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Reflections on a Bottle of Taittinger

Part 1: Solemnizations

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By Ian Dunross
September 29, 2010
For clarity, all book titles are displayed in small caps (Casino Royale), and short stories are shown in quotes and capitalized accordingly (“For Your Eyes Only”). Film titles, on the other hand, are italicized and shown with the capitalization used by the filmmakers (For Your Eyes Only). Quoted passages contain the styles used in the original source.
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04/19/08/1300h. My plan was to be at the Domaine Carneros winery right when it opens at 10 AM to beat the crowds that typically get unloaded from the tourist buses. I was fresh in from Florida—a bit of Fleming/Bond territory in America1—and the drive from the airport to the Napa countryside took longer than expected. Now, on the grand staircase that led to the winery, I was stuck behind a throng of tourists, and just about everyone was snapping photos with their camera phones or making calls as they walked; after a few moments I got the wild but unshakable impression that they were all talking to each other, that whoever was babbling into the mobile device was talking to somebody in line. And to think that only a few hours earlier I was drifting along Highway 121 in my SLK roadster, noting the howl of the motor as I shifted down and accelerated through a series of S-bends. But a combination of rare common sense and the sudden awe from seeing wine country in the tranquil morning took over, and I applied a touch to the brakes, reducing speed to savor the moment. The landscape struck me as ethereal, forcing me to remember a phrase from Mr. Bond himself (“we have all the time in the world”) and luring me to make occasional stops to take in the view of endless vineyard-covered hills. Not quite the drive through the Loire Valley as described in Goldfinger, but the day was poetic enough for this 007 enthusiast: indeed, my urge to visit the glorious Domaine Carneros winery and to marvel at its Taittinger dimension had a connection, however subtle, to the 007 lore.

Renowned as a landmark in the Carneros region, the winery's elegant French-style chateau was designed after the Château de la Marquetterie, an 18th-century castle owned by the Taittinger family near Epernay, France. In other words, Domaine Carneros is a replica of sorts, a repackaged version of the Taittinger legacy, and a kitschy element in its intentions is unavoidable: a plaque in the tasting room, or rather the grand salon (a room styled in Louis XV decor), proclaims the winery's ancient heritage, having been “established in 1988.” Claude Taittinger, the Grand Poobah of the enterprise, is the culprit, envisioning an offshoot of Champagne Taittinger on American soil, and by 1987 he settled on a 138 acre parcel in the region, a viticultural appellation that he sensed would be suitable for sparkling wines. The sprawling chateau recalls Hugo Drax's spectacular California residence in the film Moonraker (1979), another estate inspired by Frenchy architecture, with every stone brought from the homeland, as Drax's gorgeous assistant, Corinne Dufour, explains to Bond during the helicopter flight over the complex. One wonders if Monseiur Claude, like Hugo Drax, was also prevented from relocating the Eiffel Tower to his Carneros estate (apparently, the French government doesn't hand out export permits so easily). But all is not lost: in the world of champagnes, Monseiur Claude can boast that Domaine Carneros has managed to assert its own prestige. Its cellars—sculpted into the hillside beneath the winery—produce delicate sparkling wines2 that hark back to those made by Taittinger.

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Four splendid estate pinot noirs, one Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, and a sparkling Rosé—the extent of my samplings in the salon. Well, sort of, because my affable server, one Gerhardt Gustaf Locque, added an extra glass of La Terre Promise Pinot Noir (a limited release) as I continued to ask him about his favorites. It didn't matter that he had a flinty mug, or that I pictured him as a henchman who could strangle me with a garrote at any moment, or that his surname recalled a certain Emile Leopold Locque, an assassin of the Brussels underworld circa 1981 in the film world of For Your Eyes Only—because Gerhardt tossed in some extra caviar to compliment the tastings and even praised, or rather envied, the bottle of champagne that I was clutching, a bottle that I brought back from Palm Beach. Contented and carefree, I walked out to the terrace: there were tables with umbrellas, and I sat down and looked at the vineyards in the distance. The champagne from Florida stood in the middle of the table. It was a Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, the champagne that Bond drinks in his hotel room in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Call this whole thing an homage: April 2008 marked the 45th anniversary of the novel's publication.

