Book review: Shadows in the vineyard – the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine

Vineyards in Burgundy

What kind of man the cellarer of the Monastery should be

1) As cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from the community, one who is sound in judgement, mature in character, sober, not a great eater, not self-important, not turbulent, not harshly spoken, not an off-putter, not wasteful.

2) but a God-fearing man, who will be a father to the whole community

3) He is to have charge of all affairs

10) He must regard the chattels of the monastery and its whole property as if they were sacred vessels of the altar

(Chapter 31 of the Benedictine Rules, as posted in English inside the Burgundy’s Abbey Notre Dame de Citeaux)

So starts the book, Shadows in the Vineyard, the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. The author Maximillian Potter admits at the end of the book that when he came to write this story for a magazine and later turned it into a book, he knew very little about wine. This is all the more amazing because the book reads very well, has incredible details and history of the wines of Burgundy. On top of it all, he recounts a true story which happened in 2010 and which threatened to ruin the wines of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Now for any serious wine lovers, the wines from this Domaine are the holy grail of wines. On just about any list of the world’s top 25 rated wines you will normally find seven wines from this wine house: the Richebourg, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee-St Vivant, Montrachet and Romanee-Conti.

Burgundy wines are well known for their finesse, particularly if they are well made. But finding these well-made wines is not as easy as it seems.Made from Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red), no other region is as complicated even for wine experts as Burgundy. The reason is that this north, it is very difficult to make wines and therefore terroir plays a very important if not crucial role in the wine production. With so many appellations based on villages (87 in total) and vineyards shared by some 3,5000 winegrowers it is no wonder that Burgundy wines can be confusing.

Getting your way through Burgundy wines is like getting a very thorough geography lesson. You need to know the villages, where the vineyard is, in which part of the hill it is and whether it faces the sun or not.

You need to know why a wine from a village may cost double or triple the price of another which is produced just across the road but from another village.

There is therefore a certain allure to Burgundies, and when you discover well made Burgundies even from small producers, you normally return to buy these wines time and time again first because a well made Burgundy wine is fantastic.

But the wines from DRC as the Domaine is often known are among the world’s most sought after wines and also unfortunately unaffordable to many.

Few people knew about the story to poison these wines. So when I spotted this book, I was immediately curious. I actually thought it was a work of fiction and had to check the story out before I actually bought the book,

The author writes beautifully about the wines and the Burgundy region, the plot reads like a thriller and makes you really curious to find out what finally happened.

I will not spoil the story of the book but if you are interested in wine, want to discover a bit more about Burgundy and read a different sort of book related to wine, then I highly recommend it.

 

 

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What I enjoyed reading this week (6)

Here is a list of interesting articles I have come across this week. Enjoy your Sunday with these nice reads.

You will find a great article about wine fraud and counterfeiting from wine searcher here which is food for thought especially for the risk it involves of buying expensive wines. For those in the know, drinking wines from Fleurie or Morgon may no longer be considered as inferior pleasures.

Have you ever wondered in awe about wine sommeliers and their incredible depth of knowledge about wines. Here you will find what it takes to become a master sommelier.

Chablis is a fantastic wine region and wine that is excellent with seafood. Here you will find a great lesson about Chablis.

Fast food has a very bad reputation for health. However, eating in restaurants might not be any better according to a study.

If you are heading to Amsterdam any time soon here is a list of 10 pop-up restaurants or food hotspots you can find in this Dutch city.

The Cinque Terre in Liguria

Riomaggiore Cinque Terre
The colourful Riomaggiore

Many people rave about the Cinque Terre that you may wonder whether you might end up being disappointed when you visit. Sometimes places just do not live up to their hype.

This is not the case with the five villages which make up the Cinque Terre. As the sun glistens on the sea, the waves break on the bow of the small ferry taking you from Monterosso al Mare to one of the other villages, you cannot help but stand in awe at the natural beauty of this place.

The sea is a beautiful dark blue, the cliffs are dark grey making them all the more dramatic and in the background you see beautiful greenery and vineyards and you wonder how this all came about.

It is difficult, if not outright impossible to list what the must see destinations are in Italy. If you do not live there, the only way to go about it is to return time and time again to different parts to savour it all in.

Many times, it all depends on what you would like to do and see. Whether its city trips, a mix of city and countryside or else spectacular scenery, there is a choice for pretty much everyone.

View from Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre
The view from a bar in Riomaggiore

There is, however, something spectacular about the Cinque Terre which makes them one of the most well known destinations in Italy. The “Five Lands” which is the literal meaning of CInque Terre in Italian comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park. When  you go there you will realise why it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Ligurian coast might not be as spectacular as the Costa Amalfitana but it gives it, in my view, a very good run for its money.

