Wine's World

Grape Pretender

How do you sweet-talk a winemaker into giving up the goods?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Several years ago, I talked my way into the cellar of one of Burgundy’s most celebrated and reclusive winemakers. I’ll never know how or why: I called him only after I got to Burgundy; he had no idea who I was; I came with no introductions; and an invitation to his cellar was evidently a tough ticket even for his importers. The visit was hardly worth the bother. He gave me all of 20 minutes, refused to be drawn into a discussion of his wines, and generally made it clear that I was wasting his time. Worse, he never offered me a taste of the wine I most wanted to try, a highly coveted grand cru, and because I felt as welcome as a fungus in the vineyard, I didn’t have the nerve to ask him. 

I should have been grateful for the opportunity and pleased that I at least got to try his other wines, most of them terrific—and I was. But I was also a little chagrined, and most wine buffs probably would have felt the same way. Snagging an invitation to a great domaine fills the head with visions of corkscrews plunging into ancient, mold-covered bottles—not to mention schemes to get the winemaker to share that vision and act on it.

The more acclaimed the winery, the harder it is to receive an appointment. The Lafittes and Latours are generally off-limits to all but journalists, members of the wine trade, and heavyweight collectors. It might seem that the privilege of a visit and the chance to taste one or two wines would be sufficient, but to walk past the wrought-iron gate behind which lie older vintages of Haut-Brion—to peer inside and see bottles from 1945, 1961, 1989—is to be literally one step away from wine nirvana. (The key, a good corkscrew, two baguettes, and 12 hours—that’s all I ask.)

Although the number of people with realistic hopes of gaining entree to big-name estates is relatively small, it has grown substantially in recent years with the globalization of the wine business and the wine-drinking boom in East Asia and the United States. This means that top wineries are bombarded with requests for visits, making proprietors all the more selective when it comes to opening the old stuff.

This is particularly true in France. According to Berkeley, Calif.-based importer Kermit Lynch, who represents a number of iconic French wineries—Chave, Coche-Dury, Raveneau, Vieux Telegraphe—tax laws enacted by the Mitterrand government in the early 1980s forced many domaines in Burgundy and Bordeaux to sell off large chunks of inventory, greatly reducing the number of treasures buried in their cellars. (Some bureaucrats helped reduce stocks even further: Lynch recalls visiting Domaine de la Romanee-Conti on the day a local inspecteur, ostensibly coming to have a look at the facility, arrived with his son and daughter and demanded a full degustation.)

Of all those angling for access, journalists, not surprisingly, tend to be especially pushy. Wine writing is not exactly lucrative, and fine wine is, of course, not exactly cheap, so the best hope most journalists have of tasting legendary vintages of, say, Cheval Blanc is in situ. And because winemakers generally regard writers as ignorant and unworthy hacks until proven otherwise, they tend to be less generous with them than they are with sommeliers, distributors, and other clients.

Larry Stone, the sommelier at San Francisco’s Rubicon restaurant, recently told me of a visit he paid to a venerable Burgundy producer in which he was invited—evidently just for the hell of it—to choose a bottle from the oldest part of the cellar, containing wines from as far back as the mid-19th century. (Stone went with an 1889 Montrachet, which he reports was orgasmic.)

Blank checks like that are generally not proffered to writers, so they have to take the initiative. A few years ago, I asked Christian Pol Roger of the eponymous Champagne house whether he minded if a journalist asked to him to open, say, the 1921, a famed vintage for Pol Roger. “Not at all,” he replied. “And I don’t mind saying no either.” (I really wasn’t angling for a taste, and one wasn’t offered.)

Surely one reason journalists aren’t given run of the cellar is because winemakers fear they will bleed it dry—not without justification. In his book Decantations, New York Times wine scribe Frank Prial recounts an epic tale of journalistic shamelessness. A wine writer of some repute timed his visits to Chateau Mouton-Rothschild to coincide with the vacations of the proprietor, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Baron Philippe, a famously generous host, would tell his staff to give the guest whatever he wanted in his absence. Clearly the uninhibited sort, the writer would proceed to order bottle after bottle of rare vintages. Baron Philippe eventually caught wind of the one-man bacchanalia and attended to the problem the next time the writer visited. During a pre-prandial walk, the writer naturally requested a treasured bottle for lunch, to which Baron Philippe replied, “It’s not a luncheon wine, old boy, not a luncheon wine.”

To get winemakers to dig deep into their cellars, many visitors naturally resort to flattery. But pissing off a winemaker can sometimes be just as effective. A French vigneron recently told me of his frustration with a fairly prominent journalist who had repeatedly trashed a particular wine he makes, which happens to be sublime—a point agreed on by pretty much every other wine writer. During his most recent visit, the critic in question still failed to be charmed by this wine, so in exasperation, the winemaker retrieved a bottle of it from the 1920s, still drinking gorgeously in its twilight years. “This is what the wine becomes,” he frostily told the writer.

Jim Clendenen, the engaging proprietor of Au Bon Climat, an excellent winery near Santa Barbara, Calif., told me of another well-known writer who years ago disparaged a vintage of his basic chardonnay. Whenever this critic now comes calling at Au Bon Climat, he is greeted with a glass of said chardonnay, which has, of course, matured beautifully. (And the critic is now a fan.)

But Clendenen says there is no need for visitors to grovel or provoke. If you are polite, patient, and make an effort to sound like you actually know what you’re talking about, you can usually get a winemaker to pop something special—and if you can get him drunk in the process, says Clendenen, the nectar might really start to flow.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

He recalls an afternoon spent in the cellar of his good friend Philippe Engel, the proprietor of Burgundy’s highly regarded Domaine René Engel. The owner poured and tasted, and tasted and poured, and as the session progressed, he caught a nice buzz, which put him in an ebullient mood. The tasting went back in time—all the way back, in fact, to a 1927 Clos de Vougeot. Dowagers like that do not get re-corked and drunk the next day, so the bottle was duly drained. But Engel, now soused, wasn’t finished: He then declared his intention to open his oldest bottle, an 1893 Clos de Vougeot. At that point, the plunderers became protectors: Clendenen and the other guests pleaded with him not to open the bottle, saying it would be doing the wine an injustice. Engel eventually relented, and they agreed to open something more modest—a 1906 Clos de Vougeot. Clendenen says this was one of the great experiences of his wine-drinking life.

Since my experience with the ungenerous recluse, I have became a savvier supplicant, and while I have not yet gotten a winemaker bombed, I’ve been able to entice a few of them to crack open rarities. Probably my biggest success to date was at another revered Burgundy winery, where I scored a full glass of a grand cru produced in such minuscule quantities that it is not even marketed. (In a word, the wine was ethereal.) How did I hit pay dirt? A little research beforehand alerted me to the existence of the wine, and I made sure to ask the owner about it. When he promptly produced a bottle, I did the obligatory “Oh, no, that really isn’t necessary,” and out came the corkscrew.

Emboldened by my recent cellar successes, I decided to attend to unfinished business while back in Burgundy this summer: I arrived determined to get another appointment with the ungenerous recluse and to taste his marquee wine. I drafted a script in my head, plotting the exact words I would use to send him in the direction of the two barrels containing the grand cru I desired. I read everything I could about the winery, the owner, and the vineyard. To no avail: I called the domaine several times, but there was no answer and no answering machine. Next time, I’m knocking on the door.