30 Becoming a Oenophile “In victory you deserve Champagne. In defeat, you need it.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

How was I initiated into the world of wine?

On a day like any other, when we went to visit Francis’ grandmother and spend the week-end camping in the old tollbooth garden, which they called “Le Pavilion”. Francis’s grandmother sent him down to the cellar to get a particular bottle of wine she’d bought last week to go with lunch.

Now, at the time, this was no proper wine cellar. It was more like a musty old cellar that had accumulated hundreds of years of jumble, bits and pieces, dust, and spider webs. What bottles were stored there were stowed away quite haphazardly. (Of course, since then Francis’s gastronomy-loving cousin has cleaned it out, constructed a proper storage system and he stocks a modest collection of well categorized wines there.) Back then, it was as though she’d sent Francis on a treasure hunt.

He was gone a long time. Which meant a lot of variety tv for me. When he returned, he had three grimy bottles and a big grin.

Mamie, his grandmother, quickly reproached him for bringing the wrong bottles. He smiled patiently and brought one over for her to see. I watched him gently rubbing his thumb across the disintegrating label to remove the dirt so she could see more clearly. Her eyesight was poor.

He read her the label with the aplomb of the announcer of the next Nobel prize winner. You could almost hear the drum roll by looking at the expression on his face as he paused, pregnantly, before triumphantly revealing the name: “Montbazillac…. 1942!” (It was 1997.)

He looked at her face with pleasure. I looked at her face to read the situation. Astonishment. Euphoria. Clearly, this was a standing ovation announcement.

They examined the condition of the bottles. One cork was wet which apparently meant air had gotten in and it was undoubtedly ruined. Corked. Badly corked, no doubt, from years of macerating with the bottle stopper as the alcohol and flavor evaporated.

The other two bottles were declared to be in good condition.

So, it was decided that when the cousins finished work, there would be a special “aperitif” to try it.

Francis raced around the house and even to the cousin’s insurance agency to announce the event.

I wondered what kind of marvelous experience awaited me. I’d never heard of this wine, and I had certainly not tried enough wine of any caliber to appreciate this one. But this seemed like one of those once in a lifetime moments and a fantastic occasion to “develop my palette.” And, what fun to open a sort of time capsule containing something lovelingly made decades before my birth. Made during World War Two!

In the early evening, we went down to the riverside courtyard to wait for the cousins at the outdoor table with Francis’ grandmother, his great aunt and six glasses.

Francis made the time pass quickly by pointing out how parts of the stonewalled port couchere were recycled bits of a church that had been reduced to rubble during one of the World Wars. Mamie told me the whole story about the American GI who had promised to marry her, and the horrible day she got a letter from his parents explaining he’d already been engaged before the war and they were forcing him to honor his promise to the American girl.

And then the cousins arrived. We heard their laughter before they entered through the port couchere. They were all smiles. Anticipation: the Montbazillac.

There was a shower of perfunctory greeting kisses. Then to business.

Francis’ cousin examined the bottles and he mused over the level of evaporation. The sediment in the bottom. The color… and various other things. His wife served fois gras, which they kept on hand… because you never know when such an occasion will arise unexpectedly, now do you?

The honors of opening went to the cousin. A cork of this age might require wisdom and experience for proper extraction. He carefully wiped the mold, dirt and dust from the rim of the bottle to reveal the cork.

We all took our seats.

He was poised with a twin prong cork puller called an “Ah-So” in English: it was a tool I had never seen before that I love to use now. I was befuddled by how anyone could possibly remove a cork with the two thin parallel blades attached to the pull that was loosely hooked over his fingers like brass knuckles. He was worrying the shiny metal of the pull mindlessly with his thumb as he studied the cork.

I’ve learned over the years that corks like this one tend to be fragile. They can crumble under a careless hand even with an Ah-So. Terry knew the sanctity of the task at hand and took position.

Then the plumber arrived.

The plumber came in abruptly with a bustle of energy, just making a quick stop on his way home to collect on a bill.

To my utter stupefaction, they casually invited him to join us for a drink. (I didn’t know at the time that in this small village everyone knows everyone else and a plumber isn’t just a plumber he’s a friend or a friend’s friend or someone’s brother or son… you get the picture).

He made a polite excuse, “My wife would kill me… I’m already running late for dinner.” …To which Francis’ grandmother said that he should really see what they were drinking before dismissing the invitation.

The bottle was extended so he could read the label.

In a single motion, and without saying a word, the plumber pulled out a chair and sat with a HUGE smile on his face. The hustle-bustle demeanor, gone. His wife, forgotten. He relaxed and laughed with us about how hasty he had been.

Like an artisan, we watched Francis’s cousin delicately see-sawed the cork pull into place. This was not a low-pressure task. All eyes were on the cork. Breaths were held. It was the utter calm before seemingly eminent disaster.

The slender blades neatly straddled and clasped the cork tightly. I heard him release his breath and the tension in the air lessoned a bit. I sensed that a win was near. Then in a steady motion, he simultaneously twisted and pulled upwards. The cork emerged in tact and released a stream of lively, happy chatter and laughter.

Any traces of cork that could have potentially remained in the bottle neck was carefully wiped away with a cloth.

Francis’s cousin smelled deeply. His eyebrows arched in intrigue. He poured himself a splash, swirled the glass, attempted to stuff his entire nose in the bowl and huffed the aroma. Euphoria spread across his face. He tasted and nodded and grinned.

An extra glass was produced for the plumber. All the glasses were filled full, one third full. We clinked glasses looking each other carefully in the eye (to stave off the bad luck superstition: to clink glasses without looking someone in the eye brings on one year of bad sex). Then, I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip of the revered liquid.

Others were holding their glasses to the light to look at he color, swirling the wine artfully in the glass and taking deep whiffs of the bouquet, doing a strange gurgling thing with it in their mouths. They talked about the effect of the years on the alcohol and sugar content.

The only word I could find to describe it was… ephemeral. That was precisely what it was.


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