The Cinque Terre is a must visit in any case. With villages perched over cliff-tops, or accessible only by train, sea or on foot this is really a special pal e.

Both if you are at sea or looking towards the sea the views are nothing short of breath-taking. There are many ways to approach the Cinque Terre. Many people head there for a day trip from Tuscany or some of the main cities of Italy. This is a great pity because Liguria has so much to offer.

The first time we visited, the Cinque Terre had been hit by deadly floods which caused devastation and havoc in some of the villages, particularly Monterosso and Vernazza. The marks of the flood where still visible when we visited.

There are four ways to get to the Cinque Terre. The best option is probably by train. The train ride which goes from Genova to the Cinque Terre and keeps going to La Spezia is spectacular. In many places you will be literally within a stone throw away from the sea. The views are great.

If you are staying in any of the coastal villages or towns (check out my post on Sestri Levante) you will be able to catch the train to the Cinque Terre. In that case, I would recommend that you stop in Monterosso, visit this first village and then take a boat-ride to Riomaggiore which enables you to see the villages from the sea. This is clearly one of the highlights.

Another option would be to take a boat ride from Sestri Levante or Porto Venere at the other end of the Ligurian coast. There are also boats from the harbour of Genova and La Spezia. We are told that the views are amazing. Unfortunately, the two times we visited the boat rides were not operational because of the rough sea.

The third option, once you get there, is to walk from one village to another. The Cinque Terre are in fact famous for a walking trail called the Sentiero Azzurro which connects the five villages. Given that most of them involve climbing or going up stairs, we have unfortunately not walked the trail or parts of it yet given our children are still too young to walk the whole way.

The other option is to go there by car. But this is not recommended. First it is not easily accessible and you will only be able to reach a few of the villages. Parking is not cheap and easy to find particularly during peak season.

The villages have been built over the centuries by people who carefully built terraces on the rugged steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. One of the allures of these villages is the fact that they are not ruined by commercial interests and while paths, trains and boats connect the villages, most of them are not reachable by car.

The wines of the Cinque Terre are very special. You can see why from the photos because the terrain is very rough and the vineyards are on cliffs which go down to the sea and the wines produced therefore have exceptional minerality. The grapes are Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino. These grapes are used to make the Cinque Terre wine as well as the Sciacchetra which is a really special sweet wine. One recommendation if you are in the Cinque Terre is to try the Sciacchetra as an aperitivo. Sip it while enjoying great views. Life doesn’t get much better.

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Vernazza with the vineyards in the background
Tiles of Riomaggiore
The tiles of Riomaggiore
Cinque Terre
View from Monterosso al Mare
Cinque Terre
View from the sea

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Discovering the beauty of Champagne

IMG_8874The first time we went to the Champagne region in France we had read about a very small producer in the South-East area of champagne in the Aube region known as the Côte des Bar. This is far away from the glitzy Champagne capital of Reims and Epernay. The Aube region produces a quarter of France’s champagne, and much of what the small producers make is sold on to the big houses that line the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.

We were relatively new to visits to wineries in France and given that this was just before the summer period, we assumed that going to wineries for tastings would be pretty easy.

Finding the winery in Ville sur Arce did not prove a problem but given we arrived at lunch time there was a problem. The village just had a few houses and since it was lunch time we were by now pretty hungry. We headed to the winery to see whether we could get the tasting over and buy a few cases of champagne but found a note saying that the winemaker would only be back in three hours.

Given the fact that there was nothing to eat anywhere in the village, we headed to a village closeby. But to our dismay, everywhere was closed. This was again a wake-up call for us. I had read that holidays are taken seriously in France and Italy in summer but this seemed to defy logic.

Two village restaurants were closed for the holidays, we tried the bakery but it was also closed for the afternoon and would only reopen at 4pm. By now, panic was setting in. I am normally calm but there are a few things which can bring a temper. These are normally thirst and hunger. Only two shops were open at this point, the village supermarket and a bar. We asked at the bar whether there was any place we could eat and they told us the kitchen was closed but they would be happy to make a steak with fries.

Beggars cannot be choosers so we ventured in and had what at the time was probably the worst ever meal that we could eat in France. Nothing bad about it but just the fries were from a packet and the meat overcooked. It became all the more disappointing when some locals walked in half an hour later and were served with what looked like very appetising food.

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Not yet ripe for picking

We finally made it to champagne Remy Massin et fils and ended up spending a good hour with Madame Massin who gave us a thorough explanation of the soil conditions of the terroir and then led us through a tasting. This was our first experience with champagne and was indeed a great eye-opener particularly since we then headed to Epernay and Reims for some champagne tasting at the major champagne houses. It was also the first time I managed to have a full conversation in French, albeit with a pronunciation which must have been close to incomprehensible.

