Like many tipplers, our wine scribe Jim Walker has long adored the wines of Burgundy. But, when he began his wine importing business, he never imagined that one day he might represent a winery from that storied land of Bacchus. Yet, as improbable as it might seem, he eventually had not one but three Burgundy producers in his vinous stable. This is a story about one of them.
My love affair with les vins de Bourgogne began with a bang! Early in my wine sipping days a very good friend invited me to try a 1962 La Tâche from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It was sheer ambrosia. The La Tâche epiphany was reinforced by many visits to Century Discount Liquors in Rochester, New York (see Gentleman’s Portion post A Veritable Vinous Valhallafor all the delicious details). The owner, Sherwood Deutsch, was a Burgundian wine aficionado and as such introduced me to many of his favourite premier and grand cru selections. Then in 1984 my wife Hélène and I spent two unplanned, magical days roaming the hallowed hills of Burgundy (see Gentleman’s Portion post A Pair of Naïfs in Burgundy). That visit by itself would have consumated my romance with the Burgundian nectar of the vine.
Years after having been Burgundy smitten we launched our wine club and wine importing business with a focus on the southern Rhône. Later on, our friends (and wine club members) Linda and John mentioned that they had purchased a two bedroom, second floor apartment in the town of Beaune located in the heart of Burgundy. They had to make several prolonged visits there in order to supervise the renovation of their new premises. While there they had a great deal of time on their hands, so did what any of us would have done under the circumstances … they visited local wineries. I strongly suspect that they literally stumbled upon Maison Alex Gambal (only a couple of blocks from their apartment) after enjoying a splendid lunch, perhaps at Ma Cuisine … escargots with a luscious Meursault, Coq au Vin with a lively Gevrey-Chambertin, – ah, but I digress!
They fell in love with the Gambal wines and got to know the owner, Alex Gambal during their regular sorties to his winery (rumour has it that a discernable path had been worn in the cobblestones between their apartment and chez Gambal). While their Gambal induced thirst was well slaked in France, they had a major supply problem on this side of the Atlantic. It was severely limited to what they could schlep back on return trips. But there is nothing like deprivation to set the creative juices in motion. Why not get Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club to import Alex’ wines? They had told Alex about our wine club and he seemed amenable to collaborating.
Here is a bit of background about Alex and Maison Alex Gambal. Alex once ran his family’s car park and real estate business located in the Washington, D.C. area. Alex would drop in to local wine shops and sample their latest treasures. In those days he preferred Rhône wines to Burgundies. Then in the early 1990s he decided to move his young family to the Burgundy area. While there he met Becky Wasserman, an American who had made a name for herself exporting Burgundy wines to the US. Alex landed a job with Becky’s firm in 1992. His wife Nancy also worked there as a part-time graphic artist. Alex decided that he wanted to get into the wine business. He studied oenology for a year at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune and in 1996 established himself as a négociant, specializing in premium Burgundies. He was able to obtain quality grapes via local brokers and barrels of finished wine from friends and acquaintances he had met while living in Burgundy. In 1998 he rented winery space on the edge of Beaune.
Here’s how Alex described it:
There was no heating, and a squat toilet. Every dime we made went into the business, so I began to invest more in the winery. I had good wines in the cellar, but the hard part was selling them. I persevered and found markets for our generic Burgundies, about half our production. And I developed customer loyalty by having an open-door policy. That means we welcome visitors to our tasting room and spend time with them. For new négociants such as ourselves, it’s hard to find premiers and grand crus (Burgundy wines) of high quality. Many growers are poor winemakers and can’t sell their wines easily, so we’ve been persuading some of them to sell their grapes to us and let us handle the harvest. We also started acquiring grapes and then trading them for others if we were after a particular cru.
While Alex oversaw every winemaking detail, including roaming the vineyards to make certain he acquired the best grapes, he wasn’t alone. He was ably assisted by the husband and wife team of Fabrice and Sophie Laronze. Fabrice was the talented winemaker and Sophie looked after the office and greeted English speaking visitors when she wasn’t helping out with all the other chores associated with a very busy winery.
The first Maison Alex Gambal wines that we imported were from the superb 2005 vintage. We offered our wine club members seven different wines, three white and four red ranging in price from $36 to $299 the bottle. The thoughtful folks at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario decreed for some unfathomable reason that wine destined for wine clubs could only be sold by the case. All of the Maison Alex Gambal wines came twelve bottles to the case. Who in their right mind would shell out $3,588 for a $299 per bottle wine that they hadn’t tasted? In order to have any hope of selling his more expensive wines, I cajoled Alex into shipping them in mixed cases (four different wines to a box). I also encouraged members to form consortiums and split cases between themselves.
