There is something about Paris that I love, I become a different person there. I assume Paris, I become a Parisian. I speak the language and I am comfortable there. One of the great things that happens while I’m there is I give myself the time to think about potentially great ideas for my small business.
Setting up a business by oneself is a challenge. Creating or finding the holy grail known as the niche is paramount. I once listened to an interview with Paul McCartney which struck me as when asked about the songs that came and went, McCartney said that sometimes they came for a fleeting moment and if he wasn't sitting down with pen and paper, or could get into a position where he could remind himself of the melody, the song could simply disappear.
I have been travelling to Europe for over forty years. We holidayed there when I was a youngster in Ireland. I have vivid memories of crossing the bridge from Strasbourg to Freiburg in Germany in 1982. It was an amazing feeling to witness differences in culture and it is something that would stay with me for the rest of my life. The fantasy of crossing borders and hearing a strange language, seeing how other people did things in different ways. Driving down Piccadilly with my father past the Ritz in the early 1980's. He had this fantastic talent which was the ability to make one feel a part and involved in wherever it was we were at that time. He was able to point out the idiosyncrasies that are naturally interesting. That is a rare. I just had to follow my heart to discover my niche, it was with me the whole time. The song that never got away.
And so it came to me that song. The wine has so much history. On an importing trip three years ago, I was invited by one of my colleagues to view the new guest house at Chateau Haut-Bailly in the Graves area of Bordeaux. As I walked through the doors, I was hearing the melody and the images were flashing through my mind. I was seeing the collage of photos of me and my guests walking through the doorway, I fell in love with that house. Le coup de foudre. The building had a personality like no other. Was it the sweet sugars in the ripe Cabernet in the vineyards that I was cheeky enough to pluck from the vines outside in the yard? The old bordelais style design? The serenity and quietness of the estate, a retreat without realizing one is purging themselves of the commercial world. So much to learn of the old France. I could feel the friendly ghosts of bygone times present all around me. It made me think of some of the great french industries and families, such as Citroen, Peugeot and Chanel..
Château Le Pape Pessac-Léognan, Just outside Bordeaux
My dear friend Jay Dick casually asked me one January afternoon about my scheduled trip to Bordeaux. Jay is a born leader, an AmerICAN type of guy. I had taken the risk of booking the guest house in Bordeaux in its entirety that following Fall. I would be heading to Paris in February to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. It takes a certain amount of courage to do this without having secured the clients to fill the spots. But being the ex currency options broker, I was well aware of the risk and I ultimately warehoused it. In fact, I realize something about myself which is I am the type of person who performs well with a touch of risk to get my juices flowing. The trick is to stay calm when the going gets a little bumpy. I spent all of three days scouting hotels in the super bourgeois-bohemian sector of Paris known as the 6th Arrondissement. A charming spot with cafes galore and so typifies that infamous parisian chic, Tres mondain.. I found the Madison hotel right in front of the iconic cafe Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard St Germain. I went and enquired on that cold Saturday morning and more or less booked five double rooms without hesitation. I didn’t even know at the time that Paris would figure on the trip, it was just a line in the song that came to me as I was going along my way. Upon my return to Pasadena I met Jay and he told me that it was on. Jay is the kind of guy who only would say it if he meant it. I felt Jay completely trusted me, for that I was deeply grateful. Not one single doubt… he just asked me is it good to go? and I said yes and that was that. Old school, just the way I like it.
The summer went by and Fall approached. My wife Jessica was onboard, indeed it would be the first time that we have been away from our kids simultaneously. Jay and Lisa had booked their tickets, other friends Gregg and his girlfriend Chelby had signed up, a colleague of Jay’s by the name of Doug and his lovely wife Heather had also joined up and last of all, Graham who is one of Jay's closest friends going back to their college days at USC. A Californian group with a huge appetite for learning about the great wines of Bordeaux.
We had arrived in Paris, sure I was nervous, but one plods on, and so I did. What a great feeling it was to greet Jay & Lisa in the lobby of the Hotel. I had been in France for the last few days, however upon arriving I immediately boarded a TGV train and landed in the Gare St-Jean in Bordeaux then sped out to the house where I would spend the next two & half days arranging, the icing on the cake so to speak. I am in my element when busy and I thrive on the energy. It usually takes me between three to four days to obtain complete fluency in my french which needed to be on point. Once satisfied that everything was ready I zipped back to Paris and there I was on the Friday evening in the city of lights, going out to dinner with my friends from Pasadena. Jess would arrive the following morning. I met Graham for the first time, what an awesome fellow, it was perfect, I felt completely at ease as I knew this trip was going to be epic. Dinner ensued, and as they would say in Ireland the Craic was ninety. All of a sudden my dream was becoming a reality.
