Sunday, May 12, 2013

Eagles -- "Hotel California" (1976)

So I called up the captain, 
"Please bring me my wine" 
He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since 1969"

I don't really like this song -- in fact, I don't really like the Eagles, who are clearly one of the most overrated groups of all time.  (It's no accident that I've featured over 500 songs on 2 or 3 lines, and none of them is an Eagles song.)  

So why am I featuring "Hotel California" in this post?  Because I'm writing about a bottle of 1969-vintage wine that a law school friend gave to me in 1977, which was when this song was released as a single.  (One coincidence may be an accident.  Two are not.  N'est-ce pas?)

Château Montrose is a famous winery located in the Médoc region of France, where nearly all of the great red Bordeaux wines are produced.

Château Montrose was founded around 1800 and quickly developed an outstanding reputation.  When Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification of the best Bordeaux wines in 1855, only five reds -- Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion -- were classified as first-growth (premier cru) wines.  

Château Montrose was one of the 15 second-growth (deuxième cru) red Bordeaux wines.  Given that there are some 8500 wine producers in Bordeaux, that means that Montrose easily ranks in the top one percent of all red wines from the region.

Château Montrose
My friend Mark had already gotten his law degree and was pursuing a master's in law at Harvard when I was a first-year law student there in 1974-75.  He and I discovered that we had a mutual interest in learning about wine, and on most Friday evenings we bought a bottle to taste and discuss.  (We ate at McDonald's quite often, and I think we usually went wine-shopping after gobbling down a Quarter Pounder and fries.)

I doubt that two people have ever turned the weekly purchase and consumption of an inexpensive bottle of wine into a more elaborate ritual than Mark and I did.  Our reference library consisted of The Signet Book of Wine (a very basic 232-page paperback).  After consulting that book and engaging in a lengthy discussion, we would come to a general consensus as to what kind of wine we wanted to buy and then head to a local wine store, where we would pester the owner with all kinds of questions before making our choice.

Mark got his master's degree that spring and headed off to New York City to work for a large law firm.  We saw each other from time to time after that -- I visited him in New York twice, and he came back to law school a number of times to visit his girlfriend, Dede, who was a student at a nearby college.  

I'm pretty sure Mark gave me the bottle of Château Montrose when I graduated in 1977.  My parents (along with my grandmother and younger sister) drove to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Joplin, Missouri, to watch me graduate.  The bottle of wine and my other worldly possessions were packed in the trunk and unpacked when we arrived in Joplin several days later.  (As I recall, we spent nights in Washington, DC; Charleston, SC; and Birmingham, AL on the way back.)

My '69 Montrose spent the next three-and-a-half decades in Joplin, lying on its side on the shelf in a nice dark closet.  (My parents moved once during that time, and that was probably the only time the bottle was disturbed.)

The law school dormitory
where Mark and I lived
Why didn't I ever open the wine and drink it?  Good question.  I didn't visit Joplin too often -- usually just two or three times a year -- so there weren't that many opportunities to do so.  My parents didn't drink red wine, and my wife wasn't much of a drinker either.  I suppose I could have brought the bottle back to Washington, but I never did.  After a few years, I rarely thought about it.

Mark lived all over the world after leaving Harvard -- his law firm sent him to Mexico City and then Paris for several years -- and we went years without speaking to one another.  I remember talking to Mark some time in the 1990's, when he had settled in Ithaca, NY and gone into business.  (Mark went to college at Cornell, and had always liked Ithaca.)  We had one or two subsequent phone conversations, and somehow discovered each other on Facebook a couple of years ago, which facilitated more regular contacts.

The first time I saw Mark in person since graduating from law school in 1977 was last October, when he got married for the first time -- to Dede, the law-school-era girlfriend he had first met in 1974.  I've previously written about how the two of them reconnected, and about my attending their wedding, and you can click here if you haven't already read that post.

One of the gifts I took to the wedding was that bottle of '69 Château Montrose.  Since 9/11, it's not easy to get a bottle of wine on to an airplane.  But while I was visiting my parents in Joplin last September, I went to a local wine store and discovered that they sold blow-up sleeves that will protect your wine from breaking if you transport it in your checked baggage.

So I got the wine back to my home in September, and then flew it to Maine for the wedding last October.  Fortunately, it made it through all my travels intact.  

