During my vineyard tour, the sight of happy pickers filled my head with the romantic notion of changing my plans and joining the harvest. I asked my tour guide, the winery’s general manager, if I could “help out for a day or two”. With thinly veiled amusement he told me that the vendangeurs (grape pickers) were highly trained workers who came back year after year, and worked the entire harvest—which roughly translated means “I speet on your seely request”. In a moment of foolish bravado I tried to salvage my dignity by asking if I could come back the following year for the whole harvest. This only seemed to increase his amusement, but he gamely suggested that I should send him a fax detailing why I wanted to be a grape picker.
It wasn’t until I returned home that it dawned on me that I had fumbled my way into a rare opportunity that any oenophile would kill for—a glimpse into the inner sanctum of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The fact that I had to pick a few grapes while I was there seemed to be a small price to pay.
Picture yourself condemned to a chain gang, hunched over in the early morning mist, ankles deep in mud, and muscles screaming for mercy. A bell clangs, a tractor roars into view, and you hear corks pop. Around you, sixty-four aching bodies lay down their tools and converge around the tractor. In an instant, the world turns from black and white to Technicolor as you are handed a glass of chilled rosé and a Camembert sandwich. This is the constant cycle of agony and ecstasy that defines the life of a grape picker at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC).
Every year, for ten days in September, an elite team of pickers arrive from near and far to harvest the precious fruit from the Domaine’s mythical seven-parcel portfolio of vineyards. This year they allowed a novice to join the ranks. That novice was me.
The winery is located in the village of Vosne-Romanée (population: 350) nestled within the Cotes du Nuits wine-producing region, twenty miles south of Dijon. The Domaine’s holdings include six adjacent tiny plots of land and one additional satellite plot thirty miles away in the revered white wine-producing region of Puligny Montrachet. Each vineyard has a different name and yields a distinctive, eponymously-named wine: La Tache, Richebourg, Romanée St. Vivant, Grand Echézeaux, Echézeaux, Montrachet, and the jewel in the crown, Romanée-Conti. The latter yields on average, a mere 6000 bottles annually, which retail for $1500 when they are released, and escalate exponentially with age. In fact, to purchase a single bottle of Romanée-Conti, retail stores must buy a mixed case of the Domaine’s wines. It is so scarce and so expensive that few wine lovers actually get to experience it in their lifetime.
All seven of the Domaine’s wines are Grand Crus—a designation irrevocably granted in 1939 to the top 2% of wine producing properties in Burgundy. What distinguishes a Grand Cru property from other less worshipped plots is its terroir—an intangible concept best described as the harmonic convergence of soil, sub-soil, sun, air and the passing of wine-making je ne sais quoi from generation to generation.
But not all Grand Crus are created alike. Two things make DRC the king of Burgundies: the magical combination of skeletal limestone, clay and lime-marble soil, which forces the vines to work harder, thereby generating a lower yield—but with infinitely more concentrated fruit; And the total lack of compromise used in transforming that fruit into wine.
They are not known to compromise on their grape pickers either, but for me they seem willing to make an exception—perhaps in the name of international diplomacy. In early July I received a fax; “We are pleased to confirm that you will be part of our grape picking team. Be prepared to arrive in Vosne-Romanée on September 10. P.S., the date may change without notice, depending on the status of the ripening grapes”. Like the winemakers themselves, I was at the mercy of the grape.
On September 14th, after an eighteen hour journey, I arrive in Vosne-Romanée. It’s the kind of picture perfect French village that you see on posters in travel agencies. Stone houses, narrow streets, geraniums in the window baskets, and only one shop, which to put a finer point on it, is the front vestibule of someone’s house.
