Wednesday, November 11, 2020

My Story with Château Haut-Brion

Chateau Haut-Brion 1945 1947 1955 1959  bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1945 1947 1955 1959 
bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

My Story with Château Haut-Brion 


As usual, but just to introduce the idea to those of you (new readers) who may have never read any of my previous posts on this blog before, the following post is a tale (storytelling) of the events that led to my first encounter with Château Haut-Brion. 

The story includes both personal real-life and romanticized events as well as other stuff (personal views and opinions included here and there), mingling with wine tips and knowledge I'd like to share with you. 

All my posts are usually very long stories about the intricate relations between people, life, life experiences and wine (of course). Some of you may relate to these stories as they might remind you of similar experiences you have lived. 

Here you go, you've been warned. So, stop here, if you're already bored, or otherwise, go ahead and have a good read. 

Love declaration

Recently, while doing a stocktaking (at a private cellar I'm taking care of), and taking pictures of some of the bottles (for both quality control record purposes and satisfy my own pleasure and passion for wine and photography), I stumbled across some rare and old vintages of Château Haut-Brion. 

I was ecstatic, as Château Haut-Brion has been, still is and probably will continue to be my favourite wine in the world ever.

Yep! That’s it! I’ve just said it. You read it well "Château Haut-Brion is my favourite wine in the world!!!"

I just love Haut-Brion. For me, it is like the Holly Graal of wine. The pinnacle of wine quality, transcending time and generation changes. Not only because Haut-Brion is one of the oldest wine estates in Bordeaux, boasting roughly 500 years of history (since its creation in 1525). Nor because it is the oldest of the first growth and was already legendary when it was included as one of the 4 First Growths (*) in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification (due to its quality, fame and selling price equivalent to the other First Growths from the Haut-Médoc). But, more importantly, because of its character, personality, complexity, consistency (bad years, good years), persistence and fabled ageing capability. 

Moreover, I can say that in my 29 years career working with wine, as a certified Sommelier, Head Sommelier, Wine & Spirits Buyer and Wine Quality Control Director (**), I had the chance and the privilege to buy, sell, promote, take care of, open, prepare, decant, taste and even drink a countless amount of bottles of it, and I must admit that I have very rarely been disappointed by Château Haut-Brion (not to say never).

Of course, like for any other wines, incidents happen and, occasionally, I may have found bottles that were corked or oxidized, or slightly damaged due to non-ideal storage conditions or even problems during transit, which were unfortunately undrinkable. However, they were bad due to collateral effects, not due to the wine quality of Haut-Brion itself. 

Very occasionally, I may have also found some bottles of Château Haut-Brion that were eventually:
  • Tired”, maybe a little, but very rarely, and only with poor vintages. Haut-Brion always seems to get better and even more complex with age, consequently “tired Haut-Brion” is an oxymoron.
  • Closed”, surely, yes, more particularly with young vintages. One must be patient to enjoy Haut-Brion, as it is usually very shy, closed and tight when young, and needs at least 10 years prior to unfold and fully reveal itself from its long "hibernation". Patience is a very rewarding virtue with Château Haut-Brion.
  • Tight” occasionally, especially when young and mostly with difficult or lesser vintages, where Haut-Brion may taste more tannic and rustic than usual, but it always seems to smooth down and get better after a few years, even on lesser vintages. 
  • "Light", occasionally, yes, more especially on lesser vintages, but remember that compared to ripe powerhouse Pauillac wines like Château Latour or Mouton Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion almost has a Burgundian style, lighter and more refreshing, more delicate and refined too, yet without being less rich nor complex. Like with everything else, it is just a question of taste and what you prefer to drink. 

But “bad” or “really bad” or even “disappointing” never! (IMO). Which is not something that I can say about some of its counterparts from both banks and within similar pedigree (ranking and price/value). 

And that is why I love Haut-Brion, because it is a solid and consistent wine, with a complex personality, lots of character and layers of aromas and flavours, complimenting both, respectively, the nose and the palate, and expanding till the end of the lengthy finish. 

