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Integrity's Loss

Posted: February 3, 2000

Integrity's Loss

By Matt Kramer, columnist

It was a bad week in France. In midsummer, within days of each other, Richard Olney and Andre Gagey died. They were aged 71 and 74, respectively, and neither of them had any business dying. Indeed, their deaths came as surprises to all.

Gagey was the longtime director of the Burgundy shipper Maison Louis Jadot. He was as Burgundian as they get: round-faced, cordial, proud of Burgundy's glories and yet worldly. He grew up in a Burgundy that still had cows grazing in pastures amid the premiers crus. While many of his negociant colleagues were gleefully -- and profitably -- engaged in fraud, Gagey was insistently upright. More about that soon.

Olney, for his part, was more complicated. He was the quintessential American in Paris and later, more famously, in Provence. Born and raised in Iowa (does it get any more American than that?), Olney moved to France in 1951 and never returned to live on American soil. He was, as is so often the case with converts, more French than the French. I knew them both, in a journalistic way -- that is, I had interviewed each of them. I followed their efforts: I drank Jadot's wines and cooked from Olney's superb cookbooks. I don't know if they knew each other. Olney was a wine lover. (He wrote a book about the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, as well as one on Chateau d'Yquem.) Gagey loved to eat well. Both were traditionalists in the (intelligent) extreme. I imagine that they would have gotten on well with each other, in a distant, French sort of way.

But I can say this much with assurance: They were of one mind when it came to integrity. Each had it in abundance. And both lived in worlds where it was not exactly prized.

Olney wrote about food at a time when "frozen" was not a malediction. Yet his cookbooks were monuments to exacting quality. Whatever it took to get a dish right, he did. He couldn't imagine any other way.

"Why don't I give an alternative of frozen food with this or that, as some of my editors ask?" he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1995 interview. "I know the reader is going to cheat if he wants to, but I'm not going to encourage it."

Really, there wasn't much of a market for this. Olney's first two cookbooks -- The French Menu Cookbook (1970) and Simple French Food (1974) -- sold only a few thousand copies each. "I hope you're never as poor as Richard Olney," James Beard said to me once. Eventually, Olney made some real money when Time-Life hired him as the editor of its multivolume "Good Cooks" series of cookbooks.

I'm sure that Gagey could have made more -- or at least easier -- money if he had followed the same path as his more cynical confreres. He made honest wine at a time when Burgundy wallowed in criminal duplicity, issuing fraudulent "Pommards" and "Chambertins" blended with Rhone and even Algerian wines. Several big-name shippers were prosecuted, while others skipped free.

Burgundies were blithely overcropped ("For the American market," they said, which "wanted lighter wines"). And they were overchaptalized: too much sugar was illegally added to the fermenting juice to make up for underripe grapes.

Gagey knew all about it, of course. Truth to tell, I never had the temerity to ask him about it. Besides, he didn't own Louis Jadot; he only directed it. Discretion was essential in his position.

But he did own some vineyards himself. And he was savvy, as well as foresighted. He took his family responsibilities seriously. He was enormously proud that his son, Pierre-Henry Gagey, succeeded him as director of Louis Jadot.

Gagey père had no use for squabbling French families that became ensnared in France's inheritance taxes, which require that 40 percent to 60 percent of the value of the estate be paid in a year.

"You know," Gagey said to me, "If the father is a reasonable man, he can organize something to take care of his estate. . . . I own some vineyards in Vosne-Romanee, Nuits-St.-Georges and Beaune. When I will pass away, my children will not have to pay anything. The transmission of the vineyards to them will be absolutely free. Everything has been arranged since 1978."

Everything, that is, except that empty feeling.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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