Over the weekend we lost a great vigneron, and one that was close to our hearts—Noël Verset. Noël’s wines were a mainstay of our Cornas imports for decades, until his retirement after the 2006 vintage. Including the time he spent training with his father, Noël made wine for more than seventy years. Below is a remembrance written by our National Sales Manager, Bruce Neyers, of his first experience meeting Noël. We bid adieu to the great Syrah master.
© Gail Skoff
I met Noël Verset in 1993, on my first trip to France for Kermit Lynch. Although he was then in his late seventies, he was still actively working the vines and making wine. Kermit had arranged a two-week trip for me to meet his growers; the itinerary that he laid out started in Alsace and ended 12 days later in Marseilles. My friend and former colleague, Ehren Jordan, had moved to France a few months earlier and was working for Jean Luc Columbo in Cornas. I was pleasantly surprised when Ehren offered to take some vacation time and join me for the trip. He said it would give him a chance to visit some other regions and taste a wide range of wines. I welcomed the prospect of another driver and especially an interpreter. After meeting at the airport in Strasbourg in early January, we traveled through France together — visiting many of Kermit’s suppliers and tasting their wines. I was learning as much as I could about the wines, their history, their production techniques, and any other details that would help me sell them.
After a short drive through Alsace, we continued on to Burgundy, then to Chalonnaise, Mâcon and Beaujolais. We entered the northern Rhône in Vienne. From Côte-Rôtie we drove to Condrieu. After stopping to visit a producer in St. Joseph, we drove on to Hermitage. All along this part of the route we tasted Syrah. In many places, we tasted Syrah like I had never tasted before, for we were in the home of that seductive wine. After a tasting with Gérard Chave, in Mauves, we drove on to Cornas for another visit, followed by dinner at a local hotel. Ehren was excited to return to Cornas; this was his new home. As the only American living in the region, he was a celebrity, well known by many of the locals. Everywhere we went, people would see his large white American car with its Pennsylvania license plates, and begin to wave at us enthusiastically. Since he didn’t want to be late for our appointment with Noël Verset, we sped through the tiny back streets of this ancient town. At the end of what seemed like a deserted alley, we parked the car and walked towards a sign noting the cellars of Noël Verset, Vigneron. We rang the bell and were immediately greeted by the short and cherubic Noël.
He was delighted to see Ehren. As I learned during our tasting, Noël’s wife of over 50 years had died four years before and, since his two daughters had long ago married and moved out of the area, he was living alone. Over the previous few months, he and Ehren had formed a close bond. Weekly, they prepared a dinner together and shared it, along with a bottle of wine, at Noel’s kitchen table. At one point, Noël confided in me that the meeting with Ehren had been important for him, coming as it did during a time when he was still trying to come to grips with the enormous grief he felt over the loss of his wife. We tasted several wines in his rustic cellars, then adjourned to the kitchen, where Ehren and Noël assumed their customary spots at the table. Before Noel sat down, however, he walked across the room and opened the door leading down to his frigid basement. Behind it stood a recently opened bottle of Verset 1988 Cornas.
The 1988 vintage in Cornas, as I was to soon learn, had been an especially good one. Knowing how much Ehren enjoyed this wine, Noël had set aside a bottle for us to drink while we sat and talked. In a few moments, he reached behind him and withdrew from the bookcase a large, plastic-covered photo album. Drawing a satisfying gulp of wine, he opened the book to the first page, careful to tilt it so that I could see the photo, a black and white of a strikingly attractive, slender woman in a bathing suit of the 1930’s, standing on a beach on a bright summer day. Her hair was wet, presumably from a dip in the Mediterranean, which could be seen behind her in the photo. Noël said that it was his wife, during a summer vacation they took in Cannes. She died, he said, in 1988, and whenever he drank a bottle from that vintage he liked to look at the old pictures of them, enjoying the early days of their life together.
With this, he slowly turned each page, and made a comment regarding when and where it was taken. Ehren translated for me. In a few minutes, I was transfixed, both by the magnificent wine and by this beautiful woman who was, sadly, no longer part of Noël’s life. He seemed cheerful, though, especially when talking about the photos. And then I noticed a drop of moisture as it fell from his eyes and splattered on the vinyl covering the photograph. I looked at him and saw his eyes full of tears. My eyes welled up, too.
Noël ran through the rest of the album quickly now, as his teardrops were coming a bit faster and the end of the bottle was in sight. With a final sigh, he closed the book, turned his back on us for a bit longer than he needed to, then turned back to face the table. He was entirely composed by then. I can’t remember if I was.
Noël looked at me, as he was taking a final sip of wine. “So what do you think of my 1988 Cornas?” he asked. I paused for a moment, composed myself, and replied, “I think it’s the greatest Syrah I’ve ever tasted.” —Bruce Neyers
© Gail Skoff