It all began with a test. A grass-tasting test. One of the most difficult and exacting challenges the Connoisseur has come up against in his career. The acid test of his sensory discrimination. But if he passed the test—ah, the reward was to be the privilege of smoking one of the last stashes on earth of Chateau Forcade, a very special legendary vintage of Colombian gold named after the founder of HIGH TIMES.
The test wasn’t my idea. What happened was, a wealthy reclusive young woman who devoted her life to the search for the ultimate pleasures of the sensory realm contacted “R.” with an utterly intriguing offer. She was in possession, she said, of a fabulous collection of rare and wonderful varieties of grass, chiefly from the ’70s, from that golden age of golds and reds that lasted from 1971 to 1975.
“R.” had long heard rumors of this collection and the woman who presided over it. There were all sorts of stories about how it had come into her possession. According to one, she was the widow of one of the legendary daredevil dope-smuggling pilots who had gone down in flames over La Guajira while trying to escape the federales with a ton of handpicked punta roja in his cargo bay. Another rumor had it that she was the much whispered about “Sky Lady” who personally piloted thousands of tons of primo for a dissident feminist faction that broke away from the California-based smuggling fraternity, The Brotherhood of Love.
The other legend about her—and this was something known to only two or three people still alive—was that she had been associated with HIGH TIMES founder Tom Forcade in the classic caper that ended up with Forcade cornering the market on Santa Marta gold back in the mid ’70s.
No one knew for sure, and I didn’t want to scare her off by asking too many questions. Not before I got to taste a toke or two from her cannabis archives.
But she wasn’t going to make it easy for “R.” The first thing she said, as her servant ushered me into the drawing room of her elegant landmark brownstone in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, was:
“You’re going to have to prove how good you are before I waste a single shred of Chateau Forcade on you.”
Chateau Forcade. Say the words Lafite Rothschild to a wine connoisseur. Speak of Roederer ’61 to a champagne fancier and you can get a glimpse of the awe the mention of those two words Chateau Forcade draws from knowledgeable cannabis connoisseurs.
“What’s the test?” I said. “I’m ready for anything.”
She went to a mahogany breakfront beneath the Vermeer on the drawing room wall. Out swung a shelf on which were arrayed dozens of clear glass vials. Glowing inside each vial were dozens of different varieties of Colombian golds, reds, burnished bronzes.
“The finest Colombians ever to reach American shores,” she said, with the sweet certainty of a connoisseur.
“It was one of the things Tom, uh, my friends entrusted me with. Beginning in 1971, when Colombian began to get so good, there were those of us who thought enough about the future to save some pounds from every interesting ton we, uh, that arrived.
“What you see here are the ten best vintages from the years 1971 to 1975.”
She picked up a silver bell from the top of the cabinet. A servant appeared with a silver serving tray. There was a single, rather skinny rice-paper joint on it.
“We’re going to smoke this joint together,” she said, “and by the time it’s gone you should be able, if you’re a true connoisseur, to tell me what year, what province, what variety of grass this is. I won’t pin you down to month, boat or the exact field,” she added graciously.
I lit it up, drew in the dusky, spicy smoke and passed it to her with a confident smile. That taste set off some immediate echoes. I remembered a certain hurricane season. What year was that? Trying to buy a little time, I engaged the mystery woman in a discussion of the great vintage years in the golden age of grass that lasted until the mid ’70s.
It turned out she was, in addition, a serious wine connoisseur, with what she called a “not inconsiderable cellar of my own.”
She asked me what wine I thought might best accompany this particular grass.
Instinctively I suggested a red Burgundy. “Something on the order of a ’76. I understand the Gevrey-Chambertins are beginning to come around.”
“Hmmm,” she said appreciatively, “you are a versatile connoisseur.”
“Just my job ma’am,” I replied modestly. “My readers expect me to know the very best in every realm of sensory pleasure. Some people have jobs running elevators. My job’s getting high.”
‘Tm glad you selected red Burgundy,” she said. “I’ve recently acquired something quite interesting—a ’71 Mazis-Chambertin.”
I tried to suppress a gasp. A legendary wine handled from grape to bottle only by women.
Was this a hint, an acknowledgment that she was indeed one of those daring feminist smugglers—The Sisterhood of Love?
We smoked some more of the mystery grass. That taste. That red Burgundy taste. Damn if it didn’t have that austere, bricky savoir de terroir that in the most elegant Burgundies expresses the intimate love of the grape for the earth that bore it.
Yes, I was certain now this test grass was a Colombian red, a Santa Marta red, in fact. Interesting choice. Santa Marta, of course, is known for the greatness of its golds. But a true connoisseur knows that the Santa Marta reds—the early ones, not the later punta rojas—are one of the most underrated of Colombian vintages.
We’d smoked more than half the joint now, and I had an instinct about exactly what year this one particular red was.
But I wanted to be sure. So much was at stake.