We headed to Moet et Chandon a few days later and toured the beautiful champagne house and cellars. While the wine house, grounds and cellars in the city of Epernay are majestic, the minute you taste the wines, you realise that these are commercial champagnes and have nothing to do with champagnes produced by smaller producers or the top cuvees.

It seems like adventures are always within reach when we are in Champagne. When our stocks finished, two years later we headed back to the region, given it is within 2 and a half hours drive from Brussels. We were having a great time when on a Sunday morning towards the end of July panic struck again.

I was taking a scenic route amid the beautiful scenery of the Montagne de Reims and was hoping to fill my fuel tank since it was now on reserve. I still had a 70 kilometre range so there was no reason to panic. Little did I know that finding a petrol station open on a Sunday would be a far greater challenge. I tried two in different villages but both were closed and did not have an automatic pump. Given I was on reserve, I looked for the nearest petrol stations on the GPS and headed to the next village to again find the petrol station closed. I therefore went to the next one. This was on a national road so I was confident that this time we would be able to fill up the tank. But as we arrived, there was a sign saying the petrol station was closed for the holidays. It was 1 August and the sign said the petrol station will be closed till the end of August.  By now, we were reaching a state of desperation. I walked into a hotel next door to the petrol station and asked the receptionist to guide us to the nearest petrol station explaining that we only had an 11 kilometre range left. She sent us to a supermarket a few kilometres away and told us that she was sure that there were automatic pumps. We ventured there knowing that if we got it wrong this time we would run out of fuel in the countryside on a hot August day. We were relieved to make it with just 7 kilometre range to spare and find that we could finally fill our fuel tank.

But amid these adventures (and this happens in many wine regions in Europe in the quiet months), this is a region worth visiting and not only for tasting champagne though there is a certain allure to walking in a bar, restaurant or cafe and being able to order a glass of champagne and enjoy the world go by.

One word of warning though, you will never look at champagne in the same way after a visit. You might become a bit more discerning and snob some champagnes which you might have been accustomed to before but which become too glitzy and commercial. That is not a bad thing though.

There are various ways to approach Champagne as a region. You can either base yourself in one of the main cities and then go for a day trip outside the cities or else you can try to stay in an idyllic village though risk not having amenities closeby.

There are three main areas to discover. There is Reims and its surroundings also known as Montaigne des Reims, there is Epernay and the Marne Valley with the famous Cote des Blancs which specialises in champagne made solely from the Chardonnay grape. Then there is the Aube, further south.

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Great scenery wherever you go

The scenery in Champagne is always pleasing. Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon (who discovered the famous champagne method to make sparkling wine) is a very scenic village with picturesque houses and amazing views. The small champagne house Champagne G. Tribaut is not only worth visiting for its wines but also for the splendid views from its terrace. On a nice summer day, you might be able to taste their champagnes on a terrace overlooking vineyards. It is worth keeping in mind when you are visiting the region that most small champagne houses are closed on Sunday.

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View from the terrace of Champagne G. Tribaut

In Hautvillers you can also sit and laze in the main cafe in the centre, the Cafe d’Hautvillers or else head to a splendid wine bar and shop Au 36 where you can either buy a great range of champagnes, taste wines and eat.

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Another favourite village of ours is Oger in the Cote des Blancs. Getting to the Cote des Blancs is firstly very scenic. Oger is home to one of my favourite small champagne houses Jean Milan.

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The picturesque village of Oger

Apart from the small villages, you would do well to visit the main cities of Champagne. These are Reims, Epernay, Chalon en Champagne and Troyes.

Reims is easily reachable from Paris and Brussels. The architecture in these cities is stunning, the cathedrals, as you can expect in this part of Europe beautiful. If you have time to visit only one champagne house, make it Pommery. Its chalk cellars are stunning as is the estate.

There is a big difference between Reims and Epernay. In order to visit a few of the major champagne houses in Reims you will need a car because the avenue which houses these wineries is huge. On the other hand, most of the champagne houses in Epernay can be found on probably the most spectacular street in the whole of Champagne. This is the Avenue de Champagne which houses some of the most impressive estates in the regions. All the top champagne houses of Epernay are within an area of less than a kilometre and the estates such as the one below are stunning.

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In future blogposts I will give you tips on what to do and see in Champagne and its surroundings as well as a review of some of my favourite small Champagne producers.

