Many, many years ago our wine scribe Jim Walker fell in love with a voluptuous, full-bodied Australian. Glowing remarks extolling the many charms of the object of his affection had been broadcast far and wide. He was bound and determined to learn first-hand what all the fuss was about, even if it meant going to Australia. What could possibly have caused such ardour in our cold hearted ex-banker? Read on.
It was January 1987. We had recently moved from our condo in an ancient warehouse in Old Montreal to an upper duplex on Victoria Avenue. Magee had been born that Boxing Day. Katie was two. My Aunt Barb had announced that she was coming for a visit from Vancouver. My boss at the bank, Roy Fithern, a grand fellow, called me into his office and asked if my passport was up to date? “We are going to Australia next week!” While very exciting, I suspected this news was not going to make me very popular at home.
A couple of years previously the Royal Bank had entered into a partnership with The National Mutual Life Association of Australia Ltd. National Mutual owned a couple of small building societies, like credit unions, and the idea was to turn them into a retail banking operation like the Royal Bank had in Canada. Roy and I were to spend a couple of weeks in Australia to do a marketing audit on the fledgling business. Was it viable? (You’ve simply must see the TV advertisement that the new partners aired to announce their creation, National Mutual Royal Bank. Sadly performance was not their strong suit – there was less than a 50-50 chance that any given ATM transaction would be completed!)
Australia! Australian wines! I had only recently become acquainted with the antipodean nectar of the vine. I had been introduced to an enterprising young lady by the name of Patricia Fraser who was importing Australian wines into Quebec. Patricia represented several lines of Australian wine which I was only too willing to try. Man, were they a revelation. I could hardly wait to taste them and many more at their source.
The bank prohibited two senior employees from the same functional area from flying together. So I was to fly Air Canada to Los Angeles and then Qantas to Sydney and then on to Melbourne. Roy was to take Canadian Pacific all the way to Sydney with a stop in Vancouver and would arrive a day after me. My flight to LA was uneventful but my layover there was extended from two to seven hours because the Qantas aircraft was held up in Hawaii. I’m not sure if the delay had anything to do with it, but the Qantas 747 was almost empty. I was practically alone in the cavernous business class section except for two male flight attendants about my age. During the first meal they learned about my interest in wines and decided that it was their duty to while away the hours in air educating me about the finer points of Australian wine. Now those were the days when airlines served really, really good wines up front and Qantas was certainly no exception. And, as you can image, I was a most attentive student. Man, was that fun.
My avid instructors regaled me with tales of Australia’s greatest wine produced by Penfolds during my extended seminar. It was called Grange Hermitage, later truncated to just Grange in order to assuage the sensibilities of the Northern Rhône vintners and their Hermitage wines. They told me about a chap called Max Schubert who had joined Penfolds in 1931 as a messenger and who, by 1948 at the age of 33, had become the winery’s first Chief Winemaker. Max had toured the wineries of France and learned the techniques for making really great wine. He selected some choice Shiraz (Syrah) grapes and began to experiment. Convinced that he had concocted something pretty special, he convinced the Penfolds executive, board of directors and special guests to give it a try. They hated it!
The board told Max to cease and desist with this vile potion but he carried on in secret. Over time as his wines aged, hidden away in the cellars, they began to mellow out and became drinkable; in fact very drinkable. Penfolds first released it in 1960 and by 1962 it was winning numerous awards at Australia’s top wine shows.
I landed in Sydney and somehow made my way to a lounge to await the final leg of my journey to Melbourne. It was a couple of hours and I managed a little sleep which helped a bit. Was I ever looking forward to my hotel room and a long snooze. I spied an older gentleman in a natty uniform as I exited the Melbourne airport baggage area. He was holding a sign that in large block letters screamed out ‘Jim Walker.’ Could there be two of us? He turned out to be the company chauffeur and along with a Jaguar limo was there to take me on a tour of Melbourne before depositing my sorry carcass at the hotel. Groan! I did manage to stay awake and make small talk but remember absolutely nothing of the excursion. I do recall my great relief when we finally reached the Hilton and my joyful surprise at finding a small Wolf Blass wine shop in the lobby.
Our host at National Mutual was a truly delightful fellow by the name of Russell Rechner. It just so happened that he too was great fancier of the fruit of the vine and a veritable font of knowledge about Australian wines. One evening he and his wife invited Roy and me over to his home for dinner. What a lovely affair it was – appetizers with a Down Under fizz, shrimp off the barbie with a delicious Aussie Chardonnay and then, la pièce de résistance, a thick rare steak also from the grill. The latter was accompanied by a dark red liquid in an antique decanter – a 1972 Grange Hermitage! It was my first sip of Grange and it was magnificent. Here’s how Andrew Caillard described it in his book Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience (Allin & Unwin, 6th Edition, 2008):
Medium deep brick red. Lovely cedar/sweet fruit/hazelnut/polished leather aromas and flavours with some plum/walnut notes. The palate is still fresh and elegant with plenty of fruit sweetness and fine, lacy cedary tannins. Finishes chewy firm. A controversial vintage, but this was a very good bottle. 90 per cent shiraz, 10 per cent cabernet sauvignon.