Moreover, to my palate, Haut-Brion is rarely disenchanting (not to say never), and usually gets better with age. In my opinion, Haut-Brion is the best of the five 1st Growths, as it is the most consistent and persistent. And it usually sells for slightly less than the others, so, one could even say that it is a better value for money. 

What can I say... I just love this wine!!! 

Something was missing...

After taking a few shots of these "Old and Rare Ladies" (as I like to call such bottles of a certain age), I wanted to compare the pictures (I just took) with previous ones I took and used in some other posts on my blog and social media. 

That's when I realized, that over the last 12 years of existence of my blog (LeDomduVin), I have mentioned and written (quite a few times) about my love for Château Haut-Brion (and that it is my favourite wine in the world), in numerous posts. However, and surprisingly enough, it seems that, despite my belief that I did (at least once), I have never written a post fully and exclusively on Château Haut-Brion. 

Which is quite surprising, because my love for Haut-Brion goes way back to my early adulthood. And, thus, understandably, as "It is somewhat quite sentimental between Château Haut-Brion and me" (as I like to say), it should have inspired me to write a post exclusively about it much sooner. Oh well... it's never too late… So, here it is! 

Let me tell you the story about how “We” (Château Haut-Brion and I) first met and how our paths continued to cross over the years ever since. This story is quite personal and based on real events, consequently, some people might recognize themselves or people or places they know or once knew. It all began in the early 90s... 

My story with Château Haut-Brion

I first tried Château Haut-Brion at the age of 21 years old. It was back in 1994, while I was working as a Chef de Rang / Assistant Sommelier in a gastronomic restaurant called “Le Relais de Compostelle” in Talence. 

And, coincidentally, the restaurant was (and probably still is) located on a large road called “Cours de la Liberation”, at the boundary between the communes of Talence and Pessac, (south of Bordeaux), roughly about 5 kilometres driving from Château Haut-Brion. 

Although, I got acquainted with wine quite early, (like most Bordeaux-natives, or anyone else growing up in a wine-producing region, where wine is a traditional daily beverage, as well as, a part of the local culture and way of living), I must admit that, at 21 years old, I was still young and quite naïve about life and about wine too. 

And, despite the fact that I received an early wine education from my grandfather (who was a winemaker in the Côtes de Bourg / Côtes de Blaye) and also from my parents who, occasionally, drank fairly inexpensive local wines, I must admit that I was still far from having already developed an experienced and discriminating palate at that age.

Yet, having worked in bars and restaurants for a few years already, as a Bartender, Waiter, Chef de Rang, Maitre D’ and even assistant Sommelier, I had no difficulty discerning good wines from bad ones, and, despite my lack of experience, my palate was not bad at all and already showed promises and good inclination to tasting and drinking wine. 

Moreover, (and despite the common belief that all Bordeaux natives grow up tasting and drinking top-notch wines from early childhood, which is actually not true), prior to tasting Haut-Brion at the age of 21, (and despite the fact that the wine list of the restaurant I was working for included lots of other illustrious Bordeaux wines that my Head Sommelier occasionally opened for the customers and that I could have eventually tasted), I had never really tasted such an expensive wine or even a world-renowned wine like this one before, let alone a "1st Growth". 

In some aristocratic or wealthy Bordeaux families, tasting and drinking the likes of Château Haut-Brion might be a common thing. But, I come from a very modest lower-middle-class family, with a rural background on my mother's side, thus, needless to say, that I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. And, drinking wine such as Haut-Brion, at home, never happened as my parents had other financial priorities and issues, and, frankly, could not afford to buy this kind of wine, even for special occasions. 

Hence, it is surely the reason why I still remember the day of my very first tasting of Haut-Brion, like if it was yesterday. 

I was working at the restaurant that day. A customer was celebrating something with his family. He ordered a few bottles of some great wines (a white and some reds), including Château Haut-Brion. 

