We were curious to find out what our wine scribe Jim Walker had been drinking during the pandemic and thought it would make an interesting topic for his next Gentleman’s portion contribution. He was reluctant to tell us at first for fear that we, and our readers, would think he was being a bit braggy. However, he relented. Here’s what he’s uncorked. We are more than a little bit envious.
Lest you think, based on what follows, that I am some wealthy wine dilettante who lolls around on plush cushions sipping only the finest wines while vestal virgins peel my grapes, let me disavow you of such wayward thoughts. I have been collecting wine for some 45 years and was lucky enough to acquire most when prices were comparatively modest.
Sherwood Deutsch’s Century Discount Liquors in Rochester, New York was a primary source of such wines (see Gentleman’s Portion post A Veritable Vinous Valhalla). As noted in that article, a 1975 Château Giscours, a lovely little Margaux third growth I found in my cellar, bore a $7.99 price sticker. But Sherwood would have discounted that by at least 10 per cent. True, the Canadian dollar was at a small discount and it cost $1.22 to bring it across the border, but you get the picture. We would also purchase Bordeaux futures there when they really did represent a bargain. Dad, brother Doug and I would visit Sherwood quite regularly. Thus a cellar was born – clay drainage pipes piled up in our condo cellar locker in Old Montreal.
In addition to Sherwood’s liquor emporium, there was the SAQ’s marvellous Maison de Vin on avenue du Président-Kennedy just a few blocks away from my office in Place Ville Marie in Montreal. I used to trot over there a couple of times a week to see what vinous treasures had recently arrived. There were two extremely knowledgeable and charming advisors there named Jean-Pierre Montpetit and Gerry (regretfully I have forgotten Gerry’s last name) who would always point out special wines and bargain bottles. When on weekend daughter duty, two year old Katie and I would grace the Maison de Vin with our presence after a visit to the Atwater Market (the highlight being the acquisition of a doughnut that Katie would devour while riding on my shoulders and gleefully depositing multi-coloured sprinkles in my hair). Jean-Pierre called her “My Little Princess.”
I loved the Maison de Vin’s beautiful glass racking, that ended up holding some 20,000 bottles in Champlain Charest’s fabulous Bistro À Champlain in Estèrel in the Laurentians. This was the site of a comparative tasting of Château Pétrus and Dominus that we attended, but that’s another story. I was also enthralled by the treasure room at the back with its metal door with the large round handle. One day my brother and I were moseying around among the first growths and super seconds in that vinous paradise when Gerry popped in and extracted six bottles of a recent vintage of Château Lafite Rothschild. One bottle would be a dream, but six! Who was the lucky collector? Gerry explained that they were a contract condition of a well-known rock group. Every time they appeared on stage, they would guzzle six bottles of this storied elixir. The ones he just selected would meet their ultimate fate that evening! Never was a more heinous act of infanticide committed.
My employer transferred us to Ottawa but wouldn’t pay to move our wine. So in the middle of winter I drove back and forth between Montreal and Ottawa with the car loaded with our treasures. I decided to build a proper air conditioned and humidity controlled cellar in our Ottawa home. A couple of years later when we were transferred to Toronto, a potential buyer said to her husband, “Oh look, what a lovely root cellar!” I wasn’t going to go through that again. Luckily, brother Doug found something called a Vintage Keeper. It was a large wooden box with a door and ingenious metal racking that was two bottles deep. You assembled it like something from IKEA. It included air conditioning and would hold around 1,500 bottles. Best of all, you could disassemble it and take it with you when you moved (in theory).
I would pick up bottles on business trips throughout Canada (every time in Edmonton I would grab a bottle of Wolf Blass 1998 Jimmy Watson Trophy Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon for about $35 from the Real Canadian Liquorstore) and in the States from the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Boston and Washington, D.C.. Of course I picked up many bottles on our frequent trips to France, many thanks to Christian Esparza, our wine mentor in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Hélène liked to support the local French language theatre Le Théâtre français de Toronto. They held a raffle for a wine cabinet and over 100 bottles of wine. Tickets were $100 each and she wanted to buy one. I helpfully suggested that we might as well simply make a donation instead, but she went ahead and bought a ticket. A few weeks later we were vacationing in Montreal. We had dined at La Colombe and had just repaired to our hotel when the phone rang. It was daughter Kate. She had just received a most unusual call from a man saying that Mom had won some wine. Thus our wine collection grew with the addition of some very nice bottles.
I also picked up a few from the LCBO, but they were usually far too expensive at the people’s booze monopoly. On one occasion a work colleague lined up at the Toronto Queens Quay store to purchase a bottle of 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild for $104 (currently valued at between $2,000 and $3,000). Happily, she was successful.
Which reminds me of the ordeal I went through to acquire a 1982 Pétrus. I had learned that the Sherwood Forrest Village, Mississauga LCBO store had had a case of it bestowed upon them by head office and that it would be sold, first come, first served on a Saturday morning for $111 the bottle. It was a bitterly cold February morning and I parked at the front door of the store at 4:30 am (the store was to open at 9:00 am). I was a little surprised that by 5:30 am nobody had joined me. Curious I thought. It was still pitch black, but I thought I saw something move at the far end of the building. Oh no! There was a back door just around the corner. I got out of the car and trotted over and sure enough, there were a number of folks already in line. I settled in at the end of the queue and counted 13 shivering souls ahead of me. With but 12 bottles available it didn’t look good. I’d gone this far: I might as well wait it out and see what happened. We shivered on and a couple of other hardy souls settled in behind me.
