Friday, November 20, 2009

The Emperor's New Clos

I am a crap blogger in all probability and, given the length of this post, you may agree. Or just fall asleep. Next will be my wine interpreation of War and Peace.

Following is a presentation I gave to the Institute of Masters of Wine International Symposium in Perth, Australia, in 1996 with several hundred of the wine glitterati in attendance from all around the world. Before I left Napa I jokingly told my admin assistant I should do the speech dressed in a robe and crown. When I checked into my hotel the robe and crown were in my closet. All I had underneath was a very neutral colored speedo-like bathing suit. You can figure the rest out at the end of this long post! Seems like the Institute has a sense of humor - I still have my initials.

***** There was a great air of anticipation in the Kingdom. The Emperor had finally arranged for a meeting with a very important nobleperson from a powerful neighboring country. The Visiting Dignitary, his wife and his young daughter were due to dine with the Emperor at the Royal Hall at the summer palace later in the month. The Emperor and the Visiting Dignitary would discuss forming an important alliance between their countries.

It was common knowledge that the Visiting Dignitary was due to talk with other countries about this alliance as well. If the allegiance was formed with one of the neighbors it would imperil the very existence of the Emperor’s domain.

The Visiting Dignitary was an important and powerful person. Rumor had it that he was well schooled and brilliant in languages, philosophy, business, history and the sciences. At a meeting with his staff the Emperor stressed the importance to of striking a deal with the Visiting Dignitary to create an important strategic alliance. Everything for the dinner had to be perfect.

The Imperial Wine Advisor was given the charge of selecting the wines for the dinner by the Emperor himself. The Wine Advisor would brief the Emperor on the wine selections with each dish the day before the dinner so that he would appear quite sophisticated and knowledgeable in the oenological arts.

The Wine Advisor met with the chef to discuss the menu, which was composed of all of the great foods of the season: special chevre from the Loire Valley, the finest Belon oysters, fresh salmon from Norway, dry-aged Charolais beef from Burgundy and fine cheeses. No expense would be spared.

The Visiting Dignitary’s taste was well known. He particularly favored the finest vintages from the great Clos of France. The Imperial Wine Advisor then set about the task of finding the wines that would create the perfect harmony with each dish. He was looking for that elusive synergy of flavors and harmonious balance that would demonstrate the highest level of gastronomic savoir faire. Since the Royal Cellar had one of the greatest inventories of the land, each wine would be from the most reputable Clos in the world!

The Imperial Wine Advisor was extremely fluent in wine things. He had started out in life as a Liberal Arts major in college. A job as a waiter helped him to pay his way through school. This gave him an introduction to wine service and the opportunity to taste and learn about wines. His fascination grew to the point that he knew that this should become his vocation. He tasted and studied with a vengeance, absorbing both knowledge and Herculean quantities of wine. Trips to the wine producing region were interspersed with blind tastings and his studies of viticulture and enology. No stone was left unturned.

Soon he commanded attention at dinner parties with his knowledge of malo-lactic fermentation. When he discussed terroir everyone would fall silent, obviously enraptured by his mystic wisdom and insight. Great vintages? He had had them all. Others at the table would be cut to ribbons after boasting about great bottles that they had been privy to tasting. The Imperial Wine Advisor could humble the best of them. “How cute that you tried the 1945 vintage of that wine. I had the opportunity to have that particular bottle with the Count himself. We were able to compare it to the 1928, and the ‘45 paled in comparison. I thought the ‘28 to possibly be the finest nectar that had ever passed my lips until the Count brought up the 1870. Now there is a wine!” he would boast.

Word of the great palate and encyclopedic knowledge that the young man possessed finally led to an interview at the Royal Court. After giving a two-hour discourse on the socio-economic ramifications of brettanomyces and 2-mthoxy 3-isobutal pyrizine he was hired on the spot.

Armed with his innate wine knowledge and intuition for food affinities, he set to the task at hand: creating the perfect marriage of wine and food with wines from the France’s greatest Clos. The Wine Advisor then met with the Emperor to discuss the wine selections he made for each dish.

