I can’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Monsieur Caviste, because that’s what he was. I wonder what he’s doing now. My best guess is that he’s one of those sharky French brokers who deal in flipped Lafon allocations and sell bottles of Romanee-Conti that maybe aren’t Romanee-Conti. Maybe that’s unfair but the truth is that I don’t know. He’s one of those people who teach you something, who stay in your life on account of a few words that they’ve given you, but have just disappeared in real terms, whatever “real terms” mean.
The year is 1997. The scene, the stage, is a branch of Nicolas in Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in an area of Paris that I still make a point of visiting if I’m ever in the city that I love and miss. Monsieur Caviste is my mentor for the next week; I’m on a training course at Nicolas which has involved a couple of weeks in the classroom learning about wine and what it’s all about and now means a week on the shop floor learning how to actually sell it. I’m an Englishman in Paris tasked with selling French people something that they consider to be their national product, their national pride. I’m a little nervous.
The sentence that stays with me to this day is:
“If your customer asks for a wine to go with his Coq au Vin that evening, and your recommendation doesn’t work, then as long as your recommendation was made with authority, then he isn’t going to blame you, he’s going to think that there’s something wrong with his palate, that he doesn’t get it, that it’s him who is at fault. Not you.”
Every now and again I taste something that has a score against it. The scores that really matter are Robert Parker’s. A couple of weeks ago I tasted 2010 Dominus in the same room (albeit a very big one) as the man himself and I struggled to find the 100 points in a wine that, whilst was clearly pretty good, clearly had some breeding, was clearly a cut above, was a long way from perfect in my book. I gave it 91.
There are a few Bordeaux wines that I can now comfortably pick in blind tastings at least most of the time. In blind tastings of the 2011, 2010, 2007 and 2004 vintages I’ve picked Pontet-Canet without fail, and Lafite is fairly easy: it’s the pencil-shavings that give it away. I frequently mix Latour and Mouton, which is credit to the latter, particularly given that I claim an affinity to the former. Placing your money on Pichon-Baron as the most impressive non-first Pauillac is a decent bet.
As for the scores I give the wines, the main point is that I am correct. I gave 2007 Pichon-Baron 17 points (out of twenty) two weeks ago and I’m right. My judgement is correct, as is that of my peers and, most importantly, is yours. It’s just about whose judgement you trust…which is what brought this on.
Over the past two or even three decades, one man’s judgement has meant more than any others: Big Baltimore Bob, which is where we get back to Monsieur Caviste.
Mr Parker gives 2005 Ch. Margaux, one of the greatest wines ever made, 98+. To my palate 2005 Margaux is one of a handful of wines – if that – that gets 101. At the time it summed up the “underscoring” of the top 2005s and it has to be a strong candidate for an upgrade. But this is the thing: whatever Mr Parker’s score is, the wine won’t change even if the price does. It’s tenuous but Mr Parker is Monsieur Caviste here: his authority defines the content of the bottle rather than the content itself.
Which is why Mr Parker’s retirement from tasting and judging Bordeaux from barrel has to be a good thing. In the longer term – and this is pipe-dream stuff – we might see, or rather drink and taste, some St Emilion that tastes of St Emilion. In the shorter term we’ll have a team of critics rather than a one man show. There is no shortage of good palates tasting these wines: Neal Martin, James Molesworth, Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin and James Suckling can all taste, as can the representatives of most of the major merchants, including me. And most, I repeat most, merchants know that they can sell you a lemon just once. My point being that most are honest with their appraisals of a vintage, no matter what their commercial interests are.
If you’re having Coq au Vin tonight then in an ideal world you should cook it with Gevrey-Chambertin and eat it with the same. Otherwise cook with the best and purest wine you can afford and drink with Beaujolais.
And, if you’re ever snookered: wines from the Rhone, Loire reds and Beaujolais go with pretty much anything. Thank you, Monsieur Caviste.