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The Million-Dollar Nose

Part Three

The Dark Side of Wine

The person who made that point most clearly to me was Pierre-Antoine Rovani, a thirty-six-year-old man with a reputation as a brilliant taster, who hired on with Parker four years ago, partly to cover hostile Burgundy, where Parker himself now rarely ventures, and who has been grappling ever since with the perhaps impossible job of establishing an independent yet integrated voice within The Wine Advocate. Rovani is a sardonic fellow with a goatee and sparkling eyes -- the son of French officials, raised and educated in Washington, D.C., where he lives today. Money is intrinsically interesting to him. He earned a degree in economics, and worked as a business consultant for several years (also, improbably, as the White House correspondent for the Saudi press agency) before moving into the retail wine business and then making the leap to Parker's side. When I met him, last spring in Georgetown, he told me that he had burned his bridges and would never be able to go back to retailing. I didn't doubt it, because he seemed to have a skeptical view of the business and a habit of speaking his mind. For several hours he told me about the dark side of wine -- kickbacks, payoffs, and frauds of many kinds. He saw the humor in it. He said, "You dump the bad stuff on Park Avenue. If the bottle says 'Grand Cru,' or 'Premier Grand Cru,' or 'Pomerol,' or, you know, if there's a word on there that some rich guy recognizes ..."

"You can sell it," I suggested.

He nodded. "In small quantities. In a place like New York. Where there are lots of idiots. You can get away with it."

You can also, if you have a stock of bad wine, take out your scissors, find a relevant issue of The Wine Advocate, and, with a bit of tape and a copy machine, improve the score. Rovani mentioned a New York store that had recently done just that, sending out altered scores and tasting notes with its promotional literature. The work was so shoddy in this case that the doctored print lay crooked on the page.

Rovani seemed amused by this. I got the impression that he sympathized with the store's owner. In any case, he seemed to have a better feel than Parker for commercial realities on the front lines, where one of the big problems is how to handle an annual overproduction of wine worldwide that amounts to roughly 25 percent. The surplus has not been allowed to drive down prices, as it should have to provide for a healthy industry in the long term. This is in part because of wine's residual status as an elite drink. For those in the business, maintaining that image is important not only for commercial reasons but also for reasons of personal prestige. Every stage of the trade is involved in establishing the high prices, but ultimately those prices can be sustained only through the retailers and their sales efforts. The problem for the retailers is that wine -- unlike luxurious hotel rooms and other hyperinflated products generally covered as business expenses -- is usually paid for directly out of the consumer's pocket. This makes for a scary business, especially toward the high end, where The Wine Advocate roams. The truth is that even the best wines cost only about $10 a bottle to produce, and they are not inherently rare. If the initial cost is tripled to allow for profits along the path of distribution, one can reasonably conclude that retail prices above $30 are based on speculation, image, and hype.

Rovani mentioned a Bordeaux called Le Pin, which sells in recent vintages for $600 to $1,000 a bottle. I asked him what kind of person would buy it. He shrugged. "Look, it's a game. Why is it that at a certain age men start buying little sports cars, or the cigar boat that makes so much noise -- or they get the trophy wife. How many of these guys don't even drink the wine? They call you up and they say, 'I've got twenty cases of Lafite, I've twenty cases of Le Pin ...' These are trophies that they're collecting." He described conference calls with three or four competing stockbrokers, made when he was a retailer, in which he sold half a million dollars' worth of wines.

Those men are extreme cases, as is Le Pin, but they set the tone for the business of fine wines. Parker publicly denounces the high prices as "the legalized mugging of the consumer," but in private he admits that the victims are usually all too willing to be mugged. He said, "I know collectors with forty thousand bottles who if you poured them a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wouldn't know the difference. I know collectors who, believe me, if you mixed Kool-Aid into cheap Chilean merlot, they'd taste it and say, 'Well, yeah ...'"

Photograph by Christopher Barker

In a world like this a little doctoring of the tasting notes hardly seems important. Rovani described the industry as a game of musical chairs, in which the players throughout the chain of distribution all scramble to avoid getting stuck with the stock. I asked him about being an importer. He said, "What's it like? You sweat. Very early in the morning, because of the time differences, the faxes start coming in, and you have to gamble your entire business because the figures are so high. If it's a good vintage, you can't sit it out, because you'll lose your customer base. So you gamble."

