Burgundy to the Max
Words & Photographs: Christine Vazquez
Word assists from Max Potter & Max Marriott
Wine brings people together, people who might
not otherwise meet, but who should meet.
—Aubert de Villaine, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti
Max Potter is a rockstar journalist. He would blush if I said this to him, but it’s true. With bylines in Vanity Fair, GQ, and other respected print magazines, he’s also the former longtime Executive Editor for Denver’s 5280 Magazine. He’s written a fascinating book on the plot to poison the world’s most expensive wine, called Shadows in the Vineyard. He and Max Marriott met while he was in France researching the book. Marriott was there under the tutelage of famed winemaker Louis-Michel Liger-Belair.
Max Marriott is a rockstar winemaker. He would blush if I said this to him, but it’s true. He was chosen to apprentice at the prestigious Domaine Liger-Belair vineyard in Burgundy, and now makes wine at Chapter 24 in Willamette Valley, Oregon - a region highly respected for its production of American wines.
Potter makes Denver his home, and recently, Marriott was in town to showcase his Pinot Noirs [and a surprise Riesling], at a private event at the fantastic Denver space, Galvanize. Before the tasting, Nourish had the exclusive opportunity to photograph these two dear friends together, and sit down with them to talk. There’s an ease. They joke and laugh together which I expected. They’re guys; this is what guys do. But, what I didn’t expect, was the earnestness between them, alongside that joviality. It’s clear that a deep river runs between them of understanding and mutuality and admiration.
An absolute privilege to witness.
In Potter’s and Marriott’s words:
What harvest were you both working in 2011 when you met?
MP: Harvest was for the Domaine Liger-Belair. My first-ever harvest. Louis-Michel bottles the monopole vineyard of La Romanee, one of the world's most renown, along with several others. Louis-Michel was / is a character in my book. He also happened to be my landlord. He invited me to join in his harvest and I figured to report the book, I should probably do all that I could do -- immersion reporting kind of thing. Even reporting that doesn't make it into the book informed / enriched the book and how I wrote it, at least that was my thinking.
MM: I was living and working in Central Otago, New Zealand, at the time. I was selected for the Burgundy-Central Otago exchange program - part of an educational alliance between the two regions - where they try and pair you up with a producer who will be a good fit, based on your own experiences, personality and skill set. So it was just dumb luck that I ended up at Domaine du Comte Liger Belair. It was an early harvest – a warm year – and I remember arriving into Vosne and being completely awestruck with this tiny village.
How did the friendship evolve both in France and also how have you kept in touch while back in the States?
MP: I don't remember exactly how we were introduced. I think Max [Marriott] was working the sorting table at the winery and when I came back from the vineyards with the harvest crew [and the grapes] we just got to talking. Max was one of the few people there that spoke English and he clearly knew what he was doing, and so I found myself asking him a lot of questions and quickly figured out he was a righteous dude. He wasn't pretentious. Like me, he hails from pretty much a working class background. He was just a terrific guy who knew a lot about winemaking. He also had a great sense of humor. I learned he himself is a writer and a fantastic photographer. I guess we each have something of an eye for detail and we ended up talking a lot about Burgundy's beauty. Max is also a kick-ass chef. At least I think so. I was living in a small guest house that I rented from Louis-Michel and didn't feed myself so well. Max offered to host me for dinner in his apartment at Louis-Michel's domain. We drank wine, talked about our lives back home and generally just got along. We talked about writing, our wives, wine, Burgundy, and Louis-Michel. I think we both had a sense of how lucky we were to be there. And though it may sound silly, not everyone would recognize the unique gift it is being there, and so that also told me something about who Max is. I just came to admire and like him a bunch.
MM: I had a feeble grasp of the place - its grandeur, its history, but I had enough of a grasp to recognize where I was and how special that was. In the coming weeks, I immersed myself in Vosne. Any spare moments were spent walking the village, traipsing through her vineyards, exploring back alleyways, listening to the church bells, even lying in the vines. I neglected the rest of the Cote so that I could know Vosne like the back of my hand. Maximilian did the same thing; he lived and breathed Vosne, so we shared a special relationship and connection despite the very different paths that brought us together.
What makes this friendship special, in addition to the interesting way in which you met?
MP: Well, I'm a big believer in fate. I think everything happens for a reason. I think Max is the same way. I mean, we never would have met if not for Burgundy, but yet, I feel like we were supposed to meet. And so, there's that. I think we both recognize that, too. Aubert de Villaine, the guy who runs the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, says wine brings people together, people who might not otherwise meet, but who should meet. I think that sums it up. Special circumstances brought us together and for a reason.
