A SIP FROM THE CHALICE
It was the beginning of 1973, oil cost $3 per barrel and business was booming. I sat at my desk at Eurofinance in Ave Hoche in the huitième, just below Parc Monceau, once a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Paris, then a folly of Philippe d’Orleans and eventually one of the most desirable areas of Paris. Opposite me sat my good friend Alex M. We were doing deals. International mergers and acquisitions. We both had taxi drivers who, most mornings, picked us up from our homes at about 7 am and took us to Orly Airport whence we proceed to our meetings in Milan, Dusseldorf, Oslo or wherever. They would be there again at around 7pm to take us home.
Alex lived in Vaucresson next door to one of the Dessaults in a huge house with a large garden and a freezing swimming pool which he had inherited from his Swiss father who also left him a wonderful art collection. Lucienne, his very elegant half American but 100% Parisienne wife, made amazing mayonnaise and played golf fanatically at the Golf St Cloud, virtually across the road. Three lovely children and a Citroen “traction avant”, not to mention the dogs, made for an almost perfect lifestyle.
Perfection lay beneath the house where few ventured other than Alex and a few highly selected friends, fortunately myself included. This was the wine cellar.
Whether the bottles nestling there in the cool dark were accumulated by my friend or by his father I never knew and never thought to ask. The bottlers lazed on the racks as if they had been there forever and would forever remain snug under their blanket of dust, maturing. Enzymes worked idly, unhurriedly digesting the richness of the grapes, developing flavours, textures and aroma keeping their secrets in their glass cocoon. Friendly bacteria busily shaped the wine’s sensory profile, conditioning it, stabilising it in calm immobility. Tannins and acids softened into complex hints of flavour and bouquet, colours ripened, sugars turned to alcohol, all gestating into perfect body.
We would stand in the cave, quietly, worshipfully but predatorily surveying the stillness of this invisibly busy scene. In the semi dark our eyes would glide over the bottles, Lucienne’s menu in mind, wondering what to choose for the evening. Little did the miniscule agents, diligently, slowly at work beneath our gaze realise the imminent danger? Perhaps this is why one treads so carefully in a wine cellar as the shock, should they divine our intent, would surely turn every drop to vinegar.
We would need something perhaps a little sweetish or even pétillant to drink in the garden before repairing to the sitting room where we might prepare our pallets with something a little more serious.
Maybe a Pinot Gris or even a Sauterne with the pâté …… a Gamay with the onion soup – although onion soup might be too much at this time of evening.
Anyway, something robust with the côte de bœuf, large choice there, and then there is something to pair with the crêpes, the cheese, the ….. Why eat at all? anticipation is all! We would relish the flavours and aromas in our minds, no rush, pure pleasure.
Each year Alex and I would take a day off work to visit the Salon de Vin at porte d’Italie, or was it porte de Versailles? This was our treat and even in those heady days we never considered driving there. We always tasted good wines there, mixed with good people and felt good about ourselves and the world. We loved the ambience, the aroma and most of all the buzz of voices discoursing on a subject very dear to our hearts. We were also there to learn and to understand the vocabulary of wine appreciation from the mellifluous mouths of connoisseurs far more experienced that we would ever become, to apply the words to match the tastes and to find the tastes to match the words. Paradoxically the more we tasted the less we distinguished yet the more our vocabulary flowered in appreciation.
One particular year, however, was like no other. It was a Friday and we had chosen this day as it is easier to disappear from a Paris office after a Friday lunch than it is on most other days. As soon as the magic hour arrived we set off enthusiastically down Ave Hoche for the Etoile Metro full of expectation and charged with energy. The Paris metro is not the best environment in which to prepare oneself for as spiritual an experience as we were anticipating but we ignored the distractions and concentrated on the prospect of some exceptional vintages. Before we knew it we were stepping into the hall d’exposition, noses tingling, mouths not quite dry and senses alert.
