WRO, Wine as a Muse, July, 2008

I recently attended lunch at Lucques with Christian Moueix, one of the world’s best known winemakers, proprietor of legendary Bordeaux properties (most on the Right Bank) including the great Pomerols Chateau Trotanoy and Chateau Petrus, as well as Dominus, the fine Napa Valley estate.

The Right Bank is the ancestral home to merlot, a variety which gets a tremendous amount of abuse heaped upon it, some of it (outside of the Right Bank anyway) deserved. Moueix, though, is one of the certified masters of merlot; he stewards the world’s most fabled merlot property, Chateau Petrus, for one thing, but in his many other properties, merlot is the centerpiece and his principle medium for expression. So before you write off merlot forever, taste one of Moueix’s wines and remind yourself just how extraordinary the variety can be. In an era when most wines are meant to bonk you over the head with their power (and alcohol), the Moueix wines epitomize elegance, balance, and restraint.

That afternoon he poured two of the newer wines in his stable of properties, Chateau Hosanna, and Chateau Certan-Marzelle – both are sourced from a famed historical vineyard property called Certan Giraud. He was asked how Hosanna got its name, and told us about how for various reasons the use of the name ‘Certan’ is a complicated business in France – even if you can claim a right, you must still cross tangled lines of family, property and lineage to use such a privileged surname. Initially Moueix wanted to use the word ‘Nectar,’ and went so far as to license the word with the French agency because, he noted, the word was an anagram to Certan. I found this interesting, and told him it reminded me that so much of French literature is built upon the love of wordplay. I then mentioned a very obscure French author named Georges Perec, whose work I have long admired, and who had an enormous influence on me when I was a struggling fiction writer.

Moueix was rather stunned. “I knew him,” said Moueix. (It was my turn to be stunned.) “I met him many years ago [Perec died in 1982]. I think that his novel, La Vie Mode d’Emploi  is truly a fantastic piece of literature; and for wordplay there is nothing like it.”

He went on to describe for the rest of the table the premise of the novel [translated in this country as Life: A User’s Manual], wherein Perec chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of a single apartment building in Paris, by stripping away the streetside façade and capturing each in a suspended moment in time. What led each character to the moment we find them in – the whole of their lives, really – constitutes the book, an indelible cross section of Parisian life, and really, of life itself.

I told Moueix that long ago a passage from Life first revealed to me wine’s transformative powers, well before I stumbled onto it as a profession. It was an offhand description of an everyday wine, but the depiction was so graceful and evocative that for me it possessed a kind of Proustian power. I also remember my mouth watering.
The passage itself is a little Proustian – written in long sentences, thick in detail, about one of the few happy memories of a particularly morose character named Gregoire Simpson, who has become a hopeless recluse. The single high note of the chapter comes in this long final paragraph, and the description of the wine lifts the character and the chapter into a moment of startling reverie:

Despite the sound of his name, Gregoire Simpson was not in the least English. He came from Thonon-les-Bains. One day, well before his final hibernation had gripped him, he had told Morellet how as a little boy he had played drum major with the Matagassiers on the mid-Lent Sunday. His mother, a dressmaker, made the traditional costume herself: the red-and-white-squared trousers, the loose blue blouse, the white cotton bonnet with a tassel; and his father had bought him, in a fine circular box decorated with arabesques, the cardboard mask which looked like a cat’s head. As proud as Punch and as grave as a judge, he ran through the streets of the old town along with the procession, from the Place du Chateau to the Porte des Allinges, and from the Porte de Rives to the Rue Saint-Sebastien, before going up in to the high town, to the Belvederes, to stuff himself with juniper-roast ham and to slake his thirst with great gulps of Ripaille, that white wine as light as glacier water, as dry as gunflint.

The wine, it turns out, is not in the least fictional. It is a vin de Savoie, a region in the Alpine foothills of eastern France, made from the Chasselas variety, and imported here in California by Charles Neal Selections.

Moueix, meanwhile, was amused. “Isn’t it strange?” he said. “I would never have dreamed I’d be having a conversation about Georges Perec today.” Me neither, I told him, but it seemed like an exactly right diversion, the sort of place where a good bottle of wine – even merlot – sometimes takes you.

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