The restaurant manager, who also was my Maitre D’ and Head Sommelier, took care of presenting, preparing, decanting and serving the bottle to the customer and his guests. Back then, I was just a junior, and such a bottle deserved to be handled by more experienced hands. 

So, he proceeded to the presentation, preparation and decantation of the bottle in front of the customer and his guests in the most elegant way. He had a certain class and style, always boasting a groomed appearance and impeccable manners. He was a good mentor too and I learned a lot of what I know about food and wine service just by watching him. 

Yet, his refined look and proper manners hid a sneaky side of his personality, a less noble inclination or conduct, but not in a bad way, (don’t get me wrong), it was just that he always managed to snatch a good half-a-glass away, every time he was opening and decanting such great wines for the customers. It was not done maliciously or with bad intentions. It was for a good cause, being able to taste the wine and grow his knowledge. 

Moreover, it was also for education purposes (should I say). My education. The education of my palate that is. And, at the end of the day, all Head Sommeliers and Sommeliers do it, (more than occasionally...), in all restaurants around the globe (...some truths are better left unsaid maybe…). 

So, he discreetly brought the snatched half-a-glass of wine in the pantry, by the kitchen, and poured half of it into another glass that he handed me, so I could taste the precious nectar. 

Wow... I was speechless. I was holding a quarter-of-a-glass of one of the most iconic and revered wine estates of Bordeaux, undoubtedly France and probably the whole World... It felt surreal somehow... We knocked our glasses for the traditional "Santé", exchanged a smile and a wink, then started sipping. 

Et voilà! This is how I tasted my first quarter-of-a-glass of Château Haut-Brion. Not while eating, nor seating at a table at a posh restaurant, nor with family or friends, but, standing up in a crowded pantry, during the service, at the back of a kitchen, while facing my Maitre D’ / Head Sommelier, with whom I was sharing the experience, after he so skillfully managed to sneak a bit more than half-a-glass from the decanter during the decantation process. (**) 

Even if it was only a quarter-of-a-glass, tasting Château Haut-Brion for the first time was a real treat. It felt like a truly unique experience. I somehow felt very lucky and privileged to do so. I mean, as far as I can remember, at the time, I do not think that anyone in my family or any of my friends had ever tasted Haut-Brion. And personally, it was my first time.  

Actually, I had never tasted such a delightful and complex wine like this one before. And it left me speechless. I do not exactly remember the vintage though… but I do remember that it was in the 80s... I’m thinking about either 85, 86 or 89, but I believe it was 1989, as it was still very young and we were in 1994 (my memory is failing me about the vintage, though… It was 26 years ago… getting old). 

That day, I fell in love with Haut-Brion! And, it immediately became an obsession (that lasted till this day). I had to taste it again, but could not even afford to pay a bottle for myself, (and make an appointment to taste at the Château seemed completely out of reach at that time), so I was hoping (“counting on” should I say) that another customer will come to the restaurant and order a bottle soon, (for my Maitre D' to snatch another glass and share it with me again ;-).  

The gastronomic restaurant (I was working at) was not necessarily expensive, but it was not cheap either. It had an excellent reputation for the food (the service and the wine list too, of course;-)) and a fairly wealthy clientele of local and some foreign wine amateurs, who could easily afford some of the most expensive bottles on the wine list (including Haut-Brion). 

Yet, that said, even if we had also plenty of customers coming to celebrate special occasions (weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, birthdays, job promotions, etc...), who had all the excuses to open such costly bottles, quite rare were the occasions to sell or open a bottle of Château Haut-Brion or any other of the illustrious wines back then. 

Was it because the restaurant was not posh enough or high-end enough for them to spend their money into a costly bottle of wine? Maybe, but not entirely... It may have had something to do with the fact that our clientele was mostly local (with a restricted budget, and as you may know already, French people are famous for being stingy with their money) rather than rich foreign tourists (usually able to spend more). 

It may have had also something to do with the fact that the wine list offered a wide range of local Bordeaux wines that could also deliver a delightful experience at much more affordable prices, without feeling obliged to spend a lot to enjoy a very satisfying bottle of wine. 