My accommodation is a small unfurnished stone house owned by the Domaine and located twenty feet from its front gates. My tiny room has a bare light bulb and a narrow bed with a sagging mattress—a scary thought considering the back-breaking work ahead, not to mention the delicate condition of my two recently herniated discs. Upstairs, in an equally bare room is an oenology student with whom I share a kitchen table and a bathroom without a door. I am feeling positively monk-like in these spartan surroundings until I discover that they are downright luxurious in comparison to the accommodations of the other twenty boarders who are housed three to a room on folding cots. And even that is lavish in comparison to what awaits many pickers at the surrounding chateaux, who after a grueling day in the fields, come home to a tent. Grape picking, camping, and pissing in the woods—the French equivalent of the iron man triathlon.
That night I fall into a coma at 11 p.m., then wake up completely disoriented to the loud clanging of a bell at 2 a.m. From my open window I discover the source, a large church steeple, just fifty meters away. For the rest of the night on the half hour the bell reverberates loudly. Between my jet lag and the noise, sleep is not an option. With nothing to do but read, I fully digest “Romanée-Conti: The World’s Most Fabled Wine”, by Richard Olney—a fascinating study of the Domaine’s properties, beginning with its ownership by the Saint-Vivant de Vergy Monastery in the seventh century.
At 7 a.m. I roll out of bed, barely refreshed by my three hours of sleep, but extremely well informed about my surroundings. I wander to the dining hall at the Domaine building where coffee, cocoa, bread and jam are set out. Then I am invited into the office of Gerard, the field manager. With a toothy smile he equips me with a pair of tall rubber work boots, a hand clipper, a green rubber rain suit and a pannier (a plastic basket). The pickers congregate outside of the garage that houses the tractors. The returning pickers greet each other warmly while the handful of new ones huddle amongst those they came with or stand alone. I feel like a kid arriving at summer camp for the first time. At 7:45 we are led up a short gravel road, just past the famous stone cross that marks the Romanée-Conti plot. We take a brief right and suddenly row upon row of the neatly groomed vines of the Richebourg plot spread out before us. Gerard divides us into three teams. Each team is comprised of a specially designed tractor that straddles the rows of vines, a driver, two formen and twenty-one pickers. I am intentionally placed between four veteran pickers, all women.
Just then a tall, willowy, gentle-mannered man enters the scene. It is Aubert de Villaine, the third generation co-owner and patriarch of the winery. Aubert says hello to the familiar faces and welcomes new ones, shaking hands with the men and kissing the women on both cheeks.
Gerard positions each of us in front of our own row of vines, like sprinters in their lanes. The church clock strikes eight, Aubert shouts; “allez, courage”, and we start picking. Gerard gives me a crash course on how and what to pick, then he leaves me to my own devices.
Unlike Napa and other warmer wine-producing regions of the world where the trellises are at chest level, the grapes in Burgundy are trained to hang six to eighteen inches from the ground. This allows them to absorb the warmth of the soil at night, thereby avoiding the perils of frost during the colder part of the growing season. Contrary to popular belief and the dire warnings of my friends, picking is not about the back as much as it is the thighs, which bear all the weight as one squats down in front of the vines.
The picking routine is as follows: The right hand acts as a weedwhacker, ripping the lower leaves off the vines and exposing the hanging grape bunches. Then the left hand swoops in with the clippers. On some vines, the deep purple grapes dangle in multiple tiny clusters, requiring the dexterity and finesse of a precision hairdresser. On others, they hang in large bunches, and with three or four snips, the vine is bared.
Before each bunch is placed in the pannier, the picker must eyeball it and, if necessary, trim off any sections of the bunch that are rotten, or dried out. Depending on the microclimate and the year, this can be either a cursory or very time-consuming task. Not every grape cluster is picked. On some vines, a second, latent growth appears. These grapes are similar in color to the desirable ones, but they are younger and their acidity levels are way too high. Sometimes they are easy to differentiate, but other times the only way to know for sure is to bite into one and do a quick sugar analysis on the fly before shuffling like a crab to the next vine.
