Where Is the Sympathy? The Travails of My Journey to Bordeaux

June 21, 2018

Tasting wine I could never afford with Herve Gouin, the Commercial Director for first-growth icon Chateau Mouton de Rothschild.

By John Stayton
Executive Director of Graduate & Executive Programs 
School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University

Greetings from Bordeaux, France, where I am in the final days of a business trip for Sonoma State University. Prior to leaving, when I told my colleagues about my busy itinerary, they were completely unsympathetic. This is not the reaction I am used to since we regularly commiserate about how busy we are and how it is impossible to get everything done. Instead, they all said some version of, in the most mocking tones, "Oh John, you are going to France for 10 days. I feel SO SORRY for you!"

After a three-hour bus ride to SFO and a thirteen-hour flight to Paris, via Seattle, I immediately caught a train to Strasbourg and had my first dinner meeting an hour after arriving. Think about it...having to be ready for dinner an hour after a bus trip, two plane flights (spanning nine time zones), and a train ride. I walked to the 300-year-old restaurant in the old city near the cathedral, where protocol demanded that I drink Gewurztraminer and pinot noir while feasting on Alsatian food. 

Somehow, I managed to endure all of this, but again...no sympathy! When I told my wife about it she didn't feel sorry for me at all.

The next day I had three hours of productive, back-to-back morning meetings with EM Strasbourg (part of Strasbourg University), made a 2.5-hour train journey to Dijon, and had two hours of equally productive afternoon meetings with Burgundy School of Business. Then I was taken out to dinner AGAIN, at a brasserie near the market known for their fresh food. There I was served tartare with some of that fine Burgundian red wine. Tartare is raw hamburger! Somehow I managed to completely clean my plate and drink my share of the bottle. Remember jet lag? Schlepping from city to city? Still...no sympathy! No one who I emailed at SSU offered any words of consolation for my plights.

The next day was Saturday, and I had my lucky moment--I was booked on one of the few trains from Dijon to Paris not impacted by the rail strike. I met my French aunt at my hotel in the late afternoon. Because I only planned to bring carry-on luggage for my flight to Bordeaux the next day, Aunt Suzy and I had no choice but to open the bottle of Alsatian sparkling wine given to me by my partners from EM Strasbourg, and drink out of plastic cups! That was a travesty, although the wine was very good. Fortunately, my room had a decent view of the clock tower on Gare de Lyon, where we had dinner later at Le Train Bleu.

Sunday was a complete disaster. The professor I planned to meet within the morning did not show up, so I had to work on my computer in the lobby of the super-trendy hotel full of stylish and attractive young French fashionistas, constantly reminding me of how old and unstylish I have become. They were very distracting to watch and I was unable to get much work done at all.

Because my carry-on luggage weighed more than 12 kilos, I ended up checking my suitcase after all. My flight to Bordeaux was late, and I didn't end up having a decent meal all day. Of course, I was not very hungry due to my indulgences of the prior three days.

That brings us to marathon Monday. I met up with our students from the Sonoma MBA in Wine Business, who were starting a five-day course module on "The Luxurisation and Premiumisation of Wine". This is part of a joint course we created with Kedge Business School in Bordeaux (their students will be joining us on our campus in July). We got on a bus at 8:30 AM with our Kedge counterparts and visited five wineries, dined in two of them, and didn't get back to our hotel until 11:45 p.m. The road between the various first and second growth wineries was terrible--much too windy and bumpy. At Chateau Lafite de Rothschild we only had one tasting--a 2007 Lafite (average retail price of $1100/bottle)--while conversing with their Technical Director in charge of all wine production, Eric Kohler. Then we were off to Chateau Durfort-Vivens, a second-growth winery in Margaux, where we tasted several wines and ate French delicacies for lunch, thanks to their former General Director (and current Kedge MBA student) Jerome Heranval. Jerome was the one responsible for the various tastings and the level of access to winery leaders. We bumped along to Chateau Margaux, where we tasted first-growth wines with General Director Phillippe Bascaules, and then to Chateau Mouton de Rothschild.

By this time my feet were very sore from walking around wineries and standing in tasting rooms. I finally got to sit down while drinking champagne and eating hors d'oeuvres on the lawn of fourth-growth Chateau Lafon Rochet. This was followed by a multi-course (I lost count) dinner and four of their fine Bordeaux red wines with vintages ranging from 2005 to 1988. How do they expect us to eat and drink so much fine food and wine in one day? This was entirely unrealistic, but I did my duty and ate and drank as much as possible. And yet, when I texted with staff members at SSU, all they could comment on was how beautiful the pictures were. Not one word of compassionate understanding.

The rest of the week has been filled with classroom instruction by Kedge professors and tastings at wineries. Tomorrow we have to go all the way to Cognac, a two-hour bumpy bus ride away. I don't know how many iconic cognac companies we will visit and tastings we will endure, but I am sure we will pack in several. Wish me luck making it through these travails until I return home on Saturday. And if you see me in the hallway or on the street, please, give me some sympathy!