Vive le Rapprochement!
Alice Feiring, for Forbes Magazine 11.24.03
We can't hate the French forever. Plan now for the day you'll drink their wine again.
Sooner or later the diplomatic rift between France and the U.S. will heal, and the two nations will be able to resume their traditional roles. The French will send us burgundy, and we will send them dopey comedies to pay for it. Americans who love French wine--but whose political scruples have restrained their palates--can act now to reserve a future treat, one they can enjoy guiltlessly once hostilities are over.
We refer to the Bouilland Symposium, a semiannual weeklong immersion in the glories and secrets of wine from Bourgogne. It costs $7,600 or so, depending on the exchange rate, and accepts just ten participants per session, many of them returnees who book at least six months in advance (firstname.lastname@example.org). The fee includes lodging, food, wine and tuition.
The setting: a 15th-century farmhouse in Bouilland, France, home to Becky Wasserman, American expat and naturalized wine trader. She migrated from the States to this tiny village 35 years ago, when the wine world was still so innocent that she and her friends could picnic in the now-sacrosanct La Tche vineyard. Wasserman got her start by selling oak barrels to the California wine industry. She later segued into exporting wine. Ten years ago she and her husband, Russell Hone, together with their friend Clive Coates, editor and publisher of the Vine (a monthly magazine published in England), began offering their wine course.
The spring symposium takes place in June, when the grapes are the size of baby peas. The fall course is in September, right before the harvest. The formula for each is simple: Live, walk, eat and drink burgundy for an entire week. The vineyards are pilgrimage worthy, and the winemakers who come to dinner at Becky and Russell's table each night include such regional stars as the Seysses family of Domaine Dujac, Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot, Anne Gros of Domaine Gros and Christophe Roumier of Domaine Roumier.
Attendees are a varied bunch. At past symposia they ranged from auctioneer and Napa Valley cabernetist Ann Colgin to an emergency room doctor from Texas. Spring 2003 had a semiretired burgundy fanatic from Hawaii, a couple from Costa Rica who own a coffee plantation, two young investment banker types (one from Chicago, one from Los Angeles) and Thomas J. Stewart, chairman of Services Group of America, a food distributor.
Near the end of the kick-off dinner Stewart, a newcomer, began to crow about the Screaming Eagle he had bought back home for $800 a bottle. No one was impressed. Burgundy lovers view California supercabs as overoaked and overpriced.
Roger Forbes (no relation), a third-time participant, broke the awkward silence. "Anyone with money," said he, "can buy a Napa cabernet or Bordeaux. Burgundy is about being clever." Not quite true. To score the rare bottle, money obviously helps. But to get bottles from a winemaker who produces just 30 cases a year--from Richebourg, say--one must have connections. "So … who do you buy your wine from?" Stewart asked innocently. Forbes swirled his glass, smiled and said nothing.
If you think you could arrange your own high-caliber burgundy orgy, forget it. Franois Faiveley is not going to pop the cork for just anybody on that rare 1923 Corton (it faded after 20 minutes, but, oh my, with dried sweet rose petals--on the nose and in the mouth--delicate as a wisp, it was thrilling). And you wouldn't get to taste the 1949 Le Musigny from the obscure ngociant Camille Giroud, or the 1990 Richebourg from Domaine Gros.
Nor, on your own, would you realize that whites from Domaine Ramonet are probably overpriced ($125 a bottle for 1996 Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru Boutdriotte), or that you'd be better off buying something like an Hubert Lamy St. Aubin Premier Cru at about $85 less--assuming you have the backbone to drink something with an unflashy appellation.
Local gossip isn't bad, either. You'll find it's highly fashionable in this part of the world to dismiss the advice offered by both the Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr. Do understand that Wasserman's business is to represent tiny estates in the export market, and that some of these are not rated by Parker. Still, she makes the legitimate point that in 1995 Parker mostly panned the 1993 burgundy vintage, which today is drinking just beautifully, thank you. Critics who rate higher with locals include Coates and Allen Meadows, a former southern California banker who now writes exclusively about burgundy at burghound.com.
The daily routine of the symposium is both simple and luxurious: After breakfast at the hotel, a few steps up the road from Becky's, it's into the van for the morning vineyard romp. One day it was off to the intense Jacques-Frdric Mugnier's pink-petunia-strewn Le Musigny. Back at his domain, he offers a few wines from 2000: Chambolle-Musigny, Les Fues, Les Amoureuses, Bonnes Mares and Le Musigny. The latter is a knockout, its sweet, rosy aroma tempered by a touch of caramel and rosemary.
After a lunch of plump coq au vin, it's nap time. Five o'clock brings Clive's nightly tutored tasting, followed by a Russell-prepared multicourse supper--stuffed veal, perhaps, or duck confit. The guest winemaker of the evening arrives, bearing bottles. By the time Romain Lignier of Morey St. Denis had poured us a 1989 Clos de la Roche, all of us had become fondest friends. Great burgundy can be a great unifier.
Proof? Tom Stewart and Roger Forbes. After Stewart's blooper about Screaming Eagle, he had asked intelligent questions and taken notes. By week's end he could tell an old burgundy from a young one and had drafted a list of wines he wanted. Forbes, won over, directed him to a California buyer. If burgundy could bridge the gap between these two, there's hope for French-American relations.