Sunday, May 28, 2006

Some enchanted evening

Last night we went to the INSEAD Summer Ball, held on the stunning grounds of the Chateau Courances.

Yvonne’s birthday was last week and I had bought a nice bottle of champagne at the legendary Vinvin wine shop in Neuilly. During the ride from Paris to the Chateau, we sipped champagne, listened to classical music and enjoyed the beautiful drive.

The chateau is jaw-droppingly beautiful, not just the slender and sophisticated building itself but the grounds around it. We strolled around for almost an hour before the party admiring the Japanese gardens, huge reflecting pools and columns of enormous trees that seem to create a cocoon of enchantment around the chateau.

I had to look twice to recognize most of my students, who had transformed themselves from t-shirts and jeans into tuxes and gowns. As much as I enjoy talking to them in class, it was even more interesting to talk to them in a social setting and find out about more about who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

We sipped champagne in the moonlight, we were dazzled by a private fireworks display across a huge reflecting pond, we danced until 2 and were then whisked back to Paris by our courteous taxi driver, who assured us that he would be working through the night ferrying people to and from the chateau.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

100 to 1 hardly seems fair

I started teaching my first full class at INSEAD last week, ponderously titled “Venture Opportunity and Business Model.” The goal of the class is to help MBA students create, evaluate and improve new business ideas.

I have a little over 100 students signed up for the class, which means that I am teaching back to back sessions of 50 students each. I lecture for 90 minutes, pant for 15 minutes, then lecture for another 90 minutes.

Although I have been teaching as a guest lecturer now for over 6 months at INSEAD, the experience of having full responsibility for a class makes this a completely different gig. As a guest lecturer, you waltz in, spout off for a bit, then waltz out, leaving the professor who invited you to try to shoehorn whatever you said into the rest of the course material.

Being in charge of doing the shoehorning is a big responsibility. Staring into the faces of 50 students waiting to be taught something useful is something like being a mamma bird faced with 50 open beaks – where do you find enough worms to feed them all?

There is kind of a secret pact that the teacher and the class make – I’ll put a lot of energy into this if you put a lot of energy in as well. When the pact works, everything is wonderful. When it doesn’t, I’m left feeling like I’m pulling a freight train uphill all by myself.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Love among the vines

Last Friday we joined forces with 4 other couples and headed to Burgundy for the wine-tasting trip of a lifetime. We were led by Alexandre Lazareff (, a mountain-climbing, extreme skiing, internet entrepreneur and Figaro wine critic all wrapped into a humorous, charming, high energy package.
After an exciting, everyone on board with seconds to spare departure, we were whisked away by the somewhat magical French TGV train from Paris to Burgundy. Over two days we tasted 60 wines, while also having two of the most memorable meals of a lifetime. Despite this ferocious pace, we all managed to be remarkably well-restrained and escaped the weekend a few pounds heavier but none the worse for wear.

We talked to the vintners, walked the vineyards, felt the dirt (in the olden days they used to taste the dirt as well) and marveled at the mosaic of tiny plots that make up Burgundy. The weather was beautiful, the people were friendly, the vineyards were just starting to bud and for us wine-lovers, love was in the air.

Our favorite stop was at Chateau de Mersault (, where we tasted incredible Mersault white wines and Volnay reds. A close second was at the very stylish Louis Max winery (, where we tasted a ’76 Corton that stands as the single best red wine I have ever tasted.

So what did the best wine I ever tasted taste like? This is going to sound really weird, but to me it tasted like dirt – an incredibly fine taste of the chalky, dry, clay soil that characterizes the region of Burgundy. I know this doesn’t sound too appetizing, but throw in an aroma of mushrooms and a sense that you are drinking time itself (how old were you in 1976 anyway?) and it makes for a magical experience.

The winemaking philosophy of the area is infused with the belief that the key to a good wine is suffering (maybe this has something to do with the fact that all the major wineries were originally started by Catholic monks). The wine must not only suffer on the vine (watering vines or protecting them from frost is considered cheating) but also in the barrel (temperatures are carefully controlled to slow fermentation to a crawl).

What did we learn? Burgundy is a place that is impossible to understand from a distance and impossible to forget once you have visited.