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A Life in Wine, Part II
John Gilman, whose articles appear regularly in The Viking Life, is one of our country’s most influential wine commentators, particularly among serious enthusiasts and collectors who subscribe to his bi-monthly periodical, “View from the Cellar.” However, despite his reputation as a connoisseur of the rarefied sphere of the world’s greatest wines, John’s interest lies equally with teaching the glories of more pedestrian wines to anyone seeking a deeper and richer culinary life. The story of John’s wine journey is instructive, especially to those with an inner passion for living well. This is the second excerpt devoted to John’s story of his ever-increasing fascination with wine.
Q: You were one of the top sommeliers in New York, what prompted you to change course?
A: A sommelier’s hours are long and had limited my time abroad. All of that quickly changed in the late ‘90s when I accepted an invitation from a Geneva-based rare wine broker to represent them in the eastern U.S. In addition to significant European travel and renewing relationships with winemakers there, I became immersed in tasting wines at the very pinnacle of the food chain with the firm’s very generous clientele.
Burgundy and rare Bordeaux were the firm’s specialties and I was able to drink a lot of Henri Jayer, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and Coche-Dury during this period, for which I shall always be grateful. It was at this time that I began honing my writing skills with wine articles for the firm’s website, and I found that I enjoyed the process of research, deliberation and writing.
When I left to form a brokerage firm in New York, I continued writing on my own website, and was encouraged by several of my clients to publish a newsletter. Thus was the genesis of View From the Cellar.
Q: You are a guardian of the traditional regional styles of winemaking. Why so?
A: I have been so fortunate over the years to taste some of the greatest wines in the history of the twentieth century, wines like 1928 Domaine de Chevalier, 1929 Château Latour, 1955 Haut Brion, 1961 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino, Comte de Vogüé Musignys from the 1930s and 1940s, 1970 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Freddy Mugnier’s 1937 Musigny, old Chave and Jaboulet, Egon Müller, Clos Ste. Hune, DRCs – the list could go on forever and still leave some out. All of these wines changed magically in the bottle over the course of their long lives, and how and why wines do this is still a mystery that we cannot solve, despite all of our scientific advances. But that they do change, live and grow and improve in the bottle is beyond dispute, and to my mind they mark one of the great human achievements in our history. For me wine is art – the medium may be different than the canvas or the musical score, but many of the same drives and inspirations lie behind great art and great wine. Like art, there are vicissitudes and momentary trends in the market that can affect wine, but the masterpieces in both milieus seem to exist beyond the changes in fashionable taste.
But as the wine market has evolved, at least in part, into a luxury goods market in the last several years, particularly for many of the historically important estates, considerations of the balance sheet often now outweigh questions of wine quality, and this simply should not be. It betrays the historical legacy of the quality wine pioneers who have come before. Now, believe me, I fully understand that wine is a business, and if producers cannot make a profit, then eventually there is no wine, either traditional or mercantile in its inspiration. I do not begrudge anyone their living, but the pendulum has swung too far in many regions in the last several decades, searching for market and acclaim by popular critics at all costs, and I have a very real fear that one day there could be no more traditional wineries left standing.
I greatly admire Robert Parker and was a devoted reader of The Wine Advocate for years, but I gradually realized that my taste and his had diverged in some critical aspects. Without question, Bob’s opinion has become deeply important to the prosperity of most winemakers, and his taste has influenced the style of wines they produce. If a winemaker makes changes to eliminate flaws, which is what Bob would say is largely happening, then that is one thing, but if the changes are designed to create a richer, denser style than the region’s traditional wines in order to score points with Mr. Parker, I am dismayed.
Q: Why should a person delve beyond just a surface knowledge of wine?
A: The sheer depth of brilliance and variety that can be found in the world of wine, even today, with the international style trying to storm so many gates, should be reason enough to at least whet the appetite of curiosity of even the most casual of wine drinkers. There are wines that go better with different cuisines, wines that are best at certain seasons, wines that match or change your mood – wine is a ridiculously deep and fertile mosaic that really offers something “just right” for everyone. And I cannot think of a whole lot of other avenues where this is the case in the modern world. The trick is simply to be open to looking for it, and it is much easier than the casual wine drinker usually thinks. All it takes is a little fortitude looking for the right wine merchant, and once you find him or her, then the universe magically begins to unfold before your eyes (or nose). It is easy to tell when you have found the merchant that matches your palate well – you go home, open the bottle, pour the glass and bang, the wine will tell you! But you have to first interact a bit with the merchant, tell them about wines that you have liked before, wines you have not liked before (perhaps even more important) and look for a merchant who shows interest in this discussion. In a good wine shop it is very easy to find staff who are more than willing to talk wine with you – this is an infectious passion that people love to share – and if the shop shows little interest in talking wine with you, just search out another merchant.
Editor’s Comment: John Gilman is both inspired and inspiring, and passionately so. I hope a glance at his path to fascination with the world of wine will lead you in the same direction. It is a delight that will be with you forever. His newsletter can be accessed at http://www.viewfromthecellar.com.