About fifteen years ago, my life in New York as I knew it, ended. I had been the chief of staff to Dan Rather at CBS News and I assumed, incorrectly, that it would be easy to find myself another job. It wasn’t.
Disheartened, I decided to go back to Paris, where I grew up, in the hopes that perhaps I could reinvent myself there.
Once I settled back into the Parisian lifestyle, my now aged uncle suggested that perhaps I study wine.
I’d always been around wine. It was a constant presence at lunches, dinners and copious amounts of it were drunk at Sunday lunch, which in my house, was a command performance for the entire family.
My aunt would spend Sunday mornings in the kitchen, usually yelling at the maid, twirling her wooden spoon like a weapon; and my poor uncle would hide downstairs in his cellar to keep out of her way. Mainly, though, he loved to walk up and down the old stone floors, looking at every bottle, doing a mental inventory of everything he had, whilst quietly indulging in a glass or two before lunch. “I had to taste the wine before serving it,” he would always say.
A big fan of Bordeaux, he’d been buying wine since the late ‘40s and as such, had some of the best vintages the region offered from the years after the Second World War and through the 70’s.
I still remember the lunch when I was allowed to have my first sip of wine. I don’t remember much apart from the sensation of red velvet going down my throat. Years later, when I understood and cared a bit more about wine, my uncle told that it was a 1959 Mouton Rothschild.
I took my uncle’s suggestion, but, much to his chagrin, decided to go to Burgundy. I signed up at the CFPPA, the main wine and agricultural institute in Beaune and found myself a small apartment.
Besides academia, my first practical assignment was at Domaine Leflaive. Before starting, I thought I would go over and walk around, take it all in, as it were.
There is a small restaurant on the property that offers flights of wines and I decided to treat myself. Sitting alone, I sipped the wines taking copious notes on my impressions.
Just then, the door opened and a woman walked in. She was dressed in a barbour jacket, muddy wellingtons, but had a gorgeous coral and white silk Hermes scarf billowing around her neck. She stopped in the bar area. “Bonjour,” she said to the staff.
She was the kind of woman whose presence was so magnetic that you couldn’t help but stare. My eyes widened as she walked over to me after one of the sommeliers whispered something in her ear, inclining his head towards the corner where I sat.
I immediately got to my feet, but she indicated I sit.
“Alors?” she said standing next to my table, her arms crossed. “What do you think of the wines?”
“Well…” I stuttered. “They’re…good, I mean, excellent.
“The nose on this Meursault…and the aromas of…” I continued falling all over myself.
I was in mid-sentence when she put her hand up, telling me to be quiet.
“Mademoiselle,” she interrupted. “Please don’t analyze the wines. Just tell me if you liked them or not.”
“Yes, Madame,” I muttered.
“You enjoyed them?”
“Of course!” I said enthusiastically.
“Then,” she smiled, her face relaxing, her arms at her side, “I am glad. If you enjoyed the wines, then I have done my job.”
I sighed with relief as she turned dramatically on her heel and walked away.
Half way across, she stopped. “By the way, I’m your new boss…Anne-Claude Leflaive.”
And that was the first time I met one of the most influential women in the winemaking world. I went on to work at Leflaive for several months, learning so much from all of them, never forgetting that ultimately, wine is meant to be enjoyed, not dissected.