When we left the United States in 1983, I was your typical American wine enthusiast. Having worked in the wine trade in England for a couple of years in the late 70s, I thought I knew a bit about Bordeaux. And back in Annapolis, we had Mills wine shop where I would spend hours ogling labels from around the world and watching an American wine culture coming to be. Through it all, Burgundy was a mystery. It was expensive. It was complicated. The names were unpronounceable. And if ever you did get a taste, no two wines were ever the same.
So we arrived in Burgundy knowing not much: We knew it’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; and everybody said Romanée-Conti is the best. But that was about it.
Funny thing though, here in Burgundy, the wine wasn’t necessarily expensive. Nor was it all that complicated once you saw a map
. We learned to pronounce the names, and met a few winemakers. But most importantly, we soon saw that it’s just true: no two wines ever taste the same. In fact, that’s the whole point.
In Burgundy, most wines are named after the village they come from. It’s the land that’s rated, not the winemaker. So you can have a good Pommard or a bad Pommard, depending on who made it. This means that if you want to find good wine, you need to get to know the winemakers. Good winemakers make good wine, whether it’s a generic Bourgogne or a lofty Grand Cru
The problem is that there are thousands of winemakers in Burgundy. And not all of them are good. So where do you start? Well, the best winemakers are farmers first. They are of the earth, and their vines yield beautiful fruit. Without good fruit there is no good wine. We started by asking the locals who they knew who made good wine, and when we found someone whose wines we liked, we would ask them who they knew. Soon we had a clutch of great producers. Not necessarily the most famous ones, but real.
Many of these winemakers produce such small quantities that they never consider the export market. Too much hassle. So when we started buying wine for our hotel-barge Le Papillon, I was able to serve our guests wines that they could not find back home. In addition, we would visit these wineries as we cruised through the region, and our guests could meet the people who made the wines they were drinking on board.
This was great for everybody. Small-production winemakers
treat their wines as they would their children. For them, your enthusiasm is more important than your checkbook; they love to meet the person who will drink their wine. For us, it was an opportunity to develop real relationships with these growers. And visiting them on a regular basis, we got a profound education in Burgundy wine, glass in hand. And for our guests, well, human nature being what it is, we eventually found a way to get these wines back to them. Elden Wine was born of a passion that many of our guests had never experienced. We showed them a true wine culture, something very different to what they knew in the US. For many, it changed the way they look at wine.
It certainly changed ours. It’s ironic that Burgundy, whose wines are considered among the rarest and most expensive, should show us such simplicity and humility. We live among farmers. There are of course those here who think themselves ‘world class’, and often their wines are indeed great. But wine is wine. And Burgundy is a place where the simplest wine can be great too.