We smoked the rest of the rice-paper joint. Her eyes took on a distant look—as if she were thinking of another time, another continent. But they offered no clue to the year.
As I searched frantically my extensive cellar of marijuana memories for the particular one this grass conjured up, I started elucidating to my fellow wine and herb connoisseur my ground-breaking wine-based typology for marijuana vintages. Certain grasses I said were soul-mates to certain fine wines. The fine white Burgundies of France’s Côte d’Or have an undeniable kinship in personality to the blond upland light Colombians. Santa Marta gold, of course, is the effervescent champagne of golden grass. And the rich reds of Burgundy and Bordeaux were, in their nobility, the fiery spirit in their blood, much like the majestic reds and punta rojas of the Colombian uplands.
Then I made an error of discretion, if not taste. In the enthusiasm of the moment, I proclaimed my certain knowledge of the greatest year ever: 1975!
She exhaled a cloud of smoke and flushed with indignation, the glow from which I must admit made an attractive contrast with the dark glow of her black evening—or was it mourning?—gown.
“You call yourself a connoisseur,” she scoffed, “and you call ’75 the greatest year—I hate that year!” she said.
I wondered what had evoked such a passionate denunciation of a year I thought deserved objective consideration for best ever. Could something have happened back then, something connected perhaps with Chateau Forcade.
“1971,” she insisted, “there’s no other year. The original Chiba. The first great Colombians never surpassed. Some Jamaicans so good you could start believing Haile Selassie was God if Bob Marley said so. Even 1973 is a better year than ’75.”
Suddenly, something clicked. 1973. That was the year Chateau Forcade opened. That’s what we called it—the artists, writers, international Bohemians, smugglers, informers and con men who gathered there in that notorious waterfront mansion in Miami. Intrigue was as thick in that place as the cloud of Colombian flower essence that clung to every surface of the onetime bootlegger’s palace. I remembered a certain gathering during a gloomy hurricane season down there where a lot of people were waiting for a boat that never came in. Suddenly, with a rush of perverse Proustian precision, the memory triggered the taste.
“Okay,” I said. “This joint we’re smoking is a 1973 Santa Marta red. Brought in by plane. Sometime after the hurricane—I’d say September.”
She looked stunned and surprised.
“Wrong,” she said weakly.
“Wrong?” I couldn’t believe it.
“It is a 1973 Santa Marta red. But it was August, not September.”
“Late August, though, right?” I insisted.
“Yes,” she conceded, “late August. I have to admit I’m very impressed.”
“So I’ll get to taste the Chateau Forcade.”
“You’ve earned it,” she said.
At last. As the moment approached, the mystique of this long-sought-after treasure loomed larger, mingling memory and desire. Tom Forcade had never been the largest mover ever to bring the gold out of the Santa Marta mountains. In fact, if you consider the ten million or so tons that came out of Colombia during the height of the gold rush, his involvement was certainly an infinitesimal percentage of the quantity. But when it came to quality, when it came to knowing just which growers in which remote mountain villages had the precise Juan Valdezian relationship to their cannabis crop; when it came to being able to size up an entire warehouse in La Guajira with but a single sniff and a single toke, there was no one like Tom. He was “El Exigente.” The Demanding One. Whether or not he consciously modeled himself on the elegant autocratic crop buyers’ representative in the Colombian coffee ads cannot be determined. Perhaps El Exigente was modeled upon him.
Because, if you believe the tales they tell, Tom would land his two seater on some remote and impossible mountaintop landing strip, emerge in his white-suited outlaw outfit, complete with sinister looking broad-brimmed cosmic-cowboy leather hat, hold out his hand for a mysterious woman companion, usually in a party dress—as if she’d stolen away from sipping champagne at some Southhampton society party for the headier wine of outlaw-pilot intrigue.
The way I heard it—from a pilot who flew wing to wing with Forcade until one of his wings hit a tree line in the Andes—whole villages would turn out in full fiesta fever when the great ganja gringo set down from the sky at harvest time. What ensued was a scene of competition intensity and revelry that can only be compared to the great Beaujolais race in France, when the entire countryside, every village and chateau, loads its frothy first fruits of the vintage into horse-drawn carts, and barrels across the countryside toward the wine cellars of Paris where the connoisseurs of the world have gathered for a first taste of the distillation of the year.
So it was with Forcade in Colombia, the legend goes. The village mayor, the elders, the growers, little children bearing him coca-plant bouquets would throng his path as he proceeded to the dusty town square and took his place with his mysterious lady friend at the café opposite the church. There he’d sit and sip as the growers approached him with buds and huge cigarlike joints for his appraisal.
Throughout the mountains it was known that the ganja gringo was always on the lookout for the purest of golden grass. Gold not just in color—because there were golds and there were golds; there was even the notorious fool’s gold, and the even more despicable bleached gold. No, he was looking for something golden in its high, in its personality, in its evocation of a golden age. Something good enough to redeem the tarnished metal of human nature itself.
