Saying Goodbye to one of my Dearest Friends

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.

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Burgundy, Champagne, Chardonnay, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Saying Goodbye to one of my Dearest Friends

  1. So sorry for your loss. Sending loving thoughts and prayers.

    Like

  2. I am so very sorry for your loss.

    Like

  3. Ed St. John says:

    Jeff- This is a beautiful remembrance of your friend. And I love how you intermingled descriptions of the wine and your friendship. I’m sorry to read of your loss, but know that you will have great memories of him each time you open a, well aged, white burgundy. Too few know the joys of a well made Chardonnay that has aged gracefully.
    Peace my friend, and cheers to your memories!

    Like

  4. I’m so very sorry for your loss.

    Like

  5. A lovely tribute. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Like

  6. Christophe says:

    Very sorry to read this Jeff.

    Like

  7. Jan Peppler says:

    Wonderful memories and truly a loss. My thoughts are with you. Perhaps Nicolas would say, “but there is always more wine!” Drink. Feel. Remember.

    Like

  8. chef mimi says:

    Oh that’s just so awful in so many ways. 61 is so so young. My immediate thought was that the wine had oxidized as well. My neighbor, who has a Napa vineyard, (not the people you met from here) gifted me a 2013 Erba proprietary white and we opened it on Thanksgiving. It had gone bad, and we poured it down the sink. She hasn’t talked to me since I had to tell her. And, that’s not such a terrible thing…

    Like

  9. Thanks for sharing your wonderful memeories of such a special friend. A lovely tribute, and an informative piece. Hope the writng, and the drinking of that specific bottle helped ease the pain.

    Like

    • Thank you so much Betsy. Many aspects of my life have his imprint and it is difficult to have a glass of wine, ride a bike, even talk to my wife without imagining what my life would be like had he not been a part of it. There is much more joy than pain, but the last few weeks have been rough. Your comment has helped immeasurably though, thank you.

      Like

  10. Tom Riley says:

    I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” My eyes are full for you and your departed friend. May loving memories bring peace and healing. Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us.

    Like

  11. foxress says:

    It’s so hard to lose the friends we think will always be there. May you find strength and peace in the warm memories of a beautiful friendship. Hugs to you

    Like

  12. Gina says:

    Heartbreaking to hear about your friend Nicholas.

    Like

  13. Jane Minturn says:

    Jeff-I’m so, so sorry to hear this terrible news.

    Like

  14. talkavino says:

    Sorry about your loss, Jeff. This is the beautiful piece to remember your friend by.

    Like

  15. John Fahey says:

    A truly touching remembrance of your friend. I’m keeping this to re-read. Thank you, and my deepest condolences.

    Like

  16. J Reilly says:

    A fitting tribute to your beloved friend. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Like

  17. I am so sorry for your loss, Jeff. I love the advice he gave to you. I am also a Champagne and Bourgogne lover to the point that I want to spend a month or three in France every year. What a gift Nico was to you.

    Like

  18. Angela says:

    Jeff, I’m so sorry to hear of Nicolas’s passing. I remember all the stories you told us about your time working for him and hoped one day we would all meet up and enjoy a glass or two. Prayers for his wife and 2 daughters.

    Like

  19. Nate says:

    What a beautiful homage to a dear friend. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m also grateful to have randomly stumbled upon one of your reviews on CellarTracker. Thank you for sharing. I really enjoy your writing. I zipped through your story and hardly noticed any time had passed at all, and I was at the end. Have a beautiful day!

    Like

  20. Claudia Clifford says:

    Thanks so much for this touching tribute to my cousin Nicolas. He would appreciate, as do I, like a fine glass of wine. ~ Claudia Clifford

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.