Susan Thomas – Part 2, Real People Series

Susan Thomas - 2

We can read all of the textbooks and access a plethora of resources but the experience of collectors provides a remarkable and essential backdrop for deepening our understanding of wine. Collectors don’t just fall from the sky of course, but rather like most of us, we develop our interests, usually alone, until we have occasion to find like-minded comrades. If we stay with it, then over time we naturally gravitate toward experiencing wine on a profound level to eventually become learned. I think most collectors agree with the now thinly worn adage: So much wine, so little time! Indeed, we are surrounded by a huge sea of wine.

It is my hope to introduce you to wine connoisseurs that have something to offer all of us with their astute insights and experiences, people that generously provide us with an expanded sphere of knowledge and a reliable core of expertise. Susan Thomas is surely one such person so, without further chatter, Susan Thomas, Part 2:  

Do you remember the very first wine that cemented the deal between you and wine, where you said to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m in, I want to move forward with this’?

It was ’64 Lafite Rothschild, it wasn’t that great of a year, but even then they were trumping the vintage as being better than ’63 or ‘62. On and on right [referring to almost every year being ‘the best vintage ever’]? And I had I think six bottles of ’61 Lafite [truly one of the greatest vintages of the century] and I wasn’t going to drink them because I wanted to hold on to them for a while but they disappeared during the tumultuous years.

You’re a world traveler and it seems that you’ve been almost everywhere. I know you’ve been to Italy and I haven’t, but what I understand is that even Italian house wines or simple table wines are almost always excellent. Has that been your experience?

Well, I have traveled a lot to the Far East recently but haven’t been traveling to Old World wine regions for a long time. Back in the day I went to Europe a lot but not recently. Back then they would have table wine everywhere. I remember being in Orvieto up in the hills, sitting outside, and it’s gorgeous and the food is terrific, and they brought the house wine out in a fish shaped pitcher and the wine comes out of the fish’s mouth when they pour it (laughing). But the reason I got so deeply into Italian wine is first, I really, really like Masseto [Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia, Toscana – very, very expensive Merlot] and so I started drinking Italian wine from all of the appellations. And then I did that Italian white wine project where I wanted to find as many interesting whites as possible and a lot of them are unknown here or are impossible to get locally. When I started that, I really began to learn all about the different regions and their food, wine, and geography.

When I was twenty, my parents took my sister and me to Italy, we spent a month there, and we drove all the way up to Switzerland and all the way down to Campania, south of Naples. We covered just about the whole country, ate at all these different places and it was fantastic. So I got to see that the food is really great everywhere and that was such a contrast to the US at that time.

In terms of other wine regions, what experiences have you had?

I’ve made a lot of trips to the west coast of the US, and one other trip was a cruise from Istanbul to Venice and that’s what turned me on to Greek wines. There are some very good Greek wines that don’t get exposed much here like white wines from Santorini, or from Cypress or Crete. Even Eastern Europe, Georgia, Bulgaria, and nearby regions produce some very good wines.

But you really can’t find much of it here right?

Some of them you can. For example from Santorini there’s this grape called Assyrtiko and you would love it – it’s very minerally, full-bodied, with a long finish and you can get them here in the US. Gaia [not the winery in downtown Indianapolis but the one in Greece] and Sigalas both make great Assyrtiko and they’re not expensive.

You always have great wines and bring something interesting to the table.

Well you have to try stuff. I was in Vancouver this summer and discovered that we can’t really get a lot of Canadian wine here and I think it has something to do with taxation or some sort of import restrictions. They have some great Chenin Banc and especially Chardonnay and because of where they are, they’re a lot more Burgundian in style than US wines. Their Pinot Noir is terrific and they also have Bordeaux blends.

I went to a restaurant that’s supposed to have one of the best British Columbia wine lists in town and we ordered up three different bottles to try them and it was like ‘Wow, these are awesome! Tell me where I can buy these’. So I found a couple of stores and I fully knew I’d have to pack them in my suitcase but I couldn’t fit them all in. My friend went off to look at killer whales and I decided to walk around Vancouver so I stuck one of those bottles in my purse and just walked around town drinking (laughter). It was good. But that’s the most fun, when you unexpectedly find great wines.

