Tuesday, February 17th, just after 6am, my father died, six weeks before his 83rd birthday. His death came suddenly, as we were anxiously awaiting a complex surgery that might have alleviated some of the symptoms of his severe cervical and lumbar stenosis, which had rendered him nearly immobile over his last few months. He died peacefully, without pain, with his wife and my mother, Jane, my brother, Jim, and his wife, Molly, and myself by his side. Since March 2014, vertebral pressures on his spinal cord had caused him to lose much of the use of his left arm, and diminished his ability to walk. By the time of my visit home to Houston, Texas in December 2014, he could neither walk nor stand without assistance. His neurosurgeon had scheduled a cervical laminectomy for February 24th. Dad was optimistic about the skills of his surgeon, and hopeful that the results would allow him some relief from a life of immobility. He was fully cognizant of the risks of such surgery given his age and condition, and he saw it as the alternative to a certain life of advancing invalidism. Unfortunately, an infection, which eventually spread to his bloodstream, ended our hopes.
My father was trained as a geophysical engineer, with a scientist’s attention to detail and a stubborn precision in his everyday life. Today my friends often point out my affinity with his punctilious habits, and I am quietly proud to accept their comparisons. But in my younger days it was an outlook and discipline against which I rebelled mightily, and it became the source of frequent family conflicts. In high school I had been lucky enough to be accepted to the University of Cambridge, England for my undergraduate studies. I cherished the idea of being 5,000 miles away from his overbearing influence, in a culture far different from my Gulf Coast upbringing. In my first week at Churchill College, Cambridge, I attended our Fresher’s Dinner for new undergraduates, and was seated next to a gentleman whose place-card read “Professor Emeritus Sir Edward Bullard”. A former physics student of Ernest Rutherford in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, Bullard went on to found the discipline of marine geophysics, mapping the existing land masses of the earth into the hypothetical, original Pangaea land mass before continental drift and plate tectonics had become commonly accepted science.
It was my first experience of a full Cambridge dining celebration, complete with Vintage Port and Madeira making their opposing circumnavigations of our table. At dinner that evening, Professor Sir Edward Bullard examined my place setting, and asked, “Are you any relationship to Harry Hasenpflug, Jr.?”. Somewhat taken aback, I responded that if he was referring to the Shell Oil Company geophysicist from Houston, Texas of the same name, well then yes, I was his son. I asked the Professor how he knew my father, and he replied “Oh, I have never met him, but I use his books in my graduate student seminars.” I had left Texas to remove myself as far as possible from my father’s discipline and compulsive influences, yet he had arrived at Cambridge before me. I had never known that he had written books, much less that they were groundbreaking, seminal manuals in the application of computer science to oil exploration geophysics, proprietary research of Shell Oil Company. Humbled by this new revelation of my father’s talents, I phoned home to Texas from Cambridge (in 1973 at the rate of nearly £10 per minute), only to discover that my father was more concerned that the Professor might have purloined his writings from Shell rather than with the burgeoning pride I had felt in his preceding me intellectually into Cambridge’s historic halls. It would not be the first time that my father’s experiences had preceded my own.
After Cambridge I continued my studies in Social Anthropology at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. My fieldwork for my doctoral studies was in northwest New Mexico in the Burnham Chapter of the Navajo Nation. I spent most of 1979-80 within a community of traditional Navajos, living in a stone hogan with a dirt floor and no running water. My research concentrated on the community’s pastoral land use and matrilineal social structure, working with a legal team from the National Indian Youth Council who were preparing a lawsuit to stop what would have been the world’s largest coal strip mine, just south of the existing mine in Fruitland, New Mexico. When I came home briefly in the summer of 1979 to attend my brother Jim’s wedding, I learned that my father had preceded me to New Mexico as well. His own graduate studies and summer employment 25 years earlier had brought him to the same region near the Chaco River Basin, where he was searching for oil and natural gas on federal lands adjacent to the Navajo reservation. Such a coincidence of geography and the nearly opposite goals of our researches would mark the juxtaposition of our political views for the rest of his life.
Dad went on to a storied career with Shell Oil Company, and we often joked about what he might have been worth financially if he had been paid a commission for Shell’s discoveries in the Gulf Coast region under his tenure there. He was “retired” by Shell in 1989 at age 57, and he and my mom Jane began to travel the world with the same dedicated curiosity that he had brought to his scientific career. I joined them on a couple of their trips, and always saw the places that we visited in a different light because of it. Every trip produced a narrative album with his photographs and observations, and I vicariously enjoyed their travels through all 33 volumes he had produced since 1990. Only the record of the last trip, our family vacation to Ireland in July 2014, remains incomplete.
In 1981 my own academic endeavors were interrupted, as between teaching assistant jobs while trying to compose my doctoral thesis, I had found a new and fascinating addiction, food and wine. At Cambridge University I had paid attention when wines were served at our college’s formal dinners, and when I began to supplement my graduate student income as a waiter in one of Cambridge, Massachusetts’ finer restaurants, that appreciation of wine opened a new career path beyond academia. After four years of managing restaurants and writing wine lists in some of Boston’s best addresses, I began my career in wine in earnest in 1985. My father’s skills and interest in geology and geophysics would soon inform and confirm my growing conviction that distinctive wines come from unique places. With his help I became a terroiriste.