Jessica arrived the next morning albeit jetlagged. In the meantime I had started to hear some humdrum about railway workers striking on the TV. To me these kind of headlines a la breaking news are like a dental appointment, you just try and put it in the back of your head. We had all day Saturday in Paris, and what a day it was. The sun was out and we walked about and shopped and drank coffees and beers and chatted, so much fun. Gregg and Chelby went on a serious safari, as did Doug and Heather. We all reunited later that afternoon. Spending time with my friends from California in a parisien cafe was exciting - great bonding. That evening my sister Cathie and brother-in-law Vincent would arrive from London to have dinner with us. We dined at La Fontaine de Mars, a well known Parisian bistro style restaurant. The food and ambiance were amazing and I can tell you a lot of good wine was drunk with excellent conversation to boot.
Ralph Lauren bar Paris
We ended up going to another bar and staying out till 2 am. The next morning we would all have breakfast and be ready for our TGV train at 1,56pm from Paris-Montparnasse to Bordeaux where a luxury Mercedes Sprinter van would take us to our residence. I have to say at this point, Gregg Smith started to become a soul mate. If ever I had to choose a wing man on a dangerous mission, Gregg would be top of the list, a great companion and even if it was just to get to know Gregg, I am glad I made the trip. As I had mentioned the rumblings from the previous day had started to become a scary reality. I know France and I understand the depth at which the extreme left has manifested itself within public services such as the rail workers. They can and will make flash strikes at the drop of a hat. They just happened to choose my travel day with eight guests from the USA. Americans are not used to this type of social manifestation a la francaise, and have literally no tolerance for it and rightly so.
Charlemagne- California guests with Cathie Curran & Vincent Craignou from London.
I was very worried to say the least. Put it like this, it’s a good job I wasn’t wearing my beige Levi 501’s We arrived at the Gare Montparnasse which serves the southwest of France. I had a lump in my throat and I believe I had told the group that things were happening. We arrived early as is my way, always be on time or early in case of an anomaly, thus giving oneself time to make arrangements or enact a contingency plan. I looked up at the departure schedule and I could see the train was on time. There were two trains leaving before ours and they also said on time. But without notice - the next train was cancelled from one minute to the next. I was terrified. The worst thing is I could understand the chatter on the crowded platform, and it was mostly bellicose. What would I say to my guests if we had to return to the hotel? The trip would be ruined …something about working on financial markets is that one gets used to giving bad news to clients, was that what was allowing me to be rational?
I prayed and managed to stay calm. It just so happened that two out of every three trains were running and we managed to board and get away more or less on time. It felt like the five minutes of hell all of the JPL staff went through just before the Rover landed on Mars. But that is France, not always but it can happen. We played cards on the train and the mood was great. Arriving in Bordeaux we were met by our driver who took us directly to the guest house. We went inside and acclimated, my guests then came down to eat an amazing dinner and we drank some house wine. We stayed up late, chatted and played Gin. That would be a standard over the next three nights till the wee hours. I never knew my wife was so good, she is dangerous !! Teams were made and battle lines drawn up. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth, I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time, it should be said that Lisa Dick is a formidable foe, If I were to have a captain's pick, she would be mine.
A very happy troop leader on board and headed for Bordeaux.
The following morning we took our minivan to Château Margaux. This visit was superb. We saw the fermentation area and had a deep explanation of the process which was underway since the last ten days or so. We tasted two vintages. The 2012 Pavillon Rouge and the Grand Vin 2008! Both were excellent I might add. We took part in a film being made about the estate. It was a great experience. We then had a lovely bistro lunch at Chez Meme in Saint Julien, and we followed that up with our second visit of the day to Château Beychevelle in the AOC of St Julien. This AOC is said to make very delicate wines as does Margaux. The more masculine Cabernet is to be found a little further upriver in Pauillac and St Estephe where we would end the day at Château Cos D’Estournel. Can you imagine visiting these three great Bordeaux estates on the same day and tasting their wares ? Amazing.
Chateau Margaux, Margaux France.
Graham & Jessica, Chateau Beychevelle St Julien, France.
Chez Meme St Julien, Medoc near Bordeaux.
Pavillon Rouge 2012 & Château Margaux 2008.
We returned to our residence after our long day and went across the street to Château Smith-Haut-Lafite after a brief siesta. A five star resort and spa with three restaurants which has been run by a family of olympic downhill skiers since forever. We had dinner in the more casual styled eatery - La Table Du Lavoir, which is perfect for a Monday evening after a full visit schedule. Upon return, the battle of Château Le Pape resumed around the gin table. It was fierce and the laughter was non stop. Wine was flowing..Both Doug & Graham’s fervent passion & card playing abilities were coming to the fore.. I never knew cards before. With a good group the competitive nature of the player comes out and what I found amusing are the intricacies of outfoxing one another and being able to laugh when outfoxed is magnanimous. Everyone was relaxed and that made me very content, after all this was the ultimate goal.