The meal would begin with exquisite canap├ęs made with the fine chevre found in the eastern Loire. Clos de la Perriere Sancerre would be appropriate. For the oyster course the decision was simple; Chablis Les Clos. And certainly a regal fish like salmon would be perfect with the Beaune Clos des Mouches. The combination of Charolais Beef and Clos de Vougeot, both the pride of Burgundy, was obvious. Clos Fourtet from St. Emilion with the cheese course was a sublime choice. This was so easy! To cap it all off, the meal would end with marvelous single-vineyard Alsatian wine, Clos Ste. Hune. Given his background and passion he quickly passed over the thoughts of including Clos de Val and Clos de Bois. Pretenders at best he thought in his emotionally jaded mind.

The Royal Wine Advisor made plans for the bottles of these great Clos to be brought over from the Royal Cellars. This needed to be done several days in advance as the cellars were located almost a day’s journey away, in the main palace. The dinner was to take place in the summer palace, perched on an impressive crest overlooking the river. The Royal Wine Advisor made sure to order plenty of each of the wines, as once the dinner started it would be impossible to get more during the course of the meal. He would also make arrangements to stay over at the Summer Palace and oversee the proper handling of the wines on their arrival so they could “rest” properly before the dinner.

The wines arrived the evening before the great event. That night at dinner with the staff he assumed an air of great importance and shared all of the details that were involved in the most delicate art of wine and food pairing he was entrusted to create. Occasionally he had to prod one of the other members of the team who fell asleep during his exciting recitation (they were obviously overworked).

A very pretty pastry chef sitting next to the Royal Wine Advisor said it would certainly be thrilling to taste some of these magnificent wines. She remarked that she tended to get very wild and uninhibited when she drank fine wine. The Royal wine advisor, having dedicated his life to wine and never having the time to pursue a relationship, slyly indicated that he alone had the key to the cellar and might take the young lady down to the cellar later to try a few of the great Clos that he had assembled. The young pastry chef blushed and whispered that she would meet him in the cellar at midnight.

At midnight the Royal Wine Advisor tiptoed to the cellar and unlocked the wrought iron gate. He breathed in the rich, heady aromas. The smell always gave him an immense feeling of satisfaction. The young pastry chef showed up for the vinous tryst moments later. She remarked “It really stinks in here, doesn’t it?” Poor, misguided youth, the Royal Wine Advisor thought.

He proceeded to open and pour from the bottles of wine assembled for the dinner. He had made sure to have plenty of the wines available for the dinner, so this did not worry him. The two of them could not drink enough to create a shortage.

He explained each wine lovingly to his pupil. His seemingly enraptured partner in crime implored him to drink more. He was growing a little impatient for her to go very wild and become uninhibited as she had indicated she would at dinner. They had gone through several bottles and she seemed to be completely unaffected.

He decided to speed up the pace, downing one glass of nectar after another. He was expecting her to go wild any moment. He sure hoped so. He was starting to feel a bit queasy, totally unaware that the young pastry chef was pouring her wine into a bucket next to her chair while he was drinking himself to oblivion. The Royal Wine Advisor was soon sound asleep.

The young pastry chef notified the other staff members that the party was now ready to begin. The entire staff came down to the cellar and began to drink the wines, all the while parroting the affectations of the Royal Wine Advisor. They drank until every last drop was gone and a great time was had by all.

The Royal Wine Advisor awoke the next day with a start and a groan. It took him a moment to remember where he was and he had no idea what time it was. Glancing at his watch, his heart sank. It was only one hour until the reception for the dinner!

His heart was racing and his head was pounding. What happened? The cellar was strewn with empty bottles. In fact, there was not a single bottle that had been spared. The Royal Wine Advisor raced upstairs to the kitchen, where the rest of the staff was. He could swear he heard them giggling under their breath.

The Emperor poked his head in the door and gave the Royal Wine Advisor a wink. “Everything set for dinner? I can hardly wait to taste the wines you have selected for the meal.” The Royal Wine Advisor smiled wanly and assured the Emperor that the wines would be sublime indeed.

The Royal Wine Advisor ran back to cellar in a panic. What could he do? There was not a single drop of wine left and it would take days to get replacements.

