With her, and Saint Cosme, having dinner, in Toronto
She sat across the table, her usually carrot-red hair more copper in the candlelight. It’s not curly and big like a lot of hair that colour. Rather, it’s naturally pin-straight and falls well past her shoulders. That shimmer set off the tiny, bright, dancing squares of light in her dark eyes, evidence of a playful mood. Freckles, fine features, and an ironic grin made up the rest of my dinnertime view.
Our chaperone, a bottle of Château de Saint Cosme 2016 Les Deux Albion Côtes-du-Rhône, sat inconspicuously on the margins of our table and conversation, which had turned to relationships as it often did, and not the mathematical kind.
“I can’t imagine myself with anyone else,” she said. I listened.
“But it’s just so hard sometimes,” she continued. “It’s like he was sent to me to force me to face the very things I’m afraid to face but need to. It can be so infuriating.”
Oh. Sorry. This was no date. We were colleagues, friends even, on a work trip and had just finished a big, super satisfying day. It was the first of a two-day workshop on the fundamentals of clear writing for 20-some investment industry regulators in downtown Toronto. While we were both involved in a love affair, it wasn’t with each other; it was with words. Normally we might have a glass of wine and a casual bite then head to our respective hotel rooms. Or just as often we’d eat on our own. But that night we felt loose, so splurged on a whole $65-bottle of something that should have been pretty good.
That Saint Cosme blew my expectations out of the water. As much as I remember our easy mood, the wine kept persisting inward from the edges of my awareness. What was so compelling about it I couldn’t say. Of course, 2016 was an outrageously great vintage and Saint Cosme is a landmark winegrower. But it wasn’t just those things.
It’s all been said before
It makes me wonder how many stories like this a bottle of Saint Cosme has been a part of. Especially if we consider that the vineyards have been in the family since 1490 on land planted in Roman times.
And because of this history and their greatness, there’s not much that others haven’t already written about them. This includes the estate and Louis Barruol, the 15th-generation, maniacally dedicated and firmly polarizing owner. Sure, I could recount the unreal single vineyards in Gigondas with names like Hominis Fides, Le Claux, and Le Poste. Or regurgitate how he and his father revived the vineyards and turned them organic. Maybe I’d even drop in the bit about Château Rouanne, the 62-hectare estate in Vinsobres Louis bought in 2019. Or mention Forge Cellars, his project in New York’s Finger Lakes. Undoubtedly, both will end up on the map in a much bigger way than now.
And, I could mention the accolades, the scores, and the media coverage. Because truthfully, no wine writer worth their press card (or WordPress login creds) could talk about Gigondas and the Côtes-du-Rhône without mentioning Saint Cosme.
The writers haven’t mentioned the words
But this isn’t about that. Like I said, it’s all been said. This is about Louis’s writing, the very stuff my friend and I celebrate and revel in. And I don’t mean that he helped write the book on Gigondas, even though he did. I’m talking about the newsletter he puts out at the beginning of every year to reflect on the previous one. And while he describes weather, vine behaviour, and wine style, those are just some of the lines on the canvas.
Much more than that, his tales sweep and dive and zag and zig through history, place, philosophy and family. In reading them you feel a part of the vast river of time rather than a moment frozen in it, like a Liopleuridon-sized anchovy navigating a continent-sized reef. He can impart a microscopically precise notion in grand fashion, and yet encompass all of humanity in seven words. He isn’t afraid to intimate family feelings. Neither does he hold back his thoughts on progress or certain winemaking habits. Louis reveals his boundless passion for his pursuit of honesty in winegrowing and his reverence for those who contribute to the whole. At the same time, he’ll share his disdain for those who detract from it.
To read Louis’s letters is to sense that he feels the same about how words express thought and feeling as how wine expresses terroir, history, and humanity. That is, authentically, soulfully, honestly, and beautifully. These are the goals above perfection. Maybe that’s the thing I couldn’t name that compelled me so about the Deux Albion that night: its honest and beautiful soul sang over any attempt to be perfect. And my friend and I matched it.