The wine list, (back then in the early 90s), was constituted, nearly exclusively, of Bordeaux wines (local chauvinism oblige at the time), of which, about 65% of them were from Pessac-Leognan, (surely due to the restaurant’s location and immediate proximity with the eponymous wine region, too), an appellation renowned for its approachable, consistent, easy-drinking and great value for money wines. 

So... "Why spend more when you can spend less?" (A very french way of reasoning here...)... 

You have to understand that the “Bordelais”, (the name of the inhabitants of Bordeaux), usually only spend money for top-notch wines, mainly and almost exclusively, when eating at top restaurants. They will never consider it otherwise… (sigh)... (mentality and attitude may have changed though, in the last 30 years... but, not sure, as I do not go back to Bordeaux often enough or long enough to really witness it…). 


Aparté: Between you and me, the last time I went back to Bordeaux, after a long while, was last summer, in 2019, and it had been 6 years I had not gone back before that…. which may appear weird for some of you, who might think that I do go back to my home country more often than that, or at least once a year, but no, I don't... It might be difficult for you to comprehend the reason why, as I’m a Bordeaux native and still have most of my family and friends there. Moreover, I really love my home town of Bordeaux (which is now grand and beautiful, especially compared to when I left it back in July 1997 to never come back, so far... 23 years already living out of France.. Time flies). And, I also love my native region of the Gironde: the countryside where I grew up, the quaint little villages, the ocean of vines covering most lands, the long white sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast, the fisherman villages, the food and the local recipes, the wines, the quality of life, the beauty and diversity of the landscape, and so much more etc, etc... but, such is life, sometimes, one can not always do or decide what he (or she) wants on his own, especially when married with kids (not with a french lady, but an American one, both expatriated from our native countries, which complicates things a little...) living in Hong Kong, a great yet costly place to live in. Not always easy. 


However, going back to the story, although a bottle of Haut-Brion was less expensive back in the mid-90s compared to nowadays, it still commanded a hefty price back then and not many of our customers could or were ready to spend such amount. 

Needless to say, (and I do not want to offend anyone in Bordeaux by saying that), but, (and I'm repeating myself when saying that), “Pessac-Léognan” wines (“Graves” in general) were, and still are, (in my opinion) the best value for money when it comes to Bordeaux wines (aside of the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Sup and other generic appellations, where one can still find very decent wines for just a few euros). 

So, unless for a "very special" occasion, why ordering the most expensive Pessac-Leognan on the wine list, for a lunch or a dinner, especially when dining in a “very good”, but not that “fancy” restaurant (after all), where the wine list offers other choices from the same Appellation at lesser prices, which could do just fine? 


I spent a little more than 3 years working in that restaurant, promoting and upselling the wines from Bordeaux in general, but more especially those from Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Julien, which are, (here again, and still without trying to offend anyone), surely the best value money can buy when it comes to Bordeaux, and more specifically Haut-Médoc wines (for Saint-Julien). 

Working in that restaurant was hard and exhausting. Back in the 80s and 90s, restaurant owners (in general) did not have much care for their employees, their benefits nor their health. We were a small team covering a lot of ground and serving a lot of people, as we had 3 main separated dining rooms that we converted into big event rooms that could welcome from 60 people for the smallest one, up to easily 100 people for the biggest one.

I remember running around like crazy to do absolutely everything (service of the water, bread, wine, food, carving, the setting of the table, etc...) on my own, without a "commis" or even a "pass-boy", for a room with more than 15 tables ranging from 2 up to 8 persons per table. And my colleagues were doing the same in the other rooms. We were doing many hours a day without a break (usually from 9am to past midnight, every day, 6 days a week), especially on weekends with the weddings and other events, (sometimes 3 events were going on at the same time, as we had 3 huge dining rooms) and barely any leave or sick days. 

I don't even remember going on vacations once in a little more than 3 years working there. 

