AKA Abraham Bacoln

A long time coming
August 5, 2008, 7:41 pm
Filed under: tidbit

I recognize that it seems kind of strange, not to mention wasteful, to travel from Tennessee to New Orleans just for a case of wine yet that’s more or less what I did this last weekend.

More than a little back story is necessary to explain my trip, however. I’ll start by mentioning that I was born in 1976. Once you get funneled into the guts of the wine industry, like I did, to be able to drink something that was grown and harvested in the year that you were born becomes a strange and almost magical link. I’ve had the good fortune to have consumed four different wines from my birth year (Cakebread Vineyards Cabernet, BV Cabernet, Smith Woodhouse Colheita tawny port, and Chateau Lafite-Rothschild which I drank on my 30th birthday). Two of those, the Cakebread and the BV were wines which more or less do not exist in the retail market. I had my old boss Dave to thank for those.

Dave and his wife were married in 1976, so they set aside a decent stock of wine from that vintage. On occasion they would bring a bottle out from the cellar to celebrate. When I was over visiting at their house, well, that was double the reason. I had at that point in my career had few opportunities to sample aged wine, and they had a further excuse to bring something good to the table. I will always be grateful to the generosity that they showed me by sharing some of the prizes of their cellar.

When I married Katie in 2002 I decided that I would do my best to be able to recreate the experience of having an anniversary wine. Though I was not yet even a manager at the company and had little disposable income to spend on nicer wines, especially in quantity, I really wanted to be able to celebrate our lives that way. Once again, when a wine shares a vintage with a momentous occasion it’s somehow more special, and when you have an entire case of wine you can spread those twelve bottles out over several years, enjoying watching the wine age over time. Maybe you even stretch your consumption far enough that one night you realize that the wine is at its peak, and there’s no sense in letting it go over the hill, so why not have a second bottle tonight? To a beginning wine lover the idea is enough to make oneself smile, maybe even almost a little giddy.

When the vineyards in France know that they’re going to have a good year – and they know this almost every year – they participate in a form of wine selling called futures. While the wine is still in barrel, meaning it’s not yet fully finished or created, representatives from various wine organizations will taste it. They will rate it and state its potential. I’ve tasted out of barrel before – this is not an easy job. A raw young wine still in oak may come out tasting miles from what you expect, and so I respect greatly the ability of these professional tasters to accurately predict a wine’s future personality. At some point during the aging of the wine the winery decides to sell wine on futures. It works more or less like this: the winery says, “If you want to buy our wine now, while it is still in barrel and you have yet to taste it – but you think it will be good – the price is set at this amount.” The stated amount is, of course, far less than the price will be once the wine is actually set in bottles and cases and shipped around the world.

Many customers, both individuals and companies, buy futures, and buying futures was the only way I could guarantee myself an entire case of something from the 2002 vintage. If I waited until the wine was actually in our stores I would have had to empty my checking account to get as much as I wanted.

So, with hesitation and nervousness I placed an order for a case of Domaine Bachelet Bourgogne Rouge 2002. It’s not the best wine in the world, by any stretch. It’s just plain Burgundy, not even from a particular appellation. I just couldn’t afford anything better, and besides, I like Bachelet’s bourgogne rouge. It’s a great Pinot Noir and I had enjoyed it many times in a few different vintages before deciding to buy an entire case.

Almost no wines are bottled in the year in which they were harvested, and the bottling and shipping by ocean freight takes time. By the time I had our case of Pinot it was 2005.

I didn’t open it, of course. Even a relatively lightweight wine like Pinot Noir can stand to lay down for a few years, if well-made and from a good vintage, and in France 2002 was a good vintage. At that time, in 2005, I was the head of the long-term wine storage project at my company. We had introduced a service for our customers where we could set their collection aside in a temperature-controlled environment which is desperately needed in New Orleans. One summer in that city, even in a dark closet in the middle of the house, can ruin a wine. I didn’t want that to happen, so I opened an account with long-term wine storage and put the majority of my collection in there.

