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New England Regional

In Wine We Trust

Harvard oenophiles brim over with enthusiasm

November-December 2007

Boston wine merchant Leonard Rothenberg recalls the days before California dominated the U.S. market

Photograph by Stu Rosner


Boston wine merchant Leonard Rothenberg recalls the days before California dominated the U.S. market

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Like children waiting with open bags at the door on Halloween, a dozen adults crowded around a table at the Skinner auction house wine preview in Boston, proffering empty goblets for a sip from the coveted bottles for sale. With great ceremony, Philip Minervino, of the Lower Falls Wine Company, poured an inch of the 1997 Château Lafite Rothschild, turned the glass to the light and gently swirled the garnet-colored liquid before breathing in the bouquet and finally tipping the contents to his lips. “We’re just checking that they are all OK to serve,” he tells the eager crowd, his blue eyes twinkling. “Who will be first?”

Among those in line that September night was Bruce McInnis, M.B.A. ’76. He favored the “delightful fruit” of a 1994 Opus One, but wasn’t particularly taken with 1970 Mouton, a first-growth Bordeaux: “It was good, from a good vintage and a good name, but not sufficiently delicious to warrant the price,” he said. “For me, status isn’t important, all that matters is what’s delicious.” The retired executive from Amherst, Massachusetts, trolls the wine auctions at Sotheby’s and elsewhere, adding this and that to the 1,000 bottles already in his cellar by using a simple strategy: “I try to get great bottles from secondary properties in the best vintages,” he allows. “I like the Sauternes and the ports, but I’ll bottom-fish on the Bordeaux and Burgundies.”

There was plenty to cast for at Skinner’s auction, held two days later. The first of its kind in the region in at least a decade, it featured more than 1,100 bottles, including 350 majestic, “old school” Bordeaux from the 1970s. All told, the auction raised $300,000—and almost everything sold at or above staff estimates.

Five cases of prized 1970 Château Latour went for $5,676 a case, while bidders forked over $19,120 for 24 bottles of 2000 Château Lafite Rothschild—“a stellar year that can be laid down for decades and only get more perfect,” notes Marie Keep, Skinner’s director of wines. “New England collectors are savvy. They know what’s out there and they know how to buy it and what a good price is.”

This has not always been true. Leonard Rothenberg ’69, the owner of Federal Wine and Spirits in Boston, started selling wines in the early 1970s when collectors focused solely on those from Bordeaux and Burgundy “and maybe a little bit of German wine—but that was only for the lunatic fringe,” he explains. “People who were wine lovers tended to be academic types, some of whom went to California with the crazy idea of making wine modeled after the great European traditions.”

The popularity of wine in America within the last 10 to 15 years has grown steadily. California wines now represent two-thirds of all wine sold in the United States (about $17.8 billions’ worth a year), and U.S. drinkers consume 10.8 percent of the world market—third in line, after France and Italy, according to the Wine Institute, a California wine trade group. “In the 1990s, there was an explosion in the interest in food and wine, which have been elevated to the level of culture,” Rothenberg explains. “A lot of people like to take their culture orally.”

Nearly every night in the Greater Boston area there are tastings at wine shops or gourmet grocers, extravagant food and wine pairings at fancy restaurants with guest speakers, and any number of wine classes available. Hotels and inns across the region offer wine weekends, seminars, and festivals, while travel companies arrange tours to New England’s wineries—and around the globe.

Moreover, the Internet offers wine sales, auctions, and industry rankings and reviews as well as peer-to-peer websites with recommendations, commentary, and news traded among oenophiles at all levels of experience and wealth. (Among the useful sites are savoreachglass.com and http://corkd.com, and the podcasts of tv.winelibrary.com and http://winefornewbies.net.)

Rothenberg, an admitted old-guard palate, draws the line at video bloggers who “sit there, slurp their wine, and let us know how wonderful it is.” That’s just not the point. “The interesting thing about wine is that it comes down to a small number of people who share an experience contained in a bottle, and the bottle only goes so far,” he says. “Tasting wine is a continual process of marginal differentiation. It is a kind of discovery, and it can be a revelation.”

How so? What is the mystique of wine? Rothenberg and several other Harvard-affiliated veteran wine lovers were asked about their experiences, tastes, and tips to newcomers just beginning to delve into the world of wine.