Our first trip together into the vineyards of France was in September, 1992. He, my mother, and I enjoyed a leisurely tour of eastern France from Alsace through Chablis, Burgundy, and on to Lyon, the Rhone Valley, and western Provence. I had been invited by the Trimbach family to be initiated into Alsace’s wine organization, the Confrerie St. Etienne. Yet our explorations were not merely touristic, as the geologist in my father compelled us to explore the Ribeauvillé Fault Zone, one of the world’s most complex geophysical regions. From the Rhine Basin to the Vosges Ballons, from Strasbourg to Mulhouse, and particularly from Bergheim to Riquewihr, we discovered the village vineyards, the Alsace Grands Crus and the distinctive geology of each within the region. We even drank Clos Ste. Hune in the fabled vineyard site with Hubert and Pierre Trimbach, while discussing the nature of its unique muschelkalk limestone marl.
After Alsace we continued to Chablis, and, assisted by William Fevre, we explored the difference in the Kimmeridgean marls of the 1ers and Grands Crus, and the Portlandian limestone soils of Petit Chablis. On the escarpments of the Cote d’Or, I listened intently to explanations of limestone degradation and carbonization, the formation of primary marls, the effects of the sloping escarpments on soil distribution and sun exposure, and the geologic periods responsible for the differences in the layered sedimentary deposits that became more visible each time I examined them. By the time we were heading toward the pink granite hills of the Beaujolais Crus, I could tell the difference between the rocky outcroppings of Bajocian versus Bathonian limestone, and recognize the subtle variations of the colors, density, and fossil composition between Meursault, Puligny, and Chassagne. I developed an awareness of the differences between the villages of the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, how they were shaped by combe and valley, small streams and underground springs, and ancient geological faults that provided the basis for the climats or vineyard sites of each.
The Rhone brought further discoveries. A stop in Ampuis exposed the difference between the mica schist of the Côte Brune and the gneiss of the Côte Blonde in Côte Rôtie. The stunning bump of granite and clay that composes Hermitage, and Cornas’ granitic schists intermingled with dense limestone, layered like the folds of an accordion, became convincingly alive and apparent to me. The lacework limestone outcroppings of the Dentelles de Montmirail and the rounded quartz stones that millennia of glaciers had strewn through the Rhone Basin around Avignon gave me new meaning for the flavors of Gigondas, Chateauneuf, Rasteau, Lirac, and Vacqueyras.
I learned more about the terroirs of France’s eastern wine-producing regions on that trip than at any time since. It became the foundation through which I came to understand and appreciate fine wines. Alas, it was only geology and geophysics to my father. Several surgeries on his sinuses in previous years had left him without his sense of smell. Unable to smell and barely able to taste the differences in the wines we drank each day, it was up to my mother and me to discuss and discover the nuances of aromas, floral, mineral, animal, that came from the specificity of soil composition and vineyard location. Ironically, six years later, in 1998, a former colleague of my father at Shell Oil Company’s Exploration and Production Department, geologist James E. Wilson, would write Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines. They had worked together to find oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore limestone continental plates, but never shared a bottle or two of Chevalier or Batard to talk about rocks.
That 1992 trip also opened my eyes to another facet of French wine: its history. I had known “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” since high school Latin class, but visiting the sites of Alesia, Lugdunum (Lyon), Arles, and Nimes gave new dimensions and depth to French wine. The legacy of the Roman Catholic Church in France and the interaction of the monastic orders with the Duchy of Burgundy were lessons I eagerly absorbed. Having been raised by devout Catholics and educated by Dominican nuns and Jesuit priests, our trip included visits to the medieval Abbeys of Pontigny, Fontenay, Vezelay, Citeaux, Tournus, Paray-le-Monial, and Cluny, as well as the Papal See of Avignon. The influence of the monastic orders in viticulture and winemaking techniques was a discovery that gave a new dimension to my relationship with my parents.
We had a similar trip in 1994 to Germany and the Czech Republic, combining a discovery of the Rheingau, Pfalz, and Mosel with genealogical searches for my father’s family ancestors near Kassel, Germany and the village of Dolni Lukoviçe outside Pilsen in the Czech Republic. In 2001 a family reunion trip brought us to the Loire Valley, where we explored the silex flint deposits of the upper Loire and the tufo chalky caves and dwellings of Saumur and the Touraine, all the while enjoying the local wines and cuisines.
These were among the most important journeys that informed my career in wine, if not my approach to life itself. I now treasure a perspective that views the concept of terroir not merely as place, but the history of human activity and achievement within that place. I embrace “Culture” written large, defining the unique and distinctive tastes of food, wine, cheese, architecture, and even social and religious beliefs, things that give definition to a singular yet shared heritage. What I have received from my father was a gift of understanding, a way to appreciate and interpret “patrimony”.
This post will end my blog “Jerome in France – Living the Dream”. I will begin a new blog soon, within this site at http://amitiesjerome.com. In it I hope to share my passion and understanding, my inheritance, appreciating life’s many gifts.