Michel Phaneuf: Interview

Michel Phaneuf: Interview

If there are encounters that stay with you forever, my meeting with Michel Phaneuf was certainly one of them. On the occasion of the sale of a portion of his wine collection to the SAQ, the team decided to immortalize this man and his passions in front of the camera. A privileged moment, a moment in time with this wine legend. His rigour and expertise as the instigator of the first made-in-Quebec guide to wine is well known, but you might not have known that he prefers Bordeaux to Bourgogne and that he has a huge interest in photography and aviation. An interview with a legend, by the apprentice (and real groupie) that I am.
  • By: Marie-Hélène Boisvert
  • November 2, 2017
  • Interview

A nascent curiosity

Let’s go back in time a little. As he explains in the video that you can watch here, it was a “very ordinary” Pisse-Dru that piqued the curiosity of this celebrated critic back in the 70s. The curiosity to understand where this good taste came from was the origin of his desire to push his knowledge of wine further.

During the interview, he tells me that he loved wine because it went along with his passion for geography and maps, but also for the encounters that wine allows. In 1978, he founded Les Amitiés bachiques, a tasting club that rapidly took off. Three years later, he published his Guide du Vin, a first in Quebec, and a guide that, throughout the years, has brought home numerous honours.

I take notice of a display that holds the trophies he has accumulated throughout the years. One triangular trophy stands out from the rest. Before the eyes of his interviewers, Phaneuf explains that this was the award for the best wine guide in the world, which he received in 2010, at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards! I’ll admit it, I didn’t know that Guide du vin had such a reputation on the international scene! Throughout our discussion, we talked about Nadia Fournier, who, in 2011, took up the flame of the Guide du vin when it celebrated its 35th anniversary that year. Phaneuf also received the 2017 Prix hommage de La Grande Dégustation de Montréal, which highlighted his exceptional contribution to democratizing the world of wine, and introducing Quebecers to its many wonders and delights. The honour was bestowed on the wine luminary after careful consideration by a panel of six wine industry heavyweights, under the guidance of Daniel Richard, President of Univins and Spirits.


An important step

At a very touching moment in the interview, Phaneuf explains to us that the sale of a part of his wine collection to the SAQ was a kind of rite of passage that marked the end of a very important period in his life. He decided to put all the profits from this sale into a research project dealing with Parkinson’s disease, led by the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont.

“I decided to sell my collection for the profit of scientific research, because I told myself, in life, it’s important to be useful… like the Guide du vin was useful. So I found another way to be useful in donating research funds to finding a cure for the disease that has personally touched my life, as well as the lives of 100,000 Canadians.”



The secret of a lifetime

Of the 1,500 wines that are part of the Prestige and Heritage sale, certain bottles date from the 70s and 80s. These wines were impeccably preserved. He speaks of them with affection, as though each bottle were a precious jewel. As part of the lot, you’ll find a significant quantity of wines from Bordeaux.

“Bordeaux is a region that I became familiar with early on in my career, and I really took to it. I loved the realm of Bordeaux wines, the classification of vintages, the chateaus, the wines . . . You can find a lot of wine from Bordeaux in the collection I’ve sold to the SAQ because, simply, my cellar was full of it.”

With a little hesitation, he continues.

“I’ll tell you my life’s secret. People have sometimes reproached me, accusing me of loving only wines from Bordeaux. It’s not true—I don’t only love Bordeaux, but I love it quite a lot. It’s always a big debate with wine lovers, between the Bordeaux and Bourgogne regions. Me, I love the former, because I knew it when my career was beginning. It’s the very foundation of modern wine. Everything that was made in the New World was inspired by Bordeaux. For me, that remains the frame of reference.”



A magician with light

Throughout the interview, I am drawn to a large photograph that hangs over the living room sofa. A woman is bathed in the light of a cloudy day. Perfect luminosity, a solemn ambience, impeccable framing, it has everything. And it is an image of Phaneuf’s wife, the woman who, according to him, played an invaluable supporting role in his adventure with wine. And he himself is the one who immortalized this special moment. “I was captivated from an early age by shots of photographers from the early 20th century, like Cartier-Bresson. I find that photography is an extraordinary way to see the world.”

Seeing these beautiful works, you can only agree with him! Everywhere, in his living room, kitchen and dining room, magnificent photographs tell the story of Michel Phaneuf’s world. Several of them carry evocative titles: After the Rain in the Basque Country, Lovers of the Louvre, The Five Graces, Live Life! (his favourite) . . . Examining the photos that he has taken throughout his life, in his home as well as in books that he’s published, you discover at the same time his passion and his talent, his exceptional mastery of light. A great photographer indeed!


Up high where birds soar

“Aviation is an interesting way to explore a region’s geography,” Phaneuf explains. He recalls a memorable flight above the large domains of Bordeaux: “Flying above such mythic vineyards on a lovely summer night, it’s very special! . . . The equilibrium of a wine is a very important concept. It’s the same thing with aviation. You have to have equal resistance and propulsion, the plane has to stay in flight, you have to land at a good speed.” A long-time owner of a Cessna, that he sold several years ago, he more than once had the great fortune to give himself over to his passion for flight.


Master and apprentice

At the end of the interview, I dare to ask a personal question: what would you say to someone who is getting started in the world of wine? “I would say that you have to dedicate a lot of time and work to your study of wine, especially with all the New World wines that we have to learn now. You have to make some sacrifices, but the rewards are worth it!”

That’s a promise Monsieur Phaneuf, I will rise to the challenge, with the Atlas des vins by Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, a glass of Bordeaux in hand, and my passion. Thank you for this wonderful exchange and for the numerous selfies. You could say they’re a work of contemporary photography! 😉

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