MM: Max is a bit of a romantic. Heck, we both are. Cooking for each other, talking about our families, getting all glassy-eyed about where we were. Max even scouted out the perfect picnic location for my girlfriend [now wife] and me amongst the ruins of an old abbey, knowing that she was coming to visit me in France. We were two guys with the same name who both spoke English, swept up in the intoxicating allure of Burgundy, who both liked to write, with an appreciation – and more importantly, admiration – for the place and moment we were living. That connection has cemented itself and will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
How did Denver’s tasting event come to be?
MP: Max told me he was coming to town to promote Chapter 24 wines and I offered to help in any way I could. From doing book events around the country, but in this case, in Denver, where I have lived for the last 11 years, I have come to know a good number of people who collect or otherwise enjoy Pinot Noir. I put together an invite list based on that pool of folks. I put him in touch with Chris Onan at Galvanize, who happens to be a big oenophile, and Max and Chris worked out the details of having the tasting at Galvanize.
MM: The reason I’m now living in Oregon is due to a phone call from Louis-Michel Liger-Belair asking me if I could join his Chapter 24 team in Oregon [that he consults for] and help him make the best New World Pinot. The fact that he has so much interest and now investment in Oregon speaks volumes about the potential for this region. Louis-Michel is the binding piece that brought Max and I together in the first place, so it made sense to use that connection for our reunion in Denver and talk about the story and how the journeys that Max and I have taken have woven together.
Anything else you want me to know?
[written by Max Potter and first posted on the Shadows in the Vineyard Facebook page; reprinted with permission]
A visit from a friend this weekend got me to thinking:
When I first went to Burgundy on assignment for Vanity Fair, it was to report on a crime. All I knew was a bad guy, or bad guys, had possibly destroyed some or all of a storied vineyard called, Romanée-Conti. And so I went to the tiny hamlet of Vosne-Romanée in the heart of Burgundy and began to report on the crime. Indeed, the facts of that crime added up to something sad and dark and awful. But over time, in no time, really, I came to see that crime was only a small part the story.
Among other facts I discovered while reporting the crime was the pinot noir vine, certainly as a planting, is a fickle, stubborn, and tender little thing. It doesn't flourish easily in just any terroir. And the ancient landscape of Burgundy was not one you would have instinctively thought was right for the pinot noir vine. The Côte de Nuits was uncultivated, rocky, a place where the seasons abruptly shift from a warm sun and gentle breezes to storm clouds and hail; where the winters are akin to a chilly tundra, and the summers bring moments of heat so intense that it seemingly can scorch any and all exposed beauty. And yet, because of divine intervention, call it fate, the pinot was planted in this terroir, there was a flowering, and for centuries the union has produced something magical, the world’s finest wines.
While reporting the crime I came to know the culture of Burgundy, a culture rooted in a people who are tough because of their tenderness. I met a vigneron born to be a father, but who was unable to have children, and rather than succumb to a bitterness, directed his love to his enfant vines. I met a college-age hitchhiker who had left his home in the Czech Republic with a broken heart and a backpack filled with poems he had written. He had come to Burgundy because it was where he and the girl who left him had first discovered their romance, and he believed that only in Burgundy could he repair his heart. I met a cellar-master who said that Burgundy was a place where God expected the people to make the most of the poetry that He, nature, the Big Bang, whatever, had provided, and that philosophy was what flavored his wine.
And so a friend, Max Marriott, came to town the other day. We had met in Burgundy during a harvest at the Domaine Liger-Belair. Now a vigneron himself, Max brought with him some of his wines and also couple of Burgundies, including one of the wines we had harvested together, a 2011 Clos du Chateau. He opened it and we tasted it and shared it with new dear friends, and for me it was a reminder: A crime is what drew me to Burgundy, but the poetry of the place is what drew me back. Max’s trip to town was a reminder of what makes Burgundy so special, and dare I say it, a lesson we can learn from Burgundians: There is no crime, no darkness, more potent than friendship, hope and love.
For some reason, I can’t remember why, I changed what I had originally written as the last line of “Shadows in the Vineyard.” I've kept it on a notecard pinned near my desk. It goes like this: “When the rain stops and the sun appears and a breeze moves through the vines—there’s the sense that much more than a vintage is possible.”