A Peek Into the Exclusive World of Wine Societies
By LETTIE TEAGUE
When it came to adding new members, the most important question of all wasn't even about wine, but about compatibility.
THE FREEMASONS are said to be one of the most secretive societies in the world. They have many mysterious rituals, special symbols and words and at least 12 different handshakes (some of which can be seen on YouTube). Some wine societies are almost as secretive, although their members are less likely to employ a special handshake than they are to break into song.
Two of the most exclusive wine societies, La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and the Commanderie de Bordeaux, have special songs that accompany an evening of drinking and are delivered in French (naturellement). The Tastevin tune is a traditional Burgundy chanson, while the Commanderie song, "Toujours Bordeaux," is a more recent work. Created in 1998 by Eric Vogt, the music-loving maître (or head) of the Boston Commanderie chapter, the song won a prize at a competition in Bordeaux. (The prize was Mr. Vogt's "weight in Bordeaux," or 10 cases of wine, although Mr. Vogt maintained that the prize committee erred "on the generous side.")
The Commanderie ditty is a fairly rousing number and, save for a few references to the region's major varietals and great châteaux, it might well have been my college drinking song. On the other hand, the group I saw singing "Toujours" at the French ambassador's residence in Washington a few weeks ago didn't look like anyone I knew in college. The members, mostly in their 60s, were an accomplished group of women and men with careers in government, law, banking and finance-and possessed an impressive knowledge of French.
I'd been invited to attend the Commanderie dinner, aka "parlement," by its grand maître (national director), Angus Smith, and Neal Borden, the maître of the Washington chapter. They were inducting a new member to the chapter and Mr. Smith thought it would be a good time for me to see the Commanderie in action. The Washington chapter was especially open and friendly, said Mr. Smith-unlike the other two chapters he had first proposed but whose membership had turned him down.
The Commanderie de Bordeaux aux États-Unis d'Amérique, founded in 1957, is an organization of men and women who love, buy and drink the wines of Bordeaux. There are more than 30 Commanderie chapters in the country and around 1,100 members nationwide, although new chapters and members are added frequently. (A Palm Beach, Fla., Commanderie chapter opened earlier this year, and a new chapter is to open in Charleston, S.C., sometime next year.) Mr. Smith is always looking to add new members to the Commanderie, especially wine drinkers under 40 years old. Some chapters have younger members than others and some chapters are easier-or harder-to join. The New York chapter, for example, is particularly hard
The same is true of the New York chapter of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, an organization of Burgundy lovers founded in Burgundy in 1934. Although there are Tastevin branches all over the world-from the U.S. to Singapore-the New York branch has a great cellar and a long waiting list, according to the members who were willing to speak with me.
David Milligan, a wine importer and member of both the Tastevin and the Commanderie in New York, said a prospective candidate may have to wait up to two years to join either organization-and faces some rather daunting requirements as well.
A candidate must be recommended by a member in good standing and seconded by another. He or she must also demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the wines of the region. In New York, Tastevin candidates are given written exams and Commanderie candidates undergo oral exams, though this may not be the case in other chapters of each organization. The candidates must host a dinner or two for members of the society's nominating committee at a restaurant or club. He or she must also serve wines from his or her cellar. (Not all of the chapters require their prospects to hold these dinners, which can cost into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the restaurant and the wine.
And not just any wine will do, of course. As Geoffrey Troy, a New York wine merchant and a member of both clubs, put it, "You need to at least bring a grand cru." Mr. Troy recalled attending a Commanderie dinner at New York's Union Club at which a prospective candidate served eight wines from his collection, including a 1970 Château Latour, a 1961 Pichon Baron and a 1995 Château d'Yquem. "This guy really reached deep into his cellar," he noted approvingly. While most members presumably have similarly impressive cellars, that's not a necessity for membership, Mr. Troy noted: "You could also go out and buy some 1982 first growths."
A successful Tastevin candidate is expected to pay an initiation fee of an undisclosed amount and as much as $1,800 in dues (as they do in New York), in addition to the price of each dinner or party. The Commanderie dinner that I attended in Washington cost $180 per member, although some dinners cost much, much more. Some chapters charge a separate cellar fee, while others incorporate it into the cost of the membership. For example, the Washington chapter of the Commanderie costs $500 annually with a $250 cellar charge. The initiation fee was also confidential "as per our insurance carrier," said Mr. Borden.
It wasn't always so costly or, for that matter, competitive, recalled Mr. Troy, who joined Tastevin and the Commanderie in the late 1970s. In the early days, there were no tests or trial dinners. "It's gotten a lot more rigorous," he said.
And much more selective. Only seven or eight members are admitted to the New York Tastevin chapter each year, according to a member who wished not to be named. The reasons are partly practical: There aren't many great restaurants that can accommodate more than 60 people (New York Tastevin dinners are often held at restaurants like Le Bernardin and Per Se). It's also a matter of wine. There's only so much grand cru Burgundy to go around.
There are plenty of other societies, of course. The Commanderie des Costes du Rhône was formed 12 years ago, in Philadelphia (there are also chapters in Montreal and New York) for lovers of Rhône wines. Brian Platton, a lawyer in New York, belongs to Tastevin and the Commanderie de Bordeaux and serves as the regent (director) of the New York Costes du Rhône chapter. Mr. Platton characterized the Rhône organization as "a little more relaxed" than the Bordeaux and Burgundy societies. It's cheaper, as well: The annual membership fee is $700, and the initiation fee is a modest $1,000 paid in cash or a case of wine that "you want to put in the cellar to share," said Mr. Platton.
The International Wine & Food Society, founded by famed gourmand André Simon in 1933, is also popular among oenophiles. It's a particularly active group, meeting as often as 15 or 20 times a year. Its annual dues are "less than many other organizations," according to past New York chapter President Ira Green (though he wouldn't name an exact amount). The Chaîne des Rotisseurs, founded in Paris in 1248 (and revived in 1950) is another large gastronomic society whose members include amateurs and professionals. In fact, there are many chefs, sommeliers and hotel managers among its ranks. The Chaîne is better known in Europe than in the U.S., noted John Vyhnanek, the bailli provincial (director) of the Chaîne's Boston chapter. Chaîne members might get a "glass of wine or a dessert on the house," if they identify themselves to a fellow Chaîne restaurateur or chef while traveling abroad, said Mr. Vyhnanek.
Although every organization has its own criteria, focus and cost, one theme proved constant. When it came to adding new members, the most important question of all wasn't even about wine, but about compatibility. Or, as Mr. Troy put it: "Do you want to sit across the table from this person for three or four hours?" Sometimes personality and character can trump even the greatest cellar of grand cru Burgundy and first-growth Bordeaux.