Every American ambassador to France since William C. Bullitt has presided over a chapter of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Order of the Knights of the Tasting Cup), and last week the incumbent, Arthur K. Watson, joined the ranks, thus keeping the record unbroken.
More Burgundy is exported to the United States than any other wine of France, including champagne and Bordeaux. It is certain that the Chevaliers du Tastevin can take a lot of credit for this state of affairs.
There are similar wine societies representing every major wine region of France, but none has had the success of this one. It was set up in 1934 when the wine market was sagging so much that Burgundian growers were terrified of having an abundant crop.
Two wine men, Georges Faiveley and Camille Rodier, tired of the weeping and wailing, decided to found a society that would bring Rabelaisian joy back to Burgundy while promoting its wine.
Combining high-class hoopla and serious efforts to encourage quality, the Chevaliers du Tastevin have made themselves into a household word in wine-drinking France. They always manage to get celebrities, from actresses to astronauts, for each chapter; the late Gen. Charles de Gaulle was once président d'honneur at a night of puns, song and wine.
The first efforts of the Chevaliers du Tastevin were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, but with the liberation of France they went back to work. Today there are chapters on every continent.
In 1944, the group bought the 16th-century Château du Clos de Vougeot, acquiring a perfect setting for initiation dinners. The château is surrounded by the vines of Clos de Vougeot, a wine held in such high esteem that some generals reportedly have been moved to order their troops to present arms as they marched past.
Six-course dinners for 500 to 600 at a time are served in the cellars of this château. Despite the number, every hot course is served on hot plates and everyone is served at virtually the same moment. Best of all, your wine glass is never empty.
The dress is formal for both men and women but the entertainment is entirely light-hearted, consisting largely of pun-loaded speeches and French drinking songs. The most memorable night must have been the time the Comédie-Française put on Molière's "Tartuffe" in the courtyard of the château prior to a late dinner at which the actors were initiated into the order.
The efforts of the Chevaliers du Tastevin to promote the best of Burgundian wines get less attention but are perhaps more important than the dinners.
In 1950 They began to award their label to particularly deserving wines. Such a wine is called tasteviné and only as many numbered labels are awarded as there are bottles in the particular vat or tun of wine which has been approved. In a store or restaurant this is the surest guarantee of quality you can find for a Burgundy, and it is well worth the inevitable higher price asked for it.
The Chevaliers du Tastevin are selective about who gets into their order in spite of the celebrities indispensable for promotion. Ordinary candidates must have professional qualifications or prove themselves knowledgeable amateurs. For this reason it is a genuine distinction to be a Chevalier du Tastevin.