"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety." That’s what Shakespeare said about Cleopatra and while I never knew Cleopatra, you could say pretty much the same about the wines of Bordeaux. There are a lot of them. In fact, the infinite variety can be downright confusing. How to sort out all the subregions of Bordeaux into some sensible framework would confuse Einstein, who concerned himself with simpler stuff like the theory of relativity. But that didn’t stop the French.
Never was there a more screwed up, contorted, topsy-turvy mess in the wine world―at least in my opinion. It was called a white wine, but it really wasn’t. It came in a box (you could get it in bottles, too, but no one did) and that was just plain weird. The whole thing was a huge marketing success.
Remember Peabody’s Improbable History from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show? That dorky kid, Sherman, who’d probably be an internet billionaire today, would do whatever Mr. Peabody, the dog, told him to and off they’d go, visiting Attila the Hun or the Spanish Inquisition in the Wayback Machine. They’d screw history up but manage to get it all back together eventually and the whole result was some fine campy humor that delighted my juvenile mind.
I casually turned over the bottle in my hand. The most storied chateau in France, Mouton Rothschild. The most storied year in French wine history, 1945. This indeed was a bottle above all other bottles. Just imagine it, over 50 years old, this wine was vinted during the Nazi occupation of Bordeaux and France. I was holding history, liquid history. And I turned the bottle over and saw…$13,000.
“My dear Greco! You surely aren’t serious!” We were dining at Chez Panisse with the Count and Countess Ferrari, whom Anne, my better half, had met at some highbrow fundraiser to save vegan single mother whales. The Ferrari’s had latched on to her, representing themselves as the last in the line of the noble House of Ferrari. I thought I smelled a couple of phonies.
I think the book was one of those Europe-on-five-dollars-a-day books that were so popular when I was a lad of seventeen. Mine was a used copy from a garage sale and my makeshift bookmark, a torn page from my high school yearbook, was stuck in the section on Bordeaux. The torn yearbook page had Musette’s picture on it; the French exchange student from my school two years prior, the most exotic girl I had ever met up to that time, the girl who kept those fancy French cigarettes and a flask of vodka in her purse. And here I was, with her photo in my ratty travel guide standing on the banks of the Gironde River in some little place called Pauillac.
Bordeaux. The word conjures up everything elegant and rich and confusing and unknown if you’re the normal semi-literate wine snob-in-training, like me. The confusing and unknown aspects are part of the reason why so many Americans don’t enjoy these crown jewels of the wine world and the elegant and rich parts are why so many Americans should enjoy these wines. That being said, Bordeaux wines ARE confusing. I have no idea how to pronounce the names of all those Chateaux in the first place, except in the rather pathetic French accent I stole from Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau character.