After sleeping in St. Emilion during the last few nights of a month in France, we dedicated the next day to exploring nearby Bordeaux and the renown wine appellations to the north of the city. Famous regions along the Left Bank of the Gironde River, like Haut-Médoc, Saint Julien and Paulliac, were at our fingertips but I was focused on
Chateau Margaux, the Grand Madame of them all. A bottle of their Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux sells for thousands of dollars and has been in the discussion as the world’s finest wine for more than a century. We understood that time-consuming post-harvest activities were at peak and any chance of tasting required connections and months of planning. “I just want to be there,” I said, trying to maintain reasonable expectations, “to see it, to touch a vine,” Karen, remembering that I had followed her into three Cro-Magnon caves in Les Eyzies-De-Tayac days before, was supportive. “Let’s do it,” she answered, “I’m in.” We try to be conscious and supportive of each other’s passions. For us, the concept first became instilled after listening to the 1977 Joni Mitchell song, “Jericho”: “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self-expression/I need that too/I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time/ In return, I’ll give you mine”/
Although fairly commonplace today, these were poignant thoughts in 1977, for two twenty-somethings trying to make a go of it. Today, thirty-nine years later, it’s more about managing round-a-bouts and reminiscing of the anniversary dinner with a bottle of Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992, a gift from the parents of our German exchange student. Karen would stop eating sugar shortly after and forfeit the enjoyment of wine. If these were her last two glasses, what a way to go out. Her apt description of “liquid velvet” remains a standard by which I compare good wines today.
The central city of Bordeaux was being victimized by its own progress. Road
construction and the ensuing congestion was everywhere. Thanks to modern-day GPS, we were able to maneuver our way through and, more importantly, master the round-a-bouts. During a previous visit, entering a round-a-bout was quickly followed by a female voice on the GPS directing us to, “Re-route.” This time, improved technology and graphics, along with experience, neutralized our stress level. Streets soon turned into country roads that connected the small viticultural villages, a calming transition into a world that defies progress. Royalty resides here but essentially these people are farmers from families that have worked this land for centuries. The marbleized skies, poplar trees silhouetted by the afternoon sun and freshly harvested vines created the autumn Bordeaux landscape that I had always imagined.
The tiny village of Margaux was on the horizon. Looking in the distance, I recognized the steeple of an old church, one that I had seen in photographs of the Chateau property. I turned the wheel abruptly, veering off to a side road. “What are we doing now, isn’t the village straight ahead?” Karen’s question made me realize that I hadn’t been too forthcoming about my new plan “The village can wait, I think Chateau Margaux is less than a mile from here and I want to get as close as we can,” I said, hoping for even a distant glance.
Suddenly, we came upon a vineyard near mustard-colored production buildings. Vines
tend to look alike, but these were surrounded on two sides by a thirty-foot swath of multi-colored Cosmos, creating a Jackson Pollack-type border surrounding the uniformity of the vineyard. As we stopped to take pictures, I noticed numerous cars passing by that seemed to access a large grass and dirt field about a quarter-mile away, then stop and park. Something was going on. I could see other landmarks from the Chateau and knew we were close.
We entered the field strewn with uniformly parked cars looking like we belonged. It
was a small, eclectic crowd that were leaving their vehicles and strolling along a poplar-lined path toward the Chateau’s entrance. Karen fit right in with her fashionable jeans, tweed blazer and scarf while my orange sneakers, matched with faded jeans and gray cashmere sweater, may have eventually outed us as outliers. However, we did leave our car and casually stroll onto the estate, immediately coming upon the Chateau Margaux mansion. On display behind iron gates, looking like it had in photographs over the
years, it defined grandeur, elegance and tradition. Staff was working in the courtyards of the freshly painted production buildings on immaculately manicured pavement. These building clusters resembled the backlot of a Hollywood film studio more than a working winery.
Soon we were walking on neatly trimmed, rustic paths that directed us and others
through a grove of large trees and over a stone bridge spanning a small canal. One man, with large, working hands, wearing old jeans and a white starched shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest, strolled with a young woman in a navy business suit, struggling to walk with four-inch heels. Another young couple looked very Goth with tight black pants and many piercings. The moment was surreal, walking through the grounds of the world’s most iconic and private winery with no idea where we were going or what we may find when we got there.
Once across the bridge, we came upon another grove of the same Cosmos that framed a
large one-storied stone building with several framed window openings, each with a small crowd gathered outside. This was definitely where everyone was going. We thought we were blending into the crowd as we looked into one of the windows to discover an elegant luncheon setting for about one hundred and fifty people with white linen tables cloths and napkins, porcelain dinnerware, sculpted silver and five crystal wine glasses at each place. We had seen settings like this before, but never of this size.
“May I help you?” said the nice looking forty-something man in a tailored black suit and open blue shirt, as he approached Karen. We were busted. She described our little sojourn and he patiently explained that we were at the Chateau Margaux Harvest
Luncheon, an annual event to celebrate the harvest and honor all the local vineyard owners and staff that contribute grapes and/or land toward each vintage. This famous luncheon is both very exclusive and very local.
During our brief conversation, I informed the gentleman of our Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992. “I hope you still have it,” he said, “the 1992s are peaking now.” “No”, I answered, slumping my shoulders, “we drank it,” adding, “But, it was damn good in 1995.” Karen repeated her “liquid velvet” metaphor and thanked him. “We don’t want to crash your luncheon any more than we already have,” she said. Speak for yourself, I thought. We said good-bye and he reminded us to walk by the mansion on our way out. At Chateau Margaux, even being bounced from an exclusive event is done with distinction.
My day visiting wineries in the Bordeaux region was over. No other experience could match this one. During a late lunch at a boutique hotel in the village, we stared out at the vineyard, then looked across the table at each other and smiled. Feeling exhilarated and mischievous, we knew that this would always be a good story and a great memory among many.
May 28th, 2017 at 4:41 pm
We arrived in darkness
You arrived at dawn
It was freezing cold
Your stories warmed us
Ah yes, I remember it well.
Hello Lyle and Karen,
We are the couple from Vancouver Island who braved the chilly morning with you to view Font de Gaume. Iris is a retired school teacher with an interest in Raku. We are in San Francisco and visited the SFMOMA yesterday. It was everything you said it would be. We loved it and gifted our daughter a membership. We enjoy reading about your adventures.
Bob and Iris Field
May 29th, 2017 at 2:54 pm
Bob and Iris,
Thanks for getting in touch. We remember you both well and enjoyed our short time together. Don’t know how long you are in SF, but we are 45 min to an hour north.