The Gilded Sage

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  • 1824 Pedro Domecq Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Bolivar Amontillado

    Part 1 of 2

    I enjoyed this wine under rather heartrending conditions some months ago, on a gloomy afternoon at Ashton Manor, when rain streaked the leaded glass casements of the upper east wing, and bare tree branches stood black against a grey, mottled sky. Though fires burned amply in the hearths of each room, and the air was thick with the scent of its smoke, there remained nonetheless a certain chill to the air, as if the bent, shrouded figure of death had in fact been made a manifest presence.

    This was the culmination, or perhaps the sad denouement, of a story that had begun still some months prior on an altogether different day—elysian, bright—when, picnicking with Lady Meredith Woodley beneath the great, ancient lime on Ashton Moor, I was approached by a wretched lady-pauper in rags, a poor creature of such repulsive physiognomy that it nearly put me off my caviar and sieved quail's egg.

    “Alms,” she said, in a quavering voice.

    Lady Meredith screamed.

    “Don’t look!” I exclaimed, shielding her eyes with the kerchief of raw silk that had been draped over the neck of our Champers (a delightful magnum of Sir Winnie’s Pol Roger). “This is no sight for a lady.”

    But the old wretch drew nearer. “Alms,” she repeated.

    Reader, know that for all his estrangement from the ways and the sufferings of the inferior classes, your Gilded Sage is not a cruel or unfeeling man. Indeed, I have long been of the opinion that true nobility and gentlemanly grace are conferred not merely by possession of a large home and stables, a library full of books, a fine cellar, but also by that humbler human instinct: compassion. Or—should disgust make the latter impossible—at least the good manners to hide one’s indifference.

    It was for this reason that I forced myself to look upon this beggar, even to risk my own debasement by meeting her eye, and found there the faintest glimmer of recognition: ghostly, elusive, a faraway flame.

    “Master Julian?” the crone quietly said. “Can it really be you?”

    It was as if a hand had been laid on my heart.

    By now, Lady Meredith Woodley had fainted and was thus quite insensible to what was unfolding. All the better, since I cannot pretend to have wished for any vague association that may have existed between this wretch and myself to be known.

    And exist it did, emerging from the depths of my memory, a foundered vessel washed onto shore: for here, standing before me, was Nanny, the kindly and upright old woman from Fowey who had cared for me and seen to my education between the ages of nine months and six years.

    “Nanny,” I said, scarcely believing. I think a tear had come into my eye.

    “Ay, ’tis me,” she said, and threw wide her arms. “You’ve grown, I can see. No longer a lad!”

    I leapt up, intending to embrace the dear woman, who had been kind to me in those formative years, strict only insofar as was needed, indulgent where she could be without risk. But when she smiled, and I saw the hideously discolored stalks of her teeth, indeed when I caught whiff of her... aroma, I stopped short, thinking better of touch. An awkward series of movements ensued, wherein Nanny seemed to lean forward, then back, and I patted my breast pocket with each hand, as if in vain search of the alms she’d requested (and which I knew well enough I would not come across, being in no habit so appallingly vulgar as carrying money on my own person).

    “Oh dear,” I said. “I can’t seem to— But anyway. Wait. You must eat, Nanny dear,” and I bent to assemble a toast point for her, heaped generously with the Beluga and egg.

    She ate quickly, not once remarking its taste; it might equally have been a cooked squirrel to her. Still, seeing my old nanny so humbly accept my munificence, I felt a great rush of emotion.

    I was about to speak when I heard Lady Meredith stir. Recumbent on the soft grass, as if sleeping, her dignity in even that state undiminished, she turned herself and slowly sat up, in apparent confusion at first; then, blinking twice as her bearings returned, she looked up and, seeing Nanny again (her face now smeared with black caviar), let out another piercing scream and fell back, completely unconscious anew.

    Forthwith, I summoned Lacey, my chauffeur, to drive Lady Meredith home. “If she wakes up,” I said, “make my apologies.” He returned, and we traveled back to the manor, Nanny riding in the front seat with him (since it would stand to reason that her remarkable fetor would be less apt to upset a man of his station).

    All the way home, I could hear Nanny under her breath whisper, “Ay, it’s like old times. Ay, that it is.”

    When she had been given a bath and a toothbrush, and had dressed herself in a pale linen shift of the kind I keep always on hand for my guests, Nanny shyly descended the grand staircase looking so much like her old self (only smaller), that for the second time that day, I nearly wept.

    I was seated in my armchair with a snifter of brandy (a Calvados from among the unlabeled bottles, originally taken as spoils of war by a distant ancestor who’d served with distinction in John of Gaunt's army).

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  • 1824 Pedro Domecq Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Bolivar Amontillado

    Part 2 of 2

    “Nanny,” I said. “It really is you. May I pour you a bit of this brandy?”

    She blushed, shook her head, reminding me in a tremulous voice that she never took any alcohol at all, save for a bit of sherry now and again.
    I knew well that she referred to the sort of vile cream sherry common to church rectories and pensioners’ homes, but I nevertheless summoned Aloysius (who had greeted Nanny with a sort of reticent gladness) to bring us a bottle of fine Oloroso.