Do you consider yourself New World or Old World wine it comes to wine?

Old World, not even a close contest, although I’ll drink wine from New World regions if they’re made in the Old World style.

I have a theory: when you sit down in front of four glasses of wine, you’re tasting them and talking about them at a table with a bunch of people, invariably things become subconscious and you might intellectually say, ‘This is the wine I like best’ but if you look at what you’ve drunk, the glass with the lowest level of wine left is the one you really like. People don’t generally drink the wines they like the least and save the best for last. We might think we can do that easily but I generally fail. It’s very revealing. Likewise when you look at your own wine collection and you see that you own X number of French wines and Italy is maybe a smaller number and the rest of the world is even a much smaller number, it just tells you everything you need to know about your own taste in wine. Duh!

Oregon Pinot Noir keeps trying to be like Burgundy and they’re not there yet but they’re getting closer. When I look at California Pinot Noir versus Oregon Pinot Noir, California Pinot is just a freak-bomb – I don’t like it. There is so much more California Pinot available but I have a lot more Oregon. And I like Oregon and Washington Chardonnay.

So you like the cooler climate wines that aren’t as ripe, extracted, and alcoholic?

All of the above. I’d like to collect more German wine because I don’t have that much of it and I haven’t studied the region enough to know what’s good to buy, plus I don’t really eat much food that goes with German wine. But when you taste some of the great ones, you realize they’re really profound. Then thinking turns into, ‘okay, I’ll find something I can eat with this, maybe schnitzel, because I should be able to find a lot of dishes I could eat with German Riesling.’

Then, the next frontier is Alsace and Austria. What’s happening with global warming is that some of these grapes that are now great in France are getting much better further north so Switzerland, Austria, and even Germany are starting to make some decent Pinot Noir, and I think that is going to continue. And I don’t think I’d buy real estate in Napa. I think everything is starting to move north a bit. I bought a bottle of Pinot Noir from Egly-Ouriet, do you know who that is?

They’re a small producer of ‘grower Champagne’ and some people really like them but to me they’re somewhat dry for the most part. They started making a still Pinot Noir, way up there in Champagne, and they’re starting to show everyone that it can be done and be high quality.

So Old World is definitely for you.

They’ve been doing it a long time; they know where the vineyards are and what should be planted there. The quality has won out, instead of some dot com person coming in and buying up a property, setting up a winery, and labeling it eponymously, just to end up with a smaller bank account. Instead, in 1311 someone said, ‘that is a really good bunch of grapes that are growing over there. Let’s develop it to its best potential’ – it’s an entirely different thing than being strictly motivated by profit or ego like so many are today.

It seems that the more experience we have with wine, the more difficult it is to discover new wines that please us. How difficult is it for you to find a wine that makes you ask ‘ where have you been all my life? – I love this!’

It’s exceedingly difficult because you might find other wines from other places and they’re surprisingly good, and they’re interesting and different, but they’re still not as good as the great wines we know and love. The only reason you go out and try to discover new wine is because you get tired of the same thing, no matter how great it is. It’s like if you have an original Rembrandt drawing hanging in your bedroom, after a while you wouldn’t really notice it. We have an inherent need to search for something new and different. The hunt is fun but no, you don’t go back to Central Otago or some other place in New Zealand and find this super producer of Pinot Noir and think, ‘Wow, this is better than Chambertin’. You don’t do that!

What happens when you hit the wall and there’s nothing great left to discover?

It’s hard isn’t it? But let me be clear: there’s a lot of great wine in the world I haven’t had. It isn’t like you can span the globe and claim to know everything. For example, there’s a Pinot Noir produced by the Australian winery, Bass Phillip and it sells for $250 to $300 a bottle. They have these tastings in Hong Kong where Bass Philip often beats La Tache and some of the other greats Burgundies and I went online and tried to find it but it’s not available here in the US. So there are some of these legendary wines that are outliers and few persons here have ever had them. It can be hard to find new things.

