Good Burgundy

A Bostonian and a veteran of both World Wars. CHARLES R. CODMAN served as a combat pilot in the American Air Force (1917—18) and as Senior A.D.C. to General Patton {1912—45). As a connoisseur of wine and a lifelong friend of France he has selected and brought back many a famous vintage to S. S. Pierce, and on these visits he has been admitted to a charming, touching association with that intimate circle responsible for some of the best-known vineyards of Europe.



ROUTE NATIONALE 74, twenty kilometers south of Dijon. “ We must be getting close,”my wife said. “Yes, there is the sign, Vosne.” Right turn. The road, such as it is, winds up through the vines to the tiny village. We passed the church which dominates the microscopic Place, turned into a lane with a high wall, and stopped before the entrance to a modest courtyard flanked on three sides by low farm buildings. No name, no number. Nothing to mark the threshold of the most illustrious domain in all Burgundy. One is just supposed to know.

We left our car outside and walked in. In the middle of the yard a slender lady with fair hair was talking to a youngish man in a raincoat with his back to us. At our approach he wheeled around and came to meet us with quick short stride. The gait was familiar. So were the steady intense eyes. Here surely was the man we had come to see, the son and the successor of our old and regretted friend. Monsieur Edmond de Villaine.

“I am Henri de Villaine,” the young man said. “And this,”turning to the lady, “is my wife. Welcome to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.”

The bureau or office of the Domaine consists of a small room in the left wing. Its door opened and a figure in black emerged, her spectacles glinting in the sunlight.

“Ah, Madame Clin, it is good to see you again.” Madame Clin, widow of the Domaine’s former régisseur and at present carrying on his responsible functions, seized my wife’s hands. “You have made a good journey?" she said. Madame Clio’s lips smiled, but behind the glasses her eyes were moist.

“Shall we descend to the cellar?” Henri de Villaine asked.

“With pleasure.”

“You know the way.”

Halfway across the courtyard we were joined by Noblot, the husky cellarman. Take so many of the staff, he grew up in the Domaine. where his father and grandfather before him had worked. At the top of the stone steps Madame Clin drew from the folds of her dress a large key. “Be careful of your heads,” she cautioned.

There is nothing fancy about the cellars of the Domaine. The floor, dark damp earth. Walls and low vaulted ceilings glistening with moisture. The rows of casks, neatly aligned, are strictly utilitarian. The cool obscurity redolent of wet soil, seasoned oak, and the aroma of Pinot grape is pinpointed with fireflies as Noblel lights and hands around the candles in their pewter holders,

“Shall we begin with the wmes of the year in the usual ascending order?” Henri de Villaine’s voice.

Setting his candle on a nearby barrel, Noblel removes the stopper from the top of the first cask, plunges the glass tube of the pipette into the bunghole. In a moment he withdraws it, a shining column of red, and carefully fills each extended lasting cup. “Echézeaux 1952,” he murmurs.

Concentration, ruminal ion. Color deep and clear. Aroma clean and fresh to the nose. To the taste, grape juice rather than wine. But what grape juice! Mouth-filling flavor of fresh-picked fruit. Plenty of sugar to work on. Acidity in balance. Tanin, not too much but enough.

Next cask. “Grands Echézeaux, '52.”

Not the greatest or the most complete of Burgundies, but in some years—'29 for instance it had very few equals. This looks like a good year.

Next cask. “Richebourg, '52.”

A delighted exclamation from my wife brought a smile to Madame Clin’s face. “It has invariably been your favorite,” she said.

“My father always said you were a keen taster, Madame.” Henri de Villaine’s face is in the shadow.

“Yes,” Madame de Villaine laughed, “and my father-in-law was not lavish with compliments.”

We move on to the next-to-last group of casks, to a name which in the hierarchy of great Burgundies is seldom far from the top.

“La Tâche, ‘52.”

For a while we taste in silence. A bad wine is easily described, a good wine with difficulty. A great wine defies description. Here in embryo, unless I miss my guess, is a great wine.

And now as finally we gather about the dozen barrels set slightly apart from the others, there is a collective sense of tenseness and expectation, for these historic casks contain something more than wine.

