Wild Card (When Worlds Collide)

Last Spring, at a fundraiser for a professional Institute with which she’s affiliated, my wife made the high bid on an unusual auction item: a poker party for up to eight people, hosted by a couple of her colleagues, which included an informal dinner of home-made pizzas and salad, dessert and beverages. The hosts wanted to be sure we’d be completely happy about every detail of the party, and they were a bit worried about providing wine that would satisfy a winemaker, so I offered to bring some wine, really not wanting anyone to give it a second thought, (One of the hosts showed up with a six pack of my favorite beer, from which I gladly partook.) and I did bring a couple of bottles of our Gamay, thinking it would be a good choice for the pizza. We arrived at 7:30 on a Saturday night, with two additional guests: grandson Noah, age 9, and granddaughter Olivia, age 7. We were going to sign up with online poker websites where you can play poker in between your friends. You are able to play online poker for real money or free in between your friend but we opted to play offline as most of us did not had phone.

After the exchange of hugs and fond hellos, one of the hosts ushered the grandkids to the poker table for an impromptu lesson. I started toward the kitchen, to greet Jeffrey, (who was Pizza Man this night) but was brought up short by the sight of a wine bottle with a familiar label, lying on its side on the poker table. I stepped closer to have a look.

It’s not hard, once you’ve seen it, to recognize the label on Pichon-Baron; a pair of gryphons on either side of a coat of arms featuring a lion, (and, it would appear, a lamb, as well) and beneath the coat of arms, the words “au Baron du Pichon-Longueville” arranged in the shape of a U, all in a coppery sort of ink that has always grabbed my attention.. Surprising enough to find such a wine at a poker and pizza party, but even more astonishing, as I discovered when I was close enough to make it out, the vintage was 1966! I felt my heart leap, and without thinking about it I snatched up the bottle, and rushed into the kitchen to express my excitement to Jeffrey.

He seemed pleased that I knew the wine, and found it of interest, and said he’d had it for a long time, mentioning something about having hitchhiked through France after college, (sometime in the early ’60s), and having worked in the fields there, in Bordeaux. I was puzzled that he’d had the bottle such a long time, and never seemed to have found an occasion to open it. But he seemed to feel that my being there for this evenings’ festivities was occasion enough, and, again, I was taken aback, this time by his unaffectedness and simple generosity.

Enough wine had evaporated from the bottle over 36 or 37 years, that the wine only reached up to within perhaps a quarter-inch of the neck. I asked how it had been stored, and from what he told me, Jeffrey didn’t seem to have paid much attention to that. I think my questions had begun to arouse some curiosity in him, though, for when I finally said; “Maybe I should pull the cork and we can find out how it’s doing,” he enthusiastically concurred.

The years had taken their toll on the cork, and it took three very deliberate attempts to extricate it. But even before I’d gotten the last piece of it free, I’d gotten a whiff from within the bottle, and felt some part of me becoming light as air. I got really excited, and declared that we needed all the adults to have wine glasses immediately. In a minute the glasses were before me, and I poured a couple of ounces of the wine into each of them.

I remember one of my favorite stories, from my earliest days in this business, told by the esteemed British wine writer Hugh Johnson. It seems he was dining somewhere near St. Estephe, in Bordeaux, at a modest restaurant frequented by truck-drivers. He’d driven there straight from a visit at Chateau Montrose, where he’d bought a number of bottles of a vintage that had pleased him, and had taken one of the bottles into the restaurant to accompany his meal. At the table, with the food, he found the wine so profoundly pleasurable, that he hurried back out to his car to retrieve a couple more bottles to share with the truck drivers. When he poured it for them, they thanked him politely, and he was certain they thought he’d lost his marbles, but he remarked that one of them, on bringing his glass to his lips, suddenly became motionless as the bouquet registered in his nose, and his expression became that of someone who recognized he’d suddenly found himself face-to-face with the Divine.

