung open at the end of the wing, and my host sleepily emerged in his boxered state, "What's happening?" he croaked. I quickly told him about the attack of the birds, but his eyes quickly popped open when I got to the part about fog coming out of holes in the walls.

"Oh, my god!" he shouted and disappeared, the door left ajar.

Time passed.

Over breakfast, the windows of the great room now flung open to release the last vapors of the dark cloud, he explained what had happened. The chateau had once been burgled of collectables and a few paintings, even with an alarm. So he had gone into the extreme alarm mode, installing a nontoxic gas to "blind" any returning burglars. Staying in a separate wing, he would routinely shut off the alarms in the morning before venturing into the main part of the house. And last night, after cleaning up, the caretaker -- who didn't speak English and missed that part about one guest -- had routinely alarmed the house when he departed.

My bags fully packed, I left a few minutes later, forming in my mind as I drove down D2 toward the rocade a new rule for my Guide to Being a Chateau Guest in Bordeaux. Right after Rule 6 -- "Always bring a robe in case there are no curtains" -- and Rule 7 -- "Check to see if the ghosts in residence are good or evil" -- now comes Rule 8: "Always inquire about the intricacies of the security system," even if the owner might regard you with alarm as to why you are asking!

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Flashback: Balling with #42

Today's the best kind of national holiday -- I get to drink a great American sparkling wine, eat good food, watch Barack Obama be inaugurated as President on TV, and still have mail delivery. What I like most about Obama is his blend of intelligence, willingness to act, and ecumenticism in understanding the advantages in working with those of different viewpoints. It will be an interesting eight years.

I'm also reflecting today -- in these early morning hours -- on a similar day in 1993 when Ella and I awoke in Arlington, Virginia, across the river from the Capitol, in anticipation of the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. And another Bush was moving out of the White House that day. Although the pending arrival of Clinton and Gore bore nowhere near the enthusiasm and energy that the coming of Obama and Biden is generating, it was an exciting time.

Our plan for the day was simple -- catch the Metro into the city, watch the inaugural ceremony on TV from a corporate office near the White House, catch the end of the parade looking down from the sixth floor (I think) onto Pennsylvania Avenue, then refresh before an inaugural ball. I was working in public relations for DuPont's pharmaceutical business at the time, and I think my friend Scott and I were the only people who openly supported Clinton. Our bosses and colleagues were of a generation seduced, with some reason, by Reagan and were in death throes of fear and loathing at the spectre of the coming Hillary Healthcare Plan.

The DuPont legal offices were festive for the occasion, not because the lawyers were Clintonites, but because there were fresh faces across the street and at the Capitol to be lobbied and won over. So there was plenty of food. We arrived early, nibbled and chatted, and settled in to watch Bill get inaugurated. Bush 41 wasn't much of a communicator either ("the vision thing"), so everyone was waiting to hear what loqaucious Bill would say. It would be inspiring, we all agreed, but it would also be too long and windy. It was, and it was. We watched the parade on TV until it ended down below in the streets, when we all took to the large office-building windows. We thought we got a glimpse of Clinton, but weren't sure of that.

That night -- a cold one -- we made our way back into DC without much problem. Being in public relations, I worked with an agency that had worked with some music industry clients, so we were able to get two tickets to the hottest party in town, the MTV Ball being held at the convention center. We were appropriately tuxed and gowned when festivities got underway.

The music was good, especially Soul Asylum, who looked very dazed and crazed, though in a focused sort of way. Boyz 2 Men were OK. There were others. I had never seen a mosh pit before, but one quickly developed near where we were standing near the edge of the stage. Bodies came hurdling toward me, and I got some primal pleasure in hurling them back with a shoulder or a stiff arm. In a few minutes, the word started spreading through the crowd that the Clintons and the Gores were on there way, and that was soon confirmed from the stage.