Yet, it was also fun, as we were a good team and the restaurant was always full. so, no downtime and the clientele was very local, especially at lunch and on weekends. Consequently, we knew nearly everyone from the surrounding businesses and Châteaux of the nearby Pessac-Leognan Appellation (and beyond). Most people knew each of us too, which made it easier for us to entertain friendly relationships with our customers and work in a more relaxed atmosphere. That’s also very important psychologically and physically when you work long hours 6 days a week (minimum 15 hours a day). 

It's how I started to get to know and get well acquainted with some of the people from the top Châteaux of Pessac-Léognan (and "Graves" in general) that we had on the wine list. After nearly 3 years, I ended-up knowing fairly well some of our most regular customers, who often happened to be the owners, estate directors and/or even the winemakers and even occasionally some of the staff of some of the most renowned Pessac-Leognan’s Châteaux such as (just to name a few): 
  • Olivier Bernard from Domaine de Chevalier
  • Anthony Perrin from Château Carbonnieux 
  • André Lurton from Château La Louvière 
  • One of the Kressman or one the Dourthe family member (don’t exactly remember who, maybe both) from Château Latour-Martillac
  • The Cathiard (Florence and Daniel Cathiard) who just bought Château Smith Haut Lafitte a few years ago back then (1990)
And even, (amongst many others), Mr Georges Pauli, cellar master and oenologist of Château Gruaud Larose (until 2007), who was a “bon vivant” and a friend of the Relais de Compostelle’s Chef/Owner (Mr Daniel Mommolin) as well as all the staff. We liked Mr Pauli a lot. He was nice, very funny and quite direct too. He had a distinct “franc-parler” (frankness or bluntness) and was speaking with a thick accent (from the South-Ouest of France), which made the character even more enjoyable and likeable. 

We also knew other people from Château de Fieuzal, Château Haut-Bailly, Château Malartic Lagravière, Château Olivier, Château Brown (in Léognan), Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Château Rochemorin, Château Cruzeau (in Martillac), Château Pape Clément (in Pessac), Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion (in Talence), Château Couhins-Lurton (in Villenave d'Ornon) and Château Bouscaut (in Cadaujac)... etc... 

And not to forget, amongst our best and most regular customers, we also had all the people from the management team of the rugby department of the “Club Athlétique Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde” (CABBG), as well as most of the rugby players, who established headquarters in one of the rooms of the restaurant, so often back then, that it felt like they were coming almost every weekend to celebrate the so-famously-called rugby's “third half-time” (“la troisième mi-temps” en Français) after nearly each Sunday matches. It was fun, loud and joyful. 

These were 3 hard but good years with a lot of incredible and unforgettable moments and memories, yet, these 3 years also took a heavy toll on me… 

A rough start in life

In fact, thinking of it, these were 3 frantic years, working at this restaurant like a dog, 15-16 hours a day (sometimes 18 hours a day - my personal records being 72 hours straight during the wedding and communion season, with just the time to go back home, take a shower, iron 1 or 2 shirts, eventually sleep 1 or 2 hours, then back again - it was crazy), 6 days a week (sometimes 7 days a week), with barely any break time in the afternoon, not paid much and not much consideration either. 

So, you probably wonder how I could accept these conditions and do that to myself? And also why did I stay? Why not quit and find something else if I was not happy there?... 

Well, I did not have much choice, unfortunately, and that was just how the restaurant's life was for most employees (I knew), back then, in France (it might still be the same in some restaurants nowadays too). 

If you do not know it already, you have to realise that France is an old school, very elitist country, with a patriarchal system, which is somewhat prejudiced against people from different backgrounds. Therefore, education, diplomas and family background are very important to French schools and employers in general. Meaning that to find a good job in France, you better come from a wealthy family (pedigree), have been to the right schools (education), got some diplomas (certification), and/or have the right contacts either via your family or through previous work experiences (recommendations). (***) 

And, unfortunately, I had none of the above. Consequently, being a "waiter" was the only job a guy like me, (i.e. someone who left school early with no diploma and not much school education overall), could do back then. So, it started working as a waiter (a “larbin” or “stooge” if you prefer) in a local restaurant, overworked to earn peanuts and no real other choices or possibilities to do anything else (trust me, I tried), and thus no foreseeable brighter future either. 

