This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Mar. 24, 2008 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20080324.php.
The Value of a Nose
The days pass, the calendar pages turn; swiftly fly the years. I've just got back from a short, strange trip, and as I read the wine news of the day, it is as if eight years had passed in the blink of an eye.
Can it really have been so long since the critic Robert M. Parker Jr. (or perhaps a canny publicist working on his behalf) caught the imagination of a writer for The Atlantic Monthly with the bold assertion that he, Parker, had insured his senses of smell and taste - his "nose," in the parlance of the trade - for a cool million dollars?
Writer William Langewiesche's December 2000 story in The Atlantic Monthly - "The Million-Dollar Nose" - admiringly cast Parker in the role of an all-American critic, a powerful wine judge whose opinions and scores were reshaping the once lofty, connoisseurish world of fine wine for the rest of us.
The Million Dollar moniker stuck, and while Parker had already built a substantial following among the relatively narrow world of serious wine enthusiasts, the article launched him as the public face of fine wine in America in an era when wine was becoming an increasingly exciting - and expensive - luxury product for a go-go crowd of well-off investors who wanted to know wine and preferred to be told what they should drink.
Fair enough. Parker is a driven, hard-working man with a palate exceptional both for its skill and its consistency, and he has earned his fortunes the old-fashioned way.
But much to my surprise, upon returning from a short, unexpected medical leave recently, I found the folks in our WineLovers Discussion Group all atwitter about a new high price nose: the pricey proboscis attached to Ilja Gort.
That's Ilja Gort, a Dutch wine merchant who recently launched a line of table wines labeled "Qool." He also produces Tulipe Wines and owns the rather average Chateau de la Garde, a property ranked in the generic Bordeaux Superieur. Gort made news by persuading the insurance companies Watkins Syndicate and Allianz Nederland to insure HIS nose for 5 million Euros, reported Britain's The Telegraph.
This "bespoke" insurance policy would cover any loss of Gort's nose and sense of smell, news media reported, quoting Gort's assertion that "his nose was his most important asset, as a good sense of smell was essential to guarantee the quality of his wines."
I could easily imagine The Telegraph's editors quietly chuckling as they quoted Watkins Syndicate lead underwriter Jonathan Thomas: "This certainly is an insurance policy not to be sniffed at."
Displaying synchronized credulity, Associated Press and Reuters spread the story around the world, with only occasional references to Parker's previous coup de presse and other similar big-money nose deals.
"In Dutch wine circles," the South African Website Grape.co.za reported laconically, "Gort's capers are taken with a pinch of salt, in fact. The website Wijn.blieb.nl has called him one of the top operators in the mechanics of publicity."
According to Grape.co.za, Associated Press reported that the policy would cover Gort for the loss of either his nose or his sense of smell. It imposes unusual conditions: He is not allowed to ride a motorcycle or be a boxer, knife thrower's assistant or a fire-breather.
I assume that last admonition does not bar Gort from participating in Internet wine forums. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to find this new, old story making the rounds upon my recent return from medical leave.
It struck a personal note, frankly, because I was yanked from the field of duty by an unexpected, urgent operation on a benign pituitary tumor that required a team of skilled surgeons to go straight up my nose, wielding micro-size power drills and chain saws in a simple yet high-tech procedure that, a generation ago, might have seemed like science fiction.
Although I wouldn't care to repeat the experience, I'm pleased to say that it was painless and, happily, entirely successful, and I'm bouncing back fast, eager to get back into the wine-writing wars with today's report. (We'll continue The 30 Second Wine Advisor just once weekly for now, but I'll be back up to full speed again soon.)
This nose thing kind of gets to me, though. First Parker. Then Gort. Why wasn't I smart enough to come up with a way to mine a little publicity out of this thing? To be honest with you, when we met with the surgeons beforehand, my wishes were simple: Clean it up and bring me back in one piece. All the rest is just detail work.
Making a long story short, they did splendidly, and before long, I was ready for something more than hospital food. It may surprise you to know that wine wasn't the first thing I thought about. Really, even though I knew they had bored right past my smeller - perhaps putting all sorts of valuable olfactory receptors at risk - it didn't cross my mind to wonder whether I was smelling or tasting as I used to. But when we came home a few days later, I knew I was hungry.
Great news! It was Easter season, and the house was stocked with chocolates! I spotted a big package from my family in Florida, a pound box of soft-centers from Dan's Chocolates. Could just one hurt? I think not. I ripped off the packaging, tore open the box … looked, lovingly on the neat checkerboard row of goodies and grabbed one at random. That's one small bite for a man … I nibbled an edge, gently, and suddenly my palate flooded with a sunburst of bright, fresh raspberries! Raspberries, ripe and true! Oh, my, that tasted good. Then a higher note of something herbal. Something sharp, like raspberry liqueur. Another bite? Don't mind if I do. This time the chocolate flavor hit first, deep and dark, bittersweet, but just creamy enough to mellow its edges … and then that luscious raspberry came streaming back, singing tenor to the chocolate bass. I was so happy I could cry.
What the heck am I doing here? Reviewing a piece of chocolate candy as if it were a great wine? Well, not exactly. More to the point, I think, I was rediscovering the joy of tasting something good with as many of my senses as I could bring to bear; and of doing that in a quiet, happy setting with people I love. And that, my friends, is what this is all about. Not whether your nose, or mine, or someone else's, is worth a million dollars, pounds sterling or euros. And certainly not whether your wine is bigger, better or, least of all, more expensive than mine.
I'm not going to say that the "million dollar" priority has taken us wine lovers down the wrong road. I don't even think it matters. But if there's any one thing I can communicate to all of you who care to share my thoughts on good things to eat or drink, it's this: Gurus aren't important, and neither are ratings points. Publicity stunts are amusing, but they don't go deep. But sharing good things with people you love, while there's time on earth to enjoy them? That's priceless.
There'd be time enough for wine a little later, and sure enough, when we opened a particularly fine Chardonnay with fresh swordfish for dinner a couple of nights later, the joy of that experience was right up there with my priceless raspberry chocolate. You'll find more about that in my tasting report below.
Story about Ilja Gort's nose insurance in The Telegraph:
Ilja Gort story on Grape.co.za:
William Langewiesche's December 2000 story in The Atlantic Monthly, "The Million-Dollar Nose," reprinted on Robert Parker's Website:
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Walter Hansel 2005 Cahill Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay
($37 retail; $31 per bottle for half or full case orders by Connoisseurs' Series members)
Transparent, pale gold. Something of rocks, and leaves, and rushing water ... clean and pure. Good texture and body but nothing oily, nothing that cloys ... fresh Meyer lemon and the "spicy" character of Meyer lemons, nothing from the spice shaker jar. Rocky minerality, intense and balanced and very, very pure, a revelation with fresh pan-seared swordfish with butter and lemon. A New World Chardonnay that gives nothing away to the Old; not for fans of fat and butter, but White Burgundy aficionados willing to undergo a paradigm shake will find this a remarkable experience. Me, I must have more. Winery Website: http://walterhanselwinery.com (March 22, 2008)
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: The Hansel Chardonnay is part of this month's shipment in California Wine Club's Connoisseurs' Series and is available for additional orders by Connoisseurs' Series members. Call 1-800-777-4443 to join or learn more.
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Cork taint or not? (March 10, 2008)
Another fine white blend (March 7, 2008)
Gunk! (March 5, 2008)
Wine Focus - Value Bordeaux (March 3, 2008)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Turkey pot-pie stew (March 6, 2008)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive: