Are You a Wine Fascist? (October 18, 2005)
Recently a wine writer colleague (who will remain nameless to preserve his marriage) offered the following confession: "When my in-laws come over for dinner, I open my best red wines... Because they only drink white."
I nodded in that way one does when you are spontaneously horrified by such candour while at the same time realising that you are guilty of the same kind of oenological fascism. Own up. When was the last time you wondered if your guests were worthy of the wine? Was it at your daughter's wedding?
Richard Nixon may or may not have been a crook, but he was one of my brethren when it comes to cellar control. Nixon, apparently, had a passion for red Bordeaux, particularly Château Margaux. In All The President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein's book about the Watergate cover-up, the Washington Post reporters refer to Nixon's practice of serving wine aboard the Presidential yacht, the USS Sequoia. When he was entertaining senators from the South he instructed his wait staff in how the wine was to be served. Since the senators' predilection was for Bourbon, which they drank liberally before dinner, Nixon had the servers pour Mouton Cadet during the meal, since the senators' palates were already anesthetised by Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Juleps. He had a bottle of Margaux 1966 wrapped in a towel served only to him. Bravo, say I.
There is nothing more torturous for a wine nut than to see great wine being guzzled by those who a) don't know what they're drinking and b) would rather have something else if they were offered the choice.
I recall visiting Moët & Chandon in 1976 and hearing this story from the Comtesse de Maigret, whose late husband unexpectedly found himself hosting Nikita Khrushchev and his entourage. In 1960 the Russian leader was on a state visit to France and, while he was busy with affairs of state, his wife and other ladies of the party were taken on a tour of Paris. Part of the itinerary was a visit to the film set of Can Can. Mrs. Khrushchev was so offended by the sight of chorus girls kicking up their legs and showing their bloomers that she had to be escorted out of the film studio. To avoid a diplomatic incident a visit to Moët & Chandon was hastily arranged and the Comte de Maigret's graceful salon, L'Orangerie de Trianon, was descended upon by one hundred Russians. Champenois hospitality is legendary and the Comte ordered his cellar master to disgorge sufficient quantities of champagne from the Russian leader's birth year (1894) to slack the thirst of the KGB agents. And he watched sadly as they knocked back the rare old vintage champagne as if it were vodka.
Secret agents aren't the only culprits. There are so many stories of kids who get into their parents' wine cellars and carry off bottles of First Growth Bordeaux and Domaine-bottled Burgundies to frat parties that they have become urban legends. To avoid that problem the canny collector will set aside one shelf in the cellar that is available to anyone in the household of drinking age. I have such a shelf for my wife Deborah. She knows the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy but she belongs to a ladies' book club whose members have as prodigious an appetite for wine as they do for the modern novel. The trick, I find, is to keep her shelf well stocked with an eclectic assortment of high alcohol wines.
Another aspect of the oenological fascism syndrome is the "Conjuror Host." He can make a bottle disappear before your very eyes. Let me explain how he does this particular illusion: you're invited to a dinner party and you would like to bring along a bottle of wine that you have been saving but have never quite found the right occasion to open. You know that your host himself has a good cellar so he and his guests will appreciate the wine you are offering them. When you hand the bottle to him, he looks at the label; his eyes widen and he smiles. He thanks you profusely and immediately disappears with it down to his cellar as if the ambient temperature in his hallway might affect its health. And that is the last you will ever see of it.
There is only one way to deal with such a scoundrel. Decant the wine at home and carry it carefully to your destination. Tell your host that the wine needed at least two hours' breathing to open up so that everyone could enjoy it. If he frowns, tell him that the last time you brought a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild to a dinner party it turned out to be corked and you didn't want to suffer that embarrassment again.
You're smiling. Welcome to the club.