He offered to show me what the gamble looks like: in Washington alone there are a couple of big warehouses stacked floor to ceiling with overpriced wines that cannot be returned and will soon begin to decline. For anyone interested in money, it's an impressive sight. The only way out is bravely forward again, and into the stores, where finally the customer is left standing and blinking at the price he just paid for the bottle in his hand. Retailers are thankful for the strong economy. Fine wines are selling well, but the structure that sustains them is flimsy. All along the chain of supply people fear a collapse, because they have had to invest heavily in what everyone knows is vastly overpriced stock. A collapse wouldn't look like much in the store. But a reduction of just a few dollars in the price the market is willing to pay would crush businesses around the world.

Rovani would welcome such a "correction," because he is an economist who believes in market necessities. Parker would welcome it, because he is an ethicist who opposes the speculation in wine. This highlights a basic difference between the two men. Rovani, who is a salaried employee, sometimes chafes at what he sees as Parker's lack of interest in building the value of his own business. He mentioned to me, for instance, that The Wine Advocate has never had a marketing budget, that it has not been significantly promoted even in Parker's guidebooks, and that in his opinion the royalties that Parker has agreed to for his foreign book sales are ridiculously small. He said, "Bob is extremely hardworking, extremely loyal, honorable, a great parent, a brilliant wine taster. But he just doesn't get excited by business. When I try to talk to him about the French Wine Buyer's Guide, or the contract issues, he'll talk about it for two or three minutes, and then you can see he's bored by it. He'll change the subject to when we can get together and go eat dim sum." Rovani seemed regretful rather than upset. He knew that the weakness he was describing was also Parker's strength. He was resigned to this frustration. He shrugged and said, "Money is not what he's passionate about. And the key to Bob Parker is passion."

An Innocent Abroad

Parker was born in 1947 into a family of dairy farmers, just a few minutes' drive from where he lives today. His parents did not drink wine. They did not drink milk. They drank soda pop. Parker was their only child. When he was four, they built a house down the road and left the farm. Parker's father went to work selling heavy construction equipment, a job he excelled at because he was good with people and didn't mind driving. He was a regular guy with one unusual quality: he had an acute sense of smell. He could pick up garlic on a person's breath from across a room. Young Parker had the same gift, but he didn't realize it was anything special.

He had a typical American childhood. He attended public schools, had a few bicycles, and played a lot of soccer. At the right age he discovered girls and learned to drive. He went to Washington a few times. He went to Baltimore. But Monkton was his world. And it was not a fine-wine kind of place. The high school was called Hereford. It was a plain brick building in a field, a school attended by front-yard mechanics and Future Farmers of America. Parker was not quite like them, but he played soccer well, and he had a normal number of friends. He was one of the "smart kids" enrolled in a small program for college-bound students whose main qualifications seemed to be that their fathers did not work with their hands. In the tenth grade Parker fell in love with a fellow student, a lively girl named Pat Etzel, who is now his wife. They graduated together in the class of 1965 -- a typical Monkton vintage of no great distinction, soon diminished by the loss of two boys in Vietnam. On Pat Etzel's eighteenth birthday Parker had his first taste of wine. It was sweet, bubbly, fortified cold duck, and it made him throw up.

Pat went off to a women's college in Frederick, Maryland, to study French. In order to stay close to her, Parker accepted a soccer scholarship for one year at a college in northern Virginia, and then transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park, where he dabbled in history and art appreciation. He was a strapping young man with sideburns and longish hair -- a solitary but affable guy who, like many men at his age, was having to wait around to grow up. He vaguely opposed the war in Vietnam. On the basis of a temporary injury to his knee he got himself permanently excused from the draft. He finally found the courage to tell his father that he didn't enjoy hunting. For lack of genuine academic interests, he decided on a career in law. He sometimes had a surprising seriousness about him that hinted at his powers of concentration. But it would have been difficult to judge his intelligence. He got good grades, but he was an empty page.

