Lalou Bize-Leroy among American wine drinkers might well be Margaret Mead among the aborigines. She doesn't tell. She shows. She is not patronizing in her proselytizing. She encourages curiosity. She knows that today's wine snob could be tomorrow's connoisseur.
She sloshes her wine around in her glass. So does everyone else. She takes a deep whiff. So does everyone else. She rolls the wine gently over her tongue. Likewise.
Some points in disgust to the deposit on the bottom of a glass of her prized Romanee-Conti.
"Ah, non," she says pursing her lips together, chiding gently. "That's is marvelous, that is good, the deposit. It is like the jewel of the bottle, this deposit."
Everyone drinks the deposit heartily, searching for the magic.
But wait. She frowns. "This wine," she says slowly, after a second go, "has passed quickly. In France it would have a much better color. But here the storage has been bad. If the wine is too oxidized it is a catastrophe."
"I never want my wines to go to America unless I know where they are going, what kind of a room they will be stored in. It must be properly received. You must receive a wine as you receive a person. Wine, you know, is not a merchandise."
A slight hush falls over the table. Mme Lalou Bize-Leroy, the French queen of wines, the only woman in France to run a major vineyard, has spoken.
It was 20 years ago when Lalou was yet unmarried and about to give up her dream to be a mountain climber to run her father's vineyard. Today at 43, she speaks unaffectedly about her wines as though they really are people, or at least exquisite works of art. She speaks lovingly, glowingly and above all knowledgeably.
She is standing in a room at the City Tavern, tasting two of her wines. A "simple little" burgundy that cost $2 a bottle and a grande vin blanc, a Montrachet that cost $50 a bottle. She tastes the less expensive wine, "Ah," she says smiling with pleasure, "but this is not a ridiculous wine."
Luncheon is served and she sits down to her boeuf bourgignon. Three glasses sit on the table. The first for the Grands Echezeaux, the second for La Tache and the third for the vineyard's most exclusive wine, La Romanee-Conti itself. "On monte," she says happily. (One climbs in excellence.) The waitress pours the first wine. She takes a taste and grimaces. "The glass is too well washed," she says, pouring it into another glass, "I can still taste the soap." Then, "This is a very good introduction to the grand wine," and she takes a sip.
Lalou Bize-Leroy has come to this country several times to visit groups and give lectures and seminars and she has formed some opinions about Americans and their attitudes about wines.
"People in America don't make up their minds themselves," she says. "They drink what they read they should drink. They have too much confidence in their knowledge. I'd rather have them drink what they like. I would like Americans to be connoisseurs, but it is important to go slowly. And I don't want to sell to snobs.Americans have a great interest and are curious which is wonderful, but I'd like it better if they trusted their own judgement. Sometimes one prefers jazz to Beethoven or Mozart, then one should listen to jazz, or one prefers modern painting to a Watteau. That's the same thing as a wine. A wine is a chef d'oeuvre, a work of art. But everyone does not have the same taste. In Burgundy the vineyard is like a member of the family, you cherish it the way you do a relative. Of course we have the wine snobs in France but they're easier to spot. In America it's hard to tell how much of it is snobbism and how much of it is genuine knowledge and curiosity. I really prefer winetastings that are blind. You can really fool the snobs that way but they'll play because it's a game.
"It's this way that you can tell people don't really know anything about wines," and she laughs mischievously. "Wines are like people in that you never really know them. But I have obtained my place in France in the wine business because I really know my own wines. I can tell them blind.I can tell when one of mine is good or if it is bad, and then if it's good, I want it to be better and better. I'm never content. There can always be a better wine. I'm passionate about it."
Lalou Bize-Leroy has no trouble selling her Romanee-Conti because, though it is the highest priced wine in France, it is nevertheless, the most revered and is offered at all the three-star restaurants. But her trip here was a PR visit that she made with her partner and co-proprietor, Aubert de Villaine. And it was necessary because retailers around the country here have stopped buying their wines. One reason is because to get Romanee-Conti one must also order other wines from the vineyards that are priced higher than most of their competitors.
And what that means is going to a lot of wine tastings in Miami and New Jersey and suffering a lot of Americans who know nothing about wines or, worse, know just a little. Washington, it seems, was the highlight of her trip and she was pleased. Yet the tasting put on Wednesday night by Les Amis du Vin turned out to be less than acceptable to most of the "Amis." And they didn't exactly have the same reverence that Leroy did. It was a standup affair in the Chinese Room at the Mayflower and Dr. Louis Weiss, a dentist from Baltimore and his wife, Edith, members for six years, had these observations.
"We never have missed an affair," said Weiss, resplendent in a red polyester jacket. "Each time they tell us 'this wine will be great in 10 years,' Well in 10 years I won't be here.
The Weisses came to belong because one night they happened to be sitting at a dinner party in Baltimore next a man who owned "Harry's Liquor Store" and he invited them to "an affair."
"We joined and it's been downhill ever since," says Weiss. But he did admit with a certain pride that they now know more about wines than their neighbors.
"We're kings in the land of the blind."
"Our friends," says his wife, "call us to ask what to serve for dinner."