In the autumn of the year of victory, 1945, the great vineyards of France, rising to the occasion, produced some of the most superb wines of this century. In that extraordinary year the yield at Romanée-Conti was pitifully small. The ancient vines, deprived during the war years of elements essential to their care, were on their last legs. After the harvest Edmond de Villaine was faced with a major decision. He did not hesitate, and with characteristic promptness gave the order for the replanting of the vineyard. The old stock was uprooted and to the new roots were grafted cuttings from selected Domaine vines which in turn owed their pedigree to earlier grafts from the RomanéeConti itself.

It was not, however, given to our old friend to see the full fruition of his ceaseless labors and his act of faith. In the winter of 1950, shortly before Christmas, we received a black-bordered envelope containing the news of his untimely death following a heart attack.

“As eldest son,” wrote Henri de Villaine, “I succeed my father in the management of the Domaine. It is a difficult task to follow in the footsteps of a man so competent.”

Perhaps it was something about the set of Henri de Villaine’s shoulders, the glint of candlelight on Madame Clin’s spectacles—one can’t explain those things, but somehow the hands of the clock spun backward.


OUR first tasting in this very cellar, almost exactly twenty years ago. Monsieur Edmond de Villaine, hands behind his back clasping gray gloves. Alert, quizzical, charming. Madame Clin in the same black dress. Monsieur Clin drawing with a flourish the pipette from the bunghole of the last cask. “Romanée-Conti 1929.”

From the silver knobs and convolutions of the tastevin the candle draws flashes of deepest ruby. Flavor so fresh and full and round as to be threedimensional. Even the novice cannot fail to recognize the complete, the perfect Burgundy. Rolling it around in the mouth, one keeps putting off the moment of expelling it onto the hospitable earth floor. “Is it permitted to spit out RomanéeConti?” Mock horror in my wife’s voice.

Taking a sip of his own wine, Monsieur de Villaine savors it, then with a quick turn of the head propels it with skill and accuracy into the corner. “As my grandfather used to say with his handkerchief he gives his mouth a thoughtful dab — “in the cellar one must never be proud.”

“Has any wine ever equaled this one?” my wife asks.

“We have rarely made a better one,” Monsieur de Villaine smiles.

Madame Clin is complacent. It will make a good bottle,”she says.

Other visits, other vintages. The '33s, the ‘34s, the '37s. Ah yes, the ‘37s — what anxiety they had caused us. It was the fateful spring of 1940 and for once it had been a relief to leave Paris, an edgy Paris full of staff officers and rumors. As we stood with Edmond de Villaine among his vineyards on the Burgundy hillside, the Phony War seemed remote. With his tightly furled umbrella he indicated the gently rising rows of vines beyond the ancient stone cross.

“As you can see,” he said, “it is not large, la Romanée-Conti. Less than two hectares — roughly four and a half of your acres. There to the right, separated only by that narrow path, is Richebourg. Below the road here is Saint Vivant, and there to the west is La Tâche. All are planted with the same species of grape, the Pinot. Noir; all give great wines, but la Romanée-Conti remains in a class by itself. Why? A special quality of the soil? The ancient roots? The tilt of the land exposing the vines to the earliest rays of the rising sun? A particular confluence of air currents? A combination of all these and other factors? Be that as it may, for centuries la Romanée-Conti has held an irresistible attraction for wine-lovers of high and low degree. Its origins go back to the Romans and the wine-minded monks of the Cistercian Order. From then until now, though various owners have come and gone, the vineyard has remained intact. Among others, Madame de Pompadour exerted her considerable influence and charm in repeated attempts to acquire it. However, for once she was out maneuvered — and outbid—by that wily courtier of Louis XV, le Prince de Conti, who, having bought it in 1766, took care to insure his own immortality by giving it his name.

“During the Revolution the property was seized by the state. Thereafter it passed through several bands before being acquired by a gentleman from Santenay named Monsieur Duvault-Blochet. Since he was my grandfather, la Romanée-Conti has remained and will continue to remain a strictly family affair.” Standing there in his tightly buttoned business suit, Homburg hat set very straight on his fine head, Monsieur do Villaine seemed to personify the enduring qualities of the landed Frenchman: tenacity, continuity, permanence. Yet we felt concerned.

