Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Wine Taster

At breakfast every morning my parents, who were from Germany, and I would clink our orange juice glasses and say, “Prosit” or “Prost” (pronounced brost).   Many years later, I was corrected by a German aristocrat who told me that was an expression used in the beer hall and the correct saying (he did not say, in refined society) would be “Zum Wohl” or “To health”.  My wife and I have continued the tradition since we find it a very nice way to greet the day.

Obviously, our aristocratic friend was thinking more about clinking glasses of wine and not OJ!  Which brings me to the topic of the week.  My parents always had wine, usually red, on the table and I remember for years being given a few teaspoons of wine in my water glass so it would be red like my parents’.  I would guess that when I was a teenager they began to let me have it straight and, probably because I was never told not to drink, I never particularly cared if I had any wine or not.

Truth be told my parents drank "vin ordinaire", everyday wine, most of the time and I can not remember any that they considered especially important, though there may have been a few.  My education in wine was therefore quite limited.  Then I went to a lunch in Paris that opened a whole new world to me.

Celebrity to me has always been quite different than to most.  I was never much into the sports or entertainment celebrities that most people recognize.  In fact, my children are often in awe of how ignorant I can be about some of the celebrity names that they might mention.  For me celebrities were captains of industry such as Henry Ford, John Paul Getty or members of the Rothschild family that originated in my parents home town of Frankfurt Germany.  I have been lucky enough in my life time to have met all these people.

In my early 20’s, however, I had not met a Rothschild though I had met several who were cousins or relatives of the family.  Then, when visiting Paris one year, I received a phone call from Baroness Renée de Becker, a Rothschild cousin, who had actually crashed my first wedding since my parents would not have presumed to invite such a personage.  She wanted to know if my then wife and I would like to attend a luncheon that day at the home of Baron and Baroness Elie de Rothschild.  It was not an intimate affair but rather a luncheon for some society group.  My uncle, Hans Stiebel, a debonair gentleman also in the art business, had lived much of his life in Paris and was very popular with the Rothschild family.  It was through him that I was a known quantity to the Baroness Elie who sought me out after lunch.  I wanted to say something nice about lunch and I honestly said how good the wine was.  The response was, “Oh it’s just a little house wine”, something she would repeat at other more private lunches over the years.  From a video we made in 1989 here is Baroness Elie speaking of when she met my father’s partner and cousin, Saemy Rosenberg and my uncle, Hans Stiebel.

Believe it or not the penny did not drop immediately but the first time I repeated the quote it dawned on me that I was in the home of the proprietor of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the most famous and best wines in the world, and suddenly I was interested in the subject.  Years later when I was joking with the Baroness Elie on the subject she told a story about her son Nathanial, when he was very little.  He had gone with his nanny overnight to a hotel and according to the Baroness the nanny was “a bit of a tippler”.  She had ordered wine with their dinner from room service.  Nathanial was given a taste at which point he pronounced “afite pas bien nana” “ Lafite not good, Nanny”.  Mind you that the family did not always dine on the best of the Lafite wines but one of the offshoots, in other words, “little house wines”.

I wanted to learn more so when I was back in New York I signed up for a wine course with Peter Morrell.  His boutique enterprise is now located at One Rockefeller Plaza and run by his sister Roberta since his retirement.  In the late 1960’s it was all the way east in the 50’s started by his father in a large all wood barn like structure that made you feel like you had gone down into an old wine cellar.  I remember learning about the different regions of wine in France, Germany and a bit about American wines.  Back then American wine was not yet considered serious, though Peter, the younger generation, at the time, was definitely promoting them. Here is a photo of a silver French 18th century tastevin that belonged to my father.  It was used for tasting wine and often hung around the neck of the sommelier.

Some time later, I worked on an appraisal for a member of the Rothschild family and was paid in wine.  Some of those little house wines as well as a bottle or two of Lafite.  At this point I bought a “wine cave” and collected some better French wines.   I did not have room for what amounted to a very large constant temperature refrigerator in our one bedroom apartment so I kept it at my gallery.  After moving to a larger apartment I installed the wine refrigerator there, but one year it became so hot during a New York summer the coils froze.  I boiled a lot of wine!  Interestingly, only the best wines with long corks survived, such as the Lafites.  They were no longer great but they were still drinkable.  I have never had a wine refrigerator since.  Happily in Santa Fe our basement remains at a pretty constant and suitably cool temperature.  But once burned twice shy and I have never since tried to really build a wine collection.  I no longer remember exactly which vintages I received and certainly hope one was not from 1969.  I just read the price of a bottle at $11,880… but for what occasion does one drink it.

Everyone has a story about wine and the references in songs are legion. If you don’t believe me see:

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