Then came the autumn of 1967, when Pat left for a junior year abroad in Strasbourg, France. Parker told me that Pat's parents did not then approve of her relationship with him, and they hoped that this separation would persuade her to break it off. Parker worried that she might. His pretty girlfriend had matured into a strikingly beautiful woman, slender and graceful, with a lively angular face set off by mischievous green eyes, and now she had ventured out into an unseen world full of foreign men. Parker had little contact with her through the fall -- a few delayed letters and hurried telephone calls -- and he was increasingly unsure of her feelings. Still, they had a plan to meet in Paris for the December holidays.

The trip was a huge idea for Parker. He still gets excited when he talks about it. Until then he had traveled only as far away as New York, by train, and he had never before flown in an airplane. His father, who had often preached to him about the importance of having shined shoes, made Parker buy a white shirt and a dark three-piece suit for the flight. During the short hop from Baltimore to New York, Parker spilled coffee on himself. During the long flight across the North Atlantic he sat next to a casually dressed Harvard student, who had the good manners not to comment on Parker's stains. This fellow spoke impeccable French and had a mother who was waiting for him in some well-known neighborhood of Paris. He was able to offer Parker fascinating opinions about the best European destinations. He was very depressing. It was beyond his imagination that Parker had never flown before.

As the day turned into night, Parker began to brood. What if he missed Pat in the crowd at the airport? Worse, what if she didn't even bother to show up? Or what if she did show up but didn't love him anymore? Parker didn't know much about the world, but he had heard about French lovers. He figured these were the same guys who had developed the French kiss -- and that was probably just the start. He ordered a couple of whiskeys and drank himself to sleep.

The flight was due to arrive in Paris at 10:30. Parker woke up at 10:45. When he saw the time, he jumped into the aisle and yelled, "Shit, I've missed my stop!" The Harvard fellow looked at him in disbelief. A stewardess came up and informed him that an airplane is not a train. He sat again. The Harvard fellow said, "You really haven't flown before." Then the captain announced that Paris was fogged in and the flight was being diverted to Rome. Parker panicked again. He said, "How am I supposed to get from Rome to Paris? I don't even speak Italian!" The Harvard fellow laughed and assured him that there would be a flight to Paris in the morning. In the meantime he would have a night to explore Rome. Parker decided then and there to put aside his fears and to embrace this unexpected experience. It was an important moment for him. He was becoming a traveler.

The airline gave him a hotel room in Rome, but he was too wide awake to stay in it. He visited a bar. He wandered the streets. It's characteristic of Parker that his first strong impression of Europe was a smell, and that he identified it precisely. It was the stench of horse urine emanating from a Gypsy encampment by the Coliseum. At dawn he watched Rome come alive for another chaotic day. He was enthralled by the density of the street culture, and by its casual connection to history. He was enthralled by the people, the sounds, and the architectural mixture. He did not shy away from the strangeness of the scene, as provincials often do, comparing Rome with home, or wrinkling their noses. He opened himself completely. He inhaled Europe. He drank it in.

The mood endured, and became in some ways a permanent thing. It helped that a few hours later the airline was able to deliver him to a still-foggy Paris and that his beautiful Pat was waiting there for him and that she loved him very much, spoke good French, and wanted to serve as his guide. She took him by subway to the Trocadéro, led him backward up the steps to the street, and spun him around for his first clear sight of the city: it was a view of the Eiffel Tower, rising gracefully on the opposite bank of the Seine. "Wow!" Parker said, as he often still does.

The young couple stayed in a cheap hotel in the Latin Quarter, a dingy little place called the Danube. For several days they walked through Paris. Parker told me that he couldn't get enough of it. He was in heaven. In the evenings at neighborhood restaurants Pat playfully ordered snails, frogs' legs, mussels, fatty pâtés, and smelly cheeses -- foods that should have disgusted a kid from Monkton but in this case did not. Neither of them would have guessed that Parker had one of the world's great palates, or that with these intimate little meals he might be starting down a path toward fame and power. That would have been ridiculous. About the food Parker said, "This stuff is good!" and left it at that, as a regular guy would.