As a collector, I know you collect numerous things other than just wine, but did you intend to collect wine by design or did it just happen organically?

Yeah, well I think it’s probably genetic. My dad collects cars, my mom collects jewelry, and I collect a lot of stuff. But it’s the learning that comes with collecting. There are very few people that are experts in whatever genre, that don’t collect whatever they’re experts in. They have a love of the object and they’re after the learning experience, right? So people that love cars have garages built for them and rooms with all of the operational manuals and decals and accessories. My friends that are art museum curators have collections of art. It’s curiosity and wanting to learn something about it. For me, there’s a button that got pushed, where really wanting to learn about it and get deep into it, being attracted to it, and collecting it, all go together. And that’s an expensive neural-connection that I wish I had less of.

So the goal with collecting wine was for you to gain knowledge?

Yes, and I have enjoyed the experience but now I mainly buy Grand Cru Burgundy. I don’t buy any more Bordeaux; the last that I bought was 2005. And really the main reason I’m still buying Burgundy is for the extra financial hedge. Quite bluntly, the Chinese are beginning to come around to Burgundy now and the supply is relatively low.

So it’s an investment for you.

Well, that’s my rationale. But it’s nice to have them.

NOTE: As we took a break, Susan opens the third wine of the evening, the first being an Egon Müller Spätlese Riesling, a gorgeous high-end and delicious wine, the second a white Bordeaux (Graves) and then, a 1970 Château Gruaud Larose (there was leftover wine, of course, as we did not pound down three bottles between us but, I suppose given enough time the wines were certainly good enough to enjoy to the last drop). We just put the glass of Gruaud Larose to our nose . . . 

Okay, this is what wine is about – we open up a 1970 Bordeaux, you have no idea what it’s going to be like, the cork is ‘iffy’, you finally get it open and the nose hits you and you say, ‘Okay, this is why I do this!’

This is remarkably good wine, which is even more amazing because it comes from a very difficult vintage.

I know. I bought a 1970 Château Latour [First Growth Bordeaux] at a charity auction so I put into this thing for a wine dinner and it ended up getting selected. The sommeliers are saying, ‘I don’t know about this, ’70 wasn’t a great year’ and it ended up being exquisite, I mean stunning [and Susan of all people knows stunning and exquisite wine]! It just shows you about how predictions can be about certain years; you can’t always hold on to what critics say.

So maybe a vintage was difficult because the weather was unkind to the vineyard that year and, especially back then, there was much less intervention in winemaking and fewer things that a winemaker could do to fix it. However, generations of winemakers at Classified Bordeaux estates have been at it for centuries and they know how to do it. It’s not like they suddenly had a bad year in the vineyard – they have them all the time because weather is so completely unpredictable.

You look through the list of Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Growth Bordeaux and some of them honestly I’ve never heard of, or ever seen for sale. Like Kodak or Pan Am – it’s hard to stay on top but some of these chateaus have been there for hundreds of years.

Yes, sadly some of the Classified Bordeaux châteaux have changed hands over the years, some have been bought by insurance companies or other types of investors and they don’t really care about the history or the property that much. Once it leaves the family  . . .

But some of them have been bought with the idea of resurrecting them and bringing them back to their former glory and there have been some really great success stories with that.

Speaking of great estates, have you ever considered owning a winery?

You know, we have a family ranch in Fredericksburg [part of the AVA in the Texas wine country] and it’s at a high altitude, close to the highest point in Gillespie County, and we have soil surveys and all sorts of different possibilities for sun exposure. I talked with John Roenigk seriously about putting a vineyard in there but the more wines I tasted from Fredericksburg and Texas and the hotter our weather has become led me to just nix the whole idea. I don’t think it cools down enough after the sun goes down to produce anything great. So that’s the closest I got. And I’d rather go taste everything in the wine world; I’m much more of a lazy dilettante and I wouldn’t want to get locked into having a role where I had to hawk my wines constantly, ‘Look, try this! It’s really good and I have to get rid of it’. I just can’t do it.