Last spring, Kirkland House master Tom Conley offered a seminar called “Oenography: For a Topology of Wine.” “The sensations of what we taste become the elements of the space we fashion from the places we study,” reads the syllabus. The idea, says Conley, who is Lowell professor of Romance languages, was that through tastings, scholarly research, and geographic study, students would not only begin to understand a “philosophy of sensation,” but would explore the meaning of place, history, geography, language, and identity inherent in something as simple as a crushed grape. “The feeling in the class was very serious. The mood was not about getting drunk. In fact, it was the antithesis of that,” he continues. “There is a whole range of disciplines that run through learning about wines.”

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Tom Conley enjoys guiding young palates at Kirkland House

Not the least of which could fall under the rubric of social psychology. “The class learned a wonderful sense of the art of conversation and conviviality,” Conley reports—something alien to many undergraduates steeped in today’s technological culture and bound to their desks. “It is crucial for their mental health to get out of their rooms and the library and actually talk to each other face to face and share ideas,” he adds. “Wine tasting does this, it enhances a sense of community.”

So many students wanted to take the course (not yet an official House seminar) that Conley was forced to have them write application essays: he received 110, and picked 26 students. Six wines were tasted during each two-hour session (in very small sips, with lots of water and bread in between, he reassures), amid discussions ranging from etiquette and poetics of description to how to construct oenological maps and the best methods for logging “sensorial forays.” Bottles were culled from Conley’s closet-sized, climate-controlled cellar behind an old safe in the Master’s residence. There he keeps some special birthday gifts (among them a 1993 Château Haut Brion), wines for House functions, several bottles of Domaine des Martinelles 2004 Crozes-Hermitage (a big, full-bodied wine—“a great secret”), and those he favors from importer Kermit Lynch. Conley leans toward wines from southern France and Italy, and is partial to rosés from Provence for their sumptuous “bite.” But he is open to tasting almost anything, and even enjoys many of the newer organic wines often eschewed by the old guard as insubstantial. Snobbery and wine do not go together, Conley believes, and he advises students to “avoid vocabulary that might be used in the Wine Spectator, which often exhibits a fetishism or oneupmanship where people compete for gustatory show.”

Other words of wisdom? Always drink wine with food and friends and study it as a serious subject, through consistent, focused practice. “What does the bouquet say about its character? How does the wine feel on the inner edge of the lips and tongue, along the walls of our cheeks, in the vault of the palate? How does it finish in the throat?” he asks. Affiliate wine with a genius loci: “What does a region lend to the wine that is singular, distinctive to a place, a history?” And finally: “You’ve had enough when the taste buds start to feel fried,” he asserts. “You’ve had too much when you can’t go back to work afterward.”

Eric Vogt ’70, M.B.A. ’75, is maître of the Boston chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, and founder and CEO of e-Provenance, a new company that is testing the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to trace temperatures on bottles as they move from the château to the consumer. “For the first time, we’ll be able to trace temperatures through the distribution channels, as well as verify authenticity,” he says.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Eric Vogt finds peace and quiet in his wine cellar

Vogt’s love of wine began during his senior year at Harvard. He and his roommate concluded that they knew “a lot about Chinese art and classical music and some of the aesthetics of life, but nothing about wines”—and asked Laurence W. Wylie, Dillon professor of the civilization of France, to teach them. The drink was not altogether unfamiliar to Vogt, however. His father, the late master of Kirkland House and longtime Harvard anthropology professor Evon Zartman Vogt Jr., was a founding member of the Commanderie’s Boston chapter. (Charles W. Dunn, the late master of Quincy House and Robinson professor of Celtic languages and literature, was the founding maître.)

The Commanderie de Bordeaux is an international organization whose members gather for dinners, events, and trips focused on the enjoyment and promotion of wines of the various Bordeaux regions. Once an all-male bastion with a mysterious membership process, the Boston club has broadened its base under Eric Vogt’s leadership, reaching out to women and enthusiasts under the age of 40.

Business consultant Priscilla Douglas, Ed.D. ’81, owner of P.H. Douglas & Associates, of Boston, is one of four women members. Not a collector, she says she “just enjoys wine.” Learning about it is a social and professional outlet, she adds, a sensuous pleasure, and a rich educational experience. At the Commanderie’s dinners she even loves to watch the decanting of wines from the extensive cellar. “The opening of the bottle, feeling the cork, looking at the color—it’s all somewhat ritualistic,” she explains. “When you take a sip, you observe how the flavors evolve in your mouth, whether it touches the tip of your tongue or whether there is a long finish…it’s akin to learning a new language.”

During Commanderie trips to Bordeaux vintners, she meets multiple generations of winemakers whose stories go back hundreds of years. “The wine takes on a very special life and quality of its own,” she says. “You can actually see the grapes, touch the soil, and understand the terroir. Wine connects you to the land in a unique way.” On a more hedonistic level, she asks, “How can you go wrong when you’re having fabulous wine, fabulous conversations, and eating extraordinarily good food?”

Vogt takes personal pleasure in picking the perfect wine to go with dinner at home with his wife, and enjoys a sense of timelessness and peace when in his own 4,ooo-bottle cellar. “It’s like a sanctuary from the craziness of work and the occasional craziness of family life,” he says, “because you are alone in a quiet place that’s cool.”

Longtime wine merchant Fred Ek ’57, G ’59, a member of the Commanderie as well as the wine master at the Wine and Food Society of Boston, says that the market has changed drastically since he founded Classic Wine Imports in Boston in 1969. “Philosophically, I’ve always wanted to sell fine wines that are reasonably priced,” Ek says. “I find it embarrassing that the market has forced up the price. In my own cellar, I have bottles I bought for $3 to $8 in the 1960s that are worth thousands of dollars now. It is frustrating because it takes the wine out of the reach of people who would really enjoy it, but who are not wealthy.” (He himself has never spent more than $150 for a bottle.) Ek played a huge part in introducing Bostonians to the early days of Californian wines and, since 1968, has imported and promoted Guigal wines from the Rhône Valley, which boasts vineyards that are thousands of years old. (He now co-owns an importing business, Excellars, based in California, having sold his Boston company in 1997.)

His naturally cool cellar, accessed by old orange-linoleum-covered stairs, holds nearly 9,000 bottles. Racks include ports from his birth year (1935), 1969 Guigals now worth about $3,000 per bottle, several Madeiras from the 1800s, and cases from various years from the Napa Valley Heitz Cellars, which opened in 1961 when the region had fewer than 20 wineries. Ek, who worked as a physicist before entering the wine trade, likes the wine classification process and the variability of factors that go into making wine. But it’s also purely a matter of taste, he says: “Wine makes food more interesting.”

A Primer for Budding Oenophiles

Leonard Rothenberg recommends a variety of grapes and regions to experiment with in the new year:

Whites from 2005 or 2006: Grüner Veltliner (Austria); Mâconnais (France); Mosel Riesling Kabinett (Germany); Albarino or Valdeorras (Spain).

Reds: Malbec (Argentina); Carmenere (Chile); Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, 2005 vintage, and Côtes de Castillon from Bordeaux, 2005 vintage (France); Chianti, 2004 vintage (Italy); Bierzo or Toro, 2004 or 2005 vintage (Spain).

Six times a year he and a cohort of “old fogeys”—self-titled the Boston Brown Baggers—gather for dinner, each sharing bottles from their private stashes. “Many of us are loaded with wine cellars, so we drink something old,” he explains. A member would be “laughed off the table,” for instance, if he brought an organic or biodynamic wine. “Drinking wine is not like eating tomatoes,” he says. “God doesn’t make wine—man does.”

His advice? Read wine writer Hugh Johnson, don’t take industry ratings as gospel, and know that exceptional wines don’t have to be pricey. Rothenberg agrees: “We’re seeing a younger generation who have the money to collect, and they just want ‘the best.’” Selling them the top bottles, he confesses, sometimes feels like feeding foie gras to a toddler. “They need some preventive guidance,” he adds. Neophytes should cultivate a relationship with a merchant, or other aficionado, who can make suggestions. “Find out what you like,” he urges. “Follow your own palate.”

At the Skinner auction, Bruce McInnis followed his sentiments. He came away with a $179.25 orphan bottle of 1947 Jacques Cartier Vouvray from the Loire Valley. “I had to have it,” he says. Why? Because in 1986, in France, he and his wife tagged along with a good friend, then a high-ranking member of the Internationale Académie du Vin, and other wine luminaries for an elegant luncheon at a Renaissance refectory. The host “wanted to impress the group by serving a 1947 Vouvray, a great historic vintage,” McInnis recounts. “But the kitchen blew it and put the 1947 in a sauce—which tasted absolutely amazing—and served a 1984 Vouvray instead.”

He bought the wine this fall to save and perhaps drink with his old Académie friend, now 86, and “for the poetry of completing the cycle of the story,” he says. “And, primarily, I really do love the old sweet wines. This one will keep, and it will always be interesting to me.”