About every fifteen minutes, someone fills their basket and shouts “pannier”. On cue, all of the other pickers stand up in their lane and fall into line with military precision. Then the panniers and their twenty-five pounds of fruit loot are hoisted up and passed over the vines like water buckets at a fire, until they reach the tractor. The two foremen on the tractor gently empty the grapes into shallow plastic boxes that are designed to stack up on each other without squishing any of the precious cargo. The empty panniers are passed back, the pickers return to work, and the grapes are ferried to a flatbed truck that transports them to the couverée (vinification room). There they are placed on a conveyor belt where a team of ten men weed out the undesirable grapes that the vendangeurs have overlooked. The remaining grapes continue along the conveyor belt through a machine that partially de-stems them. From there they are carried into another piece of equipment that lightly crushes them. Finally, they are dropped into a giant wooden cask where they are left to macerate and ferment.
The vendange is executed like a military exercise. Vines are counted off, and pickers are assigned to rows in the same order every time. Sometimes without warning, we are marched to other parts of the vineyard. Later, I learn that the winemakers gather before dinner in a war room to taste vineyard samples, study analyses, and decide which parcels of grapes are ready to be picked and which ones require more hang time.
At the clang of 9 a.m., work in the field comes to an abrupt halt. I have only been on the job for one hour, but I already have a sense of what lies ahead of me, and I’m pathetically grateful for the break. We leave our panniers in our respective rows and congregate by an old stone wall at the end of the vines. Paper-wrapped packets are distributed. Each one contains a hunk of bread with a thick slab of sausage (on alternating days the bread contains a wedge of Camembert cheese). It is always accompanied by two sticks of dark chocolate which I eat on the first day, then eventually learn to squirrel away for a much-needed late afternoon pick-me-up. Bottles are uncorked and rosé is poured freely (I rarely drink before noon, but when in Romanée. . .). It’s an energy boosting breakfast that could only have been designed by a French nutritionist. We lean against the wall, literally and figuratively chewing the fat. Virtually all the pickers fire up a post-meal Gitanes, then it’s time to return to work. “Allez courage.”
We continue picking until 11 a.m. when thankfully it’s time for a quick cigarette break. Never has a non-smoker supported the habit with such enthusiasm. During this brief respite, everyone stays in their respective alleys leaning over the vines to converse like neighbors gossiping over a fence.
At 11:25, the first grape picker goes down for the count. After severing the tip of his thumb with an errant snip of his clippers, a young German college student became dizzy and subsequently fainted. A crowd gathers around him for a minute as he is revived and bandaged up, then it’s back to picking. The distractions of the morning begin to fade. My quad muscles are cramping and my back is twitching in pain. I have run four marathons and I’ve cycled one hundred miles in a day, but neither compares to the physical demands of grape picking. They told me to bring lots of sunscreen, but Ben Gay would have been more appropriate. The next thirty minutes feels like hours, then the clock clangs twelve times and with a collective sigh of relief we head in for lunch.
After hosing the mud off our boots, the sixty-five of us, along with the rest of the workers from the couverée, seat ourselves at four long vinyl-covered tables. Each place is set with a plate, a Duralex glass tumbler, a knife and a fork. The plate is used for all four courses and the glass for water, wine and coffee.
I am about to discover the paradox of the vendange: Hours of physical punishment are juxtaposed with pure hedonistic pleasure. Along the center of each table are four unlabeled wine bottles and four pitchers of water. I gulp down some much-needed water, then pour myself a glass of wine. It is a soft wine with oodles of up-front fruit, primarily raspberry, and a long lingering finish that defies its humble designation as a vin de table. Most chateaux bottle their best juice for their signature wines, then package the rest under another label which is sold as their second wine. Later on, I learn that at DRC, what is not used for their seven legendary labels is blended into a wine that is served in-house. For the entire duration of the vendange, this luscious wine flows freely at lunch and dinner.
Lunch begins with tomato salad topped with crumbled egg, shallots and a pungent Dijon vinaigrette. The room hums as the conversation builds and everyone unwinds. The rudimentary French of my Canadian upbringing saves me from being left in the cold and I am swept up in the warmth of the atmosphere. Each new course arrives looking like it was plucked from the glossy cover of a food magazine. The entrée is a meaty peasant stew served over cous cous. It’s followed by the traditional cheese course, and the meal ends with an apple “tarte tatin” with a flaky buttery crust. The food is all prepared by a husband and wife catering team from nearby Nuits St. George who come every year to cook for the vendangeurs. Three women, including the indefatigable Charlotte, a tiny, wiry woman who has been working at the Domaine for 23 years, ferry the family-style platters to the table—and more importantly—replenish them.
