A Vintage Friendship

Seventeen years ago, in Paris, the author met Peter Thustrup, wine collector extraordinaire. They've been sharing rare bottles and life experiences ever since.

Rarely does one cut to the heart of a person's values on an initial meeting. But moments after encountering Peter Thustrup, a Swede who'd just opened Paris's first shop devoted exclusively to rare wines, I understood his priority perfectly. Quite simply, Peter believed in wine.

Vacationing in Paris in 1984, I'd been intrigued to read an article about Thustrup's new store, Vins Rares et de Collection. It was a tiny place, hidden behind the Place de Clichy on Rue Laugier, in a not very fashionable section of the 17th arrondissement. The shop was cleanly designed but, as I entered, empty of customers. Was it possible to meet the proprietor, I asked of the middle-aged woman behind the counter.

"Go down those stairs," she answered. "You will find him in the cellar."

Thustrup, then 29, was kneeling at the bottom of the steps on the cold stone floor, crating wines to sell to another dealer. He was tall, blond, and handsome. And none too happy, it seemed, to have an American interloper in his cellar. Still, he agreed to let me look over his considerable stock. The classic names of Bordeaux lay there, in a variety of vintages. But what caught my eye, off by itself in a corner rack, was a single bottle of what was then—and still is—the most extraordinary red wine I had ever sniffed or sipped.

That wine was Château Palmer 1961, a Bordeaux from the commune of Margaux. Though only a third growth according to the 1855 classification, Palmer hit it big in the legendary 1961 vintage. My one experience with the wine had been at a dinner party where the bottle had been opened at the other end of the table. Even from a distance, its violetlike fragrance wafted to my nostrils and filled the room. Its taste was sweetness itself and so lively that it seemed to dance on the palate. Great wines are usually referred to as "serious," "profound," "monumental." Forget those adjectives. The 1961 Palmer was light on its feet and just plain thrilling.

As I reached for the bottle, Thustrup snapped, "It's not for sale."

I'd assumed Thustrup had opened this shop because he was a merchant. But his imperious, almost angry gaze set me straight. The magic in that lone bottle wasn't available to an American stranger for mere . . . money. It would stay where it was until he was ready to drink it.

Thustrup softened as I recounted my own experience with Palmer '61. Unexpectedly, he proposed that we have lunch. You could be a regular customer of a French wine merchant for 20 years and not be invited to lunch. We ate at a relaxed bistro called Paul et France. The wine list included wines supplied by Thustrup. We drank one of them, a 1947 Meursault from a shipper whose name had been lost with time. It struck me as an audacious choice. Thirty-five-year-old white wines are not, so to speak, everyone's cup of tea. Though not a great wine, it was a survivor. Comparing opinions with Thustrup was fun, the more so since no wine jargon passed his lips. It was out of that lunch that an enduring friendship took hold.

Thustrup was born in Djursholm, a seaside enclave near Stockholm. He describes it as "a small, rich kind of place, as Neuilly is to Paris." Peter was the youngest of four children. His father, Anders, cofounded Sweda, an international company best known for producing automated cash registers. Anders was a serious collector of art who had acquired, among others, works by the Dutch masters, Kandinsky, Léger, and Picasso. "I remember one painting as tall as I am," says Thustrup, who stands a little over six feet. (That Picasso was sold later on to a Rockefeller.) In old photographs, Thustrup's mother, Maude, has the wide-eyed, delicate beauty of silent-screen star Theda Bara in her prime. Maude was a vigorous sportswoman who excelled at skiing, swimming, and tennis, as does Peter. And she had one unlikely passion: machinery. "My mother would buy shares in industrial companies," says her son, "just so that she could visit their factories."

While the paintings on the walls were superb, the wines at the Thustrup dinner table were mediocre. "My father felt that art you can buy and sell again, usually for more money," says his son. "But once the wine is opened, that's it. Our daily wine was usually Algerian." Always hyper-attuned to taste and smell, Thustrup sought out better wine. At age 20 he used his savings from a summer job to purchase a mixed case of great red Bordeaux. Realizing that such a splurge would pain his parents, he was careful to keep it a secret from them.

Thustrup had perfected his English during a high-school year spent in Darien, Connecticut. Using a cash gift from his grandmother, who had died a year earlier, he bought a metallic-green Mustang convertible. "I had the car before I had my driver's license," he says. After graduating from a commercial college in Sweden, Thustrup earned an MBA at INSEAD, the prestigious French business school at Fontainebleau. By the time he was 30, he was the director of European marketing for Revlon. Off-duty, he haunted wine auctions. Slated for a big promotion and a transfer to Manhattan, Thustrup opted instead to leave his position with Revlon and devote his efforts full-time to wine. That was at the end of 1982. A year after that he opened Vins Rares et de Collection on Rue Laugier.

That little shop is long gone (it closed its doors in 1988), as is its successor on Rue Royale, but Thustrup's business, now called Vins Rares Peter Thustrup, is today a thriving wholesale enterprise with an office near the Arc de Triumph, a fine wine cellar in Burgundy, and an international clientele primarily in Europe, America, and Japan. Seventy percent of Vins Rares clients are other rare-wine dealers, while 30 percent are private collectors. Last year's revenue reached $8.6 million, only a quarter of it earned in France. Recently I asked Thustrup if he'd had a strategic plan to "grow" the business upon opening his first shop.

"Not at all," he answered. "I was just trying to learn more about wine."

To this day, Thustrup continues to learn more and more, keeping notes of every wine he's sampled in a database that's grown to 21,000 entries. His work ethic is stern. "Unless I've accomplished what I should have on a given day," he says, "I don't feel I have the right to drink wine at dinner."

What wine has left the most indelible memory on Thustrup? "A bottle of Château Léoville from the 1874 vintage," he answered unhesitatingly. "So graceful and sophisticated, like a very old lady who had kept all her beauty, whose eyes still sparkled. It was so touching that the wine wasn't trying to hide its age, but satisfied to be exactly what it was. It wasn't concentrated, of course, but everything was in perfect balance. It was the only time I cried because of a wine. The tears just came slowly to my eyes."

In 1987, I took my family to Israel for a ten-month stay. Many friends promised to visit us. Thustrup—who came with his former girlfriend, Daniele—was among the few to keep that promise. Back then, Israel was producing and importing few superior wines, so when the couple arrived carrying two special bottles in their hand luggage, it seemed like manna. We opened them on a cool, brilliant night in Jerusalem. The white was a Bâtard-Montrachet, vintage 1982, from Leflaive, all butter, lemon, and verve. The red was a Château Magdelaine, vintage 1975, a rich and poised Saint-Emilion. Denial had sharpened my palate—and the wines seemed to gain in brilliance from contact with the scintillating desert air of the Holy City.

Not every wine time was a good time with Thustrup. Once, during a visit to Paris, I went with him and Daniele to a Chinese restaurant. Their longtime relationship was not in particularly good shape, and it took a sharp turn for the worse at the table as Thustrup tossed his glass of red wine in Daniele's face. She in return coolly hurled the contents of her glass at Thustrup. Dripping wine, they sat and glared at each other. Hurting for these two friends, I emptied my own glass of wine on myself. Fortunately, it was only a Beaujolais.

In due time, both Peter and Daniele each happily married others and started families. Moments after a first child was born to Peter and his wife, Ninou, in a Paris hospital in 1995, the proud father personally ensured that the first liquid to touch the newborn's lips was a few drops of a legendary wine. It was the Musigny, vintage 1945, from the Comte de Vogüé. The rest of the bottle was quickly emptied by the delivery-room team. For them, it was merely a great wine, one normally well beyond their reach. For Thustrup, considerably more was happening there. Touching that great wine to his firstborn's lips was an act as richly symbolic as a ceremony of Holy Communion. Peter Thustrup was melding an old priority with a new one. The first had been wine. Now came family.

In the mid-1980s Thustrup had created a duplex apartment with a roof garden in an ancient building situated on Rue Hautefeuille, a narrow and picturesque street in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Next to the dining room was a glass-walled, temperature-controlled wine room. Spacious and dramatic, this was a home to envy. But a few years ago, Thustrup decided to give the place up and move to a house in a private park in suburban Saint-Cloud. The usual reason for such a move would be that a growing family required more space. The Thustrups, however, had space aplenty in their Paris duplex. This relocation was driven by Peter Thustrup's nose.

"I miss the smells of flowers and trees and earth," he told me while house-hunting. "Rain, earth, grass, flowers, pines . . ."

Most of Thustrup's wine trade is now done with other dealers. But wine buffs need not feel left out. They can find an intriguing selection of Thustrup's wines at the Paris shop he shares with Chocolat Foucher at 30 Avenue de l'Opéra. The selection mingles modest young wines with rarities. Recent offerings included Château Branaire-Ducru, a Saint-Julien from the superb 1970 vintage for 553 francs (about $79); magnums of Château Clinet, a Pomerol from the 1981 vintage at 840 francs (about $120); and Bollinger RD Champagne, vintage 1982, at 930 francs (about $133). If you prefer an even older Champagne, Dom Pérignon, vintage 1970, was priced to sell at 1,424 francs (about $203).

