Jayaram Bhat is an opera lover, a bicyclist, pizza chef, bread maker, and passionate collector of fine Burgundy wines. He also happens to be an entrepreneur who has built and sold companies in Silicon Valley. Originally from Karnataka, Bhat now lives in Los Altos Hills, California. His wine cellar has bottles oenophiles dream of—celebrated names from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), La Tâche, Dujac, Armand Rousseau, Georges Roumier, Fourrier, Arlaud, Coche-Dury, Roulot, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey and Maume. He has over 5,000 bottles of different vintages, some dating back to 1952. Did I mention that Bhat, 67, only buys wines from Burgundy, the most expensive region in France, and the world? He is a self-confessed Burgundy wine geek. “I do buy a few sweet wines from Alsace and Austria,” he allows.
Also read: A Bengali feels oddly at home in Paris
If you tell wine-loving Indian collectors you are going to Burgundy, there is usually one response: “Drink a DRC 1961 for me.”
DRC, or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, is the most storied of all the Burgundy vineyards, a tiny patch in the Vosne-Romanée region. In this 9.43 hectare vineyard grow the world’s most expensive grapes, broken by soil, slope of mountain and sun into seven parcels.
The average bottle prices of DRC’s seven labels, according to Wine-searcher.com, are: Montrachet ($8,600, or ₹6.7 lakh), Echezeaux ($2,500), Grands Echezeaux ($2,800), Romanee-Saint-Vivant ($3,000), Richebourg ($3,600), La Tache ($5,000) and the crown jewel, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ($21,000).
All this is assuming you can lay your hands on these bottles, most of which have been snapped up “en primeur” by collectors. Buying “en primeur” means buying the vintage while the wine is still in barrels. Technically, this means you are taking a risky bet on their future quality; nevertheless, buyers unhesitatingly pay upfront for wines like these.
But then buyers don’t really call the shots in the top Burgundy and Bordeaux vineyards. If you want to buy a case, you have to apply for an “allocation”. If approved, you get on their waiting list and beg and plead periodically to see if your name can inch forward.
Those lucky buyers who claimed allocations in the late 1990s, when Burgundy wines were still affordable, are laughing their way to the bank. The prices of the bottles they own have tripled and quadrupled, handily beating the stock market. Not that the true wine collector will ever dream of selling their Burgundy wines.
Why do people get into wine? When I asked collectors, the answers were similar. Wine is a combination of history (the Romans took wine to most European countries), geography (terroir is essentially about how the land influences the wine), geology (how limestone, chalk and soil influence the flavours), people (the winemakers), chemistry (the fermentation process, the sulphites you need to add, the barrels you need to use), all resulting in a product that the ancient Greeks and Romans attributed to the God who was a giver of ecstasy: Bacchus/Dionysius.
For me, and most collectors echo this, the allure of wine is to figure out whether I can memorise aromas.
We live in such a visual culture. The fact that some people—like Rajat Parr, a sommelier turned winemaker—can smell a wine and say it is from Volnay, name the year of production (1988) and the producer (Lafarge), is a feat. I aspire to emulate it—I am not even close—hence the search for the scent-memory.
That said, in order to pursue wine seriously, you need two things that are in short supply for most: time and money. Collecting Burgundy wine is not for the faint of heart or wallet. Most of the collectors tend to be men, at least for now. The number of women winemakers is growing, though—soon, perhaps, women will become wine collectors too.
The winning taste: Krishna Tamanna, 57, is a collector. Originally from Hyderabad, he now lives in the Valley, working for a technology company. He has investments in a few restaurants, and plays golf and listens to music in his free time. His greatest passion, however, is wine. He stores 1,000 bottles at home. The rest of his collection is in a storage facility in Napa. “After 4,000 bottles (over there), I stopped counting,” he laughs.
What does he buy? Largely Burgundy wines, the big names like DRC, but also some emerging producers. Unlike Bhat, Tamanna’s collection includes old-world wines from Italy, Spain and Germany.