He was alone with Pat Etzel in Paris and ferociously in love. Is it surprising that he learned to like the wine? The wine they ordered with their meals was the cheapest they could find, served in carafes, pale red, pleasantly alcoholic, and unremarkable by Parker's present standards, but it was unlike anything he had tasted before. Parker told me he was immediately fascinated by it. Here was a beverage that seemed to complement food and promote conversation, that gave him a buzz but did not make him drunk, and that never blurred his vision like liquor or bloated him like beer. It's hard to imagine his sensations the first few times he put it in his mouth. It was not sweet like bourbon or soda pop. Did it taste of fruit, as people said? It was maybe a little astringent. Parker lacked the vocabulary necessary to sort out the confusion of tastes. He idealized the wine at first. He liked the thought that it was a product of French culture, an artifact that was authentic yet accessible and meant to be shared. As it passed over his tongue, he sensed that it was loaded with meanings he didn't understand. But his immediate reactions were typically straightforward. Every night the wine was different, and every night it seemed to work. "This stuff is good!" Beyond that, he knew little.

Pat took him to Strasbourg, where his education continued. Parker described to me how in the cold, gray countryside of northeastern France he was shocked by the lingering evidence, after so many years, of the two world wars -- the buildings still pockmarked or lying in ruin, the cripples in the cafés and on the trains, the village monuments engraved with long lists of the dead, grouped by family name. The destruction was worse than anything Parker had imagined, and it made him realize how sheltered he had been. He knew that the United States had fought hard and well to liberate this ground, but he did not swell with national pride or indulge, as others do, in the sly denigration of the French for their claims about résistance. He realized that battles alone could not explain such scars. The significance of résistance was not martial -- it was the underlying stubbornness that had allowed the ordinary French to emerge from an apocalypse with their attitudes toward life still largely intact. Parker admired them for it, and had all the more reason every night to appreciate their wine.

Pat had met a doctor in Strasbourg, who invited the young couple to share a few meals with him in the best local restaurants. The doctor was a gourmet and a generous man, and he enjoyed introducing them to the tradition of the three-hour dinner, and to tastes that lay beyond their means. For Parker, with his acute sensitivities, the meals were not just pleasures but profound revelations. He began to concentrate on food in a way that he had not previously known was possible. He also had his first few bottles of really fine wine. Already he was beginning to sort out the tastes. In France today the story goes that he looked up after sipping a certain wine and said, "Oh, that's good! There's a little taste of grapefruit there, and a little taste of lemon, and a little taste of ..." The doctor is said to have gazed at him and remarked, "Do you know that you have just defined the main components of a Riesling?" And Parker is said to have understood at that moment that he had the talents of a prodigy.

The story is too tidy to be quite true, but in essence it is correct: after those meals in Strasbourg there was no turning Parker back. His visit to France lasted six weeks, with an unpleasant interlude of bad food in Germany. When it was time for him to go home, he and Pat returned to Paris, intent on spending the last of his holiday money on a final gourmet meal. They chose Maxim's, a three-star restaurant on the rue Royale, which was known as a bastion of classic French cuisine. They checked into their cheap hotel. In preparation for the dinner, Pat pressed the collar of Parker's washed white shirt between two books, and brushed the wrinkles from their best clothes. Parker dutifully shined his shoes.

They arrived at Maxim's, and after a typically disdainful attendant hung Pat's cloth coat on a rack loaded with furs, the couple was banished to a secondary dining room full of foreigners, and assigned to a table with a flickering electric lamp. When Parker complained about the lamp, a disapproving waiter tried to fix it and received a shock that knocked him to the floor. It didn't help matters that the two Americans could hardly keep from laughing. But they settled down, and after a while they ordered their meal. The restaurant photographer came along and took a picture, which they kept, of a smiling Pat and a more somber Parker in his suit, gazing down and away with a shy, thoughtful expression on his face. Maxim's was turning into another lesson for him. The wine they drank was overpriced. The food looked better than it tasted. The dessert was a pretty little tart so tough that it shot out from under Parker's knife, flew off the table, and stuck to the pants of a passing waiter. When Parker took Pat to dance on the restaurant's small dance floor, the maitre d'hôtel came up and explained with regret that the color of Parker's polished shoes was an inappropriate brown. Pat led Parker back to their table. Then came the bill.

