By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Maurice de la Sizeranne, blinded at age 9, went on to become an activist, writer and publisher for the visually impaired, inventing and popularizing the first abbreviated version of Braille.
Seventy-seven years after his death, in 1994, a French winemaker placed the first-ever wine label in both Braille and regular text on his Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage wine as a tribute to the Sizeranne family, which had previously owned the vineyard.
Things might have ended at that. But the winemaker was the legendary Rhone producer Michel Chapoutier, whose commitment is so unwavering that every label of every bottle of wine he has sold since 1996 has included key information in Braille, which has helped to spur a growing trend worldwide.
His M. Chapoutier winery has been joined by others around the globe -- in Australia (Sandalyn Wilderness Estate), the Czech Republic (Galant), Italy (Ciavolich), Portugal (Pinhal da Torre; see "In the Wine Aisle" below) and South Africa (Bon Cap) -- and even beer producers (Germany's Uerige) in using Braille on at least some of their labels. Since 2005, winemakers in South Africa's Worcester wine region, home for more than a century to the Institute for the Blind, have offered the world's first wine bottles with Braille characters molded into the glass as a way to help Worcester wines stand out in a crowded global marketplace.
Chapoutier has been a pioneer in areas other than labeling. After taking over his family's ailing winery -- established in the Rhone Valley nearly a century ago -- in 1990 at the age of 26, Chapoutier embraced biodynamic practices in the cultivation of his vineyards. His efforts have produced more than a half-dozen wines earning perfect 100-point scores from wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., not to mention impressive wines more easily within the reach of mere mortals.
The 2005 M. Chapoutier La Bernardine Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge ($38) took us on a journey from its floral nose through its ripe cherry and plum flavors to its earthy, almost gamy, finish; it provided an ideal complement to rare lamb. We were surprised to discover that its equally finessed white counterpart also paired respectably with lamb, which is no easy task for a white.
The 2005 M. Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone "Belleruche" Blanc is an absolute steal at $15. Anyone who has enjoyed the combination of fresh goat cheese and slices of pear will find the juicy pear flavor of this refreshing white absolutely stunning with chevre. A blend of Bourboulenc, Clairette and Grenache Blanc grapes, it's beautifully balanced and an ideal accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken or pork.
Saeed Bennani, manager and sommelier of Washington's IndeBleu restaurant, featuring what he describes as "modern cuisine with Indian flavors," has been buying wines professionally for 16 years, "and buying M. Chapoutier wines for all 16 of them," he says. "I love all Rhone wines -- from Chateauneuf-du-Pape to Gigondas -- for their smoked sausage and spice characteristics, but certainly Chapoutier's in particular," which allow a taste of the earth, or terroir. "The Braille on the label is a great statement from the winemaker that 'My wine is for everybody.' " His wine list features 1999 M. Chapoutier "Les Becasses" Cote-Rotie ($156 at IndeBleu), which Bennani deems "perfect" with the restaurant's seven-spice-crusted filet mignon.
The Foundation Fighting Blindness's "New Wines of the World" fundraiser held at the Field School in Northwest last year poured 1999 M. Chapoutier Saint-Joseph Deschants ($38), helping to raise $20,000 for research. "For me, the Braille labels on Chapoutier wines represent inclusiveness and independence," says FFB event chairwoman Moira Shea, whose former guide dog Beau in 1997 was the first ever allowed onto the Senate floor. "At this year's benefit on September 28, we're planning to auction a case of donated M. Chapoutier wine."
Shea also is impressed with the efforts of Virginia winery Chateau Morrisette. A percentage of sales of its Liberty and Independence blended wines at Dogs4ACause.org goes to local nonprofit organizations providing service dogs for the blind. Similarly, the California brand Dog House donates 50 cents of every bottle sold of its merlot and chardonnay to benefit Guide Dogs for the Blind ( http://www.guidedogs.com). The latter wines' cartoonish labels belie their contents, as the fruit-forward and food-friendly 2004 Dog House "Maxie's Merlot" and 2005 Dog House "Charlie's Chardonnay" (each $10) have won "best buy" recommendations from other wine reviewers in addition to our own.
All of which would no doubt please Maurice de la Sizeranne. In the final chapter of his book "The Blind as Seen Through Blind Eyes" (Putnam, 1893), he asks, "May not we be instrumental in giving hope and happiness to those who are less fortunate than we, by aiding them to become self-sustaining?" He would be heartened to know that a growing number of winemakers are answering in the affirmative.