An Oenophile and His Money
Is any bottle of wine worth $700?
Pay dirt: A restaurant in Boston was showing the '96 Coche Corton-Charlemagne on its wine list for what was—relatively speaking, of course—the astonishingly low price of $495. I quickly called the restaurant and spoke with the sommelier. He verified the price, told me the wine was still available, and cheerfully agreed to hold a bottle for me.
Alas, getting to Boston proved more difficult than I expected. Finally, in mid-August, I booked a table for Labor Day weekend. Then, about a week before I was due to drive up to Boston, the sommelier called with bad news: He had been off the night before, and a colleague had sold the bottle—the last one they had.
I wanted to ask why he hadn't taken the wine off the list or put a note on the bottle advising his colleagues that it was not for sale, but I decided to let it go; the wine was gone. I briefly toyed with buying a bottle at retail. I could find only one store offering it, a California-based merchant whose Web site was advertising the wine for around $1,600, but when I called I was told the wine was sold out. At that point, I decided to abandon the hunt. Perhaps I'd gotten a bit carried away. Maybe I just needed to resign myself to the possibility that this had been a once-in-a-lifetime wine.
Or maybe not. One afternoon last winter, while killing time on a wine discussion board, I came across a reference to a restaurant in the Paris area that apparently had a nice stash of Coche. The poster didn't give the name of the restaurant or its location. Nor did he say whether the cellar contained the '96 Corton-Charlemagne. It didn't matter; I had a fresh lead, and the hunt was back on. This time, Google yielded a review of a restaurant on the outskirts of Paris that possessed, according to the article, an abundant supply of Coche. I immediately called the restaurant and popped the question: Did they, by chance, have the '96 Corton-Charlemagne? "Oui," the owner swiftly replied. And the price? It was 550 euros per bottle, or about $700—eminently doable. He agreed to put one aside, and I agreed to get to Paris as fast as I could.
It took me until November, but I finally made it. Shortly after noon on a cold, rainy day, my father and I parked the car on a curb near the restaurant (I'd been in France for nearly two weeks and was now driving like a native) and were greeted at the door by the owner Alain François, who led us to a table in the back. He instructed a waiter to retrieve the Corton-Charlemagne and suggested we whet our palates with some Beaujolais Nouveau, which had just been released that morning. A waitress brought three glasses of Beaujolais to the table, along with some jambon persillé (parsleyed ham, a Burgundian specialty).
As we sipped and chatted, the waiter returned to the table clutching a bottle bearing that now-familiar gold label. Monsieur François presented me the bottle, then carefully uncorked it and placed it in an ice bucket on an adjacent serving table. Food, of course, would be a secondary consideration—just something to coat our stomachs. My father ordered sea bass, I opted for scallops, and we agreed to split a dozen raw oysters for the first course. A few minutes later, Monsieur Francois came back, pulled the Corton-Charlemagne out of the bucket, and poured a small amount in each of our glasses. For the first and only time that day, I felt a frisson of apprehension. What if the wine was corked or otherwise off? What if it turned out that I didn't like it as much as I thought I did? I swiveled the glass a bit, then cautiously raised it to my nose; as soon as I caught the first whiff, my concerns melted away. My father took a sniff of his glass, and he immediately registered a look of shock that called to mind the expression on Michael Spinks' face when Mike Tyson first landed a glove on him in their 1988 title fight. Unlike Spinks, however, my father managed to remain upright. I took a sip of the wine and quickly pronounced the same verdict I had rendered 20 months earlier: "Holy shit."
It was stunning. The glass gave off the most decadent, gorgeous perfume imaginable. There was a kaleidoscopic quality to the nose, with each spin of the glass coaxing forth a new aroma. In no particular order, I smelled hazelnuts, lemons, apples, pears, marzipan, oatmeal, lanolin, petroleum, honey, flowers, toasted oak, and mint. All of these scents were perfectly delineated, yet they also somehow added up to a seamless whole. On the palate, the wine had a rich, oily texture and a Platonic balance of fruit and acidity, all backed by a steel rod of minerality. Think of your favorite painting, or favorite novel, or favorite piece of music—this was it in liquid form.
About an hour into lunch, with just over half the bottle emptied, Monsieur François came back to the table to claim the glass I'd offered him. He gave himself a reasonably modest pour (as if I had any right to raise an eyebrow), smelled the wine a few times, and took a sip. His face lit up. As he nursed the glass, he told us that he began buying Coche-Dury wines in 1975, when Coche was still unknown, and though the winemaker has since become a rock star, he continues to send a generous allocation each year—despite the fact that he has never actually visited the restaurant. Monsieur François told me that he receives between 500 and 700 bottles annually from Coche—a small number of Corton-Charlemagnes, an assortment of his various Meursaults, and a larger assortment of his less-exalted wines. I then told him that I might write a story about my pursuit of the '96 Corton-Charlemagne but that publishing the name of his restaurant would likely bring droves of Coche-heads to his door. He assured me it wouldn't be a problem. So here it is: The restaurant is Le Coq de la Maison Blanche, it is located at 37 Boulevard Jean Jaurès in Saint-Ouen, just a few miles from central Paris, and the phone number is 01 40 11 01 23. Tell Monsieur François Slate sent you, and leave a bottle of Coche's Bourgogne Blanc for me—now, it is about all I can afford.