About that time, a guy in his 30s, looking somber and severe in his suit, gave me a slight push as he worked his way through the crowd parallel to the stage . Of course, I gave him a shove back. He paused and gave me a withering look. I gave one back. "Don't you shove me," I shouted over the noise in my best attenpt to sound feral. He gave me one last look -- "I-wish-I-had-time-to-take-you-outside" type of glance -- then walked on, shoving and pushing.

I looked over at Ella, expecting admonishment, but instead found her chuckling. "Don't you know that was the Secret Service?" she laughed. "Didn't you see the wire coming out of his ear and the lapel pin?" True, in those pre-iPod days it was rare to see men with ear gear, but I hadn't really thought about it. But before I could reflect further with a mental instant replay, there were Bill and Hillary and Al and Tipper up onstage.

I can't remember a word they said.

The next morning, we were driving back up I-95 to Pennsylvania chatting about what a great time we had and what stories we could tell our cats, the late Fred and Cecil. Taking part in an inauguration was a great thing to do, we both concluded, but just once. Which is why neither of us -- excited as we are -- will be in Washington today, but will instead be watching on TV, drinking a vintage "J" sparkling wine from Sonoma, and fixing a pheasant stew.

Ella and I tend to be samplers -- try it once, see what it's like, move on. One Sundance festival. One Nascar race. One Orvis flyfishing weekend. One PGA championship with Tiger Woods.

In fact, if ever I had taken to Christianity and thus found myself in need of baptism, I would have opted for a few drops of water sprinkled across my head rather than being dunked into a creek the way things were done during my hill-boy childhood. Total immersion just never made it with me.

So here's looking at you Barack! I'll be watching you, I'm at your back, and I'll be there in spirit. But I already sort of know what it will feel like.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Beau Tour Down Sensory Lane

As I have spent most of my adult life buying inexpensive but well-balanced wines to cellar, I am always amused when another expert cautions that this or that red wine that has just been released must be consumed within the next five or 10 years or it will deteriorate quickly and go to live with the angels and baby Jesus.

Nevertheless, I do have some bottles that are getting a little long in the cork, so my wife Ella and I decided that every Monday evening when we are at home, we will have one of the oldest ordinary reds from down below, where they lurk under a thin veneer of dust. Plus, it's a good way to ensure that a good steak or appropriate cheeses are on the menu. (On Fridays when we aren't traveling or being entertained, we have an everyday Cava or other cheap sparkler to go along with homemade pizza and whatever happens to have come in from Netflix. A friend refers to the practice as Porn, Pizza, and Perignon.)

So we kicked off this new program last Monday with a 35-year-old bottle of 1973 Beaulieu Vineyard "Beau Tour" Cabernet Sauvignon, which I bought in 1975, to go along with a New York strip steak, medium rare, and some potatoes and a green salad on the side. The cork was tight, but slid out intact. I took a sip and decided all that was needed was a quick decant just before the last flip of the steak on the grill.

For those who aren't familiar with Beau Tour, for years it was what those of us who couldn't afford BV's Georges de Latour Private Reserve were forced to buy instead. These were the years when Latour was probably the best red wine made in America, always under the steady hand of Andre Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff's last year at BV as winemaker was 1973, so I have no idea whether he had any hand in the harvest or selection of the grapes that made the wine Ella and I were about to drink.

There was almost no sediment on decanting -- it was probably filtered -- and the color was excellent with only the lightest edge of a brown but no orange. The aromas were of mature fruit, but certainly bore no maderization. And it tasted marvelous -- well-rounded black cherry and dried cherry flavors with the enhanced minerality that older wines seem to gradually acquire.

While the Beau Tours of that era -- I think the brand has now been completely retired -- were certainly very good wines and very good values, they were not alone. I have finished off the last of the lovely Louis Martini cabs from 1968 and 1969 I had in my cellar, and those from Sebastiani from the same time have proved to be better than I gave the credit for back them.

While a well-balanced red wine may not be a joy forever, in most cases it can still give thrills for a good 20 or 30 years.

Until the next time.....

Roger Morris