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Alan Richman’s Epicurean Tour of Italy and France Reveals a Collector’s Obsession

The James Beard Award-winning journalist takes a weeklong exploration of some of the best wine and food Europe has to offer.

medieval town in France

At Ristorante Lorenzo in Forte dei Marmi—a seaside town in Tuscany—manners, not Michelin, set the tone. Here, Jeff Joseph orders Domaine J.F. Coche-Dury Meursault Les Genévrières, a premier-cru white Burgundy. Though we are in Italy, Italian whites, in my friend’s opinion, are charming, whereas their French counterparts are irresistible.

“That’s very good,” remarks the sommelier.

“I know,” says Jeff, subtly establishing his credentials.

As is inevitable, with wine being a bond, they chat. The sommelier knows that a Coche-Dury drinker is a gentleman to be coddled. Jeff knows that during every fine meal, there will come a moment at which a lifelong relationship between himself and the restaurant is forged. He says to the sommelier, “I was here a year ago and ordered your last bottle of 1971 Monfortino,” referring to a treasure of the Italian table, the greatest vintage of the best Barolo from the revered producer Giacomo Conterno.

The sommelier, Lorenzo Giannini, looks closely at Jeff and with profound emphasis says, “I remember you.”

With these words, the tone at our table intensifies, for we are now certified fine-wine drinkers. I, of course, do not belong, for I am not a collector and not wealthy enough to become one—but I am not averse to sharing in the bounty that accrues sitting across the table from Jeff.

The owner, Lorenzo Viani, who makes our fresh mayonnaise tableside, comes over to shake hands—something he does not do for all his guests. Extra courses appear. We are treated to an olive-oil tasting, and a small bottle of Lorenzo’s private brand is pressed upon each of us on departure. The sommelier, hearing that we had difficulty obtaining a reservation, offers Jeff his card with a private number. For Jeff—retired lawyer, real estate investor, and friend for a quarter-century—the moment furnishes bliss beyond any other. I say this with apologies to his dear wife.

I had joined him on this 75th birthday celebration of his dining life—a grand tour of his favorite European restaurants—knowing that I would eat superbly, drink magnificently, and—Jeff being a collector with wide-ranging interests—converse occasionally on subjects other than wine. Yet another of Jeff’s virtues also served as a lure: He is a throwback to the glorious early days of Michelin-style travel, when the focus was on cuisine, not five-star comfort. We stay in perfectly lovely hotels, but the dinner table—not suites and myriad bath accessories—commands our attention.

My friend came prepared, his checked baggage including a specially made, fortified, and impregnable suitcase holding eight bottles of wine and weighing 60 pounds. He tosses it around without strain, as you might expect of a former rugby player. He brings his wines to several restaurants we visit. Nobody denies him; nobody charges a corkage fee. He is beloved.

Vineyard in Cote de Beaune

Vineyard in Cote de Beaune, d’Or, Burgundy, France  Photo: duchy/Shutterstock

As we linger over our lunch at Lorenzo, we anticipate the sybaritic highlights that lie ahead. Our plan is to drive north along the Italian Riviera in search of the food Jeff most craves—crudo di pesce, a raw preparation of Italy’s unparalleled fresh seafood. We then move onward to the restaurant he loves best, the Michelin three-star Troisgros near Roanne, France. From there, we enter Beaune in the heart of the Côte d’Or, where we will be fêted at separate birthday dinners by two important Burgundian producers: Maison Louis Jadot and Maison Joseph Drouhin. Our final stop will be L’Assiette Champenoise located just outside of Reims, a newcomer to Jeff’s repertoire of favorites.

I am the only friend with him at the beginning of the 7-day trip, but along the way, other friends—companions who began traveling with him long before I did and new ones eager to learn from him—will join. The enjoyment of food and wine is a social pursuit, and Jeff’s passionate appreciation for both is a powerful lure for acolytes like myself, as well as for fellow aficionados. He once had a wine cellar of unrivaled quality containing more than 10,000 bottles of noble Burgundies, rare Rhônes, and perfumed Barolos and Barbarescos. Many of these wines he purchased well before they became the quarry of younger oenophiles. He was the most meticulous collector I knew, accumulating cases of E. Guigal 1978 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline and Henri Jayer 1990 Vosne-Romanée Cros-Parantoux. When he relocated from his house to an apartment, he decided to downscale his holdings and sold most of his wines. Yet reformed collectors quickly return to old habits, and shortly afterward, he began buying again.

