Saturday, February 4, 2023

Wine Stories: Memphis Wins the Beaujolais Race

Editor’s Note: This is an exerpt from John Hailman’s book The Search for Good Wine. This particular chapter of the book was written on November 20, 1983.

Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis – The honorary capital of North Mississippi has made great strides in recent years, but greatest of all was the restoration of the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (completed in 1981).
Once again it is the place to go for a relaxing drink and culturally unique and magnificent surroundings. At last, there is someplace you can invite someone to, as Dr. Johnson would have said. Even the acoustics are excellent, the enormous ceilings and plush carpets absorbing just enough sound to create a convivial hubbub while preventing the serious roars that mere bars usually end up with.
In November 1983, the Peabody hosted, at its revitalized Dux restaurant overlooking the lobby, the Mid-South’s first entry in what has become known as “The Great Beaujolais Race.” For the past few years, it has been customary for fine restaurants and wine-tasting groups all over the world to jet in several cases of freshly bottled nouveau (new) Beaujolais, scarcely two months after the grapes were picked.
Under French law, no wine may be shipped out of the country before November 15 and this year, The Peabody managed to receive its shipment, with help from intervening time zones and an energetic local distributor, just in time to serve it at a 10 a.m. pre-Thanksgiving brunch on the very day of its release, thus bettering than the Big Apple.
This feat was much appreciated by visiting wine writers and other lucky souls who qualified the new wine unabashedly through three full-courses, including a traditional pumpkin soup, large plates of small tender lamb chops, and plates of large, stuffed baked potatoes.
The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.
The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.

Beaujolais Day, which began as an obvious gimmick to sell more Beaujolais wine, has performed an unusual trick, which is the exact opposite of too many recent Christmases: It has taken pure commercialism and turned it into an occasion of generosity, merriment, and goodwill. We didn’t need Omar Khayyam or Santa Claus last Tuesday to tell us we were having a good time. As Omar once said, “What can winemakers buy that is one-half so precious as what they sell?”
In the flashiest cities, like New York and Houston, the occasion has been overplayed, with one restaurant offering 15 different day-old Beaujolais for a portentous comparative tasting. Even the staid British launched their Beaujolais Day last year with a soldier parachuting Falklands-style out of a plane into the Thames River, holding the very first bottle of Beaujolais of the year.
The Peabody was much more tasteful. Peabody general manager Czaba Ajan (pronounced shah-bah ah-zhahn), who directed the event, is an established wine guru with impeccable California credentials. A native to Transylvania, he has lived in the United States since 1962, but even now his name alone gives a whole new level of meaning to the word “exotic”. Ajan kept the proceedings at the Peabody merry, but low-key, as befits a light and simple red wine, meant to be drunk slightly chilled from pitchers. The event was also limited to the fine Beaujolais villages of a single shipper, the renowned George Duboeuf, an ally and protégé of the even more renowned chef Paul Bocuse.
Bottles of Beaujolais wine
Bottles of Beaujolais wine

The wine was true to its nature: a light, soft, un-acidic beverage with a brilliant translucence of color, a sort of pleasantly purple-ish dark rose. As Hugh Johnson once described it, a nouveau is “a joy to swallow” and “all to easy to drink”. It is an uncomplicated wine, made not to be discussed or meditated upon, but to be quaffed freely with pleasure among friends. On the wine list were four good Beaujolais, all much heavier and more acidic wines than the nouveau.
Of the four, the simple Beaujolais of Cruse was the lightest and the closest to the nouveau wines just arrived, which retail in Memphis for prices that negate what they used to be called: the best “cheap” red wine in the world.
But whatever the vagaries of taste and price, Beaujolais, which Thomas Jefferson visited by stagecoach on March 9, 1789, and described as “the richest country I ever beheld,” and whose wines he later stocked in his personal cellar in America, will probably always be one of the world’s most popular wines. It was also one of the best wines for traditional Thanksgiving dinners because it goes unusually well with nearly every food, from spicy dressing to both light and dark turkey meat. It is also the red wine most often enjoyed by white wine drinkers.
hailmanJohn Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.