Best known for his musical abilities, jazz pianist Ronnie Kole is also devoted to his impressive wine cellar, as ALAN SPENCER discovers.
Ronnie Kole, the self-styled impresario, composer and celebrity jazz pianist was hosting a party at his luxurious home across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, out on the bayou, to celebrate the induction of a friend into the Bacchus Wine Society. Among guests like Julia Childs, Harry Waugh and other wine and food celebrities, were Bob and Margrit Mondavi. It was Halloween and Kole invited them into his cellar, not to be spooky, but to pick a few top wines. Seeing Mondavi looking quizzical, Ronnie apologised. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Not much California, mostly Bordeaux.’ Mondavi nodded approvingly. ‘Ronnie,’ he said, ‘you have the best of the best.’ Kole has been part of the New Orleans music scene virtually for ever. His ebullient personality and irrepressible conviviality make him a great entertainer and everyone’s best friend. As a child, Ronnie suffered from a heart disability and today heads a number of children’s charities. ‘I want to pay back for the good fortune I met with in my adult life,’ he explains. Among celebrities, Kole has played for His Holiness Pope John Paul II as well as for the last five US presidents.
Music and wine are his two great passions and his 3,000+ cellar is 99% French of which 75% is Bordeaux. A few years ago, in a moment of inspired genius, he decided to combine his two passions and create a CD called Music of the Vines. His wife Gardner’s late husband, Peter Schneider, was a great wine connoisseur who had already collected an impressive cellar. He therefore dedicated the new CD to both Gardner, for having introduced him to the fine wines of France, and to Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages who introduced him to the fine winemakers. Poets have always sung the praises of great wine and the CD is meant to be a tribute to all his friends in France. ‘I get so much kindness and hospitality,’ he says. ‘It is one way to pay them back.’ ‘”Margaux” was the first composition I ever wrote,’ Kole says. ‘We had just left a tasting of the 1990 with Paul Pontallier, the château’s manager. I pulled the napkin out from under my glass of Champagne and started to compose “Château Margaux”.’ The music is meant to capture the elegance, beauty and richness of the wine and the personality of Pontallier. Kole recommends ‘listening to the composition while drinking a Margaux. Better yet, invite me over, and we’ll both get into the mood.’ Ronnie transcribed in symphonic form the pieces dedicated to Domaine de Chevalier and to Château Gloria, written in memory of Henri Martin. Now he is also orchestrating into a symphony his piece dedicated to Château Lynch-Bages. For him each of his compositions is the memory of a particular wine, a wine which lies in his cellar waiting for the right occasion. Among their most cherished treasures is a magnum of Haut-Brion 1928, bottles of Lafite-Rothschild 1931, Figeac 1949, Yquem and Haut-Brion 1959, Gloria 1961 and many others from the 1960s and 1970s. Ronnie and Gardner have a particular link with Figeac because the Manoncourt family, who own it, are close friends. ‘There are two men in France I call “brothers”,’ Ronnie says. ‘One is Nerino Bernard, owner of Hôtel Le Cep in Beaune, and the other is Thierry Manoncourt.’ Yet neither Frenchman speaks English and Ronnie doesn’t speak French. The wines and the music speak for them!
Not unnaturally, Kole has been initiated into the Commanderie de Bordeaux as well as into La Jurade de Saint-Emilion. But now in recognition of his love for and promotion of French wines, hotels and restaurants, in particular through his Music of the Vines, he is being made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, perhaps because, among other promotional efforts, Ronnie encourages wine lovers to drink up. ‘I don’t buy futures to speculate,’ Ronnie says. ‘My cellar is not a showcase but our private pleasure trove for us and our many friends to enjoy.’ A sentiment which goes straight to the heart of all his French winemaking friends.