The collecting addiction—whether of wines or Warhols—takes its hold through the pleasure to be gotten from the pursuit. For Jeff and his friends, the chase can be equally as engaging at a Michelin-anointed establishment in Manhattan as at an eatery in the Italian countryside. His methodology: Study the wine lists carefully—first identifying the great producers—and then search for grand crus, great vintages, and, of course, the most favorable prices.

Jeff did not grow up drinking wine. In college, he favored Mateus or Lancers—popular sparkling confections—in order to impress women. Although he claims this stratagem worked, he nevertheless turned his attention to more ambitious acquisitions: His first major purchases were magnums of 1966 Château Latour, for which he paid $50 each. A succession of similar coups soon transformed his hobby into an obsession. “I bought wine compulsively,” he admits. “If I liked a certain product and I saw it, I bought it even though I didn’t need it.”

Vineyards in Burgundy, France

Vineyards in Burgundy, France  Photo: Richard Semik/Shutterstock

Muraglia-Conchiglia d’Oro, situated across the street from the sea on a narrow strip of the Italian Riviera, presents to the visitor an unimpressive exterior marred by garish lettering and gold trim. The seriousness of purpose that prevails within these unremarkable walls is immediately apparent in the gaze of Enzo Frumento, the restaurant’s polite but aloof chef. “I have been here 10 times,” says Jeff, “and the chef still doesn’t smile at me.”  He explains that despite this absence of coddling, he prefers simple, unpretentious restaurants to the pomp of their “over-the-top” counterparts. Out of politeness—and because this trip is an extended birthday celebration—I refrain from pointing out that we have two Michelin three-stars ahead of us on the itinerary.

The breadsticks here are warm and fat, a cross between focaccia and cruller. The raw starters are palamita (bonito), oysters, and exquisitely mild, soft, fresh anchovies delicately sprinkled with olive oil, red peppercorns, and ginger. Crudo di pesce such as this makes one wonder why anybody bothers to cook fish at all.

We have ample opportunity to contemplate this question once we cross the border into France—somewhat paradoxically—to sample the fare at Jeff’s favorite Italian restaurant, Marco Ristorante, located in the port of Menton. Chef-owner Marco Ballo, whose relationship with my friend stretches back more than a decade, tells me that he was forced to move his business from Bordeghera, Italy, when Russians bought up all the real estate there. Yet the Russians appear to have followed him: While we are seated, a small party of them arrives for dinner, accompanied by seven bodyguards. But Ballo, I am surprised to discover, finds the French far more annoying. His daughter, Maddalena, explains to us: “We have no menus, and the French people want menus,” she says. “They are not accustomed to our kind of food. They have a culture of sauce, sauce, sauce. When they come here, they just eat calamari.”

Again, crudo fills our thoughts and plates. Ballo’s raw fish is unequaled, his presentations exquisite still lifes: shrimp with caviar; ricciola (amberjack) with ginger, onions, olive oil, tomato, and yellow pepper; and local tuna and salmon. We savor cooked eel that tastes Japanese in a popcorn sauce that tastes like popcorn. As we dine, Jeff recalls the time Marco served him a liqueur made from wildflowers picked in the mountains by a customer who shortly thereafter passed away; the lesser tragedy in this sequence of events was that none of this exquisite nectar was made again. Jeff’s satisfied smile reminds me how such instances of exclusive access gladden the heart of the collector.

Our mission in Menton accomplished, we begin our 6-hour trek for Troisgros—the longest drive of our journey. Despite the rigors of the road, Jeff insists on getting to the restaurant early to peruse the wine list in the garden. On this occasion, Jeff’s longtime friends Alan Belzer—a retired president of AlliedSignal, now Honeywell—and his wife, Susan Martin, are joining us for dinner. Alan is reluctant to call himself a collector, although he is one. “I never thought of myself as a collector, until one day I thought, ‘I must be a collector.’ I only bought enough to drink, but what happened was that I didn’t drink enough.”

“He gets so much pleasure from collecting, consuming, and sharing,” says Susan. “He lives to share his wine. He has a bad memory, but he remembers what every friend and every family member likes.”