The equation was simple for most people when dealing with a guy like me: no diploma, no ambition, no future. Right after failing at school, at the age of 18, I started to work in a few bars and brasseries, then a few months later, in December 1991, I went to the army, which was still mandatory back then in France. After 10 months in the army, as a ”Chasseur Alpin” at the foot of the Alps, in the Vercors, south of Grenoble, I was back again in search of a job. 

Unfortunately, a few months later, after many attempts at trying different jobs, I realized that people were not ready to give me a job based on my personality or my potential, without having any diplomas or certification or qualification in anything. Thus, being a barman/waiter was the only thing I could do well enough to get paid and it did not require any of the above. 

France was (and probably still is) not very indulgent with people with no background and not well-born, (like me). More especially in a wealthy and aristocratically posh town such as Bordeaux, where a family name and phoney protocols, as well as old usages and money, are needed to enter the inner circles, have a slight hope to succeed and reach some of your ambitions (or at least not fall into society’s oblivion). 

Basically, if you’re not well born in the right family, not the son or the daughter of Mr. or Mme de [enter an appropriate posh French name], if you don’t know the right people or don’t have the right contacts, didn’t go to certain specific schools, don’t come from money, and don’t have whatever talent that could bring you 15 minutes of fame and get you noticed by the wealthy, then you’re not good enough for the Bourgeoisie Bordelaise. 

And guess what? I was not worthy as I did not have any of the above….

In short, I was 21 years old, my life was shit, almost nonexistent. I was like a robot (work-eat-sleep-repeat), working long hours, no real social life (apart from my colleagues), had no money in the bank, had some debts already, was living in a small apartment (yet, I liked this apartment), was driving a “4th hand” car, no time for friends, no girlfriends (not even occasional ones), no weekends and even less time for vacations… and all my ambitions were pushed below ground under the weight and the pressure exercised on me (daily or at least that’s how it felt) by most people telling me that, whatever I do, I would never be good enough and will never succeed anyway… 

It seems kind of cruel and depressing, I know, but, unfortunately, that’s the way it was for me back then, in Bordeaux (in France, should I say?), and that’s probably the way it still is now for people with similar backgrounds as mine. And I was not the only one in that position, some of my colleagues were in the same situation too, or even worse. 

I left France 23 years ago, so I'm not sure if it still is the same situation for the younger generations, but from what I can hear, it is. More especially since they upgraded the train speed and lines between Paris and Bordeaux (only 2 hours and 30 minutes nowadays, instead of at least 4 or 5 hours back then). So, not only young people, from a lower-middle-class background like mine and no diploma, are still confronted with the rules and protocols of the “Bourgeoisie Bordelaise” and the high society of Bordeaux, but also from Paris now. 

I guess it is true in some other big cities, in France and in other countries around the world too, but it is definitely not easy to grow up and start your working life in France, more especially with no background and no diploma, I’m telling you. As the French don’t look and are not interested in your intrinsic qualities, skills, knowledge and potential, they look and are only interested in your family background and your diplomas. And that’s it. And that’s the main reason why in France, (like in other countries), a lot of people, although completely incompetent for the job, still get access to high-rank managerial position and salary. 

However, as always, I have derived from the main subject by telling you a little bit of my own life, but the story is somehow related to my experience with Haut-Brion. 

A Ray of Hope 

While most of my friends went to university and enjoyed their late teenage years and early adult life, juggling between courses in college classes and university amphitheatres, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, bars and discotheques on weekly basis, and other activities during weekends getaway, my life was shit and non-existent (as I was saying earlier). I was in my early 20s, and no one had any particular interest in me or my physical, psychological and emotional conditions or my life in general. 

In fact, despite my parents and maybe a bunch of old friends who tried to boost my self-confidence and self-esteem, and pushed me around, for me to try to do something greater with myself, I had never really inspired anyone and never really shown what I was capable of either. 

