Barretage Wine and the Winemaker

V Sanjay Kumar opens a bottle of wine for a special occasion and mulls over the wine as he shares it with his spouse

I wanted to open a special bottle, I was in need of an occasion. My better half was on the sofa reading. There was a shelf behind her that held my books. Between Graham Greene, Don DeLillo, and Rajat Parr were my wine journals. They had my tasting notes.

I opened the red, it ran down the decanter sides, blood red with a tinge of smoke. We waited for it to air

“My wine journey began ten years ago,” I announced. She looked up. “You are keeping track?”

“We should celebrate,” I said. I picked a bottle that had a story, I thought of narrating it but she wasn’t impressed with them. Occasion for her meant Champagne. It meant flute glasses and bubbles, the popping of a cork, the careless spilling, the drinking without care for colour, fragrance or flavour. I bought vintage Champagne once. “What did it taste like?” I asked her. “Poorly baked bread,” she said.

I opened the red, it ran down the decanter sides, blood red with a tinge of smoke. We waited for it to air. It was a quiet evening, a public holiday. It was so quiet I blurted, “Is it a dry day?”

“Not at home,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “By the way, there is a new Mani Ratnam film; are we seeing it?” I hummed and hawed, I had lost the habit of visiting a theatre.

I could sense an argument in the wings. “What book is it?” I asked idly. She showed me the cover. “George Saunders’s latest, a short story collection. Why do you ask?”

I was being polite. I headed to the sideboard and picked the right glasses. “Let me guess the wine,” she said. “An American Cabernet?”

I shook my head, looking at the bottle. “American it is but a Syrah. A Rhône style Syrah.” She was intrigued. She knew her Syrah, and did not expect a Rhône blend from the USA. “California?” she asked. I nodded and she seemed satisfied.

I poured a tasting portion. We sipped the wine, allowed it to speak, and it seemed to hit the right notes because she said, “Ahh.” She waited for me to say my piece. “I am waiting for the day…” I said.

I held the liquid against the light. I was waiting for the day she would ask me the name of the winemaker. Why was it that for a film the director’s name sufficed; for a book all we needed to state was the name of the author. And when it came to wine, we were happy knowing the grape, the vineyard, and the vintage, but we were not the least bit curious about the winemaker? “People are in awe of this winemaker,” I said, holding up the bottle. She sat up and looked at it. “Why?”

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“The winemaker is famous for making 100-point wines. Not one or two but five of them. The winemaker is also famous for producing the most expensive American wine.”

“Wow. Don’t tell me you paid a bomb for this.” I laughed. “No, not this one. A wine called Screaming Eagle.”

She sipped some more, fully attentive. She swirled it in the glass and really looked at it. “Good wine,” she said. “Seriously. What is his name?”

“It is a woman,” I said. She leaped off the chair, came up to the sideboard, and looked hard at the bottle. “What kind of name is Barretage?”

“Her surname is Barret, and she wanted to pay homage to Hermitage, the best French Syrah; voila, the name Barretage.”

Heidi Barret, top left. Mermaids feature prominently on the label, cork, and bottle of Heidi’s La Sirena range

She picked up the bottle and turned it around. The wine was Le Barretage, the estate was La Sirena, and the winemaker was the famous Heidi Barret. “La Sirena means the mermaid in Italian and Spanish,” she read. “She has signed the bottle. How nice. Is it expensive?” It was less than a hundred dollars. The Screaming Eagle on the other hand was in the vicinity of four thousand dollars.

“How do you know if someone has a Screaming Eagle?” she asked.

“Usually, they will tell you.”

“I haven’t tasted a 100-point wine,” she said.

“Do we have one?”

For reasons that some people will relate to, my cellar was a secretive world. It was best that way. It was no secret that there was no 100-pointer in it. In my small wine group, a couple had them, we looked at the bottles occasionally like they were sacred. They were deities with names like Colgin and Sine Qua Non.They would never be opened I felt. In the early days the winemaker at Colgin was Helen Turley. Colgin itself was founded by an investment banker called Ann Colgin. I realised my better half would at some point allow a Colgin purchase if I gave her the backstory of
the women behind it.

The winemaker is famous for making 100-point wines. Not one or two but five of them. The winemaker is also famous for producing the most expensive American wine.

The Barretage is more a 90+ pointer. It is a serious wine, an excellent attempt at a Rhône Syrah. It isn’t plush, fruit forward, dense, or extracted as Napa wines can be. The 2014 had its share of oak. It wore its 14.6 alcohol well but the oak masked the fruit somewhat, something the Southern Rhône winemakers shied away from.

“Rate it,” said my better half. “Give Heidi her due.”

Full marks for effort and gumption, I thought, for a storied winemaker to risk a varietal in a new terroir and draw attention to arguably its best expression — Hermitage.