A dear friend pulls up stakes and heads off to the West Coast. Our wine scribe Jim Walker reminisces about the many vinous adventures and good times they shared.
I first encountered Hugh Oddie at an off-site management development conference that our mutual employer, the Royal Bank of Canada, was holding in the misguided hope that a few of us might morph into executive material. You couldn’t miss him. He was the cheery, ruddy-cheeked young man with a posh English accent thick as molasses in January. He came by it honestly. Both Eton College and the University of Cambridge did their best to knock a bit of knowledge into his skull. He was quite vociferous during the plenary sessions and often made a good deal of sense (when he could be understood).
I would run into him now and again afterwards, as he swanned to and from Montreal’s Place Ville Marie or in the hallowed halls of the bank. During the winter months he would sport an impossibly long red and white knitted scarf that wound round and round his neck like a besotted boa constrictor.
It came about that the bank acquired Hugh along the other assets of a British international investment bank called Orion Bank (renamed Orion Royal Bank) where he dutifully manned the Japanese desk. The bank then imported him into Canada in order that he might help them divine what it was they had actually acquired. In due course they disposed of Orion but kept Hugh on to help them out with their fledgling international private banking operations. At that time I was establishing the bank’s domestic private banking program and had cause to compare notes with Hugh on a sporadic basis.
I was a member of a wine tasting club that was led by a chap named David Loucks. There were six or seven members when I joined. We would meet at one of our homes on roughly a monthly basis. The host would serve up a charcuterie plate or two and dig out treasures from his wine cellar. The guests kicked in $20 each to defray the food costs. Not too long after I joined, I introduced my work colleague Jamie Winterhalt to the group (Jamie has toiled with me at Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club ever since inception, looking after the technical side of things). Now it just so happened that Jamie lived near Hugh and his family in Mount Royal. They would get together regularly to share fine potables and vittles. On one such occasion Hugh noticed his next door neighbour placing bottles of white wine in a snowbank between their two houses. It seems that the neighbour was hosting a cocktail party that evening. By coincidence, Hugh had a couple of empties similar to those being chilled, so he snuck out and swapped out the empties for the neighbour’s full bottles. Great spasms of mirth ensued when the neighbour went to retrieve his chilled wine and found the bottles empty. After a few seconds of thoroughly enjoying his anguish, Hugh and Jamie knocked on the window, held up full glasses and silently toasted him. They put him out of his misery by holding up his unopened bottles and performing a reverse swap. Additional merriment followed as they watched him tell the story to his guests through the facing dining room windows.
Jamie brought Hugh into our wine club. Together they were responsible for injecting the pièce de résistance to our oenophilic proceedings: a restaurant called La Colombe, which was located in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal at the corner of Duluth and St. Hubert. The owner, Mostafa Rogaïbi, who had emigrated from Casablanca, was also the chef, a very, very talented one. And, perhaps best of all, it was a bring-your-own-bottle establishment that charged absolutely no corkage. In time we got to know Mostafa very well and learned what a truly delightful fellow he was. He even invited the entire gang over to his house for a simply amazing couscous and lots of wine, of course.
La Colombe was usually only open in the evenings, but for us he would organize private luncheons. We would each bring a bottle and Mostafa would prepare a six or seven course gourmet feast including all kinds of wild game. Of course, Mostafa would share in the wine and we would have a jolly good time. My favourite dish was his divine foie gras, decadent I know but impossibly delicious and irresistible. Sadly for us and his legion of well-fed patrons, after 30 years La Colombe closed a few months ago. Mostafa had earned his retirement.
In time many of us ended up in the Toronto area where we revived the wine club and conscripted new members. Jamie would often motor down from Montreal to join in the festivities. They were less frequent, the accompanying meals became more and more elaborate and the $20 food subsidy was eliminated. Hugh would always wear an old tattered white dress shirt to these wonderful events. In due course the right sleeve became torn but he continued to wear it anyway. He loved the wines of Bordeaux, claret as he called them, and had an uncanny ability to correctly identify Sauternes and Ports, often right down to the vintage and house.
Hugh had moved to Wells Street in Toronto’s Annex and the rambling old house became the meeting place for a wide range of fascinating characters including the wine guys. When one phoned, his answering machine would intone, “Hello, you’ve reached Hugh. Before the beep is me, after the beep is you.”
On Sunday mornings he would regularly serve up a robust English breakfast for an assortment of guests that could include a well-known Canadian actor or a very talented handyman. These were dry affairs.
One never knew who might be in residence. Sometimes it was one or both of his children, Melissa and Lara. He affectionately referred to them as ‘my wretched daughters.’
Wells Street also became the unofficial headquarters for The Honourable Company of Freeman of London of North America, an assemblage of transplanted Brits who longed for a taste of the old country (usually enhanced by a good measure of Scotch Whisky). Hugh was the Master for a couple of years. Members had the remarkable right to wear a sword whilst in London and to drive sheep across Tower Bridge. These privileges have since been wisely rescinded.
Over the years I came to appreciate Hugh’s many talents, characteristics and idiosyncrasies. He has self-published three volumes of poetry: The Carving of You; I want to wake in the morning with you again; and A Moment in Time. Hugh also co-wrote Internal Branding: A How-To Guide with Nina Maclaverty. I know he would be most appreciative if you were to purchase one or two.
He is an inveterate mentor providing marketing and strategic advice to folks wanting to start a business, seek self-improvement or pursue a career like our daughter Kate did when she had dreams of becoming an actress. Hugh arranged for her to sit in on rehearsals of the Necessary Angel Theatre Company founded and directed at the time by Richard Rose.