I didn’t expect quite such a revelation on this evening, but I felt I was experiencing the same kind of excitement that had animated Mr. Johnson so many years back. In this state of mind, I realized afterward, my exhortation to my companions to taste this wine was, in a very real sense to me, an invitation to leave one world, and visit a different one, and that the transition between worlds is perhaps the diciest passage in the realm of human experience. I did have the sense that all present found the wine lovely and most unlike any wine they’d had before. I made some comments about how the wine smelled and tasted to me, trying to offer openings that might invite verbalizing beyond “This tastes good,” and at some point, I made reference to Pichon Baron being one of the great classified growths of Bordeaux, not remembering, at that instant, that the name “Bordeaux” might not mean much to my poker-buddies. Sure enough, Jeffrey asked; “Is this like a Burgundy?”

On the night, long ago, when I had discovered the way that wine could commandeer my imagination, I had asked that same question four or five times. I had no idea what I meant, but there was all this wine in supermarkets and liquor stores, that called itself Burgundy, and it was all the information I had with which to try to make sense of what I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to have had a good friend who was willing to listen to the question as many times as I asked it, and to provide me with the correct information over and over again, until I could keep it straight. I was impressed; Jeffrey only asked once. (It should perhaps be noted that I asked the question at age 25; Jeffrey, at 63, has surely learned the wisdom of discretion.)

About the time I poured the wine the pizzas were ready, so we took our food and our beverages (besides the Pichon Baron, there was gin and tonic in a couple of glasses, there were a couple of bottles of Pilsener Urquell, one of which I’d emptied, there was water, and there was 7UP.) into the dining room, and sat down to enjoy the comestibles. The wine, like a lot of wines that have been sequestered inside a bottle for a few decades, took a while to become accustomed to breathing so much fresh air; after a few minutes in glass, it seemed to become decidedly un-forthcoming, and I switched to the Gamay, thinking: it’s a lot to ask a 39-year-old beauty to strut the stage in a room full of card-sharks.

Before long the cards came out, and wine was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Seems like everyone won his and her share of hands over the next couple of hours, trying our luck at 5 card draw, 7 card stud, Flip It, Texas Hold’Em, Blackjack, and two or three other versions of Lady Luck’s 52-face tomfoolery. There were moments when the biggest piles of chips sat in front of the smallest gamblers in the joint, and a good time was had by all.

Then, it was time to get Noah and Olivia back home, and as we prepared to depart, Jeffrey insisted I should take the remains of the Pichon Baron home, too, that they’d never finish it. I was unable to persuade him otherwise, so I brought it along, assuming that it had probably, at its advanced age, given us what it had to offer, and then unceremoniously faded off into oblivion.

Once we’d returned home, I felt compelled to think about the evening’s events, particularly the appearance of this remarkable wine against the unlikely backdrop of a poker party that spanned three generations. I wanted to make a few notes, for my mind was racing in numerous directions. Then it occurred to me to taste the wine again. I was glad it did; it had really begun to open up, and seemed to have much more of interest to offer. The aromas had become more articulated, the texture had gained depth. The wine still seemed to have a good deal of life in it. It was probably a bit past wherever its peak had been, but would likely remain a lovely wine for a number of years hence. It was during this second tasting of the evening that I remembered clearly the first occasion when I’d encountered the ’66 Pichon-Baron.

The setting had been nowhere near as much fun, though, in a narrow sense, it was more “appropriate.” I’d been invited, in late 1974, I believe, to a tasting at the Vintners’ Club in San Francisco, a group that consisted, primarily, of business professionals who’d developed a more or less serious interest in wine. At this particular event the tasting line-up consisted of the red wines that were ranked as “Second-Growths,” from the 1966 vintage. (The rankings, from a classification, undertaken in 1855, of the wines from Bordeaux’s Medoc region, reflected the average price each property’s wine had commanded over the previous hundred years.) Since there were five of these “Growth” tiers, Second was considered quite good. There were a select few of the second growths that were especially highly thought of at the time, and Pichon Baron was way up there. The chance to compare them all at once seemed like the “chance-of-a-lifetime,” ( a different kind of gambling) and there would be the added attraction of a commentary on the wines from none other than Harry Waugh. Mr. Waugh was almost universally revered, at the time, as one of the wise men of the wine trade; my sense, from his reputation, was almost that he had a kind of holy dispensation to pronounce the Truth about wine.

