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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Fly on the Wall

First wine at 10, En Route to Vin
Don Merlot's French Summer House
By Don Merlot
Junto Senior Staff Writer Bio
Early in my wine journey I found that enjoying wine is something very personal. Certain lessons from my parents and early mentors have a way of shaping and defining. My father said, “Tell me where you come from and I will tell you where you are going,” or “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.”

I recall that my first taste of wine was during Thanksgiving and Christmas as I grew up in Mexico City, when I was 10. My father always received Christmas gifts from his customers that included bottles of wine that were saved for festive events.

We have all heard the story that the Turkey bird was Native American and almost became our national bird, but the bald eagle won out.

Growing up in Mexico City, the turkey was a special regional dish from Puebla when it was served as turkey and Molé Poblano (Molé from Puebla recipe – which is made with bitter chocolate, ground dried chillis and roasted ground peanuts – these ingredients that came from the Aztecs and are pre-Colombian).

The modern recipe was changed and made in its current style since 1860s when the French supported Maximilian II, Emperor of Mexico (he was from the house of Hapsburg) and came to Mexico to replace Benito Juarez.

I doubt if the royal court would have had wine, back then, but today one might try a Cream Sherry, or fine port with mole. My Mom was an Anglo Saxon and served it the American way: all the trimmings of a beautiful baked turkey, with Kansas bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn bread, mashed potatoes, calabacitas (small Mexican native zucchini’s that are fried in butter in a pan.)

A white wine was selected from the gift stash, and we all had a stem crystal glass of wine. As I look back and recall the tastes, there were three types we had:

The first one I identified was a fino sherry from Spain.

The second one I identified a sparkling white wine from Italy.

The last was a sparkling apple hard cider from Mexico (Puebla).

It was not until college that I experienced a wine on special nights. I attended Tulane in New Orleans, and the drinking age then was 18. Usually Bob Lightfoot, my roommate, found a favourite of his. He was Italian-American and knew much more than any of us. His special wine of choice was Mateus, a sparkling wine from Portugal.

This carried me to graduate school -– Thunderbird (or, known then as the American Institute for Foreign Trade) in Phoenix (Glendale now), Arizona, my wine knowledge was still in the novice category.

By the time I arrived at my first job at Whirlpool Corp., my first career mentors could begin to polish me. The view of red wine was Ralph Carreño (Bordeaux), John Steeb (Burgundy, Cote d’Or), Jerry Southland (Rhone), and Curt Klus (Bordeaux and Rioja). They all had a taste and a favourite that they wanted to bend me in their direction.

Martin Mak broke me in on white Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc) in a Paris bistro, and my love for Chardonnay started with a trip to London and a visit to a fish restaurant to have grilled Dover sole off the bone swimming in English butter with a Mearsault.

John Husband was our English distributor for our refrigeration products. He was a military school-trained armoured cavalry officer who had been the wine steward at his school. He also shared his passion for Pommard with me. That day though I have never forgotten the taste of Chardonnay and Dover sole. There is a definite 'Je ne sais quoi' there!

So here I was learning about Old World wines by my New World mentors. When I got to do France in depth, I developed three French mentors who really set me straight on French wine. French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, because they are very best (and most expensive were shipped out of France to other European locations or to the USA).

In Paris, I was trained to go to bistros and order pichets of wine. (1/2 liter or 1 liter pichets). The French restaurateur was the expert of what wine went with his food. We are not talking of chefs with one, two or three stars, but we are talking of bistros with chefs who went to the vineyards and brought to their work the best matches to their menus. Back then that was the best formula.

My customers were a European group called Pernod S.A., who sold our ice makers to European restaurants that bought their liqueurs: Pastis, 51, Suze. My Paris contacts were Mon. Pierre Emié, the managing director of Pernod Equipement, Michel Julien, and Jean Tremellat.

Emié was, to me, was the ultimate European executive. He was a great leader and loved by his subordinates. During WW II, he was a French paratrooper –- equal to our airborne. There was no nonsense to him. He is memorable in my life of great men. He was from Charente, south of the Bordeaux area known as the Cognac region and was knowledgeable about Médoc in Bordeaux (famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon) which can age beyond 30 years because it has more tannin than most varietals.

He knew Bordeaux, Cognacs, and Armagnacs. His advice to me was to go to the French wine books that show the vineyards and identify the vineyards next to that premiere Crus and check them out. He proved to me that I could spend one tenth of the price buying next door to Pomerols such as Vieux Chateaux Certain. In the US, I could buy, back then, a bottle of Pomerol at $5.50 Compared to $100.00 today. He knew his Pomerols and Cabernet Sauvignons.

My friend Michel Julien was the Director of Sales for Pernod Equipmement, and he liked to be called Michael because Michel as Americans pronounced it sounded too feminine. He's today one of my best friends. He is without equal. He took me on my first trip to Burgundy in France.

My favourite story of our tour of the Cote d’Or was how one day at dusk we found ourselves, driving in his Deux Cheveux, in Gevrey-Chambertin. He told his wife that he was lost. I said we should go up to the next chateau (Chambertin) and take a left. He slammed on the breaks and stopped the car, and got out and yelled, “An American telling a Frenchman where to go in France. Impossible!” We all laughed. The wife, the dog, named Tupelo, and me. It sealed our friendship. Years later Michel enabled me to become a member of the Confrérie de Chevalier des Tastevin –- the world's premiere wine society.

Jean Tremellat was the Technical Director for Pernod Equipement, and he kept the Whirlpool ice makers running in Europe. He was the “noble sauvage” of my French connections. He could correct me without insulting me. He introduced me into the 'tu' form and made me a friend in France with the 'vous' form. He became my bon ami. He and Michael corrected my language and faux pas, and got me to the point where the French could not tell I was an American. He taught me how French think and how they see Americans.

My honour was that I became a Frenchman, one of them. Merci, mes amis, 'Jamais en vain, toujours en vin.'