By Seamus Muldoon, Himself
 Copyright © 1997-2010
All Rights Reserved


In vino veritas never interested me in the slightest. I always knew what it meant, but it didn’t apply to me, because I was stupid enough to say whatever I felt like saying without first having to get drunk. To be sure, I never learnt to play the frat boy pretend to go along with the flow gambit that gets people into fraternities and enables them to subscribe to absurd company mission statements as though they weren’t really all bullshit.

In another dimension, however, I had the great good fortune to learn about wine without having to take courses in it. I have enjoyed so much of it for so many years, and have such a wonderful palatal recollection, that at this advanced age I unabashedly consider myself to be an expert in vetting vino.

Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” contains the suggestion that the past cannot be recalled, no matter how acute one’s intellect may be. Thomas Wolfe echoed the sentiment in his “You Can’t Go Home Again”. What was can never be revisited because we cannot go back to who we were when we were there before. The intervention of experience changes us.

And yet, current experiences conjure up recollections, however indistinct. Proust’s taste of a Madeleine, like my sip of wine, brings back sweet recollections of places, events, music, people, sentiments that we cherish, even in some impressionistic mind’s eye picture. Last week I stumbled upon a few bottles of the Greek white wine Robola. I first enjoyed this wine in Charleston South Carolina in a small Greek restaurant next to what used to be the Riviera Theater on King Street. Belinda and I enjoyed this wine together during a really delicious Greek lunch of souvlaki and salad with fresh baked pita on a sunny day in a beautiful city where I spent part of my youth. This bottle brought back that memory of a day almost twenty years ago.

There are many other bottles that would bring back many more memories, but that I really don’t think I will buy. There is a limit to what I am willing to spend on a bottle of wine. While I sometimes exceed that limit when I am entertaining clients, I usually don’t do that for personal consumption.

In the early 1960s, when I was in law school, wine was unbelievably inexpensive. As a law student living like Rodion Raskolnikov I could still occasionally afford the occasional Chateau Margeaux at about $ 10 a bottle. Even as late as 1974 wine was very accessible. A case of Mouton Rothschild in Detroit then could be had from the Red Wagon wine store for about $ 250.

The so called Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 caused disruption in currency markets all over the world. People went nuts. Time magazine posted a picture of a wine bottle on one of its covers relating to a story that people had begun buying fine wine to hedge currency fluctuations. Wine became more than something to drink, and even more than something wine snobs “laid down” for future consumption. By 1975, what I had been able to enjoy at $ 250 a case went to $ 800 a case. The normal demand for wine as something to enjoy exponentialised by the demand for wine as a currency hedge, considering that no more wine was produced, drove the price through the roof. It has not come back down.

The effect was both terrible and beneficent for me. It was terrible because I used to enjoy really good European wine. It was good because it incentivized the improvement of California wines to the point at which they soon became more enjoyable just for their sheer luscious qualities. I remember a bleak winter spent driving from city to city in the Midwest, up to my ass in snow, taking depositions and attending preliminary injunction hearings in several courts in a franchise case in which the franchisor decided to work me to death to break my resources and make it impossible to represent my franchisee clients. The franchisor failed in that effort. But I kept a case of Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet in the back seat that I enjoyed as I drove along with my Quarter Pounder with cheese and large fries. To this day I find it hard to eat a good hamburger without a bottle of that wine. The price of Mondavi Reserve Cabernet today helps me control my cholesterol by not eating too many hamburgers. Also, if they catch you enjoying a bottle of good wine while driving today it is as bad for you as it might be if they caught you on your cell phone.

Similar happy days memories of almost twenty years ago associated with a case of good wine on the back seat include almost a week enjoying Oregon with Belinda and a case of Yamhill Reserve Pinot Noir in the back seat as we drove along. We had only recently begun our great love affair that continues to this day. We used to buy that wine directly from the vintner and have it shipped in – but not anymore due to the fact that really good Oregon pinot noir sells today for around $ 70 a bottle.