Probably, because no one really gave me a chance or the opportunity to do so, but also and mostly because I have never really dared try to do anything or create the opportunity for myself either, surely fearing that I wouldn’t be able to do it, too preoccupied thinking that people will not find me fit for the job anyway, not skilled or experienced enough. 

A recurring fear due to my “maladive” lack of confidence and self-esteem, which I have always struggled with, up until now. A fear which forced me into my solitude, where I developed, from a very early age, a solitaire demeanour as protection against others, but more importantly against myself. 

Yet, I was used to it, as I have pretty much always done things alone, on my own and by myself (and/or for myself) since preadolescence. I was conscious of that unfortunate fate, and no one else but me really cared or was able to do something about it. Until one day… one person did. 

It was my uncle, one of the brothers of my father. He was a teacher in economics. He had contacts with the “Lycée polyvalent d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme de Gascogne”, basically a “Hotel and Tourism Management School”, which happens to be located near the restaurant I worked for and not too far from my apartment. In a long discussion with him at his house, he literally kicked my ass verbally (but gently still), by elegantly telling me to “get a life”. He said that I could not continue to live my life this way and to work like the way I was working and that I had to do something to change things, turn things around, make my life better. 

He told me he could probably get me into that school, but, first, he asked me what I would be interested to do? Which courses and professional orientation I would prefer to follow if I had the choice? I had been (and still was working) as a Chef de Rang / Maitre D’ for that restaurant, but I wanted to broaden my knowledge and skills, wanted to travel and had certain ambitions too. 

I liked wine and that first experience tasting Haut-Brion enlightened the fact that I had a growing interest in it. Also, assisting the Head Sommelier at the restaurant, on a daily basis (and also being the grandson of a “vigneron” / winemaker), resulted in an increased desire to work with wine. 

Wine often leads to food, people, social events and travels, discovering producing countries and regions, meeting with winery’s owners, producers, winemakers, vineyard managers and cellar masters, participating to wine tastings and events all around the world (if I wanted to and I could afford it too). 

My mind was excited and full of hope, wandering in a world I had only imagined looking at pictures in books and watching documentaries on TV. Imagine what it felt like, for a young adult with no real school education and no real future, like me (at the time), to be told that if I passed an exam and go to that school to further study wine for a year and pass another exam, the whole world would be served to me on a silver plate. My thoughts were already vagabonding in faraway places I only dreamed to visit one day. 

And although I had no self-confidence, nor self-esteemed, always found myself pretty stupid and unreliable in so many ways, and I wasn’t meant for school (or vice versa), I listened to him, took my courage with both hands and decided to give a try. What did I have to lose? I was already pretty close to the bottom, so might as well try to go back up and do something of and about myself. 

The Exam

In order to be able to go to that “Hotel management, tourism and catering school”, I had to pass two diplomas as self-candidate first. So, while working at the restaurant, I spent my rare afternoon breaks and rare days off studying for the exam occurring a few months later. I couldn’t spare much time to do so as I was always working, but I still managed to find ways to do it. 

The day of the exam finally arrived. It was a beautiful and warm day in late June. Summer vacations were just days away and you could feel the end of the school year mood in the air. It was kind of weird to find myself back in a school environment after not being there for the past 5 years. I was in my early 20s while most of the students around me were only 18 at the most. It was awkward and maybe a little downgrading too, but I couldn’t let myself be distracted by puerile thoughts. 

While searching for the exam room, I walked stairs and corridors full of kids and teenagers, who looked at me more like a young teacher rather than someone about to pass an exam like them. I found the classroom, sat at a table with my name of it, and tried to relax by looking around at the 2 dozens of other kids sitting in the room. Butterflies were dancing in my stomach. 

I didn’t think I studied well or hard enough to pass, but I was ready to give it a try. It was an opportunity for me to, once again, fight and push aside my own demons and ghosts, and show to the world that I was worth more than what they could think (what I could think, in fact, as we are each our worst own judge). Someone handed us the exam sheets including multiple-choice and essays as well as open-response questions. 