There were other customers with their wines in there, of course. I would know because I moved every case and inventoried every bottle, thousands of them. One of my customers – I will call him Tom – had a sizable but eclectic collection, usually no more than two or three of any particular bottle and vintage, but case after case of wine in all.

In June of 2005 Katie and I celebrated our anniversary. We didn’t open the newly-arrived case.

In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina came. I’m sure you knew already that this was to be part of the story. I had no time to get my wine out of storage (even though I only lived a block from work) because to get that far into the warehouse required three keys and two alarm codes, and I didn’t have all of that at my disposal. Besides, Katie and I left early on Saturday and my wine collection was the last thing on my mind. I brought only one bottle of something else to enjoy while we were back in Cookeville waiting out the storm. And honestly, just like every time we evacuated we more or less assumed that we would be back. Of course as time edged towards that fateful Monday morning it became more obvious that we weren’t going home any time soon.

About two days after the storm hit we went on a short trip to visit Katie’s brother and his wife in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. While we were there I got a call from my wine storage customer, Tom. His anxiety showed in his voice. “Do you know anything about the wine storage unit? How are the wines? Did it flood?”

I held my tongue as best I could. Tom lives in Baton Rouge, so Tom apparently could not grasp the enormity of the situation.

“Tom, I do not know the current status of the wine storage facility. I also do not know the status of my own apartment and all our possessions.”

He didn’t hear that part, of course, because he was thinking only of his wine. I managed to maintain professionalism long enough to state that even though Mid-City was indeed flooding I hadn’t heard that the waters were very high, and the warehouse floor is on a concrete slab that is five feet above the street (which is to say five feet above sea level), and that the storage unit generator ran on city lines natural gas, which meant that the cooler could keep running even if the power was out, which it most certainly was.

None of this reassured him – he could only keep asking me if everything was all right. I told him I would let him know as soon as I knew anything, which could be days or maybe even weeks.

He called me back the next day and we had the same conversation all over again, and this time I told him that honestly I was having a hard time caring about his wine when my entire neighborhood – the neighborhood in which I enjoyed living and spent most of my time and quite frankly loved – was underwater, including our apartment. I told him I would call him when I heard news.

That was the last I heard from him, at least over the telephone. However, as soon as the waters started to recede in Mid-City, and long before the police were letting individuals back in, Tom pulled some strings. He got an 18-wheeler and some armed guards, and got my company’s owner, inventory manager, and maintenance manager to go with him to the warehouse so he could get his prized collection out of harm’s way.

Upon arriving they found that the natural gas powered generator (the one keeping the refrigeration alive) had shut down because it had run out of oil. No matter, though – the insulated unit had kept its temperature for days, and was still 62 degrees which is well within acceptable storage temperature range. This didn’t matter one bit to Tom, though, as he proceeded to have his men unload his entire collection. A few minutes in the maintenance manager had the generator back up and running, but this still didn’t deter Tom from pulling his collection.

The owner and the maintenance manager left to go survey the damage to the offices at the warehouse, which unfortunately were not on the elevated floor. This left only the inventory manager to supervise a couple of hired guys hauling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wine out of storage. Keep in mind that Tom wasn’t the only one with his cases stored there – we had many many customers.

I of course was one of those customers, and you can already see where this story is going. My unopened case of 2002 anniversary wine, the only case I could afford from that vintage, was loaded onto a pallet. My manager saw it before it got put on the truck, but it was at the bottom of a six-high cross-stacked pallet and no amount of his pleading could persuade Tom and his men to un-stack the whole thing.

By the time the owner of the company got back from touring the facility the pallet was the subject of much debate. Tom insisted that his wines were traveling to a cold storage facility in Baton Rouge and that no harm would come to my wine, and that time was of the essence. It has also been stated that Tom said, “Besides, it’s just one case of Bourgogne Rouge – what does it matter?”