 

Volpaia – a medieval Tuscan village you have to visit

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Volpaia at sunset

It is possible that you can go to Tuscany many times and completely miss Volpaia. This is a tiny village in the middle of the Chianti region which is not mentioned on tourist guides and only accessible by car unless you feel like walking for kilometres up a never ending hill. This is a place which is completely off the beaten track though a few years ago I got worried when one of its restaurants was reviewed in a travel magazine as one of the best places to dine al fresco in Tuscany.

There is no such thing as tourist shops like many ‘touristic villages’  in such popular tourist areas. The allure comes from a picturesque medieval village, great views, a great bar, two restaurants and a winery which goes by the name of Castello di Volpaia.

This is a village that you can visit time and time again without getting bored. There is not much to do other than walk in the countryside or amid the narrow streets, drink a coffee or a glass of wine at the village’s only bar. All you need is good company or a nice book to soak up the splendid views.

There is also a winery which is part and parcel of the village and which has been making wine since the 1100s.

The impact as you head up to Volpaia is immediate. The view of this fortified town is breathtaking. But what is stunning about Volpaia is the unique atmosphere of this medieval village.

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The Bar-Ucci

Once you arrive to the square you will see the restaurant La Bottega on one side and the wine bar Bar-Ucci on the other side. At the opposite end you will also see the entrance to the winery Castello di Volpaia which makes some exceptional wines including Chianti Classico as well as a range of Super Tuscans and the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo.

The Bar-Ucci which takes its name from the owner of the bar is a gem. Firstly, the coffees in the morning are exceptional. There is a great selection of wines by the glass from the Chianti region and you can also get platters of home-cured meat as well as pecorino which is served with honey and a selection of mustards.

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The stunning terrace at La Bottega

The restaurant La Bottega has probably one of the best terraces in Tuscany. It has a view of the famous Tuscan rolling hills (see below). But on top of that this is home cooking at its best. You get simple but great ingredients and turn them into a perfect meal. We have eaten here many times and the service and quality of the food has always been top notch. A few recommendations include the Pici al Cinghiale (a Tuscan type of pasta with a wild boar sauce), the pappardelle al tartufo or porcini mushrooms, the ribollita, rabbit served with a truffle sauce, the obvious bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone steak) or a wild boar stew with olives. Their chocolate tart is unbelievably good. It is the first and only time that I can remember that all of us at table (six) ordered dessert twice it was so good.

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The Castello di Volpaia winery

We did not try the other restaurant in Volpaia but visited the winery and tried a range of their wines. Castello di Volpaia, with vineyards surrounding this hilltop village, makes Chianti Classico, the Chianti Classico Riserva and a white wine which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They also make single vineyard wines which are all exceptional. My favourite is Il Puro Casanova, a 100% San Giovese. The property also produce wines from the upcoming region of Tuscany, the Maremma.

Their Vin Santo is also extremely good. The last time I tasted their Vin Santo was last December. it was a 15 year old wine with great complexity and still incredible freshness. Volpaia is only a few kilometres away from Radda in Chianti. If you are in the area, I recommend you visit and then drop me a line about your experience.

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The view from Volpaia

 

Wines from the Mosel

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Stunning views in the Mosel. The wines can be exceptional.

German white wine is probably the wine lovers best kept secret. It only takes a few tastings of a German Riesling, whether bone dry, semi-sweet, sweet or even in its ice-wine variety and you are likely to be hooked. Riesling ages incredibly well, is very versatile and changes character along the way. It is also extremely versatile with food.

When the wine is not mass-produced, and mass production is probably one of the reasons why it had such a bad reputation, it can be brilliant. It also provides exceptional value for money.

A good Riesling to me has unique qualities. It is fresh, vibrant and has a great perfume. The freshness can be surprising even when you are drinking an older wine. It is not uncommon to open a 10 to 15 year old dry wine and still find incredible freshness.

IMG_3854The Mosel Valley is a beautiful and scenic region in Germany and exploring the vineyards and wineries is a great way to get a taste of German culture, its people and some wonderful wines. Most of the region is centred around eating and drinking.

For non-German speakers, German wines can be intimidating because of the labelling even though once grasped it is incredibly simple and extremely transparent. The classic gems of German wines are sweet wines which are best enjoyed alone. I have quite a number of sweet wines in my cellar which can be savoured over the years given the ageing potential is huge. However, because sweet wines are no longer so much in demand, German producers have opted for dry wines called trocken. When it is medium try it is called halbtrocken.

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This weekend, we tasted two different wines from the Mosel. They were from Weingut Lotz.

We tried two wines from the same terroir. One was a 2010 and the other was a 2013. Both were great but also incredibly different one could not help wonder whether the 2013 would develop in such a way.

