Travels with the Colonel

Ken Gargett is one of Australia’s leading wine writers, contributing columns to the Brisbane Courier Mail, Herald Sun, Gourmet Traveller Wine and

He is an unashamed lover of the good things in life: champagne, cigars, fishing and travel. On a recent trip to Europe he ran into a man after his own heart, our own Colin Gaetjens. This is their story…

“Caught up with Colin Gaetjens in Paris to head across to the Mosel. Needless to say, at least to those who know him, he would be doing the driving and navigating. After forgetting what side of the road he was supposed to be on about 18 times, and over-correcting about 18 times, we finally come to a large flowing body of water.

“That would be the River Something,” he proudly announces. Marco Polo couldn’t have put it better.

We finally reach the winery of Egon Muller at the appointed time (or thereabouts). Egon after a long drive has a group of 20-something sommeliers from all over Europe with him and they are about to climb one of the world’s steepest vineyards, Wiltinger, and drink some 20-year-old Auslese at the summit. Would we be interested?

“Absolutely”, declares Colin, adding that he’d show these young whippersnappers a thing or two (yes, he does talk like that). Off we set. What seemed a very long time later, we emerge from the vines at a ledge running along the top – so we thought.

Sadly, this ledge is about a quarter of the way up. Sir Edmund Gaetjens throws in the towel.

“All too much. Don’t have anything to prove to these young whippersnappers”, most of whom are now little more than dots on far distant slopes.

I tell him I’ll see him later. No, he demands, you have to help me down. Some days just keep giving. “But not here. Too steep.”

“Where isn’t?”

“We’ll find somewhere.” We don’t.

So we set off down a slope that would embarrass a mountain goat. I keep seeing newspaper reports declaring that one of Germany’s prized vineyards was today destroyed by two fat Aussies, avalanching down it.

Meanwhile, Egon has skipped back down the slopes to assist. We finally get back to earth.   Egon suggests that perhaps we’d like to drive up (seriously? We could have done that in the first place?). So we head around and up the backroads.

By the time we get there, the somms are all guzzling Auslese. Inevitably, we cop merry hell from them (deservedly so). Australia’s good name took a fearful beating that afternoon. While I am running around trying to convince them all that Gaetjens is actually a Kiwi and nothing to do with us, he takes a turn for the worse. Slumps against a vineyard wall. Everyone rushes over to assist (some people will do anything to be the centre of attention). He has, in truth, gone whiter than a KKK AGM and really does not look good. He can’t speak (silver lining?). We carry him across to the car and lie him down. Everyone is trying to work out if we can get an ambulance up to the summit or where the nearest hospital is (well, perhaps not everyone. I’m wondering if his wife knows he brought a suitcase of ’99 Burgundies with him and if she’d notice if they went missing).

We manage to drive back to the winery, give him a reviving drink and within minutes he is arguing, complaining, directing everyone around, abusing the GPS machine because places are not where he believes they should be and generally giving a critique of the shortcomings of everyone else on the road – in other words, back to his old self.

In his defence, it was extremely steep and he is old, fat and unfit.

We have put down his unexpected grumpiness to the fact that he forgot his Vegemite and as anyone who witnessed ‘the Madrid incident’ knows, Gaetjens and his Vegemite are not easily parted.

For those not in the northern hemisphere that fateful day, our hero arrived at the Madrid airport for an internal flight, dressed in his prize blue pork pie hat (who travels with a different hat for each day of the week?).

He had with him, in his hand luggage, a tube of Vegemite. The unsuspecting woman at Spanish Customs advised him that she was confiscating it (under the ‘no paste’ rule – or possibly the ‘good taste’ rule). She was advised, in return, that she was not. Chaos followed and within minutes, a crowd of, without exaggeration, 400 bemused onlookers had gathered to witness the battle.

Our hero first regaled the poor woman with tales of the glories of the slime and hence why he should be allowed to take it with him – she had absolutely no idea what it was or what it could be used for but she was not buying this myth that anyone would be so insane as to actually try eating it. When that didn’t work, Colin tried identifying the shortcomings of Spanish Customs. That worked about as well as you’d expect. He then moved on to his personal thoughts on Spain itself. As far as I could work out, Spain’s greatest crime was… not being France.

Eventually, telling them that this wasn’t over, Colin abandoned his Vegemite (to be honest, it pretty much was all over by then). For the next hour in the airport, I watched little children duck behind the legs of adults to hide when they saw him coming and I am convinced that Spanish parents now put the fear of God into their kids by telling them tales of how the man in the weird hat will come for them in the night if they don’t behave.

On a more serious note, back in the Mosel, Egon wanted to do a comparison of one of his wines – 2011 Scharzhof berger Spatlese – under screwcap and cork. No prizes for guessing which looked absolutely scintillating and which looked very reserved, and a touch dull.

But the highlight of the day came, when in mid tasting (we were outdoors), Egon fired up a big cigar. Imagine what the need- a-cause, rent-a-mouth crowd would say about anyone doing that back home.