In fact, High enjoys all the arts – theatre, symphony and opera. He enjoys cats, particularly those of the Siamese or part-Siamese variety. He really enjoys cycling and could oft be seen puffing his way around Toronto west. He thoroughly enjoys travelling, whether it be a fortnight munching lobster on PEI, joining his brother on European escapades or visiting old friends in Japan. And, he really, really enjoys The Rolling Stones. But perhaps most of all Hugh enjoys getting together with good friends over a modest meal and a not so modest assortment of wines. By the way, he does not enjoy most Italian wines (‘jobbies’ he calls them).
Hugh is compulsive organizer. For example, when he moved into Wells Street he found the deep narrow fenced-in back yard to be quite depressing. So what did he do? Why he convinced all the neighbours with similarly configured back yards to tear down a good chunk of the mid-sections of their fences so that the resulting vista between houses extended much of the block. It would have made a fine par four golf hole.
Hugh practices Tai Chi, the martial art form cum meditation in motion. I met his instructor years ago at the house and he told me that when he began, Hugh was one of the worst pupils he had ever had. But Hugh persevered, improved and eventually became an instructor himself.
Now and then Hugh would mention a desire to move to Victoria, BC, in order to avoid Toronto’s miserable winters and to be able to cycle year round. These were the sort of musings that usually come to naught. But recently, Wells Street was being spiffed up – new paint here, repairs performed there and clutter eliminated everywhere. And then all of a sudden it was on the market! It sold quickly. With third-degree like interrogation we were able to get him to disclose that he and his partner Marie Chris would soon be on their way to Victoria! Egad! He had meant it.
We had to scramble in order to arrange a goodbye dinner and wine tasting. Of course it was to be held at the house. Jamie, who still lives in Montreal, called Mostafa to find out where he could acquire some foie gras and perhaps the recipe for his famous foie gras sauce. “I can do better than that”, said Mostafa. “Drop over for a glass of wine.” This Jamie gladly did, whereupon Mostafa pulled a large foie from his freezer and gave it to Jamie along with a vat of his secret sauce … gratis! Did I mention that Mostafa was a great guy?
Philippe Gadbois, a good friend and wine tasting regular, joined in the farewell festivities making us five (Hugh, Jamie, Marie Chris and me). By one of those really weird quirks of fate, that next door neighbour upon whom Hugh pulled the empty wine bottles prank turns out to be one of Philippe’s oldest friends. And, as luck would have it, Philippe is a magician when it comes to searing foie gras.
The affair began with a Champagne Forget-Brimont non-vintage Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru. It was a lovely, effervescent way to start the evening. We then repaired to the dining room table where Hugh presented an absolutely delicious cream of mushroom soup accompanied by some very good, fresh bread from a Portuguese bakery oddly named the Paris Bakery and Pastry. By the way, Hugh is a very good cook. The first wine that went with the soup was a 2004 Pernand-Vergelesses from P. Dubreuil-Fontaine Père et Fils. It was way past its prime (if it ever had a prime) and we dispatched it forthwith. A 2007 Meursault-Blagny 1er Cru, La Genelotte by Domaine Martelet de Cherisey replaced it was then ably assisted by a somewhat muted 2005 Corton-Maréchaudes Grand Cru from Domaine Vincent Sauvestre.
At this point Philippe sprang into action, repairing to the kitchen and expertly searing the foie gras. It arrived at the table along with Mostafa’s secret sauce and a 1995 Château de Fargues, the other Sauternes (not a second wine) from the producers of Château d’Yquem. The combination was sublime.
A 1983 Châteaux Margaux welcomed a beautifully cooked beef tenderloin with all the trimmings (by Hugh, of course). Then a 1998 Château Rayas Réserve helped finish off the main course. Hugh had once told us that his brother had introduced him to this wondrous wine and that he had been longing for another bottle ever since. So, on a subsequent visit to Provence I acquired this bottle from our favourite caviste, Christian Esparza and tucked it away to drink with Hugh on a special occasion. This was it. By the way, it was ethereal.
Finally came the cheese course, and what a cheese course it was. Jamie had sourced them from Yannick Fromagerie and Glengarry Fine Cheese. Here was the line-up:
Avonlea Cheddar, Cavendish PEI
Glengarry Cheddar, Lancaster ON
Louis D’Or, Ste-Elizabeth Warwick-Centre QC
Fleuron Biologique Bleu, Ste-Sophie QC
Glengarry Celtic Blue Reserve, Lancaster ON
Brise des Vignerons, Farnham QC
Glengarry Chevre, Lancaster ON
All of it was joyfully washed down with a spectacular 1994 Fonseca Vintage Port. Hugh declared it to be in good nick.
And just like that the evening was over and we were all saying our fond farewells.
After 25 years, on October 8, 2020 at precisely 8:30 am, Hugh closed the front door of Wells Street for the last time. He and Marie Chris embarked on their 10-day drive to Victoria and their new life. I look forward to the day when we see them again. I know that they will have a big, juicy Dungeness crab, a pot of melted butter and a nicely chilled bottle of Blue Mountain Striped Label Pinot Gris waiting for us.
PS: If you enjoy fabulous wines from the Rhône Valley, take a gander at our Arthur’s Cellar website. Better yet, sign up to receive our electronic bulletins – no annual fees or other obligations; just great wine.
Jim – you have captured the essence of “Hugh Oddie” – what a lovely tribute.
Wishing Hugh and MarieClare all the best as they set out on their new adventures i. The west.
Jim – hope you are well and staying safe in these craziest of times.
Thank you, Marg. We will all miss the old boy. Cheers, Jim