He devised a plan. He would put the corks back into the empty bottles. He would carry on about his business as if nothing were wrong! Ceremoniously draw the corks from the bottle. Sniff the cork carefully. Pretend to pour a bit in his tastevin. Peer at it intently and take a long, slow sniff. Lift the cup to his mouth, take small drink, suck air and gurgle with authority. Proclaim that this particular bottle is the finest example he had ever had the opportunity to savor - and then proclaim that anyone with a sophisticated palate would surely agree that this was a wine of great breed and distinction.

He would call upon his fluent ability to speak oenobabble about the wines, stressing finesse and delicacy. See how brilliant they were? The Emperor would then speak about the wine and food as they had rehearsed. He was sure that everyone would be appropriately impressed and intimidated. What could they say?

The Royal Wine Advisor re-corked the bottles and straightened himself up as best as he could. He washed his face, combed his hair and took a deep breath. It was show time! He entered the dining room with the Clos de la Perriere. He cupped the bottom of the bottle with his right hand and held the very top with his left, hiding the fact that the capsule had been removed. The Emperor gave the label a perfunctory glance and nodded an affirmation to the Royal Wine Advisor, who turned to the sideboard. Here, hidden by his generous being, he pretended to remove the foil and then removed the cork, which gave way with a satisfying smack. The cork was presented to the host who dutifully gazed at it, looking for he knew not what.

The Royal Wine Advisor poured a little air into the Emperor’s glass. The Emperor lifted the fine crystal. Boy, talk about light wine he thought. I cannot even feel it in the glass, let alone see it! How extraordinary. He lifted the glass to the dazzling light of the crystal chandelier and deftly drew little circles in the air, studying the glass with knit brows. The glass then was lowered to his royal nose, and the Emperor inhaled deeply. Bringing the glass to his lips, he tilted it, pursed his lips, and sucked air with the authority of one tutored in the vinous arts. “Magnificent! Curt, yet not obsequious! You are to be commended in your selection, Royal Wine Advisor. So light and crisp, with a clarity I have never encountered.”

The Royal Wine Advisor proceeded to pour air into the glasses of the rest of the guests with new confidence, except that of the Visiting Dignitary’s daughter, crisply turning the bottle at the end of each imaginary pour, so as not to spill a drop on the fine linen table cloth. The guests each performed the proper rituals of tasting; swirling their glasses, inhaling and sucking. They nodded their heads, bobbing knowingly, in the manner in which the experts in the wine videos did when they heartily approved of a wine. The daughter of the Visiting Dignitary swirled her Coca Cola and holding it to the light, mocking her elders with childish glee.

The wife of the Visiting Dignitary remarked that she never really liked wine, except that dreadful White Zinfandel that she was embarrassed to drink in public. The snooty servers at the local Beef ‘n Burgundy restaurant always rolled their eyes when she ordered a glass of it with the Princess cut filet mignon. She could drink this particular Clos all night! It was so light and delicate.

One of the diners pointed out that it went perfectly with the fine chevre that it was served to accompany. This was a perfect lead-in for the Emperor.

“Well, if you smell the Clos de la Perrier you will find the typical aroma of fresh-cut grass,” he said. The glasses came up and the faces came down simultaneously around the table. The heads all bobbed the video wine nod in agreement. Fresh-cut grass, indeed. Clear as a bell!

“This particular cheese comes from a producer just outside of Sancerre, where the Clos is located that this wine comes from. The goats feed on the local grasses, creating a perfect harmony with the wine, don’t you see? The wine smells like grass and the goat that provides the milk for the cheese feeds on grass. Perfect!” Of course we see, said all of the bobbing heads around the table. It was obvious.

Except for one of the heads. This one head was on a lower plane than all of the rest. It belonged to the nine year old daughter of the visiting dignitary and it wasn’t bobbing. “I don’t get it,” she said. “What does the goat eating grass have to do with a wine that smells like grass?” she asked naively.

The grownups all smiled gently. Ah, youth. So innocent. She did not have the benefit of sophistication to draw upon. All that would change, however. She would become mature, educated and sophisticated in time, just like the rest of them. She would learn to appreciate fine wines and learn the language necessary to speak fluently about them.

