Choosing Wine? "Don't Listen to the Experts"


By Thane Peterson Jean-Michel Deluc will always be something of a boy wonder among French wine experts. In 1990, he became the head sommelier of Paris' Ritz Hotel -- one of the most prestigious sommelier positions in France -- at the tender age of 35. During the seven years he held the job, he served wine to such notables as Princess Diana, Elton John, Woody Allen, Charlton Heston, and Francis Ford Coppola. Tired of the grueling hours, he became a consultant in 1997 and eventually hooked up with Chateau Online (www.chateauonline.com), the main online wine merchant in Continental Europe. Today, he's the site's head sommelier.

During a recent stay in Paris, I visited Deluc at Chateau Online's unpretentious offices in the gritty 18th Arrondissement. He assessed the much-praised 2000 Bordeaux wines, talked about some of the celebrities he has served, and offered some advice for those who feel intimidated when ordering wine from frosty waiters or wine stewards. Chateau Online doesn't ship wines to the U.S., but Americans and Canadians who want to know more about Deluc's opinions about wine can read his comments on the site's English version. Meantime, here are edited excerpts from our talk:

Q: Many Americans are daunted by choosing a wine in a fancy French restaurant. The sommelier or waiter often makes you feel like you don't know what you're doing. How do you recommend that people proceed?

A: Yes, the staff are often more snobby than the customers. But when I go to a restaurant myself, I trust the sommelier. Of course, if a sommelier tries to give me a wine at a very high price, I say no. But I love the way American customers work. They say, "You choose the wine, but I only want to spend $50." To me, this is very clear and honest. The boss for me is always the customer. I don't have any lessons to give unless the customer asks for them. Customers shouldn't have any complexes about dealing with a sommelier.

Q: All the experts say it's best to drink red wine. But what if you prefer white?

A: Don't listen to the experts. If you want to drink Champagne with an ice cube in it, this is your pleasure. If customers say they want to drink a gin and tonic before dinner, I won't say they should drink wine instead. It's not for me to give them lessons. A restaurant is a place to enjoy yourself and to be relaxed. You shouldn't have to be annoyed by the staff.

Q: Tell me about serving Lady Di and other celebrities at the the Ritz.

A: Yes, Lady Di, Elton John -- for me, they were customers like any other. I loved Woody Allen because when I first met him as a customer, he was eating spaghetti bolognese and drinking beer. I was glad to help him change his tastes to different dishes and wine. Elton John was a very good customer, a very good connoisseur. But a few years ago, he stopped drinking. I served so many people at the Ritz -- Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Francis Ford Coppola, [who] makes very good wines. I even had Niebaum Coppola wines on the Ritz wine list.

Q: What did Princess Diana drink?

A: She loved Chardonnay from Burgundy -- wines like Montrachet. I don't remember ever serving her a red wine. We would simply prepare a bottle of Montrachet for her. People like her drink only the best. There would be a phone call in from the manager, who would say, "Get this or that ready for Lady Di." She didn't drink much. She would have one glass of wine of a very good quality.

Q: And how did you get Woody Allen to drink wine with his spaghetti, instead of beer?

A: I don't know if it was me. But I never told him not to drink beer. I just suggested, "Why don't you try a nice glass of wine with that dish?" Then, a few days later, he said, "You know that wine you gave me by the glass the other day? Do you have a bottle of that?" He was very nice. I think he just likes European life.

Q: What is your assessment of the 2000 Bordeaux vintage? Do you agree with Robert Parker and other American experts who are saying those wines are going to be really good?

A: Yes. I was in Bordeaux in March and tasted 400 wines in four days.

Q: Now, when you taste 400 wines, you don't drink them all, do you?

A: No -- I spit a lot. And sometimes just by the nose of the wine, the smell, I decide not to even taste the wine. I go very fast when I do tastings. I don't think about it. When you think too much during tastings you get confused.

Usually, first impressions are the good ones.