Terroir and Tradition

Thirty-two years later there are wine families in France who feel that Parker is still making them pay. Near the city of Bordeaux last spring I talked to one of the most powerful producers in the trade, a businessman with formal manners, who did not want me to use his name. He pretended for a while to be Parker's friend, but finally could not keep his anger from showing. He shut his office door against the secretaries outside, turned to me, and said, "Monsieur, do you know Robert Parker? Have you met him?" His voice was deep and resonant. "Monsieur, you surely do not believe that such a man is simply tasting wines! You do not believe that he ignores the political context of his work! Non, monsieur, Robert Parker knows precisely what he is doing. And he has his reasons."

I was intrigued. Was he going to tell me that Parker was in it for the money after all? That he had hidden allies? Secret meetings? Understandings with governments? I asked him to explain.

From a stack of papers on his desk he slid me a fax that someone had just sent him. It was a page from a recent Wine Advocate, a survey of Australian wines. He made a steeple of his hands and watched me darkly while I glanced over what Parker had written. It didn't take long. He had liked some Australian wines so much that he had scored them in the nineties. I looked up and said, "But your own wines score well too."

That was not the point. His own wines were traditional, and these most certainly were not. He saw the very comparison as a betrayal of Bordeaux. He said, "Bob is a big, dramatic man, with big, dramatic tastes. But our wines are supposed to be red, not black." He held up his pen, a shiny black Mont Blanc, to show me the color of the wines that he thought Parker favors. He said, "I have known him for twenty years, but I will no longer read what he writes. He wants to lead us down a path to destruction."

That's Bordeaux -- a place so steeped in tradition that it's not unusual to find people who go around actively regretting the French Revolution. When I told the story of the Australian wines to Rovani, he said, "What did you expect? Those people own the town. The bottom line is, when that's your business, how much do you like the big, goofy northern-Maryland guy who rates you? Because your game is control."

Rovani does not cover Bordeaux, but he knows it well and seems to enjoy the scene. He told me about a conversation he had one day with a powerful chateau owner there. "I asked him how he got interested in wine and he said, 'After I finished school, my father had really nothing of importance to give me as a gift, and so he gave me ..." Rovani named a famous chateau. He laughed. "I mean, the thing's worth millions!"

I said, "And when he says that to you, does he realize that he's ..."

Rovani interrupted. "That he's talking to a guy who plays with his credit-card debt? It's beyond that. It doesn't matter. I'm not in his life -- you know what I mean?"

"Yes, but does he realize he's playing a role?"

"I always wonder. I always wonder how far over the line these people get."

In Bordeaux the answer to that question is all about a person's connection to the right class of wine. This is a place where strangers ask you your birth year to establish not your age but the associated vintage. Among the great wine families, I met one man who smiled about his position in life -- but he had just gotten remarried. The others did not smile. They belonged to a rigid and self-referential society, similar to a hereditary aristocracy but mercantile in its essence, and shaped in a peculiar way by the formal rankings of the nearly two hundred top chateaux, the so-called "classified growths." The language is confusing, because "growth" refers not to the vines or even to the individual wines but to the participating chateaux, each of which has been assigned a more or less permanent ranking according to traditional perceptions of its relative prestige and quality. The first classifications were created in the nineteenth century as marketing tools to justify the prices that the top Bordeaux wines were already commanding. They were a huge success, allowing consumers to sort through the confusion of labels, and providing the producers with price-setting structures and a stability that had been lacking in the business. But they went too far. The great weakness of the Bordeaux classification system is that it allows for little or no change. And so it has had the effect of ossifying the entire industry of Bordeaux wines and with it the structure of society.

Parker is a revolutionary because he disregards the traditional rankings and simply tastes the wines. He has in practice created an entirely new and simplified classification system, based upon his own judgment. This is of grave concern to Bordeaux, and especially to the Médoc, which has the most important and prestigious of the classified growths, and where traditionally the most expensive wines have been made. The Médoc is a rolling expanse of vineyards punctuated by overblown manors and occasional impoverished villages (some of them largely inhabited by Moroccan field workers) from which the life seems to have been sucked. It is not an attractive place, but because of its famous wines, it thinks highly of itself. I had been warned that the families there would close their doors on me, as they would close them on Parker if they could. They did not. They guided me through the intricacies of the business, introduced me to their friends, and patiently explained the error of Parker's ways. But nowhere among them was I able to find the person I sought -- someone with the humor and perspective necessary to make a persuasive argument for the preservation of their world. These people were not playing roles. They had crossed a line at birth.

