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What I've Been Drinking Lately: Had I Only Known!
By John Anderson
Jun 29, 2021
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I’ve been drinking wine for something like 45 years, and professionally as a wine writer, editor, critic and columnist for at least 35 of those 45 years.

Thinking back on my misspent youth and the follies of ignorance, it occurred to me the other day that I bought far too many wines over that first decade or two from less than stellar importers.  Back in my Rice and Yale days, I was largely oblivious to the Name on the Back of the Label, though, strangely enough, I kept many of the labels, front and back, so to this day I know who brought in what wines and when and to what effect.  A pattern emerges!
There’s no point really in going over the names of the villains and losers — and some of these really were villains!  In my Houston and New Haven days, I was mostly well served thanks to my local retail merchants at Richard’s and Spec’s in Houston and at Mount Carmel Wine & Spirits in Hamden, Connecticut.  Because the owners and managers at these places knew what they were doing, it didn’t much matter that I didn’t.  I had expert guides to the world of fine wines, none better than the inestimable, one-of-a-kind Bob Fein, the owner of Mount Carmel, who taught me about wine the way my friend Karl Schrom, the longtime music recordings librarian at Yale taught me about the history of recorded classical music.
By the time I arrived in Philadelphia to teach English at Penn, I knew enough to go out on my own.  Good thing too because the ubiquitous Pennsylvania State Liquor Stores were stocked in those days with what must have been the worst possible selection of European wines.  Name the worst French producers — and the worst American importers — of the era and you will get a pretty accurate portrait of what it was like to set foot in one of those filthy, ugly stores.  A largely ignorant sales force, an armed cop at the exits, and, as I liked to say, Fifteen bottles of Beaujolais on the Wall! The regular suppliers included some of the worst and least honorable in my memory.  And, of course, there was no correlation whatsoever between the quality of shipper or grower, importer, vintage or price.  Especially, price.  As for claret, well, you could forget it:  Name the worst vintages of the ‘70s, and there they all were, mostly represented by the fading stars of the old négoce system in blends labeled “Bordeaux” and “Médoc.”  You really had to wonder what exactly was in the bottle.  That is if you were foolish enough to purchase one.  

There were pleasant surprises:  The ’74 Château Talbot (about $12) was shockingly good, rich even, for the vintage — as, alas, the iodine-laced ’74 Langoa Barton (about $15) was not.  What on earth had happened at Langoa?  For it was and is normally one of my great faves from St.  Julien.  

These memories of long ago have occupied my thoughts the past few weeks as I tasted a series of wonderful 2018 and ’19 Beaujolais crus from the cream of America’s specialist wine importers:  Kermit Lynch, David Bowler (now representing the outstanding Louis/Dressner portfolio), Neal Rosenthal, Vintage ’59, and Vintus, among others.    If there’s anything I wish I had known about the world of fine wine, circa 1976, it would have been this:  Turn the bottle ‘round, and look at the Name on the Back Label.  It may not tell you everything, but it will tell you most of what you really need to know.  

Like Colonel Frederick Wildman in New York before them, Kermit Lynch on the West Coast and my old friend Fred Ek up in Boston got there first, snapping up many of the great names in Burgundy, Alsace, the Rhône and the Loire.  The Wildman name, Kermit’s and Fred’s were the gold standards on bottles of French wine, and, especially, grower wines (domaine and estate-bottled).  

I was reminded of this while tasting a range of extremely well-chosen Beaujolais cru wines from New York importer David Bowler.  I started with an absolutely juicy 2019 Saint-Amour from the Domaine des Billards, which for generations has been owned by the Barbet family.  The back label is particularly informative as to soil type (“sandstone pebbles underlying granite outcrops”), method of vinification (“traditional,” over the course of 12 days, using a grill in order to keep the “crust” submerged), and history back to the 18th century.

I’d also call your attention to the exceptionally well-informed David Bowler website (bowlerwine.com) with profiles of producers and links to their own websites.  I’d just bought a couple of 2016 Saint-Amours from the Domaine de la Pirolette, located in that same commune, only to discover that it is yet another Barbet property — owned by young Grégory Barbet, the son of Billards owner Xavier Barbet.  A Barbet, in fact, had married the eponymous David Bowler! And the Barbets were also owners of the famous old Beaujolais négoce Jean Loron, known for decades as the supplier to the top Beaune-based burgundy shippers, in particular, Maison Louis Jadot.  How very interesting!  And how very incestuous!

All this fascinating history aside, these people know how to make fine Beaujolais wines that reflect the potential of the top crus.  I’m drinking their 2016 Saint-Amour “La Poulette” and their 2016 Saint-Amour “Carjot” as I write.  They are lovely, inviting red-fruit wines that shout Saint-Amour, yet are obviously different one to the other.  The “Carjot” is darker (black cherries) and spicier than the “Poulette,” which is slightly softer and rather more minerally and raspberry-like.  The “Carjot” is certainly the more structured of the two wines—and even after five years in bottle could still do with a bit more aging in the cellar.  An apt comparison might be this:  “Carjot” is the more Morgon-like of the two wines, while “Poulette” is more of a Fleurie or a Côte-de-Brouilly kind of wine.  High praise in any case.  

These wines all run about $25 a bottle, though I got mine on sale for about $20 by buying a mixed case.  Something also worth bearing in mind!

As I also discovered, the Barbets own in Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Brouilly and elsewhere among the Beaujolais crus.  

I would buy any of their wines — and most any of David Bowler’s as well, for his is The Name on the Back Label. 

Oh, and what, you might ask, ought you to pair with these lovely Saint-Amours? We were having grilled duck breasts tonight — creamy, perfectly cooked and perfectly tender, medium rare Pekin duck breasts from my favorite purveyor, the excellent Crescent Duck Farm on Long Island — which, to my mind, called for a red burgundy  — a Pinot Noir kind of red burgundy, for which the 2015 Mercurey rouge from Maison Louis Latour (about $25) sufficed, brilliantly.  Earthy and rich and ripe, but not too ripe for its own good.  Minerally too.  With the Saint-Amours, I think I’d choose something simple (a grilled chicken with herbs and sea salt or kosher salt) or else something suave (chicken breasts with a cream sauce and wild mushrooms or black truffles — or both!).  


Read more wine columns:    John Anderson