Q: What are your first impressions of the 2000 Bordeaux?

A: My general impression is that on the right bank [of the Bordeaux wine-growing region] the wines are very good. On the left bank, they are excellent. Cabernet Sauvignon, the main grape on the left bank, the Medoc and Graves appellations, were excellent this year. On the right bank, they have more Merlot [grapes] than Cabernet Sauvignon. The year 2000 was a year for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Q: Is this one of the really great vintages?

A: No. It will be an excellent vintage, but not a vintage to remember, like 1961, 1945, and 1928. It will be a good vintage, but not one of the 10 top vintages of the century.

Q: Are the 2000 Burgundies also going to be good?

A: It is a good vintage in Burgundy, but we have to wait and do more tasting. They got rain there during the harvest and there are many small producers there who are not equipped to deal with such problems.

Q: What about the price of the 2000 Bordeaux reds?

A: Of course, we still find some good values. But when you talk about the [prestigious] Cru Class?, the prices have gone crazy. There is quite a bit of speculation. People know that the 2000 Bordeaux are going to be in great demand. Already, just since the wines came out two months ago, the prices have risen by 50% for some chateaux. Why? Because Robert Parker and Wine Spectator [magazine] gave some of the wines very high ratings.

Q: So should people avoid buying the 2000 Bordeaux?

A: No. You need to focus on chateaux that are not very well known today that will be the future stars in two or three years. For example, Chateau Arnaud in Pomerol. It's selling at 60 francs ($8) a bottle, and at that price, you've really got something in your mouth.

Q: How do California and French wines compare at this point?

A: I don't like to make those comparisons. Wine is made with four things: Grapes, soil, climate, and man. We don't have the same soil. We do have the same grapes, but we don't have the same climate. Why should the wines taste the same? There are so many little things that can make a difference. I love California wines, Australian wines. When I select wines for Chateau Online, I don't have any frontiers. The only frontier is: What is good?

Q: What are the differences between being a sommelier at the Ritz and a sommelier at Chateau Online?

A: When I was in the Ritz, I was in a golden cage. I would often sell wines made by people I didn't know. Today, what is interesting for me is that I go and sample the wine on the spot. I meet the people who make the wine, the people who work the land. We are totally independent from the producers. The only way to get listed on our site is to make good wine.

Q: In the U.S., Wine.com, the main Internet wine merchant, recently went broke. Are Internet wine sales doing better in Europe?

A: Yesterday, I read in the paper that in France, in the French language, there are 1,500 wine sites. I would say that only three or four sell well. We are lucky enough to be No. 1 in Europe. Last month, we were 27% over our projections, and usually the projections are set pretty high.

Q: Why don't more American wines sell well in France?

A: The quality is there, but the price is awful. A bottle of American wine may sell at 150 francs ($20). French people will say, "For that I can have four bottles of a wine from Languedoc that is just as good."

The danger, for us [in France], isn't from the States. The danger will come from Chile, Spain, or Italy, where they're starting to make very high quality table wine at a very low price. The Eastern countries are also dangerous. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary -- all those countries have a really good tradition of wine-making. Communism [nearly] destroyed it. But since the fall of communism, they have redistributed land to the [wine growers], and they have started working again. They are starting to make quality wine at a very reasonable price.

Q: Which Parisian restaurants have the best wine cellars?

A: I like to go to a place where they may have only 30 wines, but where the wines are very well chosen. But in terms of size, the best wine cellar in France is certainly at the Tour d'Argent. It's absolutely fantastic. [The Parisian restaurant] Taillevent also has a very good cellar.

The trouble in France is often the quality of the service. I'm ashamed when I compare it to Italy or Britain. In France, nobody wants to do it anymore. They are not passionate. Of course, it's a very hard job. Only crazy people like me want to do it anymore. But sommeliers, waiters, cooks -- in France, they don't want to work on weekends, they only want to work 35 hours a week. Today, people are ashamed to be of service to someone. You should be proud to be of service. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online


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