As always, in life (in general) as in exam, I probably wrote way too much, too many details and surely derivated from the main subject and the questions asked. Which usually leads me to waste time on some answers and not being able to answer all the questions. However, I took longer than most in the room, but, for once in a long while, I was pretty confident that what I wrote would get me a pass on this exam. A few weeks later, the results came illuminating my face with a satisfied smile. I passed. It was both a relief and the open door to a brand new world full of possibilities (and eventually new horizons).

With both diplomas on hands, I was able to enter the school. My uncle had succeeded to secure a seat for me in the Certified Sommelier program class (called “La mention complémentaire de Sommelerie”), where I was to study, both theoretically and practically, everything a classicly trained Sommelier needs to know about the
  • Origin (history/geography), 
  • Making (vineyard management, viticulture, vinification, ageing, production, etc..), 
  • Promoting (promotion, marketing, events, website, e-newsletter and emails), 
  • Buying (meetings, tastings, selecting, negotiating, logistics), 
Selling (meetings, tastings, events) , preparing and service of all wine & spirits (also including port, sherry, sake, whisky, Cognac, Armagnac, Eaux de vie, marc, etc, etc...… all drinkable alcohol basically, as well as basic knowledge of the common cocktails), but also about most non-alcoholic beverage (coffee, tea, infusions, chocolate, fruit and vegetable juices, soda, mineral waters, etc…), food (most evidently, essential for all Sommeliers working in restaurants), including cheeses (what would the world be without cheeses?), but also cigars… 

********Work In progress**** to be continued and finished soon 

Chateau Haut-Brion Label Evolution  by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion Label Evolution 
by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc old and new label  by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc old and new label 
by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Sources, links, apartés and other explanations: 

(*) Most websites, posts and articles on the subject often show, mention or state "Chateau Mouton Rothschild" as one of the First growth in the "1855 Bordeaux Classification", it is a mistake that I pointed out many times already, Mouton was only promoted as a First Growth in 1973 after years of efforts from Baron Philippe de Rothschild who fight to make it happen. Meaning that in 1855, only 4 Chateaux were chosen and listed as First Growth in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, not 5.    

(*) In the last 29 years of my career in the wine business, I have been a Sommelier, Head Sommelier and Wine & Spirits buyer for top restaurants and wine boutique retail stores on 3 continents for 21 years, and the Wine Quality Control Director and Market Analyst for the wine division of a big corporate company for the past 8 years. 

(**) Originally I wrote a very long aparté that was supposed to come right after that paragraph, but, as it was too long, I decided to cut it out and make a special post on this particular subject: The Decantation and the importance of the Avinage of the carafe (coming soon on the blog, that will be the 2nd post on the subject, that says how important it is for me). 

(***) You might say, it the same everywhere, but I will say NO. When I moved to London, and more especially the United States, the fact of having a rural low-middle-class background and no diplomas did not matter much (compared to France). They welcome me with open arms and the rule was easy: "Show us you can do it, and you'll keep the job. Otherwise, the door is just there." And I can tell you that it is a great motivator, as you can grow rapidly and access management positions through hard job and experiences, rather than just because of your pedigree and background or contacts as a "fils ou fille de Bonne Famille" placed there because your father or mother knew someone, or because you have the required diplomas while not being fit for the position. 

Chateau Haut-Brion 1945  label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1945 
label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1947  label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1947 
label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1955  label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1955 
label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1959  label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1959 
label shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1945 1947  bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1945 1947 
bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1955 1959  bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1955 1959 
bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1955 1961 1978 1982  bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1955 1961 1978 1982 
bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

Chateau Haut-Brion 1929  bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020
Chateau Haut-Brion 1929 
bottles shot by ©LeDomduVin 2020

All the above, unless specified otherwise, including, but not limited to, texts, quotes, pictures, photos, memes, illustrations, graphics and drawings ©LeDomduVin 2020 (Dominique Noël)

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