Running with Wine:
'C'est la Vie'
By Don Merlot
Junto Staff Writer Bio
Learning about wine has always been exciting. It's an art form and process. You’re influenced by your own tastes, as well as those who teach you and relate their experiences. So in the late 1960s when I said I 'wanna' be an oenophile, give up beer and cocktails, and focus on vino and the wine culture, In Vino Veritas became my credo.
The little city of St. Joseph, in western Michigan, housed the executives of Whirlpool and Clark Equipment, many of whom knew something about wine, and the only shop we frequented was a little store called Lambrecht’s in St. Joseph. We learned quickly that every state controls its liquor, wine, and beer retail sales and wine wholesalers do not necessarily have the same selection in Michigan, Indiana, or in Illinois. This, no matter what the customer’s expectations are.
Lambrecht’s wine purveyors gave him good selection of French wines, and California was making a strong effort, but he could not carry wines that could not sell. In Michigan, I am sure the Eastern part of the state (Detroit) dictated what wines were to be carried. The wines we bought for entertaining would be a Bordeaux house called Prosper Vignal. I paid $1.79 for Médoc -– 14-ounce bottle.
My business contacts in France told tell me they could go to the vineyard and buy that type of Médoc for four francs. (Which in that era was about 75 cents). One of my French mentors, Pierre Emié, gave me a bottle from his cousin’s vineyard. Marcel Petit, and it would rival the better known known Bordeaux.
But my real lesson on buying wine started when my boss Ralph Carreño and I would visit New York to work with a company advertising agency. Before leaving for La Guardia, Ralph would take me to Sherry-Lehman’s, a true wine merchant and purveyor par excellence. Of course on my first visit I was dumbfounded. Luckily I met my next mentor, a Sherry-Lehman dealer, a Mr. Gelfand, who befriended me. Every time I visited he would walk me through the aisles, and asked me what I liked or what he thought I should try to learn more about wine.
Mr. Gelfand knew I liked red Burgundies, and he knew that I had fallen in love with Les Grands Echezeaux’s. But he was kind and took me through all of Burgundy Cote d’Or. From Fixin to Nuits St. Georges. St. Denis, the French Patron Saint of Wine, would have been proud. Each trip to visit with Gelfand led to buying a half a case of wine that was well packed and fit under the seat in front of me on the airplane.
I saved my Les Grands Echezeaux for very special personal occasions, and I opened up my mind to other Pinot Noir glories. Gelfand steered me to Clos de La Commaraine, Pommard: silky and velvety, the good Lord’s velvet trousers finding their way my gullet once again. He introduced me to a Burgundian orphan, Morey St. Denis. The king of red Burgundy was Chambertin, but this magnificent wine neighbor was relatively unknown outside of the Cote d’Or. Of course this became my Burgundy of choice if I could find it on a menu.
After I was corrupted on “the grape,” I had many colleagues in St. Joe join me in my quest for wine. They could not go to New York, nor could I carry back wines for them. My friend Tom Michel who has said I corrupted him on Burgundy agreed that we had to increase our wine purchase points to Chicago.
I found my next mentor there. We went to the House of Glunz on North Wells. In that period, in the late 60s, this area was in transition. This wine house had survived prohibition, and at that time it was a decaying neighborhood. It was like seeing a war zone from World War II.
Tom and I would make a wine run to Chicago. We would leave St. Joe by 9 am. Michigan is on Eastern Standard Time; Chicago, on Central time. The 90-mile journey took us about an hour. Speed limits were 70 miles per hour, and most cars could go 78 without being stopped. The only fear of being stopped was on the way back because the state patrol would confiscate the wine because we were taking the booty over state lines with paying state taxes. C’est la vie, if caught.
We would get to Glunz by 9:30 am and ring the door bell so that Old Man Glunz would let us in. We had to step over the drunks and derelicts wanting to get in to buy liquor, but had no money. There was a lot history here that went back before Prohibition. They imported under their own label wines form all over Europe. Glunz introduced us to Spanish Rioja, Manzanilla, Fino sherries, Italian Tuscan wines. He had a little tasting room within the store with old crystal, and we would sampled the special reserves that he had cellared. We did this wine run bimonthly and bought a case each time.
Glunz brought in my favorite Morey -- St.-Denis from Negociats a Beaune -– Caron Pere & Fils. We bought cases of that, and that became our entertainment wine for our French classic gourmet club. A case of 12 bottles would cost about $50. We eventually ran into the Grand Cru Classé, Clos des Lambrays. To connoisseurs, these are top red Burgundies, and I was able to find them before the prices skyrocketed.
We'd wrap up our tasting and purchasing about 11:30 and drive near Rush Street area and go to a Mexican restaurant called La Margarita. Mexican food was relatively unknown then, and this was pre-Chi Chi’s. I knew Mexican food, but my friends did not and I had to introduces them to picante food. Spicy food is picante, Hot food (stove hot) is caliente. We ordered Carne Asada (skirt steak) with poblano rajas, refried beans and an enchilada. This is Tampico style, not Tex Mex. Wed find ourselves back in St. Joe at by 5 pm. That is, if we idn't get nabbed by the state cops.
(Ron Alonzo writes under the name Don Merlot. His business beat is in South America and Canada, a reason he's hardly ever at his Florida home).