After lunch we lounge on the grass outside where the omnipresent cigarettes are lit. The morning haze has burned off and the warm sun massages my pained legs. Just as I doze off, the clock tower clangs 1:30, sending us back to the fields. “Allez courage”.
In the afterglow of the wine-filled meal, the first hour of squatting, clipping and lifting passes rather easily. But the buzz wears off and the pain returns—and intensifies. The golden sunshine of the morning has turned into a punishing mid-day heat. Layers of clothes are peeled off and reconfigured as makeshift sun hats. Two hours later, my quads have permanent charley horses, and the strength in my upper body is so drained that I can barely hoist the panniers to hip level in order to pass them over the vines. It dawns on me that I have another seven days of this. I seriously contemplate throwing myself under the wheels of the tractor.
The church bell clangs again, bringing me back to reality. My nighttime nemesis has become my new best friend as it slowly counts off the hours. I am obviously not doing a good job of masking my pain since the women around me motheringly ask “c’est n’est pas trop dure?” (is it too difficult?), and motion to the foreman to get me some rosé. I drag my sorry ass along the seemingly endless rows of vines until the single bell at 5:30 mercifully puts an end to my misery.
I limp back to my house. I am dying for a long hot bath with Epsom salts. Well, this may be a culinary paradise, but it ain’t no spa. My shower is a two foot by two foot stall with a hand nozzle that has no attachment to hook onto. I wash the mud and dried, sticky grape juice from my punished body, then dry myself with a washcloth. I collapse onto my cot for an hour before dinner.
Dinners are a more intimate affair than lunches, attended only by the twenty pickers who are being housed at the Domaine. Those who live within driving range have all gone home. We gather at one table where the wine and water sit in their familiar places. With my first sip of wine, the pleasure/pain pendulum swings back into the pleasure zone. We start with onion soup served with crème fraiche, followed by Beef Stroganoff. Over the course of the ten days, we are also treated to salads of carrots, beans, beets, greens, tomatoes, almost always with the now-familiar Dijon mustard vinaigrette. The entrées are all classic French dishes such as Boeuf Bourgignon, roasted chicken halves au jus, and Tartiflette, a crowd favorite made from boiled potatoes, lardons and caramelized onions, topped with an entire Réblochon cheese and baked into a hearty gooey mess. (Recipe, page XX)
Sleep comes easy on my tiny mattress. The next time I hear the church bells, they clang seven times and the cycle of pleasure and misery starts all over again.
By the third day my fingernails are gnarled and thick with dirt. My cuticles are stained purple and my hands, especially my weedwhacking hand, is scratched from the vines and full of gashes where my clippers have cut through the vines, and continued into my flesh. My ability to wield a chef’s knife is in jeopardy, not to mention my future hand-modeling career.
But after another day, the pain starts to become manageable and I begin to find my groove in the fields. Over time, one develops an economy of movement and a sixth sense about which leaves the wayward bunches of grapes are lurking behind. And the individual grapes become less precious as I begin to grasp the bigger picture. All sixty-three acres must be picked quickly in order to avoid the threat of rain, which will further exasperate the pourriture (rot) that already exists on many of the clusters. Eventually a bit of triage is required in order to decide how much time it is worth spending in order to save one eighth of a bunch of grapes.
I am beginning to be able to take my eyes off my clippers and appreciate the splendor of my surroundings. The blue skies, rolling hills and endless vines are hypnotic. The serenity of the countryside is interrupted only by the distant purr of passing trains and the occasional sonic roar of French fighter planes from the Dijon base as they fly their maneuvers overhead.