The atmosphere was, as usual redolent with the perfume of wines. We could have just sat down and breathed deeply without taking the trouble to visit the stalls except that we discovered that moving from stall to stall one could unmerge the blend and sense the differences in scent between its constituents. After a while we felt ready to go a step further and select the stands at which we would sample the wines.
I have never been one for rolling wine around my mouth and spitting it out as one is apparently supposed to do. This on the grounds that I think it sacrilegious to waste the nectar and also that I like to feel the wine in my throat as I swallow, to exhale as it descends and to taste it again in the alembic vapours that rise up to the buds of smell and taste with the wine warmed to perfection by my own body heat. The result can however be a little other than that most greatly desired as the amount of useful tasting can become somewhat limited once a certain level has been reached. Even the inferior wines begin to taste good and the superior wines possibly go less noticed. But then by the time this stage is reached the truest nature of wine is revealed, the intellectual appreciation is over and the wild spirit of the liquid comes to the fore.
We had barely reached this stage when we bumped into a middle aged plus gentleman wearing a jacket and cap somewhat reminiscent of our idea of a gentleman French farmer. He was friendly enough, and certainly knowledgeable enough for us to find plenty of conversation and so we continued our exploration by his side enjoying his utterances and the cadence of his warm voice.
We began to sense that the wines brought out for sampling appeared to differ from those we had already tried. They were amazing even to our already somewhat dulled taste buds. How was this, we wondered, what was happening? Had we simply passed the limits of discretion? Of course we had no thought by this time of enquiring after the price of the stuff we were quaffing and our companion didn’t seem too concerned either and anyway one wouldn’t expect a simple farmer, French or otherwise, to be spending fortunes on his tipple, gentleman or not.
Still, the respect paid to the farmer by all around us gradually reached our dwindling consciousness especially as some of it seemed to be rubbing off even onto us and we needed to know why we too had become celebrities. We asked. The answer was straightforward. He was no French farmer, he was, very simply, none other than Jean Gabin. By that time we couldn’t be impressed by anything or anyone anymore so we continued drinking to his fame and glory and imbibing in his reflected reputation. He bought copiously and now we understood why. We, on the other hand couldn’t match his extravagance, or did we?
It took about three days for us to sober up after the salon and life returned to normal.
Several weeks later deliveries and invoices started to pile up at Alex’s house and his cave began to fill with the most extraordinary libations. Having been in such illustrious company our credit had presumably been considered good and all I can say is thank heavens for the good days before the oil crisis.
Shortly after this, however, the oil crisis did arrive and the company employing us shut down the department for which we worked. By the time I left France only one, last bottle remained from our buying spree and Alex was to guard this carefully for my next visit to France. It was to sleep in the cool of his dark cellar for almost ten years.
And then it happened. Back in Paris after a long absence we presented ourselves at Alex’ door in Garche once more. Lucienne outdid herself - we enjoyed a delicious pate with our aperitif, Coquilles St-Jacques with our chilled Chablis, a small almond sorbet to transition with a touch of champagne and then the pièce de résistance, côte de boeuf. I shall go no further into the menu as it was with the beef that the last bottle from the Salon de Vins was presented and carefully poured into our expectant glasses.
I watched the narrow, rich red stream course toward the broad bowl, penetrate its lip and glide down the side to settle as a shimmering, liquid jewel in its depths.
The aroma spread like a genie rising from Aladdin’s lamp, offering not three wishes but infinite pleasures. It settled halo like over the glass taunting me, challenging me to move closer. I dared.
I do not remember drinking the wine. I do not recall a single swallow, not even the touch of liquid on my tongue. Yet I can still sense the warmth that rose within me as the aroma suffused my consciousness, merging with my being, lifting my soul.
I felt the vapour, like an otherworldly spirit, rise through my head to infuse my senses and permeate my core to claim my being. It liquefied me, absorbed me, transported my soul into its own world with no sense of space, time or gravity. In a world without dimension there remains nothing but sensation. Silence.
Slowly my empty glass reappeared, the hand holding it, the table and my companions. I had drunk from the chalice.