By Jim Walker
Ambushed into early retirement, I find a new career in my old love for fine wine and good living.
Greetings! The name’s Walker, James Walker. And, I am an agent. Not the secret kind with a license to kill. No, I am a wine agent licensed to import beverage alcohol into the Province of Ontario. Come to think about it, the license to kill would have come in handy many times during my 10 years of indentured partnership with the LCBO (but more on that another day).
It all started when my boss at one of the big banks ambushed me with: “Congratulations, you’re being early retired!” “Egad,” I thought as I reeled from the broadside, “What am I going to do now?” Oh how I wished I was a better golfer (much better) and could have joined the PGA Seniors Tour.
My empathetic family greeted the news with supportive queries like: “Can we still go to university?” and: “Will we be able to keep the dogs?” I knew I had to move on quickly. So I grabbed two pieces of paper and wrote on one all the things I hated doing (having bosses was high on the list) and all the things I loved doing on the other. I then threw away the former and searched for my answer in the latter. Funny how just about every item on the like list had something to do with wine: travel to wine country; share wine with good friends; learn how to make wine; meet wine makers, and so on. Eureka! I decided to become a wine import agent.
I contacted the Alcohol and Gaming (these have always seemed strange bedfellows to me) Commission of Ontario (A&GCO) and the kindly folks there told me getting an import license was easy. Just find a winery that would have me as its agent, have the owner confirm this act of folly in writing, complete an extensive and invasive personal questionnaire that I doubt aspiring CSIS personnel could pass and send them 40 dollars. “Wait, what self-respecting winery would agree to link up with a non-agent?” I asked in my best Catch 22 manner? I was told (I swear I heard a snigger) that was my problem.
For years my wife, Hélène, and I vacationed in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France. Peter Mayle of A Year in Provence fame painted a most delicious portrait of the region between Avignon and Marseilles and my cousin Louise and her husband Robert had a place there for us to stay — how could we resist?
We learned the vinous joys of Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac, Beaumes de Venise, the Languedoc and so much more during our numerous Provençal incursions. Christian Esparza, the owner of a marvellous wine emporium on the Saint-Rémy perimeter road, was our primary go-to guy for all things vinous. At the start he was M. Esparza but as we slowly became good friends he morphed into Christian. Perhaps he could coerce one of his many wineries to sign on with an Ontario agent in waiting? Over a long, languid lunch (there were to be many of these over the ensuing years) we discussed with him the possibility of his finding us a winery or two to represent. He encouragingly said he would give it a go as we laid waste to a chilled bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc (a 2002 Domaine de Nalys as I recall).
Within a fortnight we received word from Christian that he had secured not one but three wineries willing to place their Ontario wine distribution fates in the hands (and palate) of this wannabe agent. I should point out that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) mandates that any given winery can have but one exclusive agent to represent them in all of Ontario (this makes no sense whatsoever except to simplify the administrative workload of the LCBO). These intrepid producers were: Champagne Forget-Brimont, a small artisan bubbly house working with only premier and grand cru fruit: Domaine de Tara , a beautiful vineyard that was owned by a mother and daughter team located not far from the ochre-rich village of Roussillon, and; Château Beauferan situated near Aix-en-Provence that was owned by a couple who also operated an exotic timber business in Liberia. (Champagne Forget-Brimont and Domaine de Tara remain with us (although the latter has changed ownership), but we were unable to generate much business for Château Beauferan and had to cut ties).
Soon after, the A&GCO issued us our licence to import beverage alcohol into Ontario. Hey, maybe this is going to work; but what to do next? Lo and behold, out of the blue ‘next’ found us! Nicholas Gouguenheim, representing the Adhesion Group called and invited me to attend a special wine event being held at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes … all expenses paid (it was only by great good fortune that I didn’t respond by asking if he also needed some help getting his massive inheritance out of Nigeria). It seems he found me through the A&GCO list of Ontario agents. The only conditions were that I had to spend three days at the hotel (where Cary Grant cavorted with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief) meeting representatives from wineries located around the Mediterranean and, currently import at least 50,000 bottles of wine annually. Gulp. I said that I would be pleased to meet the winery folks, because I needed more wineries, but fessed up that I had yet to import a single bottle. Silence! Then: “We want you to come anyway,” he melodramatically intoned. I cheekily negotiated Hélène into the deal and the next chapter of our adventure in wine was set in motion.
The dramatic conclusion next time.
Thinking about Domaine de Tara reminded me that I had stashed away a bottle of their premium 2012 Hautes Pierres Blanc for a particularly parched moment. So, upon completing my first article, I pulled it out, uncorked it and bid adieu to all things parched. This very big, serious white wine was made from 56 per cent Grenache Blanc and 44 per cent Roussanne. With a miserly yield of only 30 hl/ha, it was aged in French oak barrels (20 per cent new) for 12 months. It really should have been decanted at least an hour before serving, but who could wait? A light golden-yellow with amber highlights, it offered up an intense and elegant nose of grapefruit, apricots, pineapple, ripe peaches and a hint of honey and toast. In the mouth it was full, balanced and extremely pleasing with a lingering, velvety finish that contained traces of citrus and honey. Nicely chilled at 11°C, it was screaming out to be matched with sole meunière, fresh trout amandine, richly flavoured poultry or veal dishes, foie gras and chèvre cheese. As the Guide Dussert-Gerber des Vins de France has said about this wine: “Why resist?” I didn’t.