In my many years in the hotel business, I had the pleasure and privilege to work for numerous unique hotel owners and executives. This included one of the most respected, high profile philanthropists in the US Jewish community. He once got Frank Sinatra and Alan King to perform in the hotel ballroom and was the only owner to give my wife, Sheila, a bonus every year. Then there was the singing superstar Thai matriarch, who owned, among other companies, three hotels that I managed. She raised millions for charities by singing with her children, a la The Sound of Music. On another job in Thailand, I worked for a diverse Board led by the Executive Director of Thai Airways, as Thai Airways owned 25 percent of the hotel. Other board members included the owners of the largest construction company in Thailand and representatives of a US Trust and a Hong Kong bank. And the list goes on. I found myself working for a host of other companies and executives, from an Australian insurance company, a Canadian railway, All Nippon Airways, and a South African company.
I have captivating stories to tell about my time with each of these people, but one story in particular represents a moment of hilarity but personal anguish—the time when I came tantalizingly close to tasting one of France’s most sought-after revered wines, La Tâche. Priced in 2016 at about $4,000 per bottle, many describe the burgundy—mostly consisting of the pinot noir grape—as full-bodied, rich, and velvety, with aromas of wild berries, licorice, and rose pedal and with structured tannins cloaked in succulent fruit underpinned by juicy acids. My mouth still waters when thinking about it.
The tale begins with one of the most fascinating owners I ever worked for, a Saudi Arabian Sheikh. The story of his wealth is quite unique in and of itself. Allegedly, he was a major in the Saudi army but was somehow also connected to the Saudi royal family. One day, they gave him a plot of desert. Sometime later, they approached him to buy back the plot for many millions of dollars. Voilà, you have a Sheikh! He went on to make some lucrative investments, including two hotels in London (one of which I managed) and one in Saudi Arabia.
When in London, the Sheikh would occasionally invite me to dinner. An invitation I could not refuse. I would drive into the city to join him at his hotel, and then we would be driven in his Rolls Royce to the restaurant. On one such time his English male secretary told me it would be a little while before we could go to dinner because the Sheikh was watching his favorite TV show, called “Benny Hill”, a comedy featuring buxom ladies throughout the show. Not speaking fluent English, his attraction to the show was obvious. Given that I lived about an hour and a half outside of London, I usually didn’t get home until around midnight. It was a fairly long day to say the least, but always an experience.
One night, to my great surprise, he invited himself to dinner at my (his) hotel. The hotel had a very popular restaurant, with live entertainment and all the finery of gourmet dining. He invited my wife to come as well, which was highly unusual as I had never seen female diners in his presence. During a visit to his hotel in Jeddah Saudi Arabia, I was invited to dine at his house, along with eleven others, including the general manager of his hotel there and his friends and family. When I arrived, he asked me what I wanted to drink. I hesitated, as Saudi Arabia is a “dry” country, alcohol is strictly forbidden. He said, “Whatever you want, I will send to my factory.” I ordered a gin and tonic and later some nice champagne. All of the guests, including the servants were men. I never saw a female the entire evening. So, with Sheila being invited to dinner at my hotel, I was more than intrigued. Adding to the mystery, he asked me to make the reservation for six people. Who else was coming?
The evening arrived, and as it turned out, he had an Arab business friend with him and two very pretty young English women. But that’s another story. Sheila and I proceeded to entertain them, and this involved recommending only the very best wine. And here is where a little background is needed to set the scene.
The wine cellar of the hotel, an extensive collection bought by the previous owners along with the property, was worth a considerable amount of money, with many varieties of Grand Cru wines. Some were so expensive they were extremely slow to move in the restaurant. Properly stored, fine wines last a long time, but they do have a use-by date.
Still, any wine that I drank for personal purposes would have been charged as a general manager expense on the monthly profit and loss (P&L) statement. Needless to say, drinking one of the expensive wines would have raised the eyebrows of my superiors. If I were entertaining for sales purposes, it would have been charged to the sales department. But the cost of one bottle could have consumed the entire sales budget for the month. My director of sales would not have been happy. However, if the owner of the hotel were to drink the wine, it wouldn’t get charged to the P&L statement but rather be listed as an owner expense on a line we called “other adds and deducts.”
So, dinner with the Sheikh was my golden opportunity to drink one of the most expensive wines in the world and not be charged for it—at long last, La Tâche!
I ordered it with great anticipation. However, protocol would require me to have the Sheikh taste it and pronounce it glorious. When the bottle arrived and was opened, all I could do was hold my breath.
The Sheikh’s English was limited, but he could speak enough to get his points across. Pronouncing my name “Hart,” instead of Art, he proceeded to say, “Hart, no good, Chateau.” I couldn’t quite get what he was saying at first. He then said the same thing again but repeated the word “Chateau” a few more times. It suddenly dawned on me that there was no word “Chateau” on the wine label.
Burgundy wines do not use this nomenclature like Bordeaux wineries do. He wanted a wine that had the word “Chateau” on the label. My heart sank.
For those of you who watched the show “Rumpole of the Bailey,” starring Leo Mckern, you will remember that he always said he was drinking “Chateau River Thames.” I suppose I could have served that and the Sheikh would have been pleased. In any event, there was no way I could contradict the owner’s decision or explain to him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. So, to my extreme dismay, I told him he was right and that a Chateau wine would be more appropriate with the dinner. And so, I sat with a smile on my face, as the La Tâche disappeared into the kitchen.
When anything went back to the kitchen, either undrinkable or inedible, it would then become the purview of the Executive Chef and Maître de to dispose of it as they wish. I’m sure the La Tâche did not last even 15 minutes. In the olden days you had “chef’s beer” allowances, where each chef was allowed a beer or two during the course of the evening. Kitchens were extremely hot; therefore, alcohol consumption in the kitchen was not unusual, especially in the UK. So, by the time the evening was over and everyone had departed—and despite my making a mad dash to the kitchen—the La Tâche was ancient history.
To this day, I have never tasted it, nor will I ever taste it. Even though I could probably afford a bottle—but maybe not the ensuing divorce—it would be hard for me to justify opening a $4,000 bottle of wine. Thus, my one and only chance to drink the prized La Tâche has forever escaped me.
Art Nigro 6/14/20