On Thanksgiving Day, 2021, I received some horrible news: my former boss, Nicolas, who had become a dear friend and whom I saw as my wine mentor, passed away at the age of 61. We had not seen much of each other in recent years, particularly since I moved to Texas and my trips to Paris had become far less frequent, but I knew there would be a point that we would get together again with three guarantees: thought-provoking conversation, a great meal (probably prepared in collaboration), and fantastic wine.
He was the owner of the European bike tour company for which I worked all those summers and even though that relationship started as an employer/employee dichotomy, it evolved and grew over the last thirty odd years to the point that I not only considered him one of my closest friends, but he had become, in many ways, a brother.
It would require considerable thought and an incredibly long piece of paper to enumerate the lessons I learned and the experiences we shared over the last three decades, but I do know that almost all of them occurred while grasping either a handlebar or a wine stem.
Oddly, looking back, we did not spend much time talking about either. He was far from a gear head and could not have cared less about what bike he was riding as long as it worked; he literally saw the bicycle as a vehicle, a way to get from Aÿ to Bouzy.
We did not spend much time talking about the incredible wines we shared either. Sure, we would swap overall impressions and the occasional sigh of contentment, but there was never the exchange of aroma or flavor profiles, no “hints of lavender” or “intense bramble berry.” No, after those first few exchanges over the general quality of the wine (essentially, a thumbs up or down), we would return to our rambling, wide-ranging conversation about families, history (usually French), or politics (usually American).
When I first started working for the company, I knew very little about wine; I drank it, not for its elegance and nuance but rather for its inebriating effect. My job, however, required being somewhat knowledgeable about the area and culture through which we were pedaling. And in France, the local culture of many (most?) regions is tied inextricably to the vines planted there.
Threatened by my own ignorance, I approached Nicolas for some advice (always a somewhat dangerous proposition, particularly if one is pressed for time) and he offered a tidbit that would, essentially, change my life. He counseled that I should choose a singular wine producing region in France and learn everything there is to know about the wine: the varieties involved, how and where it is produced, the food that is served alongside, the region’s history and geography, the best producers, everything. From that, he added, I could then branch out to other regions armed with a strong footing in that first area.
As soon as he said it, I knew which region would become my “home” so to speak. At the time, Nico was not particularly fond (or all that knowledgeable, frankly) of Champagne, which is, in part, why I chose it. But it was also where they produced what I now consider the world’s greatest wine, a product that has accompanied joy and celebration for centuries. I like to think that my love for champagne also rubbed off on him as he became quite the connoisseur of French bubbles, as did both of our wives.
For Nicolas, though, I am certain that he held another region above all others: Burgundy. After I became comfortable with Champagne, he suggested that I set my sights on its neighbor to the south. Who was I to argue?
The transition to Burgundy was easy since the two main varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are also two of the three main players in Champagne. Right from the start, I fell hard for Burgundy, from the finesse and power of the reds to the subtlety and elegance of the whites, it was difficult to maintain fidelity to my first love (but I somehow managed).
It was around Burgundy, I feel, that Nicolas and I really bonded, particularly how exquisite an aged white Burgundy could become. Countless times we would sit around his dinner table, scraping the last remnants of Epoisses from the sides of its circular container, sipping the last drops of a twenty-year-old Chardonnay from the world’s most esteemed region for the variety. Many a time, just as I was ready to stumble off to bed, he would entice me with yet another wine from another small producer that he had found along the side of an unnamed road in the Burgundian countryside.
I came back from every trip to Europe with at least a case of wine in my luggage, wrapped in socks and underwear to hopefully cushion the blow from unwitting baggage handlers. There would be a bottle or two of champagne perhaps, but the vast majority would be white Burgundy.
Over the years, I had amassed several bottles, scattered throughout first my basement in Philadelphia and now my closet “cellar” here in Houston. Each I was saving for when my boss, my mentor, my friend would visit next.
But Thursday I learned that will never happen.
Upon reading the terrible news from his wife, I knew that I was going to have to drink something in his honor. Not only did I know it had to be a white Burgundy, I knew which one it had to be. Nico not only introduced me to the joys of the greatest region in the world for white wines, but he also let me in on what was, at the time, the secret of Saint Aubin. I remember distinctly complaining to him about the escalation of prices in the region (I was always more of a Chassagne fan—much more than Puligny, Meursault, or Corton), he gave me direction: “Just above Chassagne and down the other side of the hill is Saint Aubin, which are just as good as many wines from Chassagne, and many are better. At more than half the price.”
Not only will I never be privy to any of his sage (and often, yes, unsolicited) advice, but I won’t be able to share with him those wines I have been saving. I know that sounds minuscule to what his wife and two daughters are going through, but opening this bottle on Thursday night was my very small way to thank him for all those evenings, all those bottles, all that wisdom, knowledge, and friendship that he shared with me.
As for the wine?
As soon as I poured it, I knew it would be very difficult to drink as the mere sight of the label produced many vivid memories of the time I had spent with Nicolas, from the time we first met in Manhattan where he conducted my interview in a coffee shop on the lower East Side, to his quirky trinity house in Philly, a city we both called home for far too short a time, to the office in Paris where 17h00 meant that the Kirs would soon be flowing.
Shortly after I pulled off the foil (a habit that I adopted from him) I feared, as I do with every older white Burgundy that I open these days, it would be oxidized, likely to the point of being undrinkable. I was a little worried as the wine poured out decidedly golden in color, but the nose showed little sign of oxidation, only some shy lemon curd and peach. The palate was much like our friendship: far from perfect but layered with flavor and plenty of energy.
As my eyes welled with tears, I thought of that tiny dinner table in his family’s apartment in the 2nd, where we would sit for hours either just returning from a trip (or about to head out on another) and imagined we were both there, enjoying this one last bottle together. As the bottom approached, my heart ached knowing our seemingly endless conversation had come to an end and I had to say goodbye. For good. And I wept.