Wino confidential: black, broke & in Bordeaux

A dame, a bottle and a story.

I’m going to be working at Art Basel in Switzerland during the summer. Why don’t you meet me in Paris? I re-read the e-mail over and over again and suddenly the dank cubicle where I feigned interest in “Meeting Guest Services” transformed into a Parisian patisserie, the smell of unattended carpet replaced with the bouquet of warm chocolate croissants and the footsteps of James Baldwin. Was this a formal invitation? Was he going to pay for the ticket? I pondered while sifting through my administrator’s expense reports. Surely Antonio (the guy who sent the e-mail) knew that this $12-an-hour-gig wasn’t going to produce Paris-ticket money any time soon. Here it was April and he was scheduled to travel in June.

But just in case, I called my agent, who had scrambled up this temp gig at an event planning company in Hollywood. I explained my dilemma. “I’ll see if I can get you more money, Honey,” she assured me in a motherly voice that betrayed her porn star-sounding birth name — Bambi. That evening my administrator (who confidently rocked an Ogilvie Home Perm) offered me the bottle of Bordeaux that had been sitting in this orphaned cubicle for weeks now. “I know you like this kind of stuff,” she said in a tone that was supposed to sound magnanimous. “I’m not gonna drink it.” Like some weird omen, the wine smelled like Pine Sol. I was “let go” a week later.

During my first week of unemployment, I was invited to a vertical tasting of Château Cheval Blanc wines. I loved Cabernet Franc but had never tasted Château Cheval Blanc (to me it was like meeting Bono). However, when I got there, there was no Bono and no Château Cheval Blanc. Instead, I had participated in a vertical tasting of Château Labégorce. At first, I wasn’t wowed. Also, up until that point, I perceived Bordeaux wines as rhythm-less odes to austerity: palate-stingers that fell booty-flat when it came to fruit characteristics. Wrong. I had the 1998 vintage (the year was now 2007) and found it was a fantastic ode to deep, dark cherry fruit (right before they go rotten). Something in the nose reminded me of the gravely red soil of Manchester, Jamaica. I loved it, so I chatted with the chateau’s enologist, Delphine, who asked me if I was going to VinExpo in June. “Of course,” I exclaimed without knowing what the hell VinExpo was. I later found out that VinExpo was like the Art Basel of wine events: every label, every critic, every vintner would be hanging out in Bordeaux.

June was when Antonio had invited me to hang out in Paris. Let’s backtrack a little: I met Antonio at an event in the District during Art Basel Miami in December 2006. I was selling wine at one of the pavilions and he showed me one of his paintings — a squatting, naked, big-booty black woman tattooed in pink flowers. “Okay, whoopie, so you like big-booty black women,” I thought. Though the painting was cheesy, Antonio was not and plus, I thought he looked like a Mexican Joaquin Phoenix, so we started a love thang.

After consulting several friends about how I should find out whether or not Antonio was paying for this Paris trip without sounding desperate, I called him up: So, are we going stag? “No, Baby,” he said like Big in the Carrie-condo-scene in the Sex and the City film. “I got this.”

The first line in my Paris-diary entry reads: “Paris is delicious. It’s dangerous to be in a city where everything you put in your mouth makes you want to make love.” I can remember the candy-sweet black cherries and petite, creamy apple tarts. At bar du marché, we had the most incredible North African platter of hummus, vine leaf, lamb sausages, frites, Kefta and falafel. And the wine — for three Euros, we enjoyed full glasses of Cotes du Rhone at happy-hour rock star bars with thousands of names tattooed on the bathroom stalls. So amazing.

Bordeaux, on the hand, was a different adventure.

The cab ride from the train station in Bordeaux was as creepy as the streets were dark (no traffic lights), so I didn’t know where I was until I saw a sign that read: Sauternes. Delphine stashed me at a friend’s chateau. “He’ll take excellent care of you,” she assured me. “I’ll pick you up for VinExpo tomorrow.” Okay, so it’s the middle of the night and I’m traveling in a car with a strange man who looks like Peter O’Toole in Venus but is saying really scary things like: “I hope you’re not afraid of ghosts” and “Look! Over there is where they kept slaves!” Okay, maybe, this is his idea of an icebreaker?

Anyway, I slept soundly in this gorgeous chateau surrounded by what looked like old, dredlocked vines (referred to as gnarly vines). I was staying in Margaux, which is on the left bank of The Gironde River and, in the light, quite beautiful. Delphine, a slender-but-hippy blonde, picked me up and we headed to an Aventura Mall-like space filled with restaurants and wine vendors. Once we entered a small room to taste the Grand Crus de Bordeaux for 2006, she was my teacher and I her eager pupil. She explained that acidity was like a preservative that defines the wine’s aging capabilities. She was like a forensic scientist, swirling, inhaling and exhaling several times. Her descriptions were focused — good minerality or too much fruit. Mine were more romantic: pomegranate jam. “I started when I was 20 and I’m one of the first female enologists in Bordeaux,” Delphine said. “Wine is still very male dominated here.” As I looked around, I realized I was the only black person in the Grand Cru section, and so we both shared a desire to know our craft and know it well.

I admit that it wasn’t until I tasted the Pomerols that I found myself bitten by the Bordeaux bug. Post-Sideways bashing of the Merlot grape, I was really excited that Merlot was no punk and still holding it down in the form of wines like Château La Conseillante (80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc) and Chateau Beau-Séjour Bécot (70% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon) — both wines seducing with aromas and flavors of black cherry preserves and thyme, but the latter offering a little more minerality in the finish. On the Sauternes table I relished wines that tasted like honey buns (Château La Tour Blanche — shout out to the noble rot) and smelled of candied ginger and cloves (Château Sigalas Rabaud).

Later that day I dined at Restaurant du Jardin with Daniele Cernilli, a famous wine critic from Italy. We ate Cassoulet de Castelnaudary au Confit de Canard (a butter bean duck stew that reminded me of my mother’s stewed tripe and butter beans). We chatted about me writing for his magazine. With all this fabulousness, I thought I was surely moving to Italy during grape-picking season, perhaps meet a sexy Italian winemaker and have a few babies while writing my first best seller. That so didn’t happen.

I returned to Miami a few days later. Bambi had found me a new gig.

“Where you been, Hon?” she shouted from the other line. “Bordeaux,” I answered flatly. “Great news, I found something for you for $13 an hour. You like answering phones, don’t you?”

Published: 6/08


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