I am also moving beyond pleasantries and getting to know my fellow pickers. In the less coveted appellation controlée vineyards, the pickers are mostly comprised of transient workers. At DRC, they are college students, people who work in banks, real estate offices, lingerie stores, and shipyards. Some are grandmothers and grandfathers (including one grandmother who has picked for twenty-two years). Most are French with a few stragglers from neighboring countries. The majority are on vacation time, and many told me that picking grapes helps them participate in, and connect with, this vibrant element of French culture. Everybody says that they come for the camaraderie. Consequently, there are no walkmans, or mirrored wrap-around sunglasses. During the entire vendange, I only heard a cell phone ring once in the field.
By mid-week everyone is catching their wind. The boarders start congregating after dinner in the nearby St. Vivant monastery where several of them are squatting. Jojo, one of the foremen staying there has a guitar, and requires little encouragement to use it. The others sip Pernod, scotch or beer and sing along to traditional Burgundian songs.
In the village of Vosne-Romanée, there are approximately forty chateaux, all of which produce wine from grapes grown in their respective vineyards surrounding the village. The teams of pickers at these chateaux are as distinctive as the wines they produce. I experience this first-hand one night while weaving home from a docile sing-along with the Domaine’s pickers. In the darkness, I hear a U2 song echoing through the stone-lined streets. Starved for some familiar music, I follow the sound to a nearby chateaux where I stick my head in to investigate and engage in a brief conversation with a wobbling red-faced man leaning closest to the door. He tells me that he and his friends are celebrating their paulée (the traditional end-of-vendage party) which had begun eleven hours earlier at noon. My bad French accent immediately gives me away as a foreigner and I am invited in and presented with a glass of the chateaux’s ‘82 vintage. In the glow of my good fortune I wander on to the dance floor. No sooner do I start dancing than a French novelty song that was a momentary hit the previous summer is tossed on the CD player. The lyrics in the chorus demand that all men take off their shirts. Without warning, my sweater is lifted over my head and I am standing half naked, amidst a group of totally schnockered Frenchmen.
The revelry continues for another two hours. As we drink our way through several of that Domain’s finer vintages, I become fast friends with a couple of the pickers. We close the party and continue drinking at a nearby house. At three in the morning, I beg off and stumble back to my mattress.
After four hours of sleep, my head throbs as I plod from vine to vine in the cold and drizzly vineyard. My newly acquired skills elude me. Without saying a word, the women on either side of me surreptitiously snip away at the grapes in my row, allowing me to keep pace. To compound my self-inflicted suffering, the drizzle turns to rain.
Then by the grace of God and the declaration of Aubert de Villaine (almost the same thing) the picking is halted after an hour and a half. When it rains, most vineyards keep picking. But at DRC, Aubert doesn’t want the residual water covering the grapes and the droplets trapped amidst the tightly bunched clusters to dilute the intensity of the wine. Halleluiah. My first instinct is to sleep. However a primal need, one that Maslow neglected to include in his hierarchy, takes over. Laundry. Every single piece of clothing I own is stained and sticky. I hitch a ride to Nuits St George. As my clothes tumble in the Laundromat, I wander off in search of a pair of rubber gloves. Since both of my tender and scarred hands are performing completely different tasks, I buy a pair of thick rubber gloves for my weedwhacking hand and a thin, more responsive pair to use on my cutting hand. Note to self: in my next life, return as a rubber glove magnate and create a special package of intentionally mismatched gloves for the grape picking industry.
After a day off and a full night’s sleep, I spring out of bed with renewed energy. A big orange sun rises over the horizon. To add to the pleasure, we are picking the Grand Echézeaux plot. This borders Clos de Vougeot, a cluster of famous Grand Cru plots surrounding a postcard perfect chateau and enclosed by an ancient stone wall. Life is sweet.
Through observation and some lessons in broken French, I begin to learn tricks of the trade that ease my transition from dilettante to seasoned picker. For instance, rubbing the tiny, unripened grapes from the top of the vine between my hands produces a juice that’s all acid and no sugar—perfect for cleaning sticky hands and sterilizing small cuts. And when my energy wanes, I learn to replenish it with grapes that are so brimming with sugar that they taste like tiny bon-bons.