I've always had a special fondness for this entry in the series. At about 200 pages, it's a bit lean as a paperback thriller but contains something of an epic scope. The smooth, pulsing narrative takes us through themes of heraldry and the quest for ennoblement, intertwined with a plot concerning germ warfare. Plus we've got the majestic setting of the Alps, a dramatic character-triangle between Bond and a Corsican mafia boss and his daughter (of all women, a countess with a death wish), and some spectacular action scenes—a ski chase on Christmas Eve and a helicopter raid on the villain's mountaintop lair—and it all leads to a harrowing conclusion with James Bond getting married, unaware of the mournful consequence to occur only moments after the wedding. Fleming wrote the novel in 1962 during his annual Jamaican getaway, ten years after he started writing Casino Royale; and not surprisingly, there are references to that first novel through a pensive James Bond who, it turns out, returns each year to Royale-les-Eaux, the casino resort in northern France, to commemorate “this place and, particularly, the great battle across the baize he had had with Le Chiffre so many years ago” (19). Immersed in his retrospection, he opens a window onto his life, providing us with a glimpse of a solitary figure who carries an aching longing for a lost beloved:

He had come a long way since then, dodged many bullets and much death and loved many girls, but there had been a drama and a poignancy about that particular adventure that every year drew him back to Royale and its casino and to the small granite cross in the little churchyard that simply said “Vesper Lynd. R.I.P.”  (19)

The drama and poignancy of that adventure also includes a beating to his nads, performed by the sadist Le Chiffre—perhaps the most vicious torture in Fleming fiction—though, oddly, Bond doesn't seem to have any recollection. Then again, it's hard to imagine any man wanting to recall such an ordeal, unless that memory were associated with a memory of, say, falling off the CN Tower, or inadvertently marrying Rosie O'Donnell, or some such life-altering event. No, in this early part of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, it's the solemnization of the first adventure that Fleming seems to emphasize with his hero, and it's touching to see Bond, in a bit of melancholy imagery, alone in a small churchyard, gazing at Vesper's grave.

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The solemnization continues in his hotel suite. Fleming suggests that Bond settles each year into the same type of room, “one of the handsome grey and white Directoire rooms with the deep rose coverlet on the bed” that he “remembered so well.” He is in familiar surroundings, then, something of a home in Royale. To celebrate his arrival, he orders from Room Service the aforementioned Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, which he has made his “traditional drink at Royale” (20). Ten years earlier, it was the champagne that he ordered during his first dinner with Vesper Lynd at the Hotel Splendide:

“. . . I would prefer to drink champagne with you tonight. It is a cheerful wine, and it suits the occasion—I hope,” he added.
“Yes, I would like champagne,” she said.
With his finger on the page, Bond turned to the sommelier: “The Taittinger 45?”
“A fine wine monsieur,” said the sommelier. “But if Monsieur will permit,” he pointed with his pencil, “the Brut Blanc de Blanc 1943 of the same marque is without equal.”
Bond smiled. “So be it,” he said.
“That is not a well-known brand,” Bond explained [to Vesper], “but it is probably the finest champagne in the world.” He grinned suddenly at the touch of pretension in his remark.  (Casino Royale  54)

The remark also reveals an individual who's knowledgeable about wines. Indeed, of all the champagnes he could have selected from the sommelier's "leather-bound wine list," Bond focuses on the Taittinger, knowing the prestigious bubbly and wanting to share his delight in this champagne with a woman who has captivated him.

