Opening Night at Haut-Bailly
One of the funnier early moments of the trip came at the car rental lot when we walked up expecting to find two large sedans reserved under our name, but instead were presented with a gigantic blue bus and an option to take it or leave it. I guess calling it funny would depend on how relaxed of a person you are, but Clyde took it in stride. He hopped right into the driver’s seat and began ploughing down narrow vineyard roads, his perch raised high above the road like a real-life trucker. We were in stitches for the initial hour until it was time to shower, suit up, and put our game faces on for an opening night dinner at Haut-Bailly in the Pessac-Leognan appellation of the Graves. The route to the château is a gorgeous and winding road that unfolds into a bonafide who’s-who of the region. You start passing names like Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Carbonnieux, and the vineyards become more expansive as you move along.
Trey was under the impression that this was going to be a private dinner for the six of us, but as we entered the parking lot and saw the sea of cars packing the estate grounds we realized we were in the midst of a serious party. Women were exiting black luxury vehicles decked out in Chanel and Louis Vuitton, while a staff of tuxedoed servers raced to supply them with Champagne as they entered. As soon as I realized the reality of the situation I was instantly over my jet-lag and ready to party. This wasn’t going to be some drawn-out wine pairing dinner with quiet conversation and lots of glad-handing. This was a full scale party on the grounds of a picturesque Bordeaux property with style and panache. I couldn't wait to get inside.
Château Haut-Bailly can trace its origins back to the 16th century, but it’s been managed by a member of the Sanders family since the Belgian merchant Daniel Sanders bought the property in 1955 and began to restore the quality and reputation of the wine. Today it’s managed by his granddaughter Veronique Sanders, who was there to greet us as soon as we walked in the door. The soirée was split into three main rooms, each featuring a different 2015 expression; the standard estate wine, along with the second wine La Parde de Haut-Bailly and a new project called Château Le Pape that they began producing in 2012. The Graves region itself is named after the gravel that makes up much of the area’s soil content, so the wines of Pessac-Leognan tend to have a mineral-driven core that separates them from their other colleagues in the Mèdoc. That classic Gravsian came through beautifully on the back end of the 2015 estate wine when I finally got the chance to take a sip.
While Haut-Bailly continues to be managed by the Sanders family, today it is owned by this man: Robert Wilmers, an American banker who serves as the CEO and chairman of M&T in the U.S. He purchased the heralded château in 1998 and refurbished the entire estate. I spent some time talking with the winemaker Jean-Christophe Paignac who has been working in the cellar there since 1992. He was very clear about the improvement in both the production methods and the overall quality of the wine since Wilmers took over the property. I took a sip of the outstanding 2015 La Parde as we chatted and reveled in the fleshy fruit with a flutter of violets on the finish. I remember buying a case of the 2009 expression when we got it in years ago. I imagine I’ll be doing the same when this wine shows up sometime down the line. I’m a big fan of second wines and the La Parde has become a tried and tested friend during my time at K&L.
As the boys began visiting with Robert and Veronique, tasting the wines and taking notes, I tried to remain in the background with my camera, snapping photos and doing my best to take in the scene. That’s when I was approached by Anne-Sophie Brieux, the director of communications for Haut-Bailly, who invited me to take a quick tour behind the scenes in the kitchen where the chef was preparing an epic meal. Haut-Bailly had brought in Vivien Durand, a Michelin-starred youngster from the Basque region of the Pyrenees who trained with Alain Ducasse in Monaco before branching out to the Prince Noir in Lormont. I caught him in the back preparing a salted mullet with tapioca pearls and a citrus bouillon. He was very cordial and allowed me to photograph him while he prepped the courses for the evening's big dinner event.
We had assigned seating at one of two gigantic tables in the grand salon and—I have to say—I was pleasantly surprised that they split up the K&L team and forced us to mingle with unfamiliar faces. I ended up sitting next to a French wine merchant living in Munich, so I got to practice speaking both French and German over the course of the evening as we tasted through the 1975, 85, 95, and 2005 vintages of Haut-Bailly before climaxing with the new 2015 release. The highlight for all of us was the roasted wild duckling served on the bone with slow-cooked beets on the side. The cheese plate was unexpectedly light (to which all of us emitted a sigh of relief) and elegantly presented with a long slice of Saint Nectaire on top of wood sorrel with quince jelly. We discreetly snuck out during the dessert plate, said our thank yous and goodbyes to Robert and Veronique, and hopped in the big blue van for a forty minute drive back to the hotel. Trey made sure to remind his father about the seemingly-abandoned strategy of eating somewhere near the hotel on the first night in country. “I couldn’t turn down the invite!” Clyde said with a huge grin.
I’m glad we didn’t. That was the perfect introduction to a long trip through Bordeaux, in my opinion. Just the right length, just the right amount of food, and plenty of stimulating conversation to keep us sharp on opening night.