Now, anyone with such extreme passion, drive, and exuberance as Louis is sure to have some strong thoughts on what is and what should be. Thus his polarizing nature. But that type of character is essential to achieve great things and the stories that go with them. And it’s necessary to move history forward.
Read, and drink, with space
Pick up an assorted case of wine, then pull up a newsletter on any given night and sip while you read. Be sure to give yourself the same time and sense of expansion for the reading as for the wine. Here are some of our favourite excerpts.
From the first newsletter, on the 2012 vintage
“What I liked above all was the feeling of freedom.”
Some salty thoughts on Riesling
“It is essential to understand that sweet Rieslings are a parody of this marvellous grape variety.”
“… residual sugar in Riesling is neither the norm, nor an obligation, nor a “style”, and even less so a prerequisite… [It] has detracted from the quality of this extraordinary grape variety…”
“Forgive me but I’m tired of all these dull speeches about sugar in Rieslings, which pertain more to ideological vested interests than to the real job of a winegrower…”
From the 8th newsletter
“Wines with a soul have the unique ability to reach out to everyone with ease. Ironically, they are the most complex but the easiest to understand.”
From the 9th newsletter
“Explanations proffered with hindsight, which can be revisionist and convoluted, are sometimes quite laughable, because the basic tenet of our profession is a sense of foresight.”
From the third newsletter
“We live in times when we tend to lose little bits of confidence because the politics who are in charge of our country are hesitant, but let’s remember about our fantastic wine history… Let’s smile when an old grower gives us a wine of great character to taste while he tells us a great story. Let’s ignore this huge quantity of uninteresting debates that pretend to feed our spirit.”
From the 4th newsletter, his thoughts on vintage in general and 2014 in particular
“… the wines settle down and reveal their true nature. Then everyone can read and listen to the comments… by the wine press and the growers. And I usually ask myself if everybody is really talking about the same story… those who describe on a stupid way in order to <sell> something (wine, newspapers, etc..) or make some caricatural descriptions to show off bother me because they don’t give a true and nice image of our occupation.”
From the 5th newsletter
“Our era, which sets more store by science than by mystery, can sometimes have a detrimental impact: whilst it is always interesting to characterise reality using scientific protocols, how dull our job would be were it not for the joy of observing the power of place to deliver a wine that sparks emotion, even though we are at a loss to explain why.”
From the 6th newsletter, on the 2016 vintage
“For the first time in a long time, we have two stellar vintages in a row… it is such a rare occurrence that it deserves to be mentioned and it feels like having neatly stacked away two large and magnificent piles of wood for the winter.”
“Although great vintages are perhaps the least challenging, they are not necessarily those that help the wine grower progress the most… the lack of a challenge often fails to spur people on to give their best… being able to discipline oneself when everything is easy is absolutely vital…”
The 7th newsletter is an homage to his father, who passed away in 2017. I won’t reduce it here.
On the challenging 2017 vintage
Vines regulate the excesses of the vintage, they regulate themselves, and they regulate the ripeness of their fruit – all of which has always troubled me. It’s as if, like the good mothers they are, they could understand what the wine grower expects of them.”
Another story… yours
My friend and I, while we don’t work together much anymore, still share the same love of the humour, truth, stark beauty, and horror that words and the irony in them can reveal. We have our lives and we have each other to check in with or out from, and share a thought or a drink or a laugh at a distance while we go about it all.
The next time your moment involves Saint Cosme, think about what it is in your life that is authentic. Think about who you share that with, or who you don’t or who you want to. Think about the rock the vine roots rub against, and about the heat of the sun whose rays touch the vine leaves, Louis’s forearms, and your face all at once.
And ask if the goal is truth and beauty, because if it’s perfection, well, what a low standard.