Le Pape Breakfast
The breakfast at Le Pape is outstanding. Very French of course with fresh croissants, jams, honey, fresh coffee, cereals - you name it. They make their own yoghurt and freshly squeezed orange juice is just the ticket after a long night of cards and wine. We had a great day organized starting with a visit to Château Haut-Bailly which is the mother estate of Château Le Pape. We had an in-depth visit and tasting. We then had a team cooking class at the Chateau. Anne Famy was our esteemed chef and she taught us how to make Gougère and Canelais. These are two different pastries very traditional to Bordeaux cuisine. It was so much fun watching the group working together and enjoying themselves to no end. Our class was followed by an exquisitely prepared lunch in the dining room of the old house. We drank some Château Haut-Bailly which we had learned about during the estate visit that morning. Putting a face to the wine was a new experience and expressions of wonderment were plentiful. A great experience.
The Cooking class with Anne Famy at Chateau Haut-Bailly
Lunch menu at Château Haut-Bailly
Some of us went to the spa at Le Caudalie. Graham, Jay and myself had a private tasting with Dana Paulin back at the residence. Dana enthralled us into her world, we tasted three different wines from Château Haut-Bailly all from the amazing 2016 vintage which ranks very high with the experts. We talked about weather patterns, farming techniques, funghi, all kinds of subject matter and more or less covered the 2016 vintage from soup to nuts. I did the spa earlier that week and it really is outstanding. The Caudalie uses grape skins and seeds to exfoliate the skin, the facial is highly relaxing and the full body scrub is something everyone should do at least once if not more. Amazing !!
Private tasting room Chateau Le Pape
Daina Paulin of Haut-Bailly was our gracious host for this tasting.
Le Caudalie Spa
That evening I believe was the piece de resistance! I organized a visit to Château de Fargues - the 13th century home to the Lur Saluces family who also were sole proprietors of Château d’Yquem which was recently sold to LVMH. We were met there by my colleague Stéphane Papeil-Lalande who was extremely diligent and helpful and Philippe Lur Saluces. They organized a magnificent tour of the 13th Century estate that was built for his family by Pope Clement the 5th (Raymond Bertrand de Got). We dined in the old castle, our meal was prepared by a one star Michelin chef and we tasted the Château de Fargues 2001 alongside a sublime Calon Ségur 2000. I have to say the 2001 Fargues is simply put one of the two best wines I have tasted in my wine career. Stupendous. The whole evening was outrageously good. It was a history lesson on Bordeaux given to us by a direct descendant of the French court. Philippe was an excellent host. I hope to meet him again sometime soon.
Château de Fargues
Dinner at Chateau de Fargues
Philippe lur Saluces & karl Curran Chateau de Fargues
Day four would be a great day. We started of course with our traditional petit déjeuner and from there we took a jaunt to the famed vineyards of Pomerol on the right bank of the Dordogne river. We had a visit to Château la Conseillante. This is an estate sat right in the heart of Pomerol, just above Chateau Cheval Blanc in neighboring St Emilion, and next door to the likes of Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan, L’evangile, get the picture a little? Oh yeah I nearly forgot it’s infamous next door neighbor, Petrus. We tasted and discussed. Marvelous. Pomerol is more approachable in terms of visits as the estates are smaller than the Medoc and owned by families as opposed to large blue chip companies. Lunch was in the next hamlet, Puisseguin-Saint Emilion at a little bistro known as ‘Le Clos Mirande’.
Pomerol Chateau Gazin in the background.
The food was delish and we drank Cabernet Franc dominated wines which were for me the highlight of the trip. My reasoning behind that: These are not well known wines, however, the quality is superior. The type of wines made by real people who care about their product and also the end user. These are the types of wines I endeavor to work with. We had a tour of a small garagiste type winery in the village of St Emilion that afternoon and tasted several different wines from Jean Luc Thuenvin’s estate followed by a walk around St Emilion which is an ancient walled city dating back over a thousand years or more. We returned to the residence and got ready for the last dinner of the trip.
The Dining Room at Chateau Haut-Bailly
The last supper was at Château Haut-Bailly. Jean Charles Ponsiot is the house chef. Jean Charles uses fresh produce from the garden at the estate and otherwise goes to the local market in the village to get what he needs for his preparation. I would easily say he is worthy of a couple of Michelin stars. There is a subtlety to his cooking, which is in the same vein as the Chateau, it’s wines and people such as the wonderful Veronique Saunders (CEO) and her staff, Dana, Estelle and Jessica. The group I believe had thoroughly enjoyed their evening.
In the library before our final dinner at Château Haut-Bailly
Day five the last day after breakfast, we said our goodbyes to our friends in Bordeaux and headed toward the train station. The next few hours were rather stressful as the railway strike was in full swing by then. I won’t bore you with the details but we all got back to Paris fairly tired and ready for a strong drink which was not long in coming at the Ralph Lauren Bar, a very pleasant late nite spot before hitting the hay. It was time to relax for me, and I was delighted to do just that. We had achieved my goal which was to have my friends immerse themselves in the culture of this great country France. I’m sure they will think about wine in a different light after their exposure to Bordeaux. Mission accomplished! I would like to thank all of my guests for their participation. It was as Gregg said “a once in a lifetime experience”. Merci Beaucoup !! Finally I would like to express my gratitude to Sebastien Vacher and his colleagues at Duclot La Vinicole for helping me arrange the trip.