I also noticed, there in the display window, half bottles of Château Beychevelle, a Saint-Julien, from the poor 1969 vintage. But Thustrup is not always averse to poor vintages. "In the case of Château Lafite-Rothschild," he explains, "I like the small, meager vintages like 1954 and 1957. They allow you to taste the soil, and a wine's perfume comes from the soil."

At his own table, Thustrup could routinely drink classic wines; he certainly opened his share of them. But I have observed that he's just as happy uncorking offbeat bottles, usually from musty private cellars, that would be spurned by pedigree-conscious collectors. He once handed me a glass of mahogany-toned wine, obviously ancient, and challenged me to identify it. Silky and suave, it had to be a classic Burgundy—wrong. This old soldier turned out to be a 1937 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a wine that in its youth would have been far too robust to mistake for a delicate Pinot Noir. Almost 70 years in the bottle had subdued it to perfect delicacy.

Picking dinner wines with Thustrup from his home cellar can yield the unexpected. One evening last spring he asked me to select a white and a red. From a group of half a dozen mold-encrusted bottles of white wine on the counter (deemed the unsaleable portion of a recently purchased private cellar) I picked out a 1949 Corton-Charlemagne, perhaps the longest-lived of all the white burgundies. There on the same counter I noticed two half bottles, freshly corked but unlabeled. They were hand-marked simply "T-45" and "T-52."

Thustrup explained that he had recently returned from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, fount of some of Burgundy's most expensive wine. He had brought with him ten bottles of La Tâche, a fabled wine from the estate, divided between the 1945 and 1952 vintages. The bottles had recently been purchased from a private cellar. A number of them had low fill levels due to evaporation through their corks. The cellarmaster at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti had "sacrificed" one bottle each of the two vintages of La Tâche to replenish the other bottles before sealing them with fresh corks. The remnant in the two "filler" bottles was then poured off into the half bottles, which were then marked "T-45" and "T-52."

"Shall we drink them?" asked Thustrup.

You can guess my answer.

Nineteen forty-five was a legendary vintage for La Tâche. Nineteen fifty-two, on the other hand, was considered to be only so-so. But Thustrup warned me not to prejudge the wines. Wise advice. We opened the older wine first. Incredibly, it was still a vibrant purple after more than half a century. It tasted fresh and pure. Perhaps it was too well behaved. The La Tâche from the 1952 vintage, on the other hand, was dismayingly pale. But the wine's bouquet was rich and alluring, its brown sugar and mushroomy flavor billowing out in soft wave after wave. It was possessed of the magic that lovers of Pinot Noir seek but rarely find—not even in the supposedly far greater La Tâche of 1945.

Everyone knows that the world's most prized wines have become so expensive that even well-heeled collectors hesitate to drink them. Often, investment-grade wines only leave a collector's temperature-controlled cellar for delivery to an auction room. When the hammer goes down, the wine is likely to become even more expensive and less likely to appear on the dinner table. Peter Thustrup, on the other hand, has always opened what he damn well pleased, when he pleased. Or so it has seemed to me.

"No, no, there is a limit," Thustrup insisted when I questioned him about his apparent disregard for market value at cork-pulling time, adding "I am very careful about opening wines worth more than 2,000 francs [approximately $285]. Unless, of course, it's a special occasion."

"Do you remember the evening I dropped by your house when the refrigerator was almost empty?" I reminded Thustrup. "We snacked on cheese and Swedish flatbreads. You opened a bottle of Haut-Brion, 1959. I'm complimented you did it, but was that such a special occasion?"

Thustrup was silent.

"And what about the last time we went to a casual restaurant on the spur of the moment? You called ahead to ask if we could bring our own bottle. That was the Château Ausone 1961. I don't recall that it was a special occasion."

"Well, with good friends, it doesn't really matter what the wine is worth," answered Thustrup. "Anyway, I've always felt it my duty, because of your interest in wine, to give you, um . . . reference points."

You've done your duty well, Peter. Even if we had shared only jug wine, our friendship would still be grand cru.

Where to Buy Wine From Peter Thustrup

For the Serious Rare-Wine Collector, Importer, or Seller
Vins Rares Peter Thustrup $
11 Rue Pergolèse, 75016 Paris
Tel. 33-1-45-01-46 02, Fax 33-1-45-01-46-10
E-mail: ventes@vins-rares.fr
Web site: www.vins-rares.fr

For Everyone Else
Chocolats Foucher
30 Avenue de l'Opéra, 75002 Paris
Tel. 33-1-47-42-51-86, Fax 33-1-47-42-20-75
E-mail: chocolatfoucher@infonie.fr

Peter Hellman has written on wine and food for Saveur, The New York Times, New York magazine, and the Wine Spectator. He is the author of five books and is currently working on a book about memory.

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