Among them I found a man who seemed to embody their fears -- Bernard Ginestet, the aging scion of a once-great family, an aristocrat fallen from the heights, who in his loss is said to have become a philosopher of wine. I met him for lunch in Bordeaux, in the medieval center of the city. He was a gaunt, gray, unshaven man with heavy-lidded eyes and the voice of a chain smoker; I thought he looked a bit roughed up by life, and probably for the better. He had the demeanor of a disillusioned aristocrat, at once detached and self-abandoned. When he smiled, his face remained serious. When he said, "In every family there are people who are failures," I could not tell if he was referring to himself. Years before, he had inherited and then been forced to sell the historic Chateau Margaux, a large estate in the Médoc that has been making wines for centuries and that stands at the very peak of the classification system, as one of only five classified "first growths" in the Médoc. When he lost the property, in 1977, the Bordelais were horrified by the depth of his fall.

After honoring the family debts Ginestet had little left. He was elected mayor of the local village, also named Margaux. To make a living he became a writer and an editor, and produced a series of narrowly focused books, each on the subject of a single official wine-production area, known as an appellation, often of only a few square miles. Because of the geographic concentration of such work, he became an authority on the central concept of the Bordelais culture: a belief in the fundamental significance of what is called terroir. The word terroir has no concise translation but relates strongly to history, class, and pedigree; it means the soil both real and metaphorical from which a vine, a wine, or a person emerges. Ginestet told me I could spend days trying to understand it. Because weather matters too, as do changes brought about by economics and technology, there is a need to consider the vintage. But for the aristocracy of Bordeaux terroir matters most of all.

My conversation with Ginestet did not go well. He had lived for a while near San Francisco, and he thought he knew the American mind. Few of his books had been translated. I asked him why. He waved his fork vaguely, and in English he said, "Too Frenchy," as if that explanation were enough. He thought my questions about Bordeaux were simplistic. He denied every premise. But rather than clearly expressing himself, he grimaced and shrugged in the Gallic manner, lapsed into silences, worked the food on his plate, glanced at the elegant women at the next table, sipped his water, sipped his wine. He erected barriers. He was very relaxed, but he seemed to feel he was under attack.

I was able to draw him out only on the subject of Parker. He acted fond of him, as an uncle might act toward an obstreperous nephew. Parker had dedicated a book to him, but had also given his wines some very poor scores. Ginestet said, "Bob has succeeded in providing the image that fits today."

"What image is that?"

"The guru. The one who knows."

"Wasn't there a need for a guru before?"

"Yes, but it was fragmented by country, or zone of influence. Today there is the 'globalization.'" He thought it through, and coined a nice phrase. He said, "Bob is an artisan in the globalization of wine."

He meant globalization by the French definition -- the imposition of an American style. Like a lot of Frenchmen, he seemed to see the United States as a single, unified culture. He had lived there, but possibly had not understood its true dimensions -- the coexistence within it of so many different nations. He knew something about San Francisco and New York, and had a superficial view of the rest.

He said, "The American taste is very standardized. Price-conscious. Unsubtle. And that is where Bob excels. He has understood it -- partly by intuition, partly by deduction. Americans like simple things. 'Square.'" He drew a square in the air. "And Bob has a 'square' taste."

I mentioned that Parker's books sell well in France. But Ginestet wanted to keep talking about the United States. He said, "What bothers Americans is, they like certainty. If wine contains a truth, it is the absence of certainty. But one of the reasons Bob has succeeded is that he knows no doubts."

"And the French -- what do they like?"

This was a more complicated thing. He didn't exactly say that the French like uncertainty. He said, "My personal philosophy is, you can be sure of nothing." Then he chose to give a little. He lit a cigarette and inhaled. His voice softened. He said, "Lighter wines. Wines of pleasure. Wines of ... emotion." I wanted to try him again on the idea of terroir, but he closed up when I fumbled for definitions, and so I called for the bill.

Continued...


William Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Photographs by Christopher Barker.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Million-Dollar Nose - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 42-70.