This was a once-in-a-lifetime invitation: an exclusive tasting and dinner with fine Burgundy wines from the cellars of the Hospices de Beaune. I would be allowed to write about the event, but only on the condition that I not name the venue nor quote any of its “members” by name. This gave the evening an only-in-Washington, “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you” atmosphere I couldn’t resist.
As I headed to an undisclosable location near the White House, I had visions of a posh retreat behind a nondescript door where the city’s power players would sit in overstuffed leather chairs and quietly plot the downfall of dictators, foreign financiers and uncooperative U.S. senators while swirling balloon-shaped glasses of Gevrey-Chambertin. So I was a bit nonplused to see a large blue banner with the venue’s initials waving over the door. No secret handshakes or passwords required. How secret could this place be?
It was posh, though. Lots of hardwood, chandeliers and grand staircases, plus the type of fine restroom linen that makes you enjoy drying your hands. The chief wine guy was known simply as the Ambassador. And yes, there was lots of fine Burgundy.
The tasting was led by Anthony Hanson, a lanky Brit with unkempt, silvery hair and an absent-minded-professor demeanor that suggests he might not remember which pocket holds his hotel key, even though he can rattle off details of several vintages of grand cru cuvees from the Cote de Nuits. Hanson, who holds the prestigious title of Master of Wine, made his reputation with his 1982 book on Burgundy, titled “Burgundy,” in which he famously wrote, “Great Burgundy smells of s---.” (Subsequent editions have omitted this line.)
The Hospices de Beaune today is more synonymous with a wine auction than with the hospital it still supports. The world’s oldest charitable wine auction started in the 1850s, about four centuries after the first vineyards were donated to the hospital. Each year on the third Sunday of November, Burgundy’s winemakers and a coterie of devotees from around the world gather to bid on barrels of wine from the just-harvested vintage. (Hanson has managed the auction for Christie’s since 2005.)
Hanson was in Washington as part of a world tour to promote this year’s auction. His U.S. trip took him to Nantucket and New York as well. Earlier this year he stamped his passport in India, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, reflecting the importance of the Asian market for fine, expensive French wine.
“People are able to connect with the history of Burgundy and France” through the auction, Hanson says. “It’s a key to the door of Burgundy.”
Burgundy is never cheap, but buying a barrel at auction can be a value. The tasting included a 2009 Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru that sold for almost $4,000 a barrel, or less than $13 a bottle for the wine. (A barrel is about 300 bottles.) The purchaser then pays a winery to “mature” the wine for two years, then bottle and label it. The labels reflect the wine’s origin with the Hospices, but there is also the opportunity to put one’s own name or company name on the label, with all the marketing possibilities that entails.
During the tasting, I sat next to Timothy Cone, a federal public defender who has been purchasing barrels at auction since 2000. “I bought three 2009s, and mine are better,” Cone muttered as we tasted a Volnay Premier Cru from the Hospices’ cellar. That’s a sentiment the auction organizers would probably applaud, because it means Cone is happy with his purchases and keeps coming back. He first attended the annual barrel tasting before the auction in 1998 during a trip to Beaune.
“The experience of tasting all those Hospices wines was a revelation, because the differences between the taste of wines from different villages were more pronounced than I’d ever realized drinking a bottle of Burgundy at home now and then,” Cone recalls.
Going to Burgundy is essential to understanding Burgundy, agrees Lanny Lancaster, co-owner of C’est Vin importers, who helped arrange the event. His enthusiasm explains the fervor true Burgundy fans feel.
“You have to put boots on the ground,” Lancaster says. “If you stand with your back to the northwest side of the village of Vosne-Romanee and face west, up a small, single-lane road you will see an ancient cross. This marks Romanee-Conti,” he explained, naming one of Burgundy’s most famous vineyards. “Without moving your eyes, in the same view you have 100 percent of the vineyards of Romanee Conti, La Grand Rue, La Romanee and most of La Tache. One can argue that these are perhaps four of the top six or seven pinot noir vineyards in the world.
“I get chills every time I drive up that road,” he says.