Never write a book on Burgundy. I did, and it's caused me no end of woe. Burgundy is the world's trickiest, most exasperating wine to buy. Although there are hidden deals, no wines are more expensive. Nowhere do vintages matter more. And supplies are minuscule but widely distributed.
Despite this--or perhaps because of it--Burgundy attracts zanies. And because of the book, the wackos consider me one of their own. It's embarrassing. (It's also probably true, but we'll let that pass.)
Reasonable sorts rightly ask: What's the big deal about Burgundy? Many wine drinkers have tasted one or another red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) or white Burgundy (Chardonnay) and just shrugged. The wine cost a lot and there wasn't much to it. And they were right. Many Burgundies are ho-hum, or worse.
This is no news to the Burgundy-afflicted. Buyers never seem to get the Burgundy of their dreams. For example, Thomas Jefferson, who really knew his wines, was Burgundy-afflicted. He, like us, knew that vintages mattered. In 1789 Jefferson wrote to his "wine man" in Burgundy--a fellow named Etienne Parent--complaining, "The shipment I just received from you was not as perfect. I would have thought it was a year other than 1784, if you hadn't told me it was that year." (The Parent family is still in business in the village of Pommard. They make very good wine.)
So why does anybody bother? This is when sufferers look hangdog and shuffle their feet. That's because run-of-the-mill Burgundy inspires no one. Indeed, it makes them reluctant to return. But a thrilling Burgundy, a rare but still findable creature, is like a magnificent animal in the wild.
Burgundy is exhilarating, and part of the thrill is in the chase. You get the rush of hunting it down. Of devoting yourself with almost monastic dedication to remembering the family names of best growers in each important Burgundy village. Of reading vintage reports the way others watch the Weather Channel. You read specialist newsletters. In short, you're swept away.
You taste Chardonnays from everywhere. Many are fine, some are very fine indeed. Then you happen to taste a truly great white Burgundy. And suddenly you get what everyone's been talking about. You hear yourself declaring, "I've never had anything like this in my life." It's the wine equivalent of your first kiss, your first . . . well, you get the picture.
In 1940 the Irish lawyer and writer Maurice Healy, a Bordeaux man if there was one, felt compelled to declare, "Let there be no doubt about it: Burgundy at its best tops Claret at its best."
That's quite an admission. But like everyone else, no sooner did Healy concede the point than he felt obliged to note, "You will drink only four or five bottles of truly first-class Burgundy in your whole life (and you will be lucky if you find so many; only three have rung the bell with me)."
Actually, that's not true anymore. It is possible to find "truly first-class Burgundy" with surprising ease these days. Because for all the griping from the Burgundy-afflicted, this is a golden age, particularly for red Burgundy. And most surprising of all is that nowhere on the planet, including Burgundy itself, is the availability of truly first-class Burgundy greater than in California.
This may seem overly chauvinistic, but it's not. As is the case with so many other afflictions, California has more Burgundy-afflicted than any other place. Paris and London are famously devoted to Bordeaux. Switzerland and Belgium are, in fact, the European centers of Burgundy worship. In this country, New York has a longtime contingent, but its involvement is a bit complacent and old-fashioned. New Yorkers are still drinking the stuff that was praised 30 years ago.
California, in comparison, is at the cutting edge. This is because the hunt for great Burgundy comes naturally. For the last two decades, Californians have taken to foraging for their own local wines with avidity. Everybody who's into wine knows the best Cabernet or Zinfandel comes from some tiny new producer that no one else had heard of. Who could get Stony Hill Chardonnay? Or Williams & Selyem Pinot Noir? Or Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet? So playing the same game with Burgundy seemed perfectly reasonable, even natural.
Every month, California winegrowers welcome their Burgundy colleagues, who come for a shot of sunshine and ambition. The Burgundians return tan and invigorated--and impressed by the receptivity of the market. They are awed by a passion and devotion they never imagined from outsiders. Guess where they decide to send their tiny production.