    And so began some weeks during which that kindly, gentle old woman and I drank bottle after bottle of the manor’s best sherry: from pale and austere Manzanilla with speck, to unctuous, blackstrap Pedro Ximenez. How we laughed, remembering earlier times! Nanny seemed to recall each detail of our shared life, reminding me with good nature of my high jinx from those days: sculpting ribald shapes from foie gras at dinner, or the terrible shock I once inflicted on her by placing the well-worn dust jacket from her Holy Bible on a copy of 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover.'

    But alas, happy as we were for those weeks, even then I knew our joy could not last; for I could see that Nanny was not a well woman. She shivered sometimes for no reason at all; her appetite for organ meats wasn’t good. At first, I took her to be suffering from one among the very few illnesses that tend to afflict those in my own milieu: gout, the occasional touch of syphilis. I called for Dr. Enderby, who acted with such heroic distinction last autumn in curing Lord Willoughby’s bed sores, but when that good man emerged from her room it was with a grim and unyielding expression. There was nothing he could do for her now.

    And so we found ourselves on that bleak winter night, drinking this exquisite Amontillado while I read to her from The Marquis de Sade by the delicate light of an old candelabra. Its aroma recalled an array of dried fruits; the spice chest I once saw at a fair in the village when I was allowed to go as a boy; great uncle Alfred’s tobacco urn, papered to look like a map of the world, where I used to hide marbles and other small toys. In the mouth, it recalled the dry skins of an almond, the burnt sugar sweetness of game on a grill.

    As the candlelight began to flicker and wane, I looked up to see the window filigreed with fine frost. Nanny lay unmoving in bed, her breath slow and shallow, but evincing no labor. I watched her in that way for some time, seeming to fade, or perhaps to recede like the tide. I could not, I must now admit, help but notice that she had failed to finish her sherry. A pity.

    Around midnight, the first of the candles burned out, and as a pale smoke twisted in the wake of the flame, I knew without even having to look that Nanny had parted from this mortal realm. For a long time I sat there, rent with my grief. Life had returned something precious to me, and now again it was taken away. But there had been pleasure—O, such pleasure! Such wine!—and there is, surely, something sacred in that. At some point, Aloysius knocked feebly at the door, and I bid him, wretchedly, leave me alone. Nanny’s hands lay peacefully on the bedspread, folded like the hands of a saint. Periodically, I looked up to steal a glance the sherry, at least two fingers high in the glass, a rich amber such as is known to preserve material from the beginning of time; it seemed to me then an object of infinite sadness, that glass, possessed of a stupid, mute eloquence that told of all life’s sorrow and love; it stood beside the bed on the table, alone, like the very cup of trembling.

    Reader, I drank it.

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  • 1920 Krug Champagne Vintage Brut

    I enjoyed this wine at a recent gathering, held to mark the conclusion of the (apparently) popular teleplay, Downton Abbey. Be assured, reader, that your Gilded Sage would under no ordinary circumstances go in for such vulgarities—indeed, Ashton manor has at no time been equipped with a television—but Lord Heatherington insisted upon my attendance, securing it only with the promise of this particular Krug vintage, the last bottles of which were long ago abstracted from my own cellars, squandered in the late stages of Uncle Alfred's intemperance.

    From what I was able to gather, the programme concerned a family of peasants—all with remarkably good teeth—living in a squalid North Yorkshire slum.

    Given the wretched subject matter, one felt pangs almost of guilt when imbibing a nectar of such sweet and magisterial richness. The nose of exotic spice and late honeysuckle seemed altogether out of keeping with the vileness we observed. But then, it is important every once in a while to be reminded of how the lower classes exist. And why should we not enjoy ourselves in the meantime? Lord Heatherington was much in agreement when I expressed the latter sentiment, and though I shudder still to recall it, I cannot help but feel that I have been in some way bettered by the ordeal.

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  • John15:5 says:

    11/17/2019 9:04:00 AM - Dude, absolutely brilliant. These entries are bringing me to full tears while reading. Eagerly awaiting the next tasting note from Ashton Manor...

  • Momus99 says:

    1/31/2018 11:02:00 AM - Came upon your tasting notes by accident. Wonderful stuff! Keep it up, I'll await the next one with eager anticipation.

  • Dale M says:

    5/7/2017 2:19:00 PM - Mr. Sage, Any chance we get an update from Ashton Manor in 2017? D

  • englishman's claret says:

    1/1/2017 8:55:00 PM - You have the rare gift of writing tasting notes which are not boring. Well done!

  • VinoVeloVinyl says:

    11/23/2016 11:19:00 AM - Truly the most elite of tasters. I commend this fellow wholeheartedly to any seasoned hedonist of superior taste and virtue. Pray tell when your next degustation is planned, I shall be happy to avail you of my last bottle of Samuel Pepys 'Ho Bryan' 1660.

  • Tim Heaton says:

    5/30/2015 9:25:00 PM - Brilliant work here, please carry on