The 1972 was my first, but certainly and thankfully not my last Grange. Over the years I amassed a sizeable cache of it. I brought a couple back from Australia, natch. Every time my dad, brother and I visited Century Discount Liquors in Rochester, New York, (see my wine post A Veritable Vinous Valhalla) which was often, I would buy one (at a cost $US32 the bottle – I seemed to be the only one buying them for the stock seemed to remain the same between visits). I found other bottles on business trips to Calgary and Edmonton. And, when living in Ottawa I came across a stash of it at an out-of-the-way LCBO store. Dad was in town so I asked him to pick them all up while I was at work. He did and bought the last bottle for Hélène. We’ll uncork it at her next birthday. Speaking of birthdays, we opened a 1984 Grange, the year of her birth, to celebrate Kate’s 30th.
By the way, the LCBO offered the 2014 Grange for $2,400 the magnum. Total Wines in the US sold the same wine for $US849.99 the bottle, $US764.99 each if you acquired six or more. As chronicled in my last blog, corks become problematic in older bottles of wine. But Penfolds, following Château Lafite Rothschild’s lead, held re-corking clinics in major cities around the world including, thankfully, Toronto. The 2005 event was to be held at the Windsor Arms Hotel. It was solely a PR gesture and was free! I made an appointment and invited my brother Doug to join me. He brought six bottles while I schlepped two and a half cases to the event. We arrived at the appointed hour and were warmly greeted in an anteroom where a delightful array of canapés and open bottles of Penfolds products including a recent vintage of Grange beckoned. Our treasures were catalogued and taken away as we grazed at leisure.
In due course we were ushered into a large room (fortunately before the treats ran out) where several Penfolds employees in spiffy black aprons were buzzing around attending to other Grange owners and their elixirs. Also present was a nattily dressed chap from Christie’s, the British auction house, who was there to oversee the proceedings. Doug and I were seated at a table festooned in white linen with our bottles neatly aligned on it. Two very friendly Penfolds reps with thick Aussie accents attended to us and began with Doug’s bottles. They inspected them and set three aside, deeming that the corks in them were in top nick because no ullage had occurred. They expertly cut off the foil and extracted the corks from the remaining three bottles, poured about an ounce from each into crystal wine glasses and inserted an inert gas into the top of the bottles. One of them inspected the wine in each glass, swirled it around and inhaled the proffered fumes. Then he took a very small sip. He deemed each of them fit to be recorked and topped the bottles up with a recent vintage of Grange.
Incidentally, if a bottled failed to pass muster, it would be re-corked but not certified as being worthy. The bottles were then passed onto to another Penfolds technician who, with the aid of a corking machine, inserted new corks, installed new capsules, affixed labels attesting to probity of the event and finally wrapped them in Penfolds tissue.
Now then, you might well ask, what happened to the liquid that remained in the three glasses? Before answering, allow me to describe the lay of the land. As Doug and I sat at the table, I was to the right and he was in the middle. The wine and wine glasses were at the left, immediately beside Doug. Ole Dougal proceeded to drain all three of his glasses of their magical contents, leaving nary a drop for me. Fair enough, I thought, after all they were his bottles.
Then came my turn. Of my 30 bottles, 12 were deemed fit and not requiring further attention. That left 18 for the full treatment. The nice Penfolds man selected my first bottle, did his thing and then set down the glass with the dollop of precious liquid inside. To my bemusement, my brother grabbed the glass and chugged its contents! All of it! Not a drop for me! Surely this was an aberrant act. But no! It was repeated for the next few glasses. I got nary a drop. I didn’t want to make a fuss in front of the Penfolds folks, but I did want taste at least a little of my wine. So I said to Doug sotto voce, “Do you think it might be possible for me to try some of my wine?” He looked at me in astonishment, a cherubic grin of innocence on his face. The next glass came. He drank half of it and then passed the few remaining drops to me.
I guess he felt I by then had had more than my share for he laid waste to the entirety of the next glass and the next one and the next one. And so it went.
Penfolds held another recorking clinic in Toronto a couple of years later. I did not invite my brother to accompany me.
So there you have it. I was smitten by the iconic Penfolds Grange (Hermitage) many years ago and my love affair continues ardently to this day.
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.
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This is Jim’s 61st blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.
I remember the RBC misadventure Down Under very well. It was probably stressful enough to make many executives take up drinking wine!! The wine part of your tale turned out a lot better!!