Earlier this year I was invited to become a Dame de la Jurade de St.Emilion – think Masons but with wine and women, and without the handshake. I was honoured to be asked and despite the robes being red, so not my colour, I was quick to accept.
I was to be intronisée (the literal translation of which is ‘enthroned’. This rather overstates the case so we’ll stick to the French) in London alongside a rather sparkling array of wine glitterati to wit Julia Harding MW, Jancis Robinson’s right-hand woman, Michael Schuster, the essential man of wine tasting and Beverley Blanning MW, a Decanter stalwart. How I was to fit into this auspicious group, I had no idea.
I invited my parents to join my husband as my guests. My father has three daughters so I thought this occasion would suit him rather more than say, going to spa as we often did with our mum. They accepted. Well, they are Francophiles and there was to be wine so why wouldn’t they? Nearer the time, however, we discovered that my mother was seriously ill and because she was still keen to come, I thought Balliol College, Oxford, the alternative venue of ‘intronisations’ would be easier for her to manage than London so requested a transfer. At this point I discovered that the main reason my dad had been enthusiastic about the event in the first place was that it was to be held at Cutler’s Hall which was of historical interest to him and not so much that I, his no.2 daughter, was to be made a Dame de la Jurade de St Emilion. Charming! Nonetheless, there would of course still be wine in copious quantities in Oxford so they deigned to come there instead.
As it turned out, on the night, Mum was too poorly and Dad stayed at home to look after her. Some of our oldest friends from university gamely stepped in.
Due to a work commitment during the day, I couldn’t make the procession in full regalia to, and service at, Christ Church as the other delegates were able to do and instead had to meet everyone at the champagne reception. Anyone who knows my drinking habits will not be surprised that we were the first to arrive, thus ensuring a good draught of champagne could be necked before the honours. Once the Jurade returned, looking glorious in their fur-trimmed robes, I thought I should find our host, the Jurade’s UK Chancellor and the wonderful gentleman who invited me to become a member, Tim Hartley, to let him know I was ready to be similarly kitted out. He’s very tall so easy to spot. He greeted me surprisingly coolly I felt and dispatched me back to my guests.
The champagne reception spilled out into the quad, the evening was warm but time was moving on and the Jurade was getting restless. Any minute now the champagne risked running out, this perilous situation not helped by my thirsty guests. Also, I, for one, was getting peckish. I sauntered over to the Chancellor to quietly find out what the programme was for the evening (actually when we might expect a vol-au-vent or two), when another be-robed gentleman suggested that we really should get to the hall and start the evening’s proceedings. Well said, that man. Tim, however, muttered something about not being able to do anything until Laura Clay arrived. Now, I know Tim hadn’t seen me for a year and I had crossed the threshold into another decade since the last time we met; I realise that I’m rather plumper these days and that being at least a foot smaller than he, I may not have been quite in his line of vision, but really, not to have been recognised was somewhat of an embarrassment…….for us both! A red robe, to match our blushes, was at last thrown around my shoulders followed by a hot-footed parade to the dining hall.
There was much scraping of chairs at long tables whilst 200 people took their seats. My husband had been placed with me on top table on stage but couldn’t take his seat until the formalities had been performed, so, hugged up against the wall, he tried to look as inconspicuous as possible but still had to be photo-shopped off all the official photos.
At last, the intronisations took place. If I thought I might stand a better chance of not seeming a nonentity amongst luminaries in Oxford I was wrong. First up was a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Oxfordshire whose CV included being on the board of several blue chip companies as well as being a patron of the arts. I forget what followed ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’ and ‘BBC’; I do know that my mouth gaped in awe.
Next up a chef you may have heard of, M. Raymond Blanc, with an equally impressive CV, of course, and by now I was wondering what on earth I was doing there. It helped that Raymond was being the antithesis of a celeb, surreptitiously tweeting photos from the folds of his robe and whispering to me that he too had no idea why he was there as, after all, ‘I am shooste a wurkin boy frrrom Dole (I’m sure he said ‘from’ and not ‘on’) and zis ees so bourgeois.’
Somehow or other impressive things were said about me and what I do in the world of wine, all true but embellished in such a way that they sounded so much more important than they actually are. Thank you, Tim.
Time to relinquish our robes – Raymond turned to me, arms wide, and ordered: ‘Disrobe me!’ I‘m nothing if not obliging, even with my husband present, though was accused of being a spoilsport not to allow him the same privilege. We got chatting and it seems that Raymond’s evening too had got off to a shaky start as he found himself without a bow tie and had had to resort to borrowing one from a passing student on his way to a ball. We talked, inappropriately bearing in mind our hosts and why we were there, about the wines of the Jura and our mutual friend’s forthcoming book on the subject– a sin that, had we been overheard, may have had us excommunicated from the Jurade before the ink was dry on our certificates. We then donned ‘epitoges’, fur (rabbit, I think)-trimmed flag type of things you wear with pride on your shoulder.
Dinner was at last served, and more importantly, wine. Seven different and delicious bottles of St Emilion were poured into an imposing array of glasses, from a Lussac to a Premier Grand Cru Classé – the Château Valandraud 2007 was particularly good. My poor husband had to contend with French being the language used over dinner to be polite to one of the chateaux owners sitting with us. But, FACT: St Emilion is a powerful aid to linguistic skill and by the end of the evening O’Level French was tripping off his tongue with ease and alacrity if not exactly fluency.
It was a wonderful night and one I shall remember for the great company and wine as well as the honour bestowed upon me. I am indebted to the Jurade and proud to count myself amongst its number. My duty now as a Dame de la Jurade de St Emilion is to drink the magnificent wines of St Emilion and to introduce and encourage others to do likewise. It is a duty I shall perform with ease and pleasure.