Whine and Cheese
Noted wine critic Margaret Swaine takes a tongue-in-cheek look behind the scenes on the tasting circuit—way behind the scenes
One afternoon in Italy, part way through yet another day crammed with too many winery visits, my fellow wine writers and I went on strike. We had tanker loads of wine coursing through our veins, stomachs that bulged from five-hour-long meals and eyes that drooped from lack of sleep. We had warned our hosts that this day we would not see more than five wineries. They had promised to cut back. At winery number seven we refused to get off the bus. Undaunted, the producers cheerfully boarded with dozens of bottles. Our brief insurrection ended when they started popping corks. It was far too hot and stuffy to taste in the vehicle. We descended to our punishment of yet another tasting room and bottling line.
My occupation requires me to be gorged with too much of a good thing from time to time. It also sometimes involves being surrounded by tipsy men with lascivious intentions. I take it all with good humour. The quote I chose some decades ago to accompany my high school graduation picture?”Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive,”?still conveys my core philosophy. It’s that predilection that steered me from my beginnings as a speechwriter on the political staff of Marc Lalonde to a more amusing subject.
There are two camps of wine writers, in my opinion. One group includes the likes of Robert Parker and others who do comprehensive guides to every single winery in a region or country. These thorough, hardy critics, who have perfected the art of tasting, spitting, and ranking, often got their training first as lawyers, scientists, or doctors. Their ability to concentrate on a single subject is amazing. When they are my travelling companions, I’m either nodding off, flipping through winery brochures, or preferably flirting with an empathetic male, while they’re two hours into a serious discussion with the viticulturist about pruning techniques.
Obviously I’m in the second camp. I’m a writer who happens to have a passion for wine and food. However, on the 10th day of a tour sampling 100 or more wines each day, my mind and mouth go fuzzy. And there are only so many bottling lines I can admire before my enthusiasm starts to fray. Wine writing may well be much ado about meeting winemakers, seeing how they make their wine, and tasting it. Living well includes cultural, physical, and romantic pursuits. Luckily for me, most people involved in wine are equally connoisseurs of life.
Wine is worth getting to know for the company it keeps. The characters in the biz are what make this beat so enjoyable for me. Take the aforementioned Italy. No country appreciates women more. Or wine. I remember one trip to Piedmont, in particular, which took place early in my career. Several journalists and restaurateurs had been invited to see Italy’s first vino nouvello being made near the town of Gattinara. Travelling with us was a young Jeanne Beker, in TV but prior to her gig as the grande fashionista. She did, however, dress rather more stylishly than we scribes. The Italians drooled. The more confident sent roses to her hotel room. But the best reaction came from the oldest winemaker we visited.
He was dressed in shabby pants, held together at the fly with safety pins, his disheveled appearance belying his millionaire status. The innocence of his face and the sweetness of his smile also disguised his virile thoughts. As Jeanne tromped around the wine cellar with her camera crew, pausing here and there with the barrels as backdrops for her videotaped words, he muttered away in Italian. Toronto restaurateur Franco Prevedello whispered the translation in my ears. “In that corner is where he took his first woman. Over there is where he made love to several villagers,” and so forth. The place was redolent with memories of his romantic trysts. Then he paused to gaze admiringly at Jeanne’s wide, broad, open lips and sighed, “What a mouth! The things I could put in it.”
When in France?. The French men have their own inimitable style. To them a mistress is a desirable family extension. Lack of interest on the part of a Canadian is merely coy encouragement. My wildest encounter with this came after I was inducted into La Commanderie du Bontemps M?doc et Graves in ’92. Purple robes, pomp, and speeches, followed by the guzzling of much Bordeaux are all part of the initiation rites to this brotherhood. One of the inductors, Christian, took a liking to me. While I managed to evade his overtures in Toronto, he persisted with frequent transatlantic calls asking when I would next come to France. Finally, he enticed me with an invite to attend the F?te de la Fleur, one of the world’s most prestigious wine events, which that year was hosted at the gorgeous Cos-d’Estournel. As the party’s location was within eyesight of Christian’s Ch?teau Ladouys, I was invited to stay there with several other journalists. I extracted a promise of no hanky-panky. True to his word, I was shown my own lockable room. The guest rooms were across a courtyard from the main ch?teau where Christian and his wife presumably slumbered. Leaving nothing to chance, however, I carefully turned the key in the lock before retiring. My head had barely hit the pillow when the door opened. “Master key,” explained Christian as he advanced. At that moment, the storm that had been brewing outside let loose. Lightening struck just outside my window, knocking a chunk of wall down and turning the room into a blaze of light. The meteorological message from above was wasted on my ardent swain.
Some of the best Frenchmen, however, are more bark than bite. Bernard Repolt, affectionately nicknamed the Bad Boy of Beaune, claims to have named vineyard plots after women he has known. Agents who have visited his cellars confirm that hundreds of women’s names are on the racks holding the wine. Bernard says his conquests were easy. Using reverse psychology, he spoke of religion and his mother, and told the ladies they must not kiss him because it would be too tempting. Time and matrimony have mellowed him. The extent of his misbehaviour with me was to call for more “juice” as he dumped my glass several times into a nearby flower pot upon finding the Jaffelin Bourgogne du Chapitre it contained was not up to snuff. From rue Paradis in Beaune, he later sends me a handwritten fax: “Sweetheart it was great having you for dinner. I’m still dreaming of you.” He then suggests I come to visit as he has lined up a couple of highly qualified potential boyfriends.
Propositions also happen at home base. When I joined Julio Iglesias and entourage at Prego restaurant as he tangoed through Toronto one November, I learned just how much he loves red wine and steak. He produced a 1985 Haut Brion and his fave, the magnificent 1982 Lynch Bages, from his briefcase. Seems he always travels with a stellar cellar in his plane. But the young beauties at the table didn’t get to taste the silky, lush, and lengthy Pauillac. Julio bought them wine from Prego’s list, sharing his treasures only with me and another writer. Nor did they get their hand placed on his upper inner thigh, as I did, or the bite on the back. He did say he liked meat with his reds. Opera’s playing in the background. One hand is wrapped around a luscious wine. Beside me sits a passionate man. In front, a dish wafting mouthwatering scents. In the other hand I hold a pen. Jotting it all down and loving it.