I was in Oregon in 2009 and 2010 and we went to this restaurant that I’ve been to before where they have verticals of older Oregon wines and they’re very expensive. If you want like a 1998 Beaux Frères, it would be over a hundred dollars. There was a wine named Thomas and it was expensive so I asked them to tell me about the wine. They said, ‘This guy’s crazy! He only makes a tiny bit of wine and he’s trying to make a Musigny or Chambolle-Musigny type of wine [Grand Cru and Premier Cru Burgundy respectively] and every year he drops off whatever he allocates to the restaurant, like a case or something, and then he’s gone and they don’t see him until a year later’. So I tried this wine and was fantastic. Fortunately there are places that still support people that are craftsmen and artisans. They don’t have that much money but they have a piece of property and just obsess over it.

I loved this wine (you know it’s got my last name on it so there’s some kinship there too) and I asked the restaurant where I could buy it and they sent me to the sommelier at the hotel where I was staying. I talked to this guy and he said, ‘Oh no way, I can’t get this wine but try this retailer in Portland’. I went to that place and said I really love this wine and he said, ‘Okay, here’s one bottle’ and I got on his mailing list and I’d buy some wine from him here and there and one day he said, ‘I’m going to get you some of the Thomas’ so now I have a case of it coming. You’ll have to try it and judge for yourself but there are people in the New World that are making facsimiles of Old World wine and sometimes they get pretty close.

But even if they’re close, they won’t be exact, so there is something about terroir that’s just undeniable, do you agree?

Absolutely. You can only do so much with what you have to work with. But there is surprisingly little scientific evidence that the roots of vines take up and deliver minerals from the soil to manifest them into the flavor of the wine. It’s very interesting. And then there’s biodynamic and organic viticulture. There are two sides to it: one is that it’s a good idea to be green and not use tons of pesticides or run tractors all the time that compact the soil around the vines. But the other side of it is, it’s like yoga. Or voodoo. There’s no evidence that some of that stuff makes sense but the wine estates swear that it makes better wine. There are some scientific aspects to it that indicate it could be working but not all of it – it’s hard to say.

In the end though the wonderful thing is, and this is coming from my experience on the ranch, that there’s just some sort of mysterious aspect to it where you just can’t control everything, we don’t understand everything that’s going on, and there can be this magical thing that happens, and that’s what makes it so fun. There’s this Bordeaux estate, Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse, that traditionally doesn’t make great wine, but in 1990 they just hit the mark with like a 100 points from everybody and it’s just sensational. Sometimes the planets just align.

There is indeed mystery to all of this in some sense. I’m struck by how relatively little we know about the whole grape growing and winemaking process. It seems that only within the last twenty-five years or so, we’re beginning to understand.

Yes, but then you have Parker. Think about how many people have wasted so much money and have these wines sitting in their cellars that have these big Parker scores because that’s one way you think you’re going to learn about wine when you’re going through stages of development and you defer to the expert, ‘it must be good, let me try it’, and . . . not so much.

That’s true. I think Parker is at the end of an era.

Well it’s the whole social network thing. People aren’t going to tune into the nightly news on a television network or listen so much to some big wine critic. People get information from wherever they want and listen to people they trust.

Part 3 of 3 coming soon. Don’t miss it!

David Boyer

Photo: Susan Thomas

1 comment on “Susan Thomas – Part 2, Real People Series”

  1. Dennis Tsiorbas

    Susan, your world-wind experience particularly in Vancouver, with wine in purse had the gaiety and even a bit of the drama of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
    David, I loved the intermission where the two of you enjoyed Egon Müller Spätlese Riesling
    and other s, sharing a bit of your own history (A fly on the wall experience) with your readers.
    You asked the great questions, and the answers read like a mystery, just like the mystery of the vines themselves.
    Thanks very much,

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