“Have you seen yesterday’s communiqué?” I asked. From the preceding night’s Paris paper we read it aloud. Standing before the low wall and stone cross marking the lower boundary of the Romanée-Conti, Monsieur de Villaine, hands behind his back, clasping the umbrella, listened impassively listened with his eyes rather than his ears. “Yes,” he said, “France is at war—not, I would remind you, for the first or, presumably, the last time. Like France itself, la Romanée-Conti has survived many upheavals. I repeat , it has remained and will continue to remain intact.”

The sky had become overcast and a few drops of rain began to fall. Monsieur de Villaine unfastened the strap of his umbrella. Opening our car door he removed his hat and smiled. “Have no fear,” he said. “Your '37s will be shipped.”


OCTOBER, 1944. Headquarters, Third U.S. Army, Nancy, France. The General had spent the day visiting the 26th Division and the 4th Armored. A cold, wet run in an open jeep. That evening at dinner he was unusually silent. The Chief of Staff and the Aides concentrated on their soup. When the General was silent it was just as well not to break in on his train of thought. Even Willie, the white bull terrier, knew that. Sitting up on his chair by the sideboard, watching his master’s every mouthful, he kept quiet.

At length the General pushed away his plate. “That village we went through this morning. The one where the Mayor was addressing the townspeople— all fifteen of ‘em — from the top of that rubble pile. What’s its name? Buissoneourt?”

“Yes, sir,” the Chief of Staff said.

“I’m not sure about the Mayor,”he continued, “but that identical pile of rubble was there in 1917, twenty-seven years ago, when I had the tank school at Bourg.”

“The Germans bashed that intersection yesterday,” the Chief of Staff said; “155s.”

“You would think that by now anyone would know enough not to build houses in the vicinity of a crossroad.” The General crumbled a slice of toast on the tablecloth and with a flick of thumb and middle finger lobbed a piece in the direction of the sideboard. Willie did not have to move. His jaws just opened and snapped shut.

“No, the French never change,” the General said. “That is why they are indestructible.”

The Mess Sergeant passed the meat. The General took sparingly of it. His nervous, agile lingers toyed with another piece of toast but Willie, sensing his owner’s mounting restiveness, knew there was nothing in it for him.

With a sudden motion, the General brushed away the littering of toast, picked up a spoon, bent it double, tossed it aside. “How long, O Lord, how long?” His eyes flashed dangerously. “We roll across France in less time than it takes Monty to say ‘Regroup,’ and here we are stuck in the mud of Lorraine. Why? Because somewhere up the line some so-and-so who never heard a shot fired in anger or missed a meal believes in higher priorities for pianos and ping-pong sets than for ammunition and gas.”

The Mess Sergeant refilled the General’s glass with chlorinated water.

The General eyed it wryly. “Is this the best the vineyards around here can do?” he said.

“This is beer country, General,” I put in.

“True,” the General said, “and by now every unbombed brewery from Maxeville to Charmes is undoubtedly occupied by Com Z or the Service of Supply. Too bad we didn’t take Dijon,” he mused. “I could do with a good Burgundy. That reminds me” — the tone was crisp — “Hap, find out where Seventh Army is and send someone up there tomorrow with a request for that fat engineer who was with us in Sicily. No, never mind, I’ll write Patch myself. You, Codman, be ready early in the morning. Take my Command Car, I’ll be using the quarter-ton.”

The field set in the next room rang. An Aide went in to take the call. In a moment he returned. “General Bradley for General Patton,”he said.

The General arose. Willie slid down from his chair and pattered along at the General’s heels.

“Hello, Brad, this is George. What does SHAEF want now?”

3 P.M. the following afternoon. Mission accomplished, But hold on. Hadn’t the General said he could do with a good Burgundy? “ We’ll go back a different way, Sergeant,” I said. “Bear left.”

“Boulevard Sevigne?” he asked.

“ Yes. Been here before?

“Six weeks,” he said, “during World War I.”

Changeless Dijon. As we clattered over the pavement of the Boulevard Sevigne down the incline to the Gare Dijon-Ville, under the railroad bridge, along the tramline past the canal, it. all looked much as it had in the spring of 1918 on the way up to lhe Tout sector. Only now it was autumn and the slopes to tiie right of Route Nationale 74 were golden indeed.