There is a culture in Silicon Valley that is unique to the US, and perhaps the world. It is a culture not so much of consumption but of passion. Men—and it is mostly men—get into stuff in a deep way, whether it is mountain-biking, bread-making, collecting art or wine. They read, study, travel and practise their interest. They become experts.
Tamanna is a typical example. Once he drank his first bottle, a 1994 Chianti, he got so interested in wines that he spent three weeks in Europe and then enrolled in a WSET (the London-headquartered Wine and Spirit Education Trust) diploma course. It was hard because he was working full-time, had young children, and had to drive every weekend to Napa for classes. His wife, fortunately, was supportive.
Today, he owns an apartment at Beaune—the centre of Burgundy—and sponsors a wine and music festival there in late June. The oldest wine he has had is an 1894 Madeira.
“Passionate wine drinkers are always chasing that experience that got them hooked,” Tamanna says. “We are on a quest to chase that singular moment out of many such moments that delivers that same pleasure. (We are chasing) a memory that makes us continue on this journey, on this quest.”
For Bhat, the wine that started him on the journey was a La Tache, in 2001. He still remembers the aromas and flavours: a profound layered wine with subtle yet distinct aromas and a mouth-feel that was plush without being fulsome. Like luxury, fine wine is about restraint, to the right degree. There is nothing you can subtract or add.
Since then, he has become what friends call a “Burgundy evangelist”. Several years ago, he started a Burgundy wine tasting group in the Valley that meets every week or so for a blind tasting. The group consists of six people—Tamanna is part of it.
The format is specific and repetitive. “One person provides all the wines for each meeting and we cycle through everyone in turn,” says Bhat. “As an example, Krishna would provide wine in week 1, then I would provide wine in week 2 and so on. We would cycle through all six and then back to Krishna. Wines are served blind and we have to guess the village, vineyards, producer and vintage. There are points awarded for correct guesses. But this is just for bragging rights. We usually don’t invite anyone else as we are all Burgundy geeks with deep cellars. Tastings are usually held at one of our houses and we order food from a local restaurant. Someone pays for all the food for each dinner and it goes around in a round-robin fashion. There are no other payments or sharing involved.”
Also read: Why I am not an online parent
What is the pull of old wines? And what is the pull of Burgundy? The Cistercian monks who inhabited the area used systematic and precise methodologies to collect data on which “climats”, or plots of land, grew the best vines. This body of knowledge gave Burgundy winemakers a leg up in terms of techniques.
Cut to the early 2000s, when the late Becky Wasserman, described by The New York Times as the “great sage of Burgundy”, began promoting its wines in the US and UK. Within a few years, the prices of Burgundy wines began to rise—and they have not stopped since.
However, today’s winemakers, such as Alec Seysses of Domaine Dujac, wonder whether the region can continue on its trajectory, partly because France’s inheritance laws make it difficult for continuing generations to carry on the business and partly because of the astronomically high prices of Burgundy wines.
Which begs the question: Which region in the world will become the next Burgundy? Will it be Piedmont in Italy, where Giacomo Conterno is called the DRC of Italy, or Rioja in Spain?
A delivery of bragging rights: Wine clubs abound all over the world. Tamanna is part of two: one with Bhat and another, more formal one he was introduced to by an Iranian-American friend. A large one in the West is the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, one of those elite institutions everyone likes to gripe about and secretly wants to belong to. Established in 1934, and headquartered in the venerable Chateau Clos de Vougeot, their stated goal is to “defend the reputation of France’s great wines in general and those of Burgundy in particular”.
There are also wine forums, ranging from small WhatsApp groups to giant online communities like the now dissolved “ebob”, run by wine critic Robert Parker. Today, Wine Berserkers describes itself as the “largest and most active” online wine community.
Much like in any community, wine too can be competitive. In my birding groups, there are those who have seen the most number of species. In wine, there are those who have tasted legendary wines and vintages. We all collect bragging rights, and this happens in every wine group as well. All this gets amplified on Wine Berserkers.