The tactile experience of being so close to the grapes also helps clarify some of the theories and mysteries of wine. In the fields it is not uncommon to have a sixty-year-old vine with its thick gnarled trunk growing beside a spry young specimen. In theory, older vines produce fewer, but more concentrated grapes. Some wineries bottle wines from older vines under the label “vielle vignes” and charge a premium. Sampling grapes from both vines reveals a subtle, yet distinguishable difference in sweetness and concentration.
And during a walk-around at dusk through the different vineyards, the temperatures and humidity differ noticeably. These micro-micro climates affect everything from rot to the sweetness of the grapes. It is easy to understand how one wine can be so different from another produced in an adjacent vineyard.
Another three vineyards away, less than 400 meters from the DRC plots, lie the much less distinguished Vosne-Romanée Appelation Controlée vineyards. These vineyards produce wines that are good but not exceptional (partly because the terroir of the flat land is not as good as the sloped areas, and partly because the grapes are not as pampered at every step in the winemaking process). The next time a wine clerk tries to sell you a wine from a producer who is located “just down the road” from another (usually more prestigious) producer, don’t let the association by proximity fool you.
The days fly by and the mood loosens in the fields. On the morning of the seventh day of picking, word spreads that only one more day remains—and more importantly, that the paulée will be held on Sunday at noon. By design, the paulées always begin at noon, in theory, to give the pickers time to sober up before the drive home.
Sensing that the end is near, the natives begin to grow restless. Whereas the occasional chiding grape was thrown around between pickers all week long, now whole bunches shuttle through the air. And the occasional playful squirts of water have turned into complete Vittel showers. I am given diplomatic immunity from most of the guerilla warfare—that is, until the end of the last day, when no one was spared.
Even at this late point in the harvest, when the legs and back have grown strong, there is a certain level of discomfort and monotony that sets in after a two-hour stretch of picking. Speculation about the wines to be served at the impending paulée provide the perfect distraction. Although everyone knows that the feast customarily includes a selection of vintage holdings from the cellar, the question on everyone’s minds is which of the Domaine’s wines—and more importantly—which vintages will Aubert choose? The veteran pickers raise the hope that he may dust off some bottles from the precious Romanée-Conti plot itself, as he is rumored to have done in the past.
On Friday, our last day, several of the older women bring home-made coffee cakes and beignets that they unwrap and share with us at the 9 a.m. break. Spirits are high and I have finally hit my grape-picking stride (although perhaps it’s the sugar rush). For the first time since we started, I fill my basket first and am able to utter the word that has eluded me for the whole week. “Pannier!” I cry triumphantly. A spontaneous, heartfelt applause breaks out amongst my fellow pickers.
Later that afternoon, Gerard places us in front of our final row of grapes. There is a buzz in the field and it’s easy to tell that something is afoot. An hour later as the last round of panniers is being passed along the fire line, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly bunches of grapes are flying in every direction and being squashing down every imaginable piece of clothing. It begins with the rejected clusters that the warriors pick off the ground, but quickly progresses to the panniers, and finally to a raid of the grapes that have already been loaded onto the tractors. It’s like a food fight in a Sevruga caviar packing plant. I am sorry to report that several cases of precious Echézeaux were sacrificed in the traditional end-of-vendange battle.
After the free-for-all ends and the testosterone levels subside, we load our grape-stained bodies onto the tractors and flatbed trucks and ride in a convoy with horns honking for a victory lap around the village. Stray grapes fly at anybody within range. And it ain’t over yet. As we reach home, the ringleaders leap off the tractor, commandeer the pressure hose that we use to clean the mud from our boots, and turn it on us. Everybody, including the foremen, is thoroughly drenched. Those foolish enough to try to make a break for it are quickly chased down and doused. Even Aubert de Villain and his wife are caught in the melée, and he gamely returns fire. Only then is everyone prepared to call it quits and head to the showers.