Italian wines are now priced far above fair value. Not so hot Italian wines are now masquerading as fine wines, promoted by glamorous marketing and passing for the earmarks of sophistication for wine rubes. Robert Mondavi has teamed up with Frescobaldi to produce some delicious super Tuscans, Luce and Lucente, but they are now priced beyond what would be considered a daily wine event for normal folks. In Spain, Jorge Ordonez has taught the vintners how to overprice in comparison to quality. A good Rioja today from Baron de Ley, their Finca Monestario bottling, is now about $ 700 a case. At $ 300 a case for the lesser Riojas you are being scammed. You can buy wonderful Chilean wines for about $ 170 a case if you know what you are doing and shop carefully. Chile is the bargain of the planet right now, but Concha y Toro has discovered that people will pay $ 700 a case for their Don Melchor bottling. It is delicious, but at $ 700 a case it is not something regularly enjoyed.

One could posit that overpricing is good for wine aficionados because if you drink the best every day, then the best becomes ordinary. I must admit that these really top shelf bottlings are extremely delightful on the celebratory occasions when I enjoy a bottle or two with a friend. The days when I kept five cases of Mouton Rothschild and much more of Clos Saint Denis (Domaine DuJac) on hand in the wine area of home are long gone.

I enjoyed Mouton Rothschild instead of Lafitte Rothschild in those days due to price differences without noticeable taste difference. The vineyards lay across a narrow path from each other and belonged to the same vintner. But Mouton was a second growth Paulliac while Lafitte was a first growth. The 1895 Bordeaux classification was that significant. In 1973, Mouton was made a first growth wine. The Rothschilds had the label done by the French artist Marc Chagall, and on it was the statement, “Second je fut. Premier je suis. Mouton ne change.”

There is an old joke about the wine snob who brags that he can tell by tasting which wine, which vintner, which vintage, which vineyard, which field in the vineyard, which day of the week the grapes were picked, which end of the field the pickers started on, and whether the picker was right handed or left. He was handed a glass of piss and took a sip, pronouncing it to be piss. “Yes. But whose? He was asked.

Wine is much like art. It is exactly like art in so many respects that it is certainly liquid art, and, at its best, liquid music. But what causes wine to be at its best is a composite of many dimensions. Some of these are serious and some are hilariously funny.

I had a wonderful Belgian friend who was the president/managing director of a European client of mine who, when not focused with all his might on very serious matters, could find his sense of humor and allow me to really enjoy it. I miss Cecil DeWagter a lot and much of this retrospective is dedicated to my memory of the dear man. One of his sons had the luxury to be able to become a world expert on a subject of absolutely no relevance to anything. How nice it was of Cecil to be proud of his son’s expertise, even if there might have been only one institution of higher learning in the world that had the subject anywhere in its curriculum. If you study at Carcassonne, you can fall in love with the poetry of Andre Chenier and the music of Umberto Giordano.

Et puis d’un ton charmant ta letter me demande
Ce que je veux de toi, ce te je te commande,
Ce que je veux? Dis-tu. Je veux que ton retour
Te paraisse bien lent; je veux que nuit et jour
Tu m’aimes. (Nuit et jour. Helas! Je me tourmente.)
Presente au milieu d’eux, sios seule,sois absente;
Dors en pensant a moi; reve-moi pres de toi;
Ne vois que moi sans cesse, et sois toute avec moi.

Cecil loved to hold court on the subject of European wine. He was wealthy enough to have enjoyed the best and frugal enough to be conversant about the vins ordinaires of all of Europe. Cecil explained that every bourgeois cuvee had two gradations – villages and superieur. What most of us had heard of as the grade of wine just below vin ordinaire was simply called plonk. But few of us ever considered that there might be a plonk villages and a plonk superieur.

Below plonk there is pighette – slang for piss. Accordingly there is pighette villages and pighette superieur. Finally, the bottom of the ladder, that lowermost rung beneath which nothing exists, with its two gradations, is called tordre boyeaux (twists your bowels). If you have not tried it, you are no connoisseur. One cannot go outside of an envelope if he does not know the dimensions of the envelope to begin with.

Wine, like fine art, involves a lot of bullshit. The bullshit is hysterical and I have already written about it here. . The difference between connoisseurship and pretense to connoisseurship is galactic. But people buy the trappings and pretend. The pretense is so absurd that it is funny. A section of that story deals with wine bullshit. So many people never realize that just looking for very enjoyable wine on your own – once you know the ranges of taste that you enjoy and can afford– is so much fun.


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