In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Fleming doesn't delve into specifics of the Taittinger that Bond orders from room service other than that it is a Blanc de Blancs. I suspect Bond drinks, for such a special occasion, the Comtes De Champagne vintage, the prestige cuvee based solely on Chardonnay (hence the “Blanc de Blancs” signature). He certainly enjoys it, even eager to drink it: without making a toast to Vesper or to his arrival in Royale, he goes straight to drinking the champagne, downing a quarter of it rather fast. We sense that the moment is quite emotional for Bond. There is no need to raise his glass in honor of Vesper. It's the totality of the ritual--the graveside visit, the arrival at the resort, the familiar room, the Taittinger champagne—that comprise Bond's commemoration of Vesper Lynd and the adventure from ten years earlier.

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A portion of the Domaine Carneros vineyards, as
viewed from the terrace.

Back at Domaine Carneros, a soft breeze blew across the terrace. There was the clink of champagne flutes and the chatter of tourists. I imagined the pop of the champagne cork in Bond's quiet room. Fleming never mentioned the year of the Taittinger. My bottle, on the other hand, was a 1998, a vintage that marks 35 years since the novel's publication, and certainly suitable for my overall tribute to the novel. Gerhardt appeared at the table with a Baccarat crystal glass and uncorked the bottle. I sensed the lemony aroma of the champagne, and I remembered Bond again, in the hotel room in Royale, and wondered what made the Taittinger so appealing to him.

As I sipped the champagne, I jotted my tasting notes in a journal. I wondered if Bond held the same impressions about the Taittinger. It's unclear, in any of the books, if he is the sort of chap who keeps a diary of tasting notes. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, we only see his urgency to drink the champagne, downing “a quarter of it rather fast,” which suggests not only his delight for the Taittinger, to be sure, but also his attempt to relieve himself of something—perhaps the pain of revisiting the haunting atmosphere of Royale-les-Eaux? As for Fleming, among the papers he left behind (and now stored in, of all places, Indiana University, Bloomington), not even a scribbled review on a notepad exists for any of the wines he cherished. At least with the Taittinger, we have evidence for his admiration:

“We have a letter from Fleming thanking M. Taittinger for a dozen bottles, and Taittinger was mentioned in Casino Royale, Moonraker, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Goldfinger.”

These are words from Justin Llewellyn, the brand ambassador for Champagne Taittinger and, as luck would have it, the son of the late Desmond Llewellyn, who played gadget master “Q” in the 007 film series. “Taittinger,” he proclaims, “was actually Ian Fleming's favourite Champagne” (Rosen).

Continue... Part 2: Tasting Notes



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Notes

1 The Sunshine State has a prominent, if somewhat subtle, connection to the Fleming/Bond lore. In January 1953, Fleming reached St. Petersburg by train from New York. Consequently, he dramatized the locale and train trip in the novel Live and Let Die. Miami serves as a brief setting in Goldfinger (both the novel and film). Key West, on the other hand, appears as a major setting in the 15th 007 film, Licence To Kill (1989).
2 I use the terms sparkling wine and champagne interchangeably, depending on what comes to mind, so indulge me on this; but as any wine pedant would point out, the champagne we know and admire comes exclusively from the Champagne region of France and has achieved the glory of being the most renowned of the sparkling wines. Officially, it's the only sparkling wine that may be called “Champagne.” The bubbly stuff from other countries are simply classified as “sparkling wine.”

List of Illustrations

“Champagne-Wine Country Collage.”  Layout by author.
All photos of the Domaine Carneros winery by author.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. “Narrative Structures in Fleming.” The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the
Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979. 144-172.
Fleming, Ian.  Casino Royale. 1953. New York: Berkley, 1982.
---.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 1963. New York: Signet, 22nd printing: n.d.
Rosen, Maggie.  “Bollinger and Taittinger spark up old Bond rivalry”.  Decanter.com.
25 April 2008  19 Sept. 2010   <http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/485853/
bollinger-and-taittinger-spark-up-old-bond-rivalry>.

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