Howard Milstein’s remarks on being inducted into the Legion of Honor

April 24th, 2014

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I am delighted and humbled to receive this great honor.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know you when you served as Consul General here in New York, and more recently to know the current Consul General, Bertrand Lortholary, and your predecessors over the years, all through my close and dear friend, Christy Ferer. Christy is herself a recipient of the medal of the Legion of Honor and I know that she has been my champion. We are so pleased that our special friends, Sybille and Jean-Paul Denfert-Rochereau are able to be here this evening.

Regrettably another dear friend of 30 years, Benoît d’Aboville, who served so long as a senior French diplomat and my sometimes tennis partner, is unable to be here this evening due to other pressing commitments, but Abby and I hope to continue tonight’s celebration with him and Christy in Paris in June.

My love of France began with my first visit there as a teenager when my parents took us there on a summer holiday. My mother, who is here this evening, was a language major, fluent in French, which gave the visit an extra special je ne sais quoi.

In 1976, Abby and I spent two weeks in France on our honeymoon. That began a lifetime of wonderful visits together. We fell under the spell of the Hotel du Cap in Cap d’Antibes, and in addition to our annual visits, we treated ourselves to the best possible gift on our big occasions by inviting the people we love to spend time with us in the place we love.

We have so many special memories of being there with so many of you here this evening. We look forward to making more delightful memories there together.

In many ways France figured into the launch of my business career. Fresh out of graduate school, I went to work for Warburg, Paribas, Becker, a partnership of three firms that included the Banque de Paris et du Pays Bas. I spent an interesting time in the Paris office on the Rue d’Antin, and learned the more gracious French way to start a business day with a stop at a charming cafe, rather than coffee at my desk in a plastic cup. My boss then, Barry Friedberg, became my lifelong friend, and now indispensable partner.

Alain LeBec, another colleague from those days, once again works with us. I’m so glad that Barry, Charlotte, Alain, and Leah are here.

In my late twenties, I was introduced to one of life’s great pleasures, and one of the true treasures of France – its fine wines. My introduction came at the beautiful dinner table of Stephen and Stephanie Miron. Stephen generously shared the bounty of his cellar, enhanced by his vast knowledge. He even shared coaching notes with me to help me prepare for the reportedly rigorous entrance test of the Chevaliers du Tastevin, our Burgundy wine society.

One of the wonderful aspects of an interest in wine is that it is a pleasure meant to be shared and I am so happy to have many of my wine confrères here tonight in addition to Stephen—Will Zeckendorf, our Grand Sénéchal—whose late father, Bill, made sure I was admitted to our chapter, Ned Weihman, Mauro Romita, and other wine lovers George Sape, David Rudnick, David Clossey, Edgar Cullman, Alan Wiener and John Zuccotti.

Love of French wine has been a special shared passion and bond between my brother Eddie and me, and with Eddie’s enthusiasm and expert palate we have been on a remarkable journey together. It began with buying wine by the barrel for ourselves at the Hospices de Beaune auctions 20 years ago. Eddie and Robin and Abby and I once visited there together and enjoyed the magic of Les Trois Glorieuses—the three days in November when the Burgundy wine world celebrates the harvest, and tastes and buys the output of the numerous plots that have been donated to the Hospital over the last six centuries. To elevate our barrels of grape juice into wine, we turned to our friend Pierre-Henri Gagey, the head of the well-known and prestigious House of Jadot. When the opportunity arose for us to purchase a negotiant ourselves, we turned again to Pierre-Henri for advice and asked him to partner with us in our fledgling venture.

I am delighted that Pierre-Henri could be here with us tonight, having flown to New York from Paris just this morning.

When we acquired Remoissenet, our Burgundy wine business in Beaune, we made history as one of the first non-Burgundians to enter that sacred terroir. We have steadily increased our operations by buying and leasing land, and under the care of our extraordinary team of Pierre-Antoine Rovanni and Bernie Repolt we are now making 65 different wines, including many of the highest quality. Pierre-Antoine and Bernie, keep up the good work!