The rest of the conversation and the exact whos and wheres aren’t important. The point is the victor of the power struggle was Tom the customer, and away my case went. I got an email from the inventory manager detailing the situation.

I had Tom’s contact info so I emailed him, asking for my wine. He assured me that it would be in safe hands until he got his home cellar built in Baton Rouge, probably some time in 2008. Besides, I wouldn’t want to drink it before then anyway, excuses ad nauseam. I was furious, but as by then I was no longer an employee of the company I also felt powerless. The wine was on a pallet on a rack 30 feet up in the air, and to have the storage facility pull it down, unstack the whole thing, then reassemble – it would have been quite costly. I of course thought it unreasonable of him not to return it, but I couldn’t convince the owner of the company to fight it for me.

You also have to remember that this is all immediately post-Katrina. I had so many hundreds of other things on my mind that one case of wine – while very important to me – was less important than where I was going to get a job, and where Katie and I were going to live, and what happened to all of the things in our apartment, and what was happening to our friends, and so forth.

In October of 2005 she and I drove out to Oregon and made our new home in Portland. I occasionally emailed Tom to find out about my wine, but his answer was always the same: after he built his cellar he would take his wine out of storage and send my case to me.

In June of 2006 Katie and I celebrated our anniversary, again without the Bachelet. It would still have been too young. Besides, even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, things between us were beginning to sour.

In July of 2006 I left Katie, left Portland, and came back here to Cookeville where I have been ever since.

In March of 2008 I took my first trip to New Orleans, post-Katrina. While there I heard from the owner of the company that there was a slim chance I would be able to get my case back. Unfortunately it was not true. Also notable in March was the finalization of our divorce.

Just recently I got the call from the inventory manager that my case was in their possession, and he wanted to know what I wanted done. Well, it is far too hot in August to be shipping a case of valuable wine across the deep South. One hour in the back of the wrong FedEx truck and the investment is ruined.

I decided to take another trip to New Orleans, to celebrate being between the summer and fall semesters, to take a vacation that I felt I desperately needed. My first trip back (in March) was not traumatic by any stretch but it was still shocking. I felt as if I were walking in a dream, reality slightly altered and with the saturation turned up as high as it would go. Reentering that city I loved felt simultaneously strange beyond belief and as natural as sleep. My second trip, my August vacation, was better in every way. All felt as it should be, and I fell right back into a routine. I saw my friends, I visited every bar and restaurant I wanted to see, from the Lower Garden District to Uptown to Mid-City to the West Bank, and never once went downtown or to the French Quarter. It felt like any other weekend I would have spent back when I lived there – just enjoying myself and the company of others, enjoying good food and drink, seeing neighborhoods and not disasters.

Feeling alive, really.

Or maybe feeling really alive.

And to end the trip I swung back by work and picked up my case, put it in the air-conditioned car, and headed home.

So here I am now, a day later, with my anniversary wine in my possession. I still haven’t opened a bottle, I’ve had no occasion. I don’t know what the occasions will be from now on, honestly, but I can guarantee that they’ll be good.

7 Comments so far
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When your first novel is published, I’ll be the first in line to buy it. Honestly, Kevin, your words are captivating. May you find many occassions to enjoy your devine drink…

Comment by Mel

I’m so glad you got your wine back. it survived a hurricane, man. amazing.

Comment by Tami

Great story. I hope you find happy occasions to drink it and it is wonderful.

Comment by dranktank

Poking my head out of the sand to say two things:

1. Man, awesome entry. Total post of the day.
2. Both SDKate and Manning commented on the lj-feed of this blog, in case you don’t check there for responses.

Comment by Heather

A good read!

Comment by Atox

I’m glad you have a happy ending. Enjoy.

Comment by stacie

When you drink the wine, THAT will be the occasion.

Comment by Casey

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