I don't think Mark remembered that he given me the wine when I presented it to him and Dede at their wedding reception.  I can't blame him -- I didn't really remember the details myself.  (He might have given it to me when he left Cambridge in 1975 rather than when I graduated in 1977 -- I don't know for sure.)  

Mark and Dede flew the bottle of Bordeaux from Maine back to Texas (where they had built a new home) a few days later in Mark's Columbia 400 airplane:

They graciously urged me to come visit them as soon as I could -- we hadn't had much time at the wedding reception to catch up.  Maybe they were really excited at the prospect of my company, or maybe they just wanted to have an excuse to pop open the Montrose.

In any event, I was able to stop off at their home for a couple of days on the way back from my recent and very well-documented trip to San Francisco and San Diego.  (Just scroll down and you'll see a whole bunch of posts about that trip.)

I arrived Friday in time for beer and pizza on their wonderful patio.  Saturday, I went with Mark to buy a big-ass gas grill for his new hacienda.  (The heavily pierced and tattooed young Home Depot employee who helped us load the assembled grill into Dede's old Ford pickup knew his knots -- perhaps he's a bondage-and-domination devotee? -- and we got back to the house with the grill in one piece.)

That afternoon, we went for a sightseeing flight in Mark's airplane -- which you can read about by clicking here.  By the time we returned, Dede and her friend Sally (who was visiting from Maine) had come back from the local butcher's with some impressive ribeyes, which they then prepped for grilling.  Once we figured out how to hook up the propane tank and fire up the grill -- I'm a charcoal man myself, so I was no help -- it was time to open that 43-year-old bottle of wine.

Neither Mark nor I were willing to déboucher le vin -- we were afraid the cork might fall apart on us.  So we assigned that delicate task to Dede:

La sommelieuse at work
She handled the task with aplomb, and then it was time to taste.

We didn't have high expectations.  1969 was not a great Bordeaux vintage, and it seemed almost certain that the Montrose would be past its peak.  And it was very possible that enough oxygen would have leaked into the bottle to convert the wine to vinegar.

Fortunately, the wine was sound.  It was very drinkable, and seemed to taste better as the evening progressed -- which often isn't the case once you open an older wine.

I couldn't begin to describe what the wine tasted like -- I don't possess a wine critic's vocabulary, for one thing.  But the bigger obstacle to my explaining to you what the Montrose tasted like is my utter lack of experience with wine that was anywhere near this old when I drank it.  I have nothing to compare the '69 to -- all I can really say is that it was like no wine I've ever had before.

I thought it was very, very good.  The wine had completely mellowed, and went down very easily -- there was no hint of tannin or oak left.  I have a feeling an expert would have found the wine bland and lacking in interest.  But to me it was smooth and drinkable and quite special.

It was special not only because of its taste and bouquet, of course, but also because of the unique circumstances.  Drinking a wine I had held on to for 35 years was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But sharing that wine with Mark and Dede meant so much more than the experience of drinking the wine alone.  

My trip to San Francisco (where I lived over 30 years ago) and my visit with Mark and Dede brought back so many memories.  Memories are becoming increasingly important to me -- after all, much more of my life is behind me than is in front of me.  

But no matter how old you are -- no matter how focused you are on the past -- the future no doubt has many surprises in store for you.  Mark and Dede getting married 38 years after they met is an example of one such surprise.  (I still can't quite believe that happened -- I can't begin to imagine how amazed the two of them must be at the turn their lives have taken.)

Reading about such events or writing about them is all well and good, but it's not a satisfactory substitute for experiencing them.  Sometimes I feel like I'm spending way too much time reading and writing about life and not nearly enough time living it.  I need to do something about that, and I need to do it sooner rather than later.

Here's "Hotel California":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. "So many memories"--that's a line from "Come and Get These Memories" by Martha and the Vandellas--which was their first chart hit FIFTY years ago. Time just flies when you're having fun. And I happen to like the Eagles, especially "Take It Easy", and have even stood "on a corner in Winslow, Arizona" and bought a "greatest hits" CD across the street. Not only that, but my wife and I, and her cousin and his wife spent the night a few blocks away at La Posada, the former Harvey House and present day Amtrak station.