As chef Michel Troisgros makes his rounds, I ask him why he remains so
fond of Jeff, the ringleader of a group of friends that has so mercilessly ransacked his cellar over the decades. As the popularity of older vintages increases, the very finite supply of these treasures, after all, dwindles. “We love them,” replies Troisgros without hesitation. “We love everybody, but they are something very special, these guests—in particular when they love what they drink. Not everybody has the education for that. These kinds of guests know the vineyards, the stories, the families, the good and the bad years. They know how hard we work to get these bottles. For all of us, it is a great honor to serve them the unusual and rare ones.”

“But they drink everything!” I find myself blurting, astounded.

“Don’t worry,” he laughs. “We are lucky. We still have some left, and we have relationships with vignerons. We can get a few bottles every year.” In all the years he has been in the kitchen of Troisgros, where he became co-chef with his father in 1983, the restaurant has had only six or eight customers like Jeff. “So many years he comes. He came so long ago that I was very young the first time he was here. I was still a commis [junior cook] in the kitchen, a teenager.”

Village in Burgundy, France

Village in Burgundy, France  Photo: JeniFoto/Shutterstock

After deliberation, Jeff and Alan agree on the 2005 J.F. Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne, priced at about $1,800, and 1999 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin, about $1,600. When I note that these hardly sound like bargains, Jeff corrects me. The Chambertin is a few hundred dollars less than the average U.S. retail price, he says, and the Coche is half the going price. To accompany these, Jeff unpacks two from his traveling collection: a white Burgundy, 1989 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes, and a red, 1985 Joseph Drouhin Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots.

The immensity of my fortune will not dawn on me until a few days later, in Beaune, when I will recount to a sommelier our lineup of dinner wines. The young man, awed, will lean his forehead against the wall, sigh, and close his eyes.

The first of the two birthday dinners in Beaune is held in the great hall of the 15th-century Couvent des Jacobins, now part of Jadot’s headquarters. Our host is Olivier Masmondet, export manager of the firm and—long ago—the sommelier of the restaurant Georges Blanc, where he and Jeff first met. Jeff tells me he drank the first memorable wine of his life at that dinner, either a 1947 or 1949 Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny. He’s not certain. Masmondet remembers the meal, the wine, and the vintage: 1947. “And I remember the light in Jeff’s eye.” Our host goes on to explain the difference between people who simply drink expensive wines and those, like Jeff, who love them. “There are people who want something,” he says, “and people who dream about something.”

Between bookend birthday dinners, we attend an outdoor luncheon given by Zachys, the New York–based auctioneer and retailer. We are seated at a long table in yet another former convent—this one in the shadow of the famed Hospices de Beaune. Beside me is Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, whose 2007 Meursault-Perrières, brought by another guest, I praise. Naturally, this wine is soon overshadowed by the 1986 Louis Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles that Jeff offers. He seems to always have the wine of the day, whatever day it might be.

At Joseph Drouhin, Jeff’s favorite winery, we are welcomed by Laurent Drouhin and several of his brothers. This meal, held in a 13th-century cellar, is administered by a sommelier who organizes an army of Drouhin that includes Criots-Bâtard-​Montrachet and Montrachet. Still in search of the secret to my friend’s charm, I ask Laurent why he likes Jeff so much, and he answers, “Jeff is generous, sweet, and has a sense of humor, although as a French guy, his humor is not easy for me to understand. And of all the collectors I know, he is the one who carries the Joseph Drouhin flag. He is a friend. He can call me at 3 am, and I will be there for him.”

I mull over these sentiments during our final meal at L’Assiette Champenoise. The platings, like the place, are superb; still, it is here that Jeff and I have our only disagreement. When I tell him the lobster I’ve ordered is superior to the langoustines he has chosen, he insists I am wrong. A connoisseur of this crustacean, he mounts a vigorous defense. He is a man of intense loyalties—to friends, restaurants, wine estates, even shellfish. On one point, however, we agree: The most charming moment of our trip took place at the Marco in Menton, when Jeff told Maddalena, daughter of the owner, that we would soon be dining at the famous Troisgros. She sighed. “Someday,” she said, “when I go there, I will say to them, ‘I want to eat like Jeff.’ ”

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