06/07/2022

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Opinion: My father taught me about wine. Then his wine taught me about life


I opened the refrigerator, saw a bottle of local chardonnay, and smiled. It was a small gift from the universe.

The next day, upon arriving from London, my brother asked, “What’s on the agenda?”

He meant wine.

Dad left behind a 300+ bottle wine cellar. Over takeout, my brother and I opened a bottle of Meursault from the cellar, raised glasses and discussed the path ahead — the funeral, speeches, logistics and everything that comes with the death of a parent. Even which wines to serve at a post-funeral reception.

Dad was a fixture back home, especially in the wine community. The Winston-Salem Journal editorialized that he “touched thousands of people through his wine articles, wine-appreciation classes, and countless wine tastings.” A relentless advocate for North Carolina’s wine industry, the North Carolina Winegrowers Association honored him as the first non-winegrower to receive its Member of Distinction Award.

Perhaps more important, the Journal noted, “Heye knew his stuff, but he was no snob.” Hopefully, some of that rubbed off.

Being executor of his estate meant countless drives home: unpleasant meetings with county clerks, prepping the house for sale, the emotionally taxing process of deciding what to keep, donate or throw away — and so much paperwork.

Heye left behind a 300+ bottle wine cellar.

Each trip also included opening more of his wine. What Dad’s long-time girlfriend didn’t keep remained with me. Some bottles went straight down the drain (A Russian sparkling wine?!). Some were just OK, others downright transcendent.

Each time I’d open one, the sentence “This was one of Dad’s” told friends and loved ones something special was in the offing. A 1990 Château Pichon-Comtesse on a Father’s Day, a 2014 Domaine Dujac Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières for his birthday, and so on.

But one bottle loomed large: Château Latour 1990.

Latour, one of the five famed Bordeaux First Growths, the highest classification of Bordeaux wines, dates to 1331. It’s really expensive. A recent offer from a local wine store advertised the 1990 Château Latour for $1,350. Slightly, I mean massively, out of my budget.

Dad bought this particular bottle on a 1993 trip to Bordeaux and left it untouched for 23 years. Green yarn tied around its neck, Dad joked, would make it easy to find if he felt “the big one” coming and he thought the end was near. Although, since he said it more than once, was he really joking?

Professional reviews all raved about the Latour, ranging from “one of my favorite wines ever” by Wine Spectator, to Jancis Robinson declaring it “a dream wine.” Steven Tanzer praised the “incredible unfolding peacock tail of a finish.” Vinous called the 1990 Latour “like running into a long-lost friend.” Unlike Tanzer’s take, that I understood.

It became his last bottle from his cellar. Opening it this May to celebrate his 80th birthday seemed appropriate.

Actually drinking wines like this can be daunting. Would it live up to expectations? What if it was corked? Being clumsy and dropping it on the floor was a thought I tried to keep at bay.

Heye bought this 1990 Château Latour bottle and left it untouched for 23 years.

The cork was a little crumbly, but, using Dad’s old Screwpull, I removed it intact. Whew. The fill-level was good.

So how was the wine?

A friend took a sniff and offered perfectly succinct praise, “Son of a b%&*#!” before we decanted it and turned to a Christian Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Valmur.

With a perfectly grilled waygu steak that practically dissolved with each bite, I thought about Dad. And time. My college graduation, Dad’s marriage at the time (which the Latour outlasted!), a vacation in Spain a visit to Burgundy, fights and hugs, and the time —

Old wines from great vintages do that. But this was different. I scarcely have anything from my mother, who passed away in 1997. I have Dad’s corkscrew, his humidor and cigar cutter, plus an old signed baseball and that’s…it.

Opening the Latour was a second farewell of sorts, simultaneously having a last gift while consuming one of the last tangible things of his I had. Ill-suited for the math pop quiz of being executor, I nearly opened it after a tough day of dealing with his estate. I’m glad I waited for the right moment.

Hopefully, I didn’t betray that over dinner. Political nonsense and upcoming elections were good conversational detours. As was the fact that Jancis Robinson was right, this was a dream wine that somehow, even at 32 years old, seemed young.

And it was a reminder, as erstwhile Covid bakers learned, things of the stomach are often about much more. And for anyone who has that one bottle from a loved one “too special” to uncork — open it! If it’s bad, that comes with the territory. But if it’s good, as the Latour was, it’s a glorious tribute.

So this Father’s Day, I’ll raise a glass of…something, thankful of gifts received and challenges passed.

And the empty bottle of Latour? I kept that.

Quoted from Various Sources

Published for: WATPFC