The Education of a Connoisseur

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Part 3: Graduate School

When I returned to Princeton from Ireland I needed a job. While I'd been studying at Trinity, a wine shop had opened in town, Le Tire-Bouchon. Its proprietor, the inimitable and oft-imitated François, had been one of the reps who sold wine to Quilty's and I knew him well.

Many times François had sat at my bar where we engaged in rarefied conversation, most memorably an argument over the validity of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. I said it still held water, so with one of the world's best physics departments across the street I called for a second opinion, blindsiding a grad student answering phones. After the bewildered young physicist got his bearings, he confirmed that Heisenberg's insight still obtained. Only then did François qualify his objection by saying that one could know both the position and direction of an electron using probability tables….

Given my newly acquired academic laurels and the high probability of more arguments with François over quantum mechanics, I thought the job would just be a temporary fix, but I ended up working at Le Tire-Bouchon for over three years. While I'd completed a Master's degree in literature, I had unknowingly enrolled in an altogether different graduate school with an eccentric but immensely knowledgeable professor.

To work at Le Tire-Bouchon was to be immersed in wine: we talked about it all day; we read about it, always quick to look up what we didn't know in a well-thumbed copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine kept under the counter; and, most of all, we drank wine, lots of them, tasting dozens weekly in-store and enjoying favorites with food and friends outside of work.

When cases arrived, we unpacked the bottles and labeled them with bar-code stickers printed in-house, a laborious process but one which intimately acquainted us with the product. You can glean a lot from a wine label: geography, chemistry, history. Very quickly I learned the major wine regions of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal—where they sit within each country; what wines they produce; and the grapes allowed for use in each region's reds, whites, rosés, sparkling and dessert wines.

I learned the French AOC system—short for Appellation D'Origine Contrôlée, or controlled name of origin—which guarantees regional authenticity by specifying (and enforcing) what grape or grapes can be used in an AOC-certified wine. The system for wine dates to 1905, but an earlier precedent regulating Roquefort cheese goes all the way back to 1411. In a way it was the first piece of consumer-advocacy legislation. Italy and Spain patterned their DOC systems—Denominazione di Origine Controllata—on the French model.

Since François hailed from Burgundy, the store leaned in a very Franco-centric direction. But along with extensive French holdings, we had a fine array of Italian, Spanish, German, and American wines. He claimed to limit the shop to Northern Hemisphere wines in order to field a deeper, more thorough selection; certainly the shelves offered no argument, but François often expressed his disdain for New World winemaking, especially gratuitous use of new American oak barrels. Still, we had a smattering of New Zealand Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, Argentinian Malbec, Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Australian Shiraz, and some South African Bordeaux-blend reds.

Because these years proved the central, most intensive chapter of instruction in my education as a connoisseur, I remain most familiar and comfortable with Northern Hemisphere wines. Like a university renowned for its English faculty . . . or its physics department, Le Tire-Bouchon informed my outlook and largely shaped my palate. Quite simply, I know the most about French wines, followed closely by Italian then Spanish.

Of course, as much as one can glean from labels, discussions, or even The Oxford Companion to Wine, the best way to understand the gift of the grape is to drink it. Or, rather, sniff and taste it, which we did several days a week, usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with wine distributor reps or sometimes the winemakers themselves.

What priceless tutelage! A typical tasting might involve six or seven wines, usually several whites or sparklers, then reds from lightest to heaviest. It could be a hodgepodge of bottles or perhaps something thematic—just Italian wines or wines from a single region, say Tuscany or the Loire Valley, or a sampling of Port or Sherry. And part of the value of these tastings was, paradoxically, trying mediocre or bad wines; poorly made wines can teach you a great deal about winemaking by insipid contrast.