Because Forcade was more than a mere smuggler. He was visionary about his quest for the perfect gold. He thought that if he could find that perfect philosophers’ stone-quality pot and infuse enough into the consciousness of the emerging generation of Americans, he could change the course of history, redeem America from within. He might have done it, too. That’s where the legend of Chateau Forcade takes on a tragic tone and the fate of the perhaps apocryphal Lost Load becomes so important.
As the mystery woman went to her safe, I wondered if I might at last be on a path that would lead me, however tortuously, to rediscovering that fabled treasure of the Santa Martas.
“I know you’ll think it’s such a cliché,” she said as she slid aside the Vermeer.
“But this safe is so high tech, my decorator insisted on a painting to conceal it. And anyway, even if someone found it they’d never be able to open it without my thumbprint.” She pressed her thumb onto an etched-in area on the blank alloy face of the foot-square safe. A soft whirring could be heard.
She turned to me. “Of course, I suppose they could just have my thumb if they wanted it. Some people would do as much for some Chateau Forcade.”
The safe swung open slightly; do you remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the ark itself began to crack open to reveal that otherworldly gleam, some fierce Promethean glow?
So it was with the glow of the gold from the slender crystal decanter she withdrew from the safe. There couldn’t have been more than a quarter-ounce in there, but it recalled to me one of my favorite images from The Iliad, when the warrior prince Ajax is described as having pulled down the visor of his helmet and sallied into battle, his eyes glowing from within “like twin furnaces.” Yes, that decanter of Chateau Forcade glowed with the fierce force of a furnace. Think reactor core and you get the picture. Still, it was nothing to the meltdown to be experienced when—once smoked and inhaled—it set alight a furnace of delight in the forebrain.
It was dazzlingly effervescent. It was spicy and seductive. It was cerebral champagne. It was ultimately visionary.
I suddenly understood why Forcade had attached so much importance to what he would refer to cryptically as his “Santa Marta project.” I could understand suddenly his seemingly demented vision of the redemptive possibilities of this pot.
By God, I said to myself: This stuff could have changed this country if Forcade had lived to see it through. What had gone wrong?
The mystery lady turned to me.
“Once,” she said. “Once I was privileged to enjoy a ’28 Roederer. It was perhaps the most elegant champagne that’s ever passed my lips, but extraordinarily passionate as well. I never experienced that exquisite paradox in a cannabis vintage until I, uh, acquired this last quarterounce known to exist. When this is gone, well. . . it’s like everything else is—having to settle for Heisdick instead of Dom Perignon.”
“How did you get hold of it?” I asked her.
“It was a kind of legacy,” she said cryptically.
I noticed the mystery lady staring off into space again. She exhaled a stream of fragrant Chateau essence skyward and then turned to me.
“Have you heard the story of the Lost Load?” she asked me.
“It’s just some smuggler’s story, isn’t it? I heard some guy down at the Chateau talking about a huge mother ship that never showed up. Went down in a Gulf hurricane.”
“Except,” she said, “according to the smugglers’ stories it didn’t stay down.”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t stay down’?”
“Well, some people have reported seeing it.”
“Seeing that ship. Toward dawn, making the Bimini passage, some guy will wake up from nodding out on watch and see this huge mother ship passing a mile away. Same markings as the Liberian tanker the Lost Load went out on. No lights. He reported it to the proper people. They had a plane out here by dawn. Nothing.
“Then there was this weird story that appeared in the Miami papers. Sounded like some drunk coastie popping off. But he was on a fast DEA-coastie task-force chase boat. One night they’re lurking behind Guantánamo they get a spotter plane visual-contact report. They chase it. They see a huge Liberian registry tanker. But the strange thing is the tanker just doesn’t show up on the radar screen. Like it’s not there. Or never was. And then it’s not. The coastie called it the Flying Dutchman of Dope.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked her.
“Because,” she said, “I read your column. Everyone I know who used to be in the, uh, who might have been involved with Chateau Forcade reads your column. So do a lot of people out there who have been storing up seeds and spare ounces of the great Colombian vintages. I have a project for them all. I have a plan.”
“A plan?” I asked.
“Yes. I want you to do a story in your magazine. Disguise my identity, of course. But I want you to make an appeal to all your readers who are in possession of these great vintages we’ve talked about. We’ve got to begin the great work of classifying and sampling them. We’ve got to begin to decide which of these to take seeds from, which will qualify for my grand project—the re-creation of the Colombian golden age. We’ve got to start now collecting seeds and samples.”
“But how will the people out there who have these vintage stashes get together with you to get this done?”
“Your readers are resourceful,” she said. “They’ll find a way. History demands it,” she added passionately. “Just tell them history demands it. Maybe they’ll send some news to Mystery Lady, care of HIGH TIMES, 17 West Sixtieth Street.”
And so, I’m passing on her plea.
As for myself, I decided to make it my mission to solve the mystery of what went wrong with the dream of Chateau Forcade, get to the bottom of the Lost Load! Tom would have wanted it that way.