"But," he says, "no matter how much you know, you know nothing. If you say Lancers is garbage you're an expert. But I don't want to feel like a rube. I like the good burgundy but I'll drink anything. If it flows, I drink it. Even if it's bad, it's not that bad."
Weis says he tries to stay away from using the language of wine lovers. "It's too artsy - you know what," he said.
"You do some though, honey," says his wife.
"You mean 'loam in the palate' and 'inadequate in the nose?'" he says. ('All I know is if they charge $20 a bottle then it's 'long in the nose.' If they charge $1.95 then you say 'it goes down good'."
The Weisses were typical of the crowd Wednesday night; most were upset that the 1973 Romanee-Conti was too young - if they knew that was what they were drinking; some complained about the "youth" of the champagne; others tossed around words like "bouquet," and "nose" and "legs" and talked about how "'65" was a bad year.
And all the while, Lalou Bize-Leroy stood in her long sleeveless Cardin and smiled.
Lalou Bize-Leroy remembers how terrified she was shen she was only 23 and her father became sick.
"It was," she says, "the first time I ran into the problem of being a woman in the wine business."
It meant she had to go to Norway herself to represent the family Vineyards of Romanee-Conti, among the greatest wines in all of France. She went in place of her father to advise the Norwegians on their royal supply.
There had been a good deal of correspondence before she went. "Cher Monsieur Swenson," she had written to the Norwegian representative, adding "My father advised me, etc . . . ." and always signed her letters, "Mile. Leroy."
"Cher Monsieur" was how the letters would return, "We await with pleasure your visit." Finally the time came for her trip to Norway.
"For Norwegians it was impossible to be received by a woman in this field," she recalls. "But my father was very old and I was in charge of the vineyards. He has no sons." And so it was that Mile. Leroy, aged 23, joined Mr. Swenson for lunch, apologizing that her father was very sick.
Mr. Wenson, says Lalou Bize-Leroy, couldn't have been more polite or more hospitable. "Mille. Leroy," he said to her, hiding his obvious disappointment that she wasn't a man. "I am so pleased you have come. And as a matter of fact I just received a wine I'd like your opinion of."
"Well," she says, remembering with horror that terrible moment. "I don't think my heart has ever beat faster in my life than it did that moment. I knew he was testing me because I was a woman but I had no choice. So I tasted the wine. I immediately I thought it was not one of our wines, it was a strange wine but I was not sure. But I decided I had to say what I really thought no matter whether it was wrong or not. So I told him that I was surely able to make mistakes but it was my opinion that this was a wine not close to our vineyards, possibly a Cote du Rhone, Hermitage, very grand. I could tell he was very vexed. There was a long silence. He said nothing but destroyed me with his look. I thought then that I must be the greatest imbecile in the world.
"But I was right. It was Cote du Rhone. It was Hermitage and a great wine. After that Mr. Swenson was a very good sport because he had been proven wrong about me. And then he told everyone, 'If ever there was a young woman who knows about wine in the world it is this young woman, Leroy.'"
She smiles and shrugs her thin shoulders. "I love wine so much that I think that day it saved me. Because one never knows wine really. One never really understands wine. I really don't know wine. It's always new, always a surprise. That's what makes our world so fascinating, so different fromother worlds. Each bottle of wine is a discovery. You can't say it's this or that. People who guess right are lucky. I'm very lucky. But people who know wines make mistakes too."
And she says sometimes being a woman is still a problem for her. But it is not something she worries about agreat deal. "I just say 'tant pis' (too bad)," she says. Now she has a 13-year-old daughter who is an only child, who has the proper respect for wines and whom she hopesone day will take her place at the vineyard. "I hope, because I am a woman, it will be better for my daughter," she says. "Sometimes it causes me pain but it is not grave. Many people come to the vineyards and they don't know that I'm running it.
"They think I'm a secretary. But I don't care. It's not important. It is mostly English and Americans, though," she says with a shrug. "It's not a real problem. I don't think of myself as a woman or a man in that respect, anyway. I think of myself as the guardian of a treasure. I am just transferring my respect for wines to my daughter."
Her husband, a former athlete, is not involved in her business. "My Paul," he is adorable, she laughs, "he has a farm and he takes care of his cows. I'll tell you. When I first knew him he thought wine was poison, that it was bad for the heart. But he was tempted. So I gave him La Tache, 1945. That did it. He was converted to me and to my wine. I chose that one because, it is my favorite. Now my husband loves wine and respects it. That is enough. Like me, he is still learning."
Each day she tastes more than 50-wines once she has cooked breakfast, delivered her daughter to school and gone to her office. "I usually taste them and spit them out. I'm more curious about wines than anything. I really don't drink."
For Lalou Bize-Leroy understanding and appreciating wine is a gift.
"I really think there is a certain gift, but you can cultivate that gift. There are some who don't get it, others who do. There's a certain taste, a certain intuition. I also have a memory. When I've drunk a wine I always remember it. I never remember people or places or things.
"Wine is my life," she says quietly. "It is as much a part of my life as my religion." In fact, there is not a great deal of difference between the two."