Then at about 8:30 John Tait the long standing store manager came out of the door with some good news and some bad news. The good news was that he had a small plastic cup of brandy for each of us. The bad news was that there were only 11 bottles (I strongly suspected that Mr. Tait had taken claim to one of them). A few moments later a chap in front of me dropped out. He had been there to support a buddy. Finally the door opened and in we went. John handed out the available bottles, one to a customer. Could this be true? Two of the frozen beings in front of me weren’t there for the Pétrus, they wanted something else that was debuting that morning. I was number 11! By the way, that bottle sells today between $5,000 and $10,000 the bottle. Insane, I know.
A few years ago we decided to sell our home and move to a condo. The purchasers of our house were not interested in the Vintage Keeper wine cellar so I decided to take it apart and sell it. I had forgotten that several years prior a bottle of homemade wine a good friend had given me had exploded in the cellar. I guess he had not completed fermentation before bottling. What a mess! It soiled the labels on many surrounding bottles and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, soaked into the flooring and in time rusted out a number of the lower bolts. I couldn’t free the bolts up, so I had to force everything apart rendering the cellar unsellable. Worse, once I got the cellar out I found the rug under it was covered in a healthy coating of black mould! For a mere $1,000 it was professionally eradicated. That was the most expensive bottle of wine I never drank.
I was able to salvage the racking and install it in a nearby commercial locker. I stored most of our wine there after moving to the condo. But I never did catalogue it properly and over the years what little I did do became irrelevant. Then the pandemic struck and I needed projects. It was as if we were immersed in eternal spring cleaning. The owners of the commercial locker were price gouging us and they refused to do anything about it. So I found a replacement even closer to our condo, transferred the racking and wine to it and completed a proper computer inventory. The whole process, which ended up cutting my monthly rental in half, took just two exhausting weeks, but it did a job on my back which took a further month to get right. I determined that I had a substantial number of bottles that were tragically past their ‘best by’ dates. So I did a cellar cull and that is what we have been drinking during the pandemic.
Now then, I am not going to regale you with detailed descriptions of each and every bottle. But I will highlight a few.
1990 and 1993 Chateau Musar – This cult red was produced from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan grown in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon (grapes have been cultivated there for over 6,000 years). The winery was established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar and then greatly improved by his sons Ronald and Serge. I was introduced to Chateau Musar by the esteemed Montreal restaurateur Mostafa Rougaïbi who noted it was Lebanon’s finest wine. I opened the 1993 first. The cork was gnarly and seepage was evident. The wine was undrinkable. Sadly, the same was true of the 1990. He who hesitates is lost.
1989 Château Chasse-Spleen – This Cru Bourgeois red from the Moulis region of Bordeaux with the disconcerting name was fashioned out of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Over the years I have come to respect this wine and the value it represents. I got this bottle from Century Discount Liquors and doubt I paid as much as $10 for it. Being more than 30 years old, I expected very little of it. In fact, I was sure it would be like the Chateau Musars. I eased the cork out and, while certainly not pristine, it showed no signs of leakage. The wine, a brick red, smelled okay, in fact very good. It threw off a fair amount of sediment when decanted and I served it straight away. It was full-bodied and exhibited deep, ripe black fruit, herbs, earth, and tobacco. It was terrific.
1990 Hillebrand Estates Trius Red – In 1989, Hillebrand released Trius Red for the first time. Inspired by Bordeaux blends, it was made from the winery’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes. Then two years later it burst onto the international wine scene when it became the first-ever Canadian vintage to be recognized as the Best Red Wine in the World. In between was the first vintage I had acquired for $14.95 and 30 years later I still had it. Once again I was not expecting much, but hope springs eternal. The cork was fine, nothing had leaked out. There was little sediment (I supposed it had been filtered and perhaps fined) when decanted and we took a sip immediately thereafter. It was marginally drinkable but was flat and without any redeeming features. Sheer geronticide!
2009 Máté Winery Brunello di Montalcino – We represented this winery, owned by a couple of Canadians, Candace and Ferenc Máté, for a few years. I always found their Brunello di Montalcino, particularly this vintage, to be somewhat unbalanced and tannic. So it was with a good dollop of trepidation that I uncorked this bottle. Surprise! It had come together quite nicely and was a most enjoyable quaff. This medium to full-bodied Tuscan made from pure Sangiovese exhibited rich aromas of morel cherry, tar, Damson plum and a hint of coffee. While drinking beautifully now, I think it will get even better over the next five years or so. Timing is everything.
1999 Luce della Vite – This ‘Super Tuscan’ is the product of a collaboration between Vittorio Frescobaldi of Toscana and Robert Mondavi of Napa Valley. Their first vintage was in 1992. My 1999, made from a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, was a dense ruby colour and offered up ripe aromas of dried plum and blackberry with a seductive bouquet of tobacco leaf, tanned leather, cinnamon and cloves. It was silky smooth, beautifully balanced and a real pleasure drink. This was one of the finest Italian jobbies, as my friend Hugh calls them, that I have ever had. Super Tuscan indeed.
That is quite enough for now. Take a look at the Featured Image (below) to see some of the other bottles that have made the ultimate sacrifice during this wretched plague. My biggest regret is that we couldn’t have shared them with family and friends.
PS: If you are interested in some really great wines from the Southern Rhône such as Côtes du Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape, you might consider joining my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club – no fees or other obligations, just marvellous wine.