My love of French wine joined with my interest in history during my years on the Board of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. When Jefferson was the American Ambassador to France, he cultivated his love of French wine and was acknowledged as America’s foremost wine expert. Disguised as a common person, he traveled through France, tasting and sending large quantities home. As President, he stocked the White House cellar and later advised his successors, Presidents Madison and Monroe. Abby and I had the special opportunity to travel with that Board twice to France, once to follow along the route he traveled in tasting and buying wine, and once to dedicate a statue of Jefferson in Paris in 2006. The statue stands, larger than life, on the Left Bank of the Seine, quite near to the present-day home of the Legion of Honor in the Hôtel du Salm. Jefferson would rent a chaise longue in the Tuilleries and watch the construction of the Hôtel du Salm; he took some inspiration from it for his own architectural masterpiece, Monticello.

After the dedication of the statue, our group was treated to a lovely dinner at the Tour d’Argent by a charming elderly supporter named Bert Taylor. Bert had inherited an apartment in the same building as the restaurant from his father, and along with it, a private cave that was part of the restaurant’s extensive underground storage dating back many hundreds of years. Luckily, his family cave was in the part of the complex that had been bricked off to hide it and the rest of the best wines from the Germans during the war.

He brought up and served not only some outstanding Burgundies and Bordeaux, but most remarkably, a cognac from 1795. It was truly spectacular to drink a delicious brandy that had been made from grapes harvested in Thomas Jefferson’s time and to toast him with it!

When the Foundation decided to renovate Jefferson’s wine cellar at Monticello, I volunteered that Eddie and I would underwrite the renovation. When it was complete, we decided to have a very special dedication. We invited today’s winemakers from the producers whose wines Jefferson had most enjoyed. We were honored that among those who came was Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. We had a two-day celebration, beginning with a lovely dinner in Washington at the French Embassy hosted by then-Ambassador Vimont, and the next night a magnificent dinner in Monticello itself, cooked by none other than Daniel Boulud. Our good friend Dena Kleiman, with her impeccable French and remarkable diplomatic instincts, gave us invaluable help in organizing it all.

I know that those of you who were there with us will always remember it, not only for its delicious food, its extraordinary wine, and its magical setting, but most importantly as a meaningful expression of French-American friendship.

As many of you know, the Legion of Honor was started by Napoleon. His intention was to establish an order of merit to replace the hereditary titles of the ancient regime. You might not know that another of Napoleon’s creations came out of his short-lived conquest of Egypt. When he began his expedition there around 1800, he took along artists, classicists, cartographers, geographers, historians, etc.—the flower of the Enlightenment—to record in a way never before done, the wonders of the ruins of ancient civilization. It was on that expedition that the Rosetta Stone was first discovered. The fruits of their efforts became a 23-volume set of books in sizes ranging from large to gigantic that were issued over more than two decades and entitled Description de L’Egypte. Special paper, special printing presses and techniques were invented and developed, and even special furniture to hold it. About 300 sets were produced, and very few complete sets of the first printing are known to exist today.

When I learned about this, it sparked my imagination. I set about finding a complete set to acquire. After several years, I was finally able to buy a complete hand-colored first printing. On the day last July when the massive boxes were delivered to my office, I opened a bottle of Clos-Vougeot, turned on the Marseillaise, which happens to be on my playlist, and with my son, Michael, Barry and Alain, delightedly set about opening up my prized new French possession. In one of those wonderful coincidences of life, with a glass of Clos-Vougeot in my hand and with the Marseillaise playing dramatically, my secretary brought me a letter from the President of the Republic of France, informing me that I had been awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honor.

Now I stand here, proudly between the red, white and blue of the United States and the tricolore of France, surrounded by friends, and family, people who love France.

Shall I sing the Marseillaise?

Well, not now, but perhaps after I’ve had enough to drink later!

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