Next came the Belon oysters, fine and claire. They glistened under the dazzling light of the chandelier. The Royal Wine Advisor repeated the wine ritual again with empty bottles. And again, everyone oohed and aahed over the fineness of this great Chablis les Clos. What a classic combination, for sure. “Oysters and Chablis are certainly one of the truest, finest matches ever conceived. This is due to the Kimmeridgean limestone formation that all great Chablis have their roots in.” Everyone howled their approval at this great joke - had their roots in, that’s a good one.

The Emperor continued “the soil formation is the result of calcium deposits formed during the cretaceous era, when the Paris Basin covered two-thirds of France. Isn’t it appropriate that the skeletons of brachiopods and ancient forms of lobsters and - this is the kicker - OYSTERS - sediments creating the geology that lends the unique terroir to this wine and creates a gastronomic symbiosis of majestic proportions.” The Emperor beamed. He was cookin’ now. He could see that the Visiting Dignitary was duly impressed.

Everything was going perfectly, with the exception of the little brat that the Visiting Dignitary brought along. As soon as the oysters were served the little tyke exclaimed “Gag me with a spoon,” and opened her mouth wide, pointing her finger between her gaping lips in mock regurgitation. Now the impertinent twit had the gall to ask, “What do a bunch of dead fish have to do with the wine?”

The course that followed was the Norweigian salmon, gently poached and served with wild mushrooms in fresh cream. The Emperor started in immediately. “The Clos des Mouches is a big wine; substantial. It has great prop0rtion and size, particularly in this fine vintage. It cries out for a fish of substantial proportions to stand up to richness of flavor that the wine affords. Salmon, being a large fish, fits the bill.”

“A big fish because it is a big wine? It looks to be the same size as all the rest of the wines,” whined the snot-nosed kid. Good reason to follow the sage advice that children should be seen and not heard, thought the Emperor.

The comment was ignored. The Royal Wine Advisor was on a roll. He served the Clos de Vougeot with a newfound confidence. The Emperor launched into his spiel. The regional association of a great Burgundy wine was the regional choice of true Burgundians to accompany the renowned Charolais beef from the region. Who could argue the logic?

The irritating pre-pubescent pipsqueak sired by the Visiting Dignitary chimed in again. “I was told that the real residents of Burgundy are of very modest means and that the great wines are either exported or served at expensive restaurants to rich foreigners. The true Burgundian people eat chicken and drink simple wines, mostly. They can’t afford wine like this.”

The Emperor was no longer amused. It was time to introduce this child to the rites of adulthood. This had to be done with great diplomacy as he did not wish to endanger his budding relationship with the little weasel’s powerful father.

“Royal Wine Advisor, pour our little friend here a glass of the next wine, the Fourtet, if his parents don’t mind. Perhaps if she were to savor some of the delights afforded by the attainment of adulthood, she could better understand what we are speaking of.” The ulterior motive, of course, was to get the girl enough wine and send her to dreamland.

The Royal Wine Advisor was busy decanting an empty bottle from the famous Clos in St. Emilion into a Waterford decanter. He placed a fine crystal bowl in front of the loud-mouthed kid and poured a healthy serving of air from the empty decanter into the glass. “This will shut her up,” the Emperor thought to himself. All of the guests looked on.

The child picked up the glass and held it to the light. She shook the glass back and forth. She stuck her nose in the glass and sniffed rudely. She lifted the glass to her lips and made slurping sounds. Then, in a final affront to propriety, she turned the glass upside down over his mother’s head. Everyone gasped audibly. Then they stared. Nothing came out! The glass was empty. The girl began to chant, “The Emperor has no Clos, the Emperor has no Clos...” over and over again. The rest of the party was shocked. They picked up their glasses and held them upside down...nothing! All of the descriptions of the wines had been meaningless! All of the ceremony and ritual had been a mockery. What of the wine and food affinities? The explanations sounded so convincing and authentic. It turned out that it was all a scam.
It turned out that, indeed, the Emperor had no Clos.