Also read: How slow travel helps fight fake news
A recent article on the blog Vinography describes a Frenchman with an amazing collection of old wines who opens them for a price and hosts dinners all over France for those who can pay for the privilege of sampling them. He is admired and scorned, often in the same thread.
The man in question is a retired CEO of a French steel company. François Auduose, whose internet presence is benign and whose tasting notes are enthusiastic, has amassed a collection of old wines, bottled in Napoleon’s time and earlier. He is known for holding wine dinners in France where old and grand wines are poured for a fee. Bhat, who has attended a few of these, says it costs “$2,000-5,000 per person and sometimes more”. For Bhat, drinking these aged wines in the company of wine geeks from around the world is the high.
Where attraction lies: The Valley has other collectors like Bhat and Tamanna. Arvind Sodhani is listed in the Festival of Music and Wine (an annual event in Burgundy) as a member of the board of directors. The chairperson is Auburt de Villaine, who ran DRC for decades. Others, who don’t want to be named, tell me that Burgundy is an expensive hobby. One says, “Thankfully, my kids are through college and I can engage with this.”
All of them have similar advice for those embarking on this journey. “Be true to yourself and your palate,” says Tamanna. “Don’t try to like something somebody else told you to like. Trust your palate, know that it will evolve.”
To Tamanna, palate memory (remembering the taste) and olfactory memory (remembering the aromas) are key. Some are more natural at it than others; women tend to be better at it. But, he says, “you can definitely cultivate your palate and your olfactory senses too”.
Bhat’s tips include visiting the local wine store, joining a tasting group, wine bulletin boards and Facebook groups, reading community tasting notes at Cellar Tracker (an app with reviews and scores), subscribing to newsletters like Burghound.com, buying and tasting as much wine as you can afford and comparing your tasting notes with others.
Currently, the world of fine wines is almost exclusively inhabited by men. But India has Sonal Holland, who passed the tough Master of Wine exam. Tamanna has some more good news for me. He tells me an Indian woman whose name he can’t remember is the youngest person ever to pass the very tough Master Sommelier exam. At age 21, he says, marvelling at how she cultivated her palate and olfactory memory at such a young age.
I looked her up. It is true. In the wake of the sexual scandals that rocked the sommelier fraternity in 2020, she gave up her title. Her name: Alpana Singh.
So what are we to do, sitting here in India? I think a trip to Bourgogne (as a first step, maybe pronounce it like the French instead of saying Burgundy?) makes a lot of sense if you like these wines. Travelling there, as I did recently, shows you the climats. It helps you visualise the producers and the wines. It teaches you that all these fabled wineries are, at the end of the day, family run businesses that cultivate expensive farmlands to produce a liquid that has been imbibed by humans since the dawn of Roman civilisation.
And of course, cultivate your palate. Buy wines. Engage with wine clubs. Join the club.
Jayaram Bhat’s guide to Burgundy, in his own words
I recommend staying in Beaune. The best place to stay there, in my opinion, is Hotel Le Cep, right in the centre of town.
As to which winemaker to visit, it depends on what kind of wine you would like to taste. Many winemakers, especially the well-known ones, require an introduction from the importer in the US or elsewhere. You can only get such an introduction from the importer if you buy wine regularly from a retailer who buys from that importer. However, some of the up and coming winemakers are easier to get an appointment with if you reach out to them directly.
Some of the family run businesses as well as large winemakers I would suggest visiting: Domaine Dujac, Domaine Fourrier, Domaine Pacalet, Taupenot-Merme, Hudelot-Noellat, Heitz-Lochardet Bouchard, Domaine Joseph Drouhin, Bruno Clavelier, Bitouzet-Prieur, Bernard Moreau, Hermand-Geoffrey. Reach out to them individually.
Another option is Sue Boxell, who runs a tour operation focusing on food and wine (Burgundyonaplate.com).
Shoba Narayan writes the Bangalore Talkies for Hindustan Times and has been a long-time contributor and columnist for Mint.
Also read: The thrill of a night safari in Satpura