Gevrey-Chambert in, Yougcot, Flagey-Eehézcaux. The signposts read like the Burgundy Section of Nicolas’s wine list. “We must be getting close.” I could almost hear my wife saying, “Yes, there it is — Vosnc.”

“ Right turn.”

With the silhouette of a 1913 Maxwell, the weight and speed of a medium-sized steam roller, and a transmission whose song might be likened to the relentless grinding of boulders on the Reef of Norman’s Woe, the Command Car of World War II surpassed all other vehicles of the U.S. Army in majesty and discomfort. As we roared and coughed up the rocky road, the vendangeurs among the nearest rows of vines turned with astonishment from their picking. A man waved his hat. A girl held up a purple bunch of grapes and waved that. Someone started shouting. Others took it up. You could tell only from their open mouths. No sound could possibly compete with the scream of the Command Car’s low gear. The Sergeant was saying something. Rounding the last curve, we chugged into the empty Place and slowed down.

“What were you saying, Sergeant?”

“I was just thinking that Seventh Army must be popular around here,” he said, “or maybe they just haven’t got this far yet.”

“Maybe. Round the church,” I pointed, “and into that lane.”


“Next right. And don’t knock down the wall.”

We made it, and came to a halt in the middle of the courtyard. The door of the bureau opened and there was Madame Clin, her spectacles glinting in the sunlight. The thing about Madame Clin is that nothing ever catches her off balance. She looked at the Command Car and its occupants, first through her spectacles, then over her spectacles. Having taken everything in, she advanced neither slowly nor rapidly across the yard. “Well,” she said, “for a good surprise this is a good surprise.”

Monsieur de Villnine? Well. Monsieur Clin? Not so well. And the Germans, how did they treat you? The Germans are pigs. Unfortunately the local Gauleiter knew his Burgundies only too well. Fortunalely, however, his eyesight was imperfect.

Somehow I could not bring myself to ask about the ‘37s. At length Madame Clin drew from the folds of her dress the familiar key. “Come,” she said.

The Sergeant and I followed her down the stone steps into the cellar. With candle held high she proceeded on past the rows of casks. “The ‘43s,” she said. “Later we will taste them, but now—”

The cellar ended in a wall of seemingly solid masonry; against its damp surface the last barrel snuggled closely. “If you will just move it, please,” Madame Clin said.

A full cask of Burgundy is a hefty proposition. The Sergeant spit on his hands and grasped the further rim. “Gently,” Madame Clin murmured.

In response to the Sergeant’s trial tug the big cask upended with disconcerting ease. “Empty,” he said, regaining his balance.

In that portion of the wall against which its side had lain, a number of stone blocks had been removed. Bending down, Madame Clin thrust the candle through the irregular black hole. “See,” she said.

The yellow rays penetrating the gloom revealed the damply gleaming masonry of the end wall, the real end wall, and, stretching off into the darkness, a double line of neatly stacked bottles.

Madame Clin reached in and withdrew one, wiped off with her apron the heavier layers of caked dust and mold, set the bottle together with three glasses on the upended cask, and reached into her pocket for her corkscrew. The long straight cork came out with a resounding pop. Madame Clin smelled it, then poured the wine into each of our extended glasses and her own. For a while no one said anything. As hands cupped around the glasses warmed the wine, the pungent aroma of great Burgundy coursed through inhaling nostrils. “To your health,” Madame Clin said.

“To yours.”

With the musical clink of thin crystal, the three glasses touched. We drank. Sergeant Hawley was the first to speak. “Some pinard,” he said. “What’s it called?”

“Romanée-Conti 1937,” Madame Clin said. And for once she really smiled. “It will be shipped,” she said. “Of that you can be certain.”

And now as we stand with the eldest son, before the dozen casks which are grouped slightly apart from the others, casks filled to the brim with hope and promise, there is confidence in the eyes and pride in the tone of Henri de Villaine as, filling the silver cups, he announces, “La Romanée-Conti 1952.”

The silence is complete. The tasting of wine is lonely business. So few of its impressions are communicable. Essence of truffle, violet, wildcherry? Silk, satin, and velvet in liquid form? How much do such fancies convey? Madame Clin, chary of metaphor, economical of words, as of wine, remains down to earth. Carefully flouring back the remaining contents of her cup into the open bunghole, she removes her glasses, wipes them, puts them on again.

“It will make a good bottle,” she says.