Decanter had billed it as a Bordeaux Readers d'Yquem Weekend and, at the end of the day, the Readers had had a lot of d'Yquem and (maybe as a result) a singularly exhilarating weekend. This post reviews and assesses the overall program while subsequent posts will examine the individual elements in greater detail.
I became aware of this event when I visited Decanter's HQ in London a few weeks ago to attend the Steven Spurrier class on Mastering the Medoc and Graves. While we were at lunch Steven mentioned the event and shared the promotional literature with us. As laid out, Decanter proposed a weekend in Bordeaux with the following features: Limited to 16 people; Les Sources de Caudalie as the hotel of choice; cellar tours of Châteaus Smith Haut Lafitte, Cheval Blanc, and d'Yquem, each tour to be led by a senior manager of the Château; post-cellar-tour lunch at Château Cheval Blanc and dinner at Château d"Yquem; transportation to and from all events; Decanter senior managers and a Master of Wine to accompany tour members on the trip. I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to be introduced to Bordeaux from the top and, simultaneously, have the opportunity to interact with Decanter senior management and a Master of Wine for an entire weekend. I jumped at the opportunity.
I flew into the Bordeaux airport a little after midnight on Thursday and spent the rest of the night at a hotel in the city of Bordeaux. I headed out Les Sources de Caudalie a little after 1:00 pm. I had never stayed at the establishment but was familiar with it through the writings of George Taber. In his book In Search of Bacchus (Scribner, 2009), Taber described it as "... a small luxury hotel" whose "rooms are furnished with antiques, no two of them the same. One suite is in a fisherman's hut built on stilts in a small artificial lake." We were given notice of our impending arrival at Caudalie by the sight of the square, squat tower with big, bold letters announcing Château Smith Haut Lafitte.
Les Sources de Caudalie is directly across a narrow street from Château Smith Haut Lafitte but we had to delay our entrance into the property while another taxi backed gingerly out of an even narrower stub-driveway that serviced the hotel. Once we unloaded the car and stepped into the entranceway, I had a clear sense that this was a special place. The lobby was small but well appointed and looked out on the artificial lake described by Taber. Beyond the lake ran row after row of gold-, rust-, or brown-robed vines whose leaves individually reflected the seasons impact. The reception staff were courteous and helpful without being fawning.
Our room was not ready so we had lunch and then hung at the bar drinking champagne. While at the bar we met Sarah Kemp, Decanter Publishing Director. She was very disarming and our interaction at this initial meeting signaled that it was going to be a fantastic weekend.
Our schedule called for assembly in the hotel lobby at 5:50 pm for an optional tour of the Château Smith Haut Lafitte cellar, said tour to be led by Decanter Contributor James Lawther MW. At this juncture I was introduced to the other members of the tour group (12 of us in all) as well as members of the Decanter team whom I had not previously met. We took a short walk in the dark to the Château Smith Haut Lafitte cellar and was ushered into the building to begin our tour. The tour was initially led by a senior staff member at Smith Haut Lafitte but Madame Cathiard, co-owner of the property, joined our group shortly after the tour began and guided us the rest of the way in.
Madame Cathiard gave us a spirited and enthusiastic exposition on the winery and its wines and set an overall high tone which was maintained by all of the wineries that we visited over the course of the weekend. I will cover the winery visits in greater detail in future posts but, at this point, would like to provide my perspective on the event as a whole.
Decanter over-delivered (not a bad thing) and, in so doing, exceeded my wildest expectations. I live for memorable experiences and this one truly fit the bill. We had cellar tours of Châteaus Smith Haut Lafitte, Cheval Blanc, and d'Yquem led by Florence Cathiard (co-owner), Pierre Olivier Clouet (Technical Director), and Pierre Lurton (General Manager), respectively, and, in so doing, gained insights into the workings of those enterprises at a level (and in a setting) that would have been difficult to realize had I pursued it on my own. In addition to the cellar tours, we had sit-down meals at Cheval Blanc and d'Yquem that were hosted by M. Clouet and M. Lurton, respectively, and nothing relaxes a wine person like good food and their own wines. They were very relaxed.
One of the results of the event was that like-minded individuals were brought together on hallowed ground. We are all wine collectors who love talking about wine and sharing a glass of wine and good food with good friends. We all saw the d'Yquem event as a "must do"; and did. I enjoyed every one that I met and will have ongoing relationships with a number of the people that I met there.
The final contributing element to the success of the weekend was the human element: the Decanter team. They worked unceasingly to ensure that the weekend lived up to its hype. Emma scurrying about with her ever-present clipboard, whipping service-providers into shape, herding recalcitrant readers between events in order to keep us on track, and ensuring that the spa worked as advertised by taking the first honey-something-or-other wrap. Lacey working diligently behind the scenes with an ever-present smile and upraised glass. James was a peach. A Master of Wine who has not read his own reviews. Who was helpful and always ready with a detailed explanation or tasting note when called upon. He gave running commentaries as we drove through the various communes and even stole us away for a trip through St. Emilion while the other van was making a Macaroon stop.
Sarah was wonderful to be around. She is exceedingly knowledgeable about wine issues, events, trends, and people and appears to be well-connected in Bordeaux. She is a great conversationalist who loves laughter; and a glass of wine. When I asked what were her objectives in launching the event, she said she wanted to share her experiences with the magazines' readers. I asked about her measure of success and she said "You guys still speaking to us in the breakfast room on Sunday morning." Her easy banter with Madame Cathiard and M. Lurton attests to her connectedness and relationships with the leading lights of the community. During the dinner at d"Yquem it was was obvious that they had socialized a lot because they almost had to cast lots to determine who would tell the next story; stories which they both seemed to know.
This was an inaugural event and, in my opinion, it was stunning. Decanter does not know if/when/where they will have a second event but if they do you can bet your life on one thing. I'll be there.