My Wine Epiphany

1974 Chateau Beychevelle Grand Cru Classe Saint-Julien

 


Fourth Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Classe en 1855, from Saint-Julien: Chateau Beychevelle, 1974. Bought 1981.

When the spirit descended on the group and they spoke in tongues. A powerful wine can help mere mortals approximate this experience without explicit divine intervention. In my case, the Epiphany involved spring, the last year of law school, the editor of the law review, G. Gordon Liddy, the dean of the law school, and a steak.
 
In 1981, a third-year law student, I discovered the miracle of red Bordeaux. I had determined to explore French red wines systematically, although I had literally no inkling of their character. I chose Bordeaux because the name sounded classic, elegant and austere. Such wines must be aristocratic and superb, or to borrow from the Greeks, kalos k’agathos (“beautiful and excellent,” though they used the term to refer to people, not wines). I also chose Beaujolais, because its name had such a voluptuous swing to it. One could imagine the rounded lips of a French woman as she pronounced it: “Beaujolais, Beaujolais…” The word itself imported seduction. Surely the wine itself must live up to the sensuous promise of its name.
 
A local wine shop in a dark garret above the street had come into possession of two cases of splits (half bottles) of a Fourth Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Classe en 1855, from Saint-Julien: Chateau Beychevelle, 1974. The proprietor said it was not a distinguished vintage but this chateau, in his words, “never has a bad year.”  He blinked over his glasses and smiled under a somewhat crooked mustache, reminiscent of the late George Fishbeck, the well-loved science teacher on what was once National Educational Television. He was like so many other owners of book and wine shops I have met over the years. They can hardly bear to part with any of their inventory. They want to hang onto it, like parents who wish their children would never leave home, and cherish it all, enjoy it, commune with it, live with it, myriad and aging, forever. I paid him the $5 it cost. The very bottle was charming, with its dark reddish lead foil cap and the beguiling picture on the label of a ship with sail half-lowered, a griffon’s head for a prow. The griffon, in Greek mythology, was the guardian of Dionysus’ wine goblet. Legend also has it that “Beychevelle” comes from “Baisse voile,” meaning to lower the sails – a practice required of passing ships to show respect for the Dukes of Epernon, owners of the property along the Garonne estuary once known as the “Versailles of the Medoc.” With such lore, and such allure, it seemed almost gratuitous to actually pull the lengthy cork, air the bottle, pour the dark and exotically perfumy contents into a glass, and ultimately taste the wine.
But taste it I did, as impetuously as anyone in his twenties would. Three of us bachelors converged on a backyard barbecue late one afternoon in March, wearing coats and hats against the early spring chill. We grilled our steaks and sat down to eat in the fading daylight. Dinner for us students meant meat and alcohol. A tomato was a luxury. Our utensils consisted of sharp knives, which could pick up a steak or if need, be carve it. The small bottle of Bordeaux stood on the table near a cheap wineglass, its lengthy cork an object of wonder to my friends. I swirled and sniffed, then inhaled, breathing deeply from the prize of a distant land. Nothing compares with the perfume of a red Bordeaux. The wine was almost tawny; it aged faster in the smaller bottle. And it seemed almost delicate, as great Bordeaux can, yet its finesse only belied the sure power and grace that emerged from the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot planted at the estate, thousands of miles away. And what flavors! What dimensions! Cool and welcoming, the wine combined classic cassis, tobacco, spice and terroir, with new depths opening up and new swirling combinations of flavors and sensations revolving in a dynamic structure, a warming dance through mouth and palate. And after that first glass - mirabile dictu! – there was yet more of the dark claret, its meniscus glinting in the waning spring sun. I ultimately tried it with bleu cheese, with fruit, with venison. Deceptively light, almost like the dance of a fairy from a midsummer night’s dream, it nevertheless complemented, stood up to, and dealt graciously with both the strongest and the subtlest flavors. Bordeaux, like an aristocrat, was resplendent, free of condescension, noble, balanced, refined.

That evening we had decided to hear G. Gordon Liddy at the student union. I am not sure why except that far away in the Northwest, it was a rarity to see anyone famous, let alone infamous. I was sitting in my own private contentment, meditating on the beautiful woman who had been named editor of the law review, the thought of her voice and her smile mingling agreeably with the memories and lingering taste of the Beychevelle. Liddy ranted on about how almost any crime could somehow be justified, about the value of education, and how he would have to rob gas stations to pay for his children’s schooling. He referred to Judge Sirica, a lifelong Republican who had sentenced Liddy to prison, as a man with a room-temperature IQ. At length he gave way to questions, none of which was very confrontational. Finally, I asked him why if education was so important he could support the decision of then President Ronald Reagan to cut federal funds for student loans in order to pay for a tank. Liddy suggested we students should work harder – evidently forgetting that he had just suggested he would have to rob gas stations to pay for the educations of his own children. I was granted another question. The wine had lifted my spirits. “Was it Judge Sirica’s room-temperature IQ,” I asked, “that prompted him to vote twice for Richard Nixon as President of the United States?” Liddy’s answer was drowned in laughter from students.  No one else had given the ex-convict any static till then.

I returned home feeling warm and contented inside despite having been exposed to the diatribe of the Watergate defendant. Next day in his class on Commercial Paper, the dean surprised me as he opened the class by asking what I thought of G. Gordon Liddy. I answered, “Well, Dean, if you were there last night, I imagine you have a pretty good idea of how I feel about him.” He grinned and nodded, then turned to the day’s lesson.
 
As spring wore on to become summer, I depleted the local inventory of Chateau Beychevelle with the assistance of some beautiful young women, read poetry in the sunset and the shadows across the hilly farmlands nearby, and passed the bar. Among all the wines I have tasted, it is still my sentimental favorite. The lowered sail and griffon’s head have accompanied me on a voyage that has lasted 30 years this spring.  And while I have enjoyed Grand Cru Burgundies, Priorats, Montrachets and Meursaults, great Champagnes and Sauternes, first and second growths from the Haut Medoc – and many fine Beaujolais -  no wine has ever worked such subtle enchantment with me as that first small bottle from Saint-Julien.

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