Tuesday, April 5, 2016

R.I.P. Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux

I have tasted Chateau Margaux's Bordeaux wines only a few times in my twenty some years as a wine writer. I can't afford to buy it, so it has no real relevance to my everyday life, but it will always be an artistic benchmark because I think it is one of the finest wines that has ever passed my lips. There are some things that you taste that blow your mind, and I think that Chateau Margaux is one of those rare few wines, partly because of the first occasion when I first tasted it.

The human being that has represented that Bordeaux property over the past twenty years has been Paul Pontallier, an extraoradinarily hard-working, cheerful, a gentleman by any standard, wholly unpretentious while representing one of the arguably most pretentious brands in the entire world of notoriety. He was a sharp, cool guy who knew how to roll with any situation, and he helped to build Chateau Margaux into what it is today, one of the most magnificent properties, wines and brands in existence. That's no small feat, and when you do it with the humanity that Paul brought to the effort, it is all that more appreciable, because he didn't do it by being uppity or pretentious He wasn't elitist, he wasn't' a jerk. He was inclusive, articulate, professional and tireless, as if you should expect anything less from the representative of a legendary brand. He was just one of the very best representing one of the very best, and that combination played out well for Chateau Margaux over the last couple of decades.

Let me tell you about the time that I hacked my way into Chateau Margaux and tasted one of the finest vintages it ever produced, the brilliant 2005 vintage.

I had just spent five days touring the whole of Bordeaux, visiting a lot of good wineries that by local standards were ham-and-eggers, without delving into that rare inner circle of the First Growths. With the help of some additional connections, I managed to talk Diageo into hooking me up with great guy (named Guy, funny enough), who worked for Diageo as a negociant. Guy was kind enough not only to drive me around for a day, showing me how the business is done from the inside, but even to bring me to dinner with his wife and Jeff Zacharia of Zachy's Wine & Liquor in New York, one of the premiere French importers in the United States.

And we popped in for a couple of swell visits where Guy was always greeted with open arms. The first visit I remember was at Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, I made him take my picture as we passed  Château Cos d'Estournel (one of my dad's favorites, then we had lunch at  Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, where I met the wonderful Bruno Borie and we dined in the estate kitchen on depressingly underseasoned and dangerously undercooked veal while Bruno smoked, decanted and shared some great wines from the estate going back a few decades. It was unforgettable, hilarious and really special.

An hour or two later, Guy and I showed up easily an hour late for our appointment at Chateau Margaux. Guy whispered something through the fence to general manager Paul Pontallier, who was passing by with a group of a dozen or so tourists. Paul signaled that he would meet us in the tasting room in a few minutes.

True to his word, ten minutes later we were standing in the middle of a thousand square foot, grandly appointed, but almost empty, high-celinged room. At the center of this room was a single bottle of the yet-unreleased 2005 vintage of Chateau Margaux atop a small, round side-table next to a very sporty, waist-high spitoon. And me. A bottle of Margaux, a spit bucket and me.

They left me alone, standing yards away and chatting in French about family and business, as I drank the whole thing in... not just the wine, but the being there in that moment. It was one of a few moments where I have been left alone, holding a perfect glass of wine, completely fascinated by it, and wondering how the fuck I ever got to this place or deserved this experience. It wasn't the first time or the last time I would have that feeling, but in twenty years of writing about wine, it was definitely in the top five.

In that solitary minute or two that I shared with the wine, I understood how magnificent Chateau Margaux can be. I understood what makes Margaux special. I tasted how flavorful and complete a Bordeaux can be, while seeming almost weightless, without all of the sweetness and heaviness that weighs down so many California wines. It set a new benchmark, a new reference point for Cabernet Sauvignon in my mind. It was ethereal and heavenly.

I will never forget that Paul Pontallier's grace and hospitality, and his work ethic that made my visit possible. He could have said, "You're late, you missed your chance," just like Willy Wonka probably would have done. He didn't. He opened up the gate, let me in like it was no big deal and then, let me taste one wine that convinced me that it was, in fact, a gift from God. To this day, if you type '2005' into a Google search window, "Chateau Margaux" will be one of the auto-fill options. That's how good that fucking wine was.

Rest in peace, Paul Pontallier. I only met you once, and I will never forget you. Thank you for that experience. It changed my life.


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