The location of the vineyards that produce these wines is the Erdener Herrenberg. The slate-stone ground is very weathered and produces wines with a special minerality.

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The Lotz wines. (Photo taken from website of wine producer)

We first tried the 2010 Riesling Schieferstein from Weingut Klaus Lotz. For a four-year old wine this still had incredible freshness. It is complex on the nose with hints of exotic fruits. It has the right balance between acidity and sweetness and goes perfectly well with a light meal. We tried it again a day later and it still showed the same sort of freshness indicating that it still has the potential to age. Overall this is an incredible value for money wine.

The 2013 Lotz Schieferstein from the same producer has different labelling now. This is the sort of wine that you will enjoy drinking when it is extremely hot. It is crisp and has great acidity. It is not as complex on the nose as the 2010. It is indeed rather gentle on the nose though it has a really nice aroma which reminded me of marzipan. To me this was a perfect wine to drink as an aperitif also because the finish was not as long as the previous wine. Overall, it was still fantastic.

The great thing about Rieslings is their ageing potential and therefore the possibility to try different wines of different vintages. You do not need to worry if you don’t finish the wines. Firstly these two wines had a screw cap. Moreover, given that these wines can age, you can actually test their ageing potential by trying them days later. If they still taste good, then you know that they can still age.

The only problem with these wines is that they are so hard to find. But that makes them all the more alluring.

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How to build your knowledge of wine

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Tuscany is a great place to start if you want to build your wine knowledge

Michael Broadbent for many is the modern patron saint of wine. In 2002, in the Decanter magazine, he listed the ten most important things that he had learned on wine. Two quotes stick to mind.

Drink good wine with every meal. Half a bottle of good wine is more interesting – and better for you – than six bottles of plonk.

Be honest and rely on your own tasting; avoid the influence of others.

Many love to drink a good glass of wine but are intimidated by the subject of wine and most people actually hesitate to go beyond the supermarket shelves.

The subject of wine is incredibly fascinating. It is one of constant discovery, one in which only very few if ever will completely master the subject given the width and breath of wines that can be tasted. Take a region and break it down into different communes, within those communes, find different vineyards, some growing different varietals of grapes. You will find that different producers make different wines a few metres from each other and you will end up asking why is one wine dry and the other less dry? Why does one wine have more alcohol then the other? Why is one wine able to age for many years and the other wine best now? How does a wine evolve in the bottle? The combinations are indeed endless.

My interest in wine grew gradually as my interest in food and cooking developed. Wine and food is a complementary subject and in fact you will find that many magazines dealing with food also have wine sections. But then, you can also find wine magazines which help you to start discovering the world of wines. The US magazine Wine Spectator and the British publication Decanter are both excellent magazines to develop your knowledge of wines. You can also look for the Italian Gambero Rosso or the French La Revue du Vin among others. These are extremely good starting points for discovering wines.

Then there are books like The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson which is a superb reference book not only teaching you about the growing process of wine but also illustrating with photos, maps and accurate descriptions the wines and specificities of different wines and regions. One of the best books to read on the subject is Hugh Johnson’s A life Uncorked which is a gem of a book which is part biography and full of information on every aspect of wine. This is a book I recommend to all friends because it is beautifully written and touches upon subjects like tasting, cellaring, choosing, understanding, comparing and buying wine as well as wine’s pleasures, lures and mysteries. Read this book with a notebook by your side and write his recommendations. This is the best place to start if you want to learn more about wines.

You can also follow some wine critics on Twitter. Some of the best critics to follow are Jancis Robinson who also writes a weekly column in the Financial Times, James Suckling formerly of Wine Spectator and now having his own website. I also particularly like the insights of Tim Atkin and Robert Joseph among others. My favourite wine blogger is Alder Yallow who writes a wine blog – Vinography.

There is a more direct approach to wine which is to head to a wine region and let yourself become immersed in the culture of wine of that wine region. Whichever the region, you are bound to discover passionate people who will guide you to what the region has to offer in terms of wine and cuisine. They will indicate their favourite wineries or wine stores. The latter are also a great source of information. Go with an open mind and allow the wine merchant to take you on a voyage of discovery. If you eliminate your prejudices, you are bound to be pleasantly surprised.

One thing which I have discovered is that whenever there are vineyards, the landscape is bound to be beautiful if not spectacular. This is the case wherever you go.

Once you start to get more and more knowledgeable you are bound to discover that you want to learn more and more. What is most important is to avoid plonk and always choose to try wines from winemakers which have a story to tell. When you do that, you are bound to never be disappointed. As they like to say, life is too short to drink bad wine.