The wines were mostly very enjoyable to taste; at a still-vigorous eight years of age, they were lively enough for my 27 year old frame of mind, and seemed to promise great years ahead. I’d participated, too, that afternoon, in the fairly common exercise among wine fanatics, of trying to identify the wines before the bottles had been removed from the plain brown bags in which they’d been concealed. I think I correctly pegged two or three of them. Then Mr. Waugh stood up.

Everyone clapped enthusiastically when he was introduced, and we eagerly awaited his words. But he didn’t have much to say; and then only something very much like: “Wine 1: good nose, good taste. Wine 2: Nice nose, good flavor. Wine 3:…” and so on. I couldn’t quite believe my ears. I, and I’m sure many of my peers in the room had been expecting him to talk, with some authority, about the ’66 vintage at these properties, and the way that it compared with other vintages, and to speak of the way the wines seemed to be showing on this glorious afternoon, how well, or not well they had developed, and where they were heading. To draw on the enormous body of his experience tasting wines from these same properties for several decades, and making good use of the perspective that so many years experience can provide. But he offered none of it, and so I sat there, desperate to fathom why this gentleman had even bothered to travel such a long distance to appear to have so little to offer us, who were so hungry for the expertise he could surely have shared.

With something that can provoke such an intense, profound, and personal reaction in the human nervous system as wine does, it feels like a good idea, to me, to find a way to talk to one another about our experiences of wine, so that we’re not stuck with just saying “gee, this is nice,” when the experience has been so much more than that. On the other hand, what can you say about wine that matters, that anyone can really understand? How do you explain to anyone, including yourself, what happens inside you when you smell ’66 Pichon Baron? (Or how about ’90 Raveneau Chablis? Or ’90 Giacomo Bologna Bricco dell Uccelone? ’95 Clos des Papes? ’04 Clos de La Roilette Fleurie? ’02 Littorai Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir? ’78 Chave Hermitage Blanc?) And how come someone else smells it and it doesn’t seem to matter so much? And when you taste a wine, and recognize what you believe to be the inherent qualities that will please anyone who tries it, does that mean you’re right?

In the midst of these thoughts, I found myself remembering, this same evening, a story I’d heard a week or so before, regarding the removal of a wine I made from the list of a prominent local restaurant. The fellow who is the buyer for this restaurant is very smart, has a terrific tasting ability, and is known for being very astute and very discriminating about the wines he selects for inclusion on his list. I had tasted the wine in question with him this past Spring, and he’d responded quite favorably, and bought some on the spot. Moreover, the wine became quite a hit at the restaurant, and sold steadily for several months.

As it happens, this restaurant is a hot destination for visitors to the Bay area; it’s world-famous as a cutting-edge place. And the wine list, too, is cutting-edge; it includes innumerable selections that, with the exception for people who either work in the wine business, or for whom wine is a compelling and serious pursuit, will not be wines that most people will recognize. One of the strengths of this restaurant is the ability of the staff to follow the wine-buyers’ lead, and hand-sell those selections to the restaurants’ customers.

Apparently, according to the story I was told, the staff realized, after a time, that the wines they were used to selling were being passed over, again and again, in favor of my wine, because the name of the grape variety from which my wine is made is one that is familiar to nearly anyone who’s ever bought a bottle of wine in a restaurant, and the staff was becoming utterly frustrated. So: it didn’t matter that the wine was good enough to convince the buyer, or that it was, apparently, a steady source of pleasure for the customers. (I can’t help thinking of Yogi Berras’ admonition: Nobody goes there anymore–it’s too crowded.)

I can’t complain; I sold a lot of the wine there. But it sure made me stop and scratch my head. I guess it just wasn’t in the cards…

Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John Winery is a regular contributor to Vinography.