Later that night, I leave a party at the monastery of St. Vivant. Nostalgically savoring my last glass of the table wine I’ve grown so fond of, I wander up to the cross at the Romanée-Conti plot. In the darkness I see the vague outline of several lone individuals. A familiar voice calls out my name, and I realize that like me, my fellow pickers are paying homage to the grape gods. I lie down on the stone wall beneath the cross. Its sharp outline is silhouetted against the magical star-filled sky, adorned with the brightest Big Dipper I have ever seen. This is how the grapes of DRC spend their nights.
Had I been told after that first grueling day that I would be sad when the end arrived, I wouldn’t have believed it—in fact the mere concept of finishing the week alive seemed unfathomable at the time. But when the paulée finally arrives, it is bittersweet.
Everyone converges at the Domaine at noon, scrubbed, groomed, and full of anticipation. After an aperitif of Cremant (the local sparkling wine) and some paté canapés, the dining hall doors open to reveal an amazing transformation. The familiar lunch tables have been dressed up with white tablecloths and bowls of wild flowers. In place of the Duralex tumblers are beautiful tulip-shaped crystal wineglasses. We enter with reverence and take our seats.
The first course is Feuilletté d’escargots a l’Oseille (snails served in a puff pastry with a creamed herb sauce). After welcoming everyone and applauding them for completing a difficult picking season, Aubert introduces the first wine, an ’87 Puligny Montrachet. It has a deep golden, almost Sauternes-like color. The nose is all honey. It glides down the throat and perfectly complements the escargot. To my surprise, after our table finishes our two bottles, another one magically appears. Not a bad start.
Two huge magnums of ‘88 La Tache are placed on the table to accompany the main course of filet mignon. I am astonished by the generosity—each one of these would fetch $1000 from collectors. After spending eight days communing with the red grapes, touching them, nibbling them, and breathing in their aroma, the foreplay is finally over. It’s time to consummate the relationship. I bury my nose in the glass and inhale its intense bouquet, then close my eyes and take a sip. Its viscosity is much thinner than I had imagined. The predominant impression is sour cherry, and the finish goes on and on. It is a great…a very great wine, but not transcendent.
As we finish the entrée, I notice Aubert leave his seat and walk into the kitchen. From my vantage point I see him pull eight dusty bottles from a wooden crate. After carefully opening each bottle, he pauses to taste it, like a sommelier. Could this mean…?
Cheese trays are passed around. Finally Aubert emerges. With obvious pleasure he announces that we are being served 1961 Romanée-Conti. A hush decends upon the room. I had dared to dream that I might taste a Romanée-Conti, but never a vintage as rare and priceless as this. A bottle is placed on our table, and when it makes its way to me, I cradle it in my hands. A considerable amount of sediment is evident at the bottom around the punt. I pour the precious liquid into my glass carefully and hold it up to the light. It is deep crimson in color, with shades of burnt umber. On the nose it has an intense, explosive aroma of such opulence that I am dazzled. I pause for a minute to meditate on its heady perfume, then I take my first sip. The wine dances on my tongue. It’s an exhilarating sensation. I have had wines that were more instantly gratifying, but never one that was as complex and intellectually stimulating. The pleasure is, of course, enhanced by my intimate knowledge of its heritage. Minutes later it gets even more sublime as it opens up in the glass. We are all acutely aware of the privilege that Aubert has bestowed upon us. A wine that serious collectors would kill for is being shared with sixty-five glorified field hands. The meal is capped off with a rich gateau au chocolat and a round of the Domaine’s Marc (a rough cognac-like spitit distilled from pressed grape skins). Then abruptly, it‘s all over.
We all exchange addresses and say our good-byes. Then I head to my room to pack my bags for the flight home to Los Angeles. In another eighteen hours, I will be back in a fast-paced world full of familiar faces, creature comforts, and fleeting moments of glamour. But now, that world seems daunting. How will I survive without the daily triumphs over sheer physical pain, the communing with nature, the camaraderie with absolutely no agenda, and the 9 a.m. rosé and Camembert sandwiches? Allez courage.