There are two questions I am asked most frequently asked. The second one, usually put to me by disaffected lawyers, is “How did you get to be a wine writer?” Wine writing is not a calling you aspire to from the second grade. There is no university degree in wine writing. It usually happens to journalists by some happy accident that sets their life off on a tangent. Many of them, ironically, are former sports writers.
My accident was running into a man named Gordon Bucklitsch on a visit to Champagne in 1974. My recollection of Gordon is that of a latter-day Falstaff, an enormous man with a head of flowing white hair, a booming voice and an aversion to corks — once the cork had been pulled from a bottle of sherry or port, he simply threw it away, there being no further need for it. Now lamentably deceased, Gordon was, at that time, the Director of Grants of St. James's Wine School in London. He invited me to monitor a course he conducted for new members of the British wine trade.
As a freelance broadcaster in London working for the BBC, CBC and ABC (Australian radio), I
had the luxury of choosing my own working hours. I blocked off three days for the course and sat through eight hours a day of lectures on all aspects of wine and winemaking, including how to taste.
Gordon introduced the subject of wine with his own take on history. His thesis was that wine was the major influence on the course of English history. Now you may think this is carrying one's preoccupation to the loony end of logic, but a case can be made to support his argument.
The Roman Empire, he posited, lasted as long as it did because of wine. Roman legions were provisioned with a litre of wine a day, which they used to sterilize drinking water, disinfect wounds and keep morale up. While the tribes of Gaul and Britannia were decimated by cholera and yellow fever from bad water, the legionnaires remained a healthy fighting force.
Key international agreements and alliances by royal marriage were contracted, Gordon argued, to maintain the uninterrupted flow of wine into England. In 1152, the 19-year-old Henry Plantagenet married the 30-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine, and two years later they ruled England as King Henry II and Queen Eleanor. This dynastic merger brought Bordeaux's entire vineyard acreage under English control for 300 years — a happy circumstance that cemented the Englishman's love of claret.
Another example cited by Gordon was the Methuen Treaty with the Portuguese in 1703, which set a stiff tariff on French wines (the enemy de jour) and gave preferential treatment to Portuguese wines at a time when the modern style of port was emerging. The Englishman's passion for vintage port resulted from that trading advantage under the treaty.
Gordon had served in the British Navy during World War II, and much of his wine lore and language evolved from that experience. I recall him describing the nose of a Margaux as “tarred rope.” For my part, I could only smell wine and wondered how he could characterize wine in those terms. Having conducted hundreds of wine tastings over the years since, however, I have come to understand that this is the most daunting aspect of wine appreciation — how to find the words to describe a wine's bouquet.
The nose, your most important organ when it comes to wine tasting, is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more refined it becomes. Women are generally better at this smelling business than men. They can maintain their nasal acuity until well into the evening while men reach their peak by noon, after which it is all downhill from there. Which is probably why most professional tastings are held in the morning.
Gordon was a master at distinguishing wine's aromas, especially those of the different Bordeaux communes. To his students they all smelled the same, but by the end of the course, under his tutelage, we could tell a Pauillac (blackcurrant and cigar box) from a Pomerol (cedar and blueberries).
He also taught me an invaluable lesson in self-preservation. After our visit to Champagne, we drove to Calais to catch the ferry across the English Channel to Dover. This 47-kilometre stretch of sea can suddenly and without warning become a mariner's nightmare. A Force 9 gale blew up and the passengers were hanging over the railings of the ferry, losing their lunch. Gordon instructed me to follow him below deck to the bar. I was feeling somewhat queasy and all the more when I heard him order a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
“Drink this,” he said, handing me a glass. “You'll feel better.” We stayed there for the entire crossing and I felt as right as rain.
Gordon also taught me the immutable laws of wine. The first commandment is “Wine Will Always Taste Better in the Presence of the Winemaker.” Maybe it's our natural civility or our sense of good manners. But it's true. Taste the same wine on your own and your judgment of it will be less ecstatic. Just as you would not say to a beaming mother that her newborn looks like Benito Mussolini, you don't spit the wine at the feet of the winemaker and declare that it's fit only for washing the car. You might like to, but you don't.
The second unassailable law is that the bottle you drop in your cellar is always your best bottle. When I had a cellar built in the first house I owned in Toronto, I moved the wines carefully into the racks, placing those that required aging at the lowest levels where it's coolest. The everyday plonk was placed at eye level. Having almost completed the task, a simple Californian Cabernet Sauvignon slipped from my grasp. It hit the tiled floor and remained intact; but it bounced, striking the neck of a Drouhin Pernand-Vergelesse 1976, which immediately broke.
The third law is that a $100 wine does not taste 10 times better than a $10 wine.
I owe a great debt to my mentor, Gordon Bucklitsch, who set me on a lifelong pursuit of wine. To quote him, “Once you're bitten by the grape, there is no known cure.” In his memory I modelled my wine writer-detective Ezra Brant on him in a series of three wine murder mysteries: Blood Is Thicker than Beaujolais, The Beast of Barbaresco and Death on the Douro.
Incidentally, the question that I'm most often asked as a wine writer is “What's a good wine under $10?”
But that's a whole different story.
Tony Aspler (www.tonyaspler.com) has been writing about wine for more than 30 years. He is the author of 14 books on wine, including his latest, Tony Aspler's Cellar Book. Tony is a co-founder of the charitable foundation Grapes for Humanity.