Benjamin Cooker, France’s most famous winemaker and the author of The Cooker Guide, inspires fear and even awe in grand cru estate owners and unknown young vintners alike. He’s a celebrity, but it’s like he’s from another century, when self-esteem and a certain sense of honor prevailed over the desire for recognition. He’s a gentleman.
When he’s working on his guide, he’ll write late into the night, taking refuge in the opaline halo of his old Empire-style lamp. Then, in the morning, often cool and radiant in Médoc, near the city of Bordeaux, he’ll go for a long walk with his dog Bacchus.
Home by eleven a.m, he’ll pour himself a cup of Grand Yunnan tea. He closes his eyes as he drinks his tea, as if he knew this moment of rest would not last and that he should make the most of it, appreciating the slow, spread-out seconds.
One day, recently, he then dragged himself back to the half-light of his office, where he spent more than an hour examining his tasting notes for a Premières Côtes de Blaye. He was so absorbed that he did not even lift his eyes from his notes when the doorbell rang out in the hallway. He was nervously scribbling some poetic lines about the Blaye citadel when his wife, Elisabeth, knocked on the door. She knocked three more times before he told her to come in.
“Our guest has arrived, Benjamin.”
“Welcome!” Cooker said, pushing his glasses to his forehead.
An athletic, honest-looking young man with short hair honored him with a strong handshake that left Cooker wondering if his fingers would still work.
“So you’re Virgile Lanssien,” Benjamin said, lowering his reading glasses again to the tip of his nose.
He invited the young man to sit down and observed him over the top of his lenses for a minute. What followed was a most unusual job interview. It began with discussing a dissertation about maceration enzyme preparation, a formality that foreshadowed a flow of questions that Virgile would have to answer with candor and precision. Benjamin Cooker was a master no cheating could fool.
They covered so many topics—layering, copper sulfate spraying, sulfur dioxide additions, microclimates, grand cru longevity, aging on lees, filtering and fining, gravel or limestone soils, fermentation temperatures, primary aromas and degrees of alcohol—in such disorder, yet Virgile managed to avoid the traps with a skilled farmer’s cunning.
“Well, Virgile—I can call you Virgile, can’t I? I think that after these appetizers, we have earned the right to a meal.”
Elisabeth, wearing a checkered apron tied at her waist, welcomed them into the kitchen.
“We will eat in the kitchen, if that does not bother you, Mr. Lanssien.”
But, this being the Cooker household, the first thing they did was not eat.
“Taste this, Virgile.”
“Haut-Brion 1982!” the young man said with a note of rapture.
Cooker observed his future assistant while he cut the bread and placed the even slices in a basket. The boy knew how to taste. He used his eyes, his nose and his palate in a natural way, with the attitude of someone who knew more than he showed.
Elisabeth had made something simple.
“Lamprey à la bordelaise. It’s a classic,” said Elisabeth.
“With this dish, you should always drink the wine that was used in the cooking,” Cooker said, dishing out generous portions. “And nothing is better with lamprey than a red Graves.”
Virgile stuck his fork into a piece of eel, dipped it in the sauce and nibbled at it.
“And now, let’s try a little of this Haut-Brion with that,” Benjamin suggested. “Just a swallow, and then tell me what you think.”
Virgile did as he was told, with a pleasure he had some trouble hiding.
“It is beautifully complex, particularly with the tannins that are very present. Rather surprising but not aggressive.”
Cooker remained silent and savored his lamprey.
“It leaves a very smooth sensation in the mouth,” Virgile continued. “And yet it has a kind of grainy texture.”
As the meal continued, the Pessac-Léognan grand cru loosened Virgile’s tongue, and secrets slipped out in every sentence. He recounted his childhood in Montravel, near Bergerac, where his father was a wine grower who shipped his harvest to the wine cooperative and had no ambitions for his estate.
Between two anecdotes, Cooker went to get a second carafe of Haut-Brion and gave way to telling some personal memories.
At the end of the meal, Benjamin Cooker stood up and folded his napkin.
“My dear Virgile, from now on, consider yourself my assistant. We’ll discuss the conditions later. I hope that this wine cleared your mind, because I believe you will need all of your faculties. We have a particularly delicate mission awaiting us.”
And a very delicate mission it was.
Find out more about that mission in Treachery in Bordeaux, by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, the first in the 20-book Winemaker Detective series, just published by Le French Book. This new publisher loves books and loves France and has set out to share both by bringing great French books into English. Anne Trager, the translator and founder of the company, put together this post from the book.
** Don’t miss the Le French Book launch promotion at www.treacheryinbordeaux.com where you could enter to win a trip to France, great French wine, and lots of other gifts and prizes.
Meet the author
Jean-Pierre Alaux is a magazine, radio and television journalist when he is not writing novels in southwestern France. He is a genuine wine and food lover and recently won the Antonin Carême prize for his cookbook La Truffe sur le Soufflé, which he wrote with the chef Alexis Pélissou. He is the grandson of a winemaker and exhibits a real passion for wine and winemaking. For him, there is no greater common denominator than wine. He gets a sparkle in his eye when he talks about the Winemaker Detective series, which he coauthors with Noël Balen.
Noël lives in Paris, where he shares his time between writing, making records, and lecturing on music. He plays bass, is a music critic and has authored a number of books about musicians in addition to his novel and short-story writing.
Books are available at online booksellers.