Tasting burgundy on wheels

Matthew Hayes in Clos de Bèze

Matthew Hayes, pictured, stood/wheeled in magnificently for Jancis recently and tasted many a 2020 burgundy on our behalf.

As if Jancis had not had enough to worry about, with Nick’s falling over causing rather nasty-looking cracks in his skull, thereby stymieing their planned trip to taste 2020s in Burgundy, I received an email last week that she was worrying about me too. Was I going to find all the domaines she had lined up for tastings and what would the access(-ability) be like? At the end of the week she wondered how it had gone. Brilliantly, in a word. There’s no point in a long recital but I write this as an encouragement to anyone on Purple Pages who has to mix a passion for wine with the travails of a physical disability. They can be mixed, and yes you can.

Now, what I am about to write is not about blowing my own trumpet; I am no super-human being or super-amazing wheelchair user. However, back in 2008 when I had my unfortunate meeting with a speeding car I did make a conscious decision: the only way is onwards and you cannot cry about spilled milk. With three young children (Gaspard was only nine months old) I had responsibilities to those other than myself.

Although ultimately my work at a Meursault wine merchant became complicated, it would be very disingenuous to suggest my paraplegia was the only reason for my leaving. In the interest of keeping things simple, I set up Albion Vins Fins, very much a lifestyle business, giving me ample time to do a little business, ride my handbike and generally have a reasonable, leisurely time. The basis of my business was the Italian wines that I had imported and traded over the previous ten years, now giving me an excellent excuse to slide into my car and spend a few days in Tuscany or the Veneto.

It is one of the challenges of the Old World that many of the wineries were built centuries ago when the plight of the physically challenged was unlikely to be a huge concern. The toughest moment of my week was at Michel Lafarge in Volnay: a transfer on to a very narrow pavement (wheelchair plus 10 cm/4 in – watch those knuckles!), and this at an angle defying any comforting centre of gravity, was achieved with nervous trepidation. Volnay was not planned with the handicapped in mind, but once I had got to the door and rung the bell, there were helpful hands to get me in.

An advantage to visiting wineries is that they are generally full of barrels, and these, one way or another, need to be moved. During my tastings I have done quite the tour of Burgundy’s monte-charges (goods lifts). Im pictured below in Gérard Mugnerets. Dugat-Py’s was my most exciting descent, on a flat metal plate with not a hand-bar in sight (like this by Rem Koolhaas, but a lot smaller). Health and Safety would go nuts, but I descended to their magnificent vaulted cellars with grace and dignity. Their cousin Claude has a fantastic lift too that follows the angle of an escalator and is really quite fun. Several lifts shut off the lights as the doors closed but that didn’t bother me, and arguably added mystery and charm.

Chez Gérard Mugneret

Steps of course are a challenge, as are pavements. I should be able to descend them on two wheels, but I will roll for a hundred metres to find a pavement flush to the street. Benjamin Leroux was concerned because there are eight steps up to their rather fine offices, cuverie and tasting rooms. I forewarned him to think of me like a sack of potatoes on a trolley, and with six hands it was an easy ride.

In all, since 2008 I have never had any real difficulty visiting wineries; some may be higgledy-piggledy, multi-levelled and cramped, but the vat room, at least, is generally large and open enough to be the fallback tasting venue. Rarely have I been unable to get inside a winery on my own four wheels. A tasting with Diego Molinari at Cerbaiona in 2012 does stick in my mind. This Montalcino institution is built into a challengingly steep hillside, and Diego’s odd-job man literally man-handled me up some very narrow steps to taste in their sitting room. I closed my eyes and prayed. At least for the return, gravity was in my favour.

It is a recurring lesson to me that I am more self-conscious about my condition than others. With a warning in my pre-visit email that I was on wheels and that stairs were out of the question, every domaine has been able to accommodate me, no doubt on occasion with some effort and forethought. The generosity of spirit I have benefited from is honestly heart-warming. It can take some motivation to get me out and about, not least on a cold, wet, early-December Burgundian day. The memory of Brice de la Morandière wheeling me across Domaine Leflaive’s cobbled courtyard (like a sack of potatoes) is a pleasant one: a reminder that this really (still) can be the life.

I cannot say that every domaine I have visited could make such accommodations on a daily basis; some domaines do not open their doors to everyone. But it is clear that with a word of warning, visiting domaines in a wheelchair is not a forlorn aspiration. I can think of other distinct USPs that I would rather have possessed as an itinerant businessman, but in my now long experience in a wheelchair, for those able and willing to make the effort to visit a winery, that willingness is amply rewarded.

But now the fun is almost over, and I have to write up my notes. Notes which on occasion appear to have been written by someone extremely handicapped.