Along with weekly tastings with visiting wine purveyors, François—bless his Gallic coeur—would occasionally open extremely fine bottles for his merry band of oenophiles-in-training. One winter's day we had a heavy snowfall. After shoveling the sidewalk and stairs in front of the shop, François happily announced he would order some "decadent burgers" from the A&B for us and open a bottle of 1994 Pichon Longueville de Comtesse Lalande, a superb second-growth Pauillac. That was a good day at the office.

We also had the opportunity to sample many rare old wines. I remember my first, a 1969 Chambolle-Musigny which I immediately dubbed "the Miracle Mets cuvée," to the puzzlement of François. Unlike a young Chambolle-Musigny, a red Burgundy which pours a rich maroon, this nearly thirty year-old Pinot Noir had faded to bright brick. The nose blended raspberry and wild strawberry with slightly musty "forest floor" notes which I call "old attic." The wine smelled and tasted delectable . . . for about 15 minutes and then it gave up the ghost. It didn't instantly turn into vinegar or anything, it just lost its vibrancy, those distinct berry notes, its beguiling bloom. Talk about the poetry in wine! That was Omar Khayyam and Wordsworth in one glass!

Le Tire-Bouchon sold only wine and Princeton is a very wealthy town, which means a lot of cocktail hours, dinner parties, and weddings, along with a steady schedule of university events and functions. You had to know how to select wines and figure out how much a customer would need while staying within their allotted budget. Very quickly, I grew adept at both.

And I paired wines—all day long. Bartending at Quilty's I'd mastered classic French cuisine wine-pairings—foie gras with Sauternes, Monbazillac, or Jurançon; oysters or coquilles St.-Jacques with Chablis, Muscadet, Sancerre, or Vouvray; cassoulet with a hearty Cahors or Madiran; etcetera delicious etcetera—but now I fielded pairing requests from around the culinary world. Customers walked in needing a perfect match for their home-made lasagna, rack of lamb, mac 'n cheese, or Thanksgiving spread. Or maybe they were going to a seafood restaurant or a sushi place or they were having Mexican or Thai or Indian.… Matching wines to food—any food—proved one of the most practical lessons in my quest towards connoisseurship. I use it every day.

One of my favorite blocks of instruction introduced me to the wines of southwest France, a constellation of appellations strung out south and west of Bordeaux down into the French Pyrenees and along the Spanish border. It's a veritable galaxy of wines, esoteric appellations such as Béarn (as in Béarnaise sauce), Bergerac (as in Cyrano de), Cotes du Frontonnais ("the Beaujolais of the Southwest"), Cahors, Gaillac, Irouléguy, Jurançon, Madiran, and Marcillac. These are wines made with equally esoteric varietals: Arrufiac, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Negrette, Tannat, and Fer Servadou, or Fer.

Ah, beloved Fer. The first bottle I ever tried from Le Tire-Bouchon even before I worked there was Marcillac from Domaine Du Cros. I asked François to show me something really authentically French. He handed me the bottle, its rustic label proudly proclaiming in Provençal Lo Sang del Pais—"the blood of the country." Yea, verily: 100% Fer Servadou aged in chestnut barrels—it doesn't get more authentic than juicy, peppery Marcillac.


And the man who brought us all these off-the-beaten-path delights was Ed Addiss, one of the best palates and best people in the wine trade. For decades, Ed has specialized in finding and working with superb vignerons in these regions. I'm happy to report that Ed's importing company, Wine Traditions, still thrives. (A few summers ago I walked into a well-run wine shop in a small town in Maine and immediately spotted one of Ed's wines, a Lalande de Pomerol from Chateau Vieux Chevrol.)

When I saw the movie High Fidelity it reminded me of my days at Le Tire-Bouchon, a bunch of guys working at a record store talking almost non-stop about records with the difference that we also talked a great deal about records and with a high level of fluency—I wonder how much John Cusack, Jack Black, and the other guys at Championship Vinyl would have to say about Richebourg, Sassicaia, or Vega Sicilia?


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2022 Patrick Walsh
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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