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Monday, 22 March 2010

Fly on the Wall

Wined-up and Logged in

By Don Merlot
Junto Staff Writer Bio
The other day I had this sudden urge to read my first wine logs. The thought just came out of nowhere; I was talking to an old friend, and I opened an early log.  It was a very pleasant experience going back to the epiphany, my conversion to the liquid labour of St. Denis, the Saint of French wine.

 It was also a trip that took me back to 1970. I diligently recorded my first tasting of wine and included my first trip to Paris. Back then I worked for Whirlpool Corporation and we introduced new processes of making ice.  My trip was with two colleagues, old-hands at European travel, Curt and Martin; francophiles who were going to show me Paris. On my mind was the old Eddie Cantor song: " You cannot keep them down on the farm once you show them gay Paree…."

Incidentally, I hadn't looked at these notes in 30 years.

When I started my career, my boss Ralph Carreno, another oenophile at the time, had told me to start a log of the wines I drank back in 1969. It started with one note book that eventually grew to four note books. I kept notes and  labels, and documented the date I tasted. I broke my entries down into what I knew then: Burgundy France, Bordeaux France, whites from around the world and reds from around the world. Ralph gave mesome  wine books, and I read any books on wine from the public library in St. Joseph, Michigan, the town in western Michigan where my company was headquartered.

Today my system has evolved to wine templates, and I track them as a daily journal.

Ralph, my first corporate mentor, had an early teaching theory that started with wine. He would tell me, 'Alonzito, if I sent you to France for two weeks, you could come back and write a book; if I sent you for two months to France you would come back and complete 10 pages; and if I sent you over there for two years, you would come back confused.'

My first Atlantic crossing was to France for 10 days. I quickly learned that US businesses watch the money you spend  -- their money -- very carefully. My colleagues had instructions on what to eat and drink and not to excess. Each member of our party already decided what wines and food were the best so I just sat there and enjoyed myself. As I looked at the wines we savored and the food we consumed, recorded in my logs,  I chuckled. In today's business world of 2010 we could never pass these on our current expense account system.

We had a Sancerre with Coquille St. Jacques and a soufflé au grand marnière at the Méditerranée Restaurant in behind the L' Opéra.  Believe it or not, that meal cost us under 100FF, service compris. (The exchange was 4FF to one USD).

When I looked at my notes, what startled me was my description of the Sancerre. It was a Loire Valley wine made from the Sauvignon Blanc. Martin loved it, and in those days it was  'tout Paris!' My record indicated that it was love at first sight, er, sip. Sancerre has always been my favourite white wine.

I wrote: "This is my favourite white wine – Sancerre Clos de la Poussie – 1969."  (So far on this trip).

"I had tasted several Pouilly Fumé already that were rated ahead, but to me I found this wine intriguing and a good memory of Paris."

That night I began my 'affaire' with Sauvignon Blanc. My wife didn't need to know..

My red wine experience was similar. We had the steak au poivre avec pommes frites and a Beaujolais Grand Cru -– St. Amour in a resto called Bouquets on the Champs Elysée near our hotel and the Metro stop. Gamay is the great varietals of Beaujolais. It was here that I learned from my mates that in Paris cafes one drinks the table wines of Paris and not the great Bordeaux and or Burgundies that should be reserved for the right occasion. Popular was the "pichets" of red or white.

Beaujolais in 1970 was the preferred wine of the Parisian bistro and restaurateurs. It was not a fad, but a trend to have the Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages, and, on special days, the Cru Beaujolais.

Ralph always emphasized looking for differences and not the similarities. I left Paris liking Sancerre and not the Pouilly Fumé, which is still higher rated. Yet, to my taste -- mon goût -- I prefer Sancerre and 40 years later I still like it. As far as red wine is concerned, Beaujolais was perfect for the expense account. It was not yet discovered outside of France.

So when discovering what one likes in wine, you have to learn to trust your taste and not someone else's. Over the years, I have had several great marriages of Sancerre and seafood. And I could have written a book after my first visit, but before I did I went back a second, and third, and fourth time to Paris.

I also learned later that when you have those lovely white filets of Dover Sole and Loup with cream sauce you go with Chardonnay, which is much more delicate and blends well. And the Burgundian red counter part Pinot Noir goes with a roasted beef or lamb – -and  the wine with more tannin to blend in with the fat is the Syrah's and the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Paris, of course, has changed since my first visit., But, as the saying goes, everything changes, and nothing changes. As in the Old World and in the New World, there is very good Sauvignon Blanc coming from New Zealand, Chile and Washington state. Fresh, crisp, lemony, matched with seafood. Voila, a marriage made in heaven.

On the red side, Gamay never made it in the New World as the more inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have become popular. Australia has sophisticated Shiraz's and blends. Gamay has a thin skin and does not have the tannin of Merlot or Pinot Noir to age.

So now I look back and know why I like Sancerre. A tale I had forgotten. I like Beaujolais and respect light Merlot and Cabernet.

I have crossed referenced my legend with that of friends and I am happy to say that my taste did not change as I aged.

I say "chapeau" to me and my Whirlpool mates who started me down the right path -- in the vineyard  of wine.

(Don Merlot, when not writing about food and drink, is known as Ron Alonzo. He lives in Florida).