On the Trail

A Sad Passing

On the Trail
Paul Pontallier and Ralph Sands in 2013

Paul Pontallier and Ralph Sands in 2013

The wine world lost one of its greatest ambassadors ten days ago with the passing of Paul Pontallier, the passionate managing director of Château Margaux. Two Saturdays ago, right before leaving work, I emailed Paul to ask him for about the hundredth time for an appointment Château Margaux; this time for a special customer of mine on his first trip to Bordeaux. At the end of that request I wrote: "Thank you as always for your consideration. I look very much forward to see you on April 5th at 3:30 to shake your hand and hear you speak about the wine, which is always a great pleasure…while I get to taste it!"

That is so true! I first met Paul in early April of 1990 on my first visit ever to France and then Bordeaux to evaluate the 1989 vintage for K&L Wine Merchants. To say I was excited is the understatement of the year. I had worked here at that time for twelve years and I recognized that I had a deep attraction to the taste of Bordeaux wine and was intrigued with its long history. During this time as a bachelor I studied and tasted Bordeaux every chance I got. I even carried wine books in my “bat bag” and there were always bottles of Bordeaux packed in my luggage all wrapped up in white sox as I traveled around the western United States playing baseball. So I was definitely more than ready when I approached “The Queen of the First Growths” Château Margaux for the first time. To be able to taste the great wine of Château Margaux at five months of age is a real privilege, but to hear Paul speak about his wine took the experience to another level. As the years progressed we always would look forward to his smile, warm welcome, and passionate speech about the three new wines. Between sips I would write down almost everything he said so I could relate his exact thoughts to my customers.

Here are a few of his comments I wrote down as the years went by: 

“2005 Château Margaux is air light.”

“When I tasted Ch. 2005 Château Margaux, I thought I would never see such a vintage again…and now 2009! Wow, now who knows?”

Speaking about 2003, the hottest vintage in the history of recorded records, he said: “the wine is amazingly classic and I can’t figure out why, but it proves again that the great plots of land produce great grapes in every vintage.”

In April of 2001: “The great vintages are always Cabernet.” 

On the 2000 vintage: “I did not expect it to be this great! It has the density of 1986 and the purity of 1996 and is a new benchmark for Château Margaux.”

As the years passed and I started bringing customers to the estate Paul was very generous with his time. We had more time to talk about the “benchmark” vintages that we have both had experienced and how that benchmark kept moving upward. 1981, 82 and 83 were very good vintages at Château Margaux and I considered them “the comeback vintages” after decades of good but not great wines. Then came a great 1985 and the spectacular 1986, followed by fantastic 1989’s and 1990, and by this time Château Margaux was firmly back in the mix with the other great Mèdoc first growths. The vintages of 1995, 1996, and 2000 cemented that fact, and the mind-blowing 2005, 2009 and 2010 will be considered legendary. 

It was during these relaxing times that I understood how much Paul loved Château Margaux as he reflected on those great years as well as the difficult ones. Paul was very proud of the work he, owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos, and their team had accomplished during their time as the caretakers of this iconic estate while returning the wine to greatness. He was also well aware that they were leaving a great legacy. Warm, friendly, classy, passionate, intense and innovative are all words that come to mind when thinking of Paul. I would never consider myself a close friend, as he was the famous face of Château Margaux and was nice to everyone, but I will personally really miss him. Last year as I was walking through the Hong Kong airport for a midnight flight I ran into Paul and introduced myself. He firmly told me to stop introducing myself because we have known each other for twenty-five years. Believe me, the pleasure was all mine.

Paul Pontallier was 59.

-Ralph Sands