I am going to let Alex describe his 2005 Criots Batard Montrachet that was offered at a measly $299 a bottle.
I hate using adjectives to describe how wine tastes. In my view it is not only often presumptuous because it assumes the drinker cannot figure it out for themselves but it often is dead wrong. Here though my sense of how wines from Puligny taste is as clear as it has ever been. Our Criots attacks with a lemon cream wave and then concentrates to a point and the aftertaste goes on and on. It is the opposite of Charlemagne visually; the Charlemagne is a point that expands outwards while the Criots is a wave that paradoxically gains power as it comes to a point in the distance. For those of you who remember your art classes think vanishing point and you will understand the image. ~50 cases and 50% new oak.
Hmmm, I hope you have a clearer idea about this very expensive wine than I do.
Our first attempt to sell Alex’s wines was not an overwhelming success, to say the least. But it was good enough to soldier on. We made arrangements to meet with Alex on our next visit to France to discuss ways of improving our results and to taste his next vintage. Linda and John kindly invited us to stay in their by then completed apartment. We took the TGV from Paris to Dijon arriving a little past noon. Wouldn’t you know it? The rental car office had closed for lunch and wouldn’t reopen till 2:30 p.m. By the time we finally collected the car, which had been annoyingly “upgraded” to a larger model than we had reserved, and drove through wine country to Beaune, it was rush hour. We had no trouble finding Linda and John’s place but parking was another issue.
Their place was on a busy corner, which was particularly so at rush hour. We parked in a ‘no stopping’ zone and unloaded our not inconsiderable amount of luggage. Just then a car pulled out of a parking spot down the block. Leaving Hélène curbside, I jumped back in the car and hurried to the vacated space before anyone else could claim it. But, the wretched rental car turned out to be too big to fit into the spot. Traffic was piling up behind me so I had no choice but to move on. To my horror the street I was on led to a right turn only one-way street and then another and another. It was like Daedalus’ labyrinth on steroids!
I eventually pulled over in a cold sweat and assessed my situation. I was totally lost. There on the passenger’s seat was Hélène’s cell phone! But, she had the paperwork with the apartment’s address. I had paid zero attention to the street name, let alone the address. I imagined a policeman suddenly appearing and asking me if there was a problem. “I seem to have lost my wife”, I would reply. “And just where did you lose her”, he might reasonable ask? “I don’t know”, I would lamely respond. This wouldn’t do, so I moved on. In due course I ran into the perimeter road. As my state of panic receded, I reasoned that if I followed the road around eventually I would find a road sign that indicated the way back to Dijon. All I would have to do then was go into the town at that juncture and I should be able to find Linda and John’s place and, more importantly, Hélène. It worked like a charm. After forty-five minutes I returned to whence I started. There was Madame perched on a suitcase looking calmer than I had any right to expect.
The next morning we traipsed over to Maison Alex Gambal for our appointment with Alex. And there he was … gone! He had decided to go skiing and would not return until well after our departure from Beaune. We did have a very pleasant and productive meeting with Sophie and Fabrice Laronze and thoroughly enjoyed the Maison Alex Gambal wines.
We imported the next vintage of Alex’s wines for our wine club with greater success, but it was still modest. I learned that Alex was building a summer home in Orleans on Cape Cod. Coincidently, we take our annual family vacations in Chatham, the next town over from Orleans. So, we arranged to meet up with Alex while we were all on the Cape. While there, I called Alex several times and left messages along with our local phone number. He did not return those calls.
Shortly after we returned from the Cape I ran across an advertisement for Maison Alex Gambal wines that were being offered by another Ontario agency. This was very odd in that the LCBO mandates that a given winery may have but a single agent for all of Ontario and they must sign an exclusive agency agreement to that effect. I thought we were it for Maison Alex Gambal. Apparently something nasty had transpired so I called Alex. “Oh, I was going to contact you about that,” blurted Alex. That was the end of our relationship with Alex and Maison Alex Gambal.
While preparing this article I ran across this notice: ‘Burgundy’s Boisset family announced today the planned acquisition of Maison Alex Gambal. The deal, expected to be finalized by mid-September (2019), includes 30 acres of vineyards planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, a winery and current inventory. The sale price was not disclosed.’
That’s it for this month. If you are on the lookout for a truly special Côtes du Rhône and reside in Ontario, I highly recommend our 2018 Rhône By Roger Sabon that is currently available on LCBO.com for only $19.05.
This is Jim’s 49th wine post on Gentleman’s Portion. Please “like” our blogs, if you have enjoyed our musings, or add a “comment” — clickable at the top or bottom of each story. The search function works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous articles.