Reading through James Molesworth’s blog about his Châteauneuf-du-Pape trip bought back memories of my first experience there when I was 22.
"Cahors n’est pas la."
That is what a lovely French woman said to me about 10 years ago when, as a very poor cook living and working in France for a year, I went into her wine shop off of the Avenue St. Joseph in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Being that I was 24, I wouldn't have understood the nuances of what she really meant in English, let alone in French. I figured out, via some rough Gallic body language and other banter like "ne pas de degustation aussi" and such, that a schlub like me would find nicer people in this place called Cahors (oh, to be young and stupid) and maybe even get to try some wine. I got a even nicer response from the man in the Bureaux de Tourism who had no accomodations in my price range. So, I slept in the car.
A couple of months later, I found myself on the banks of the Lot river in Cahors, and remembered the woman's words. This was a year of discovery in France, and one of things I discovered is that when you don't have connections in one of the famous wine areas, good luck. On the other hand, with the same level of 'juice' in a second-tier wine area, people can be super-nice and you can drink some great wine. A young American that speaks French and shows up unannounced at the château can meet the winemaker, the owner, the dog … and maybe even get lunch. (This tactic did not work when I stopped at Château d'Yquem, unannounced, in a Renault 17, but did work at Château Gilette across the river in Barsac … Crème de Tete '71 … I should have bought a pallet of it.)
I found that people were so surprised that I cared what they were doing. They got excited and wanted to show me everything. Harvest, production, barrel tastings, you name it. I remember later on that year, near the Bas Armagnac town of Eauze, going into an owner's cellar and tasting a vertical down to a 1889, talking about American muscle cars, and staying for free in his Gites d’France apartment for 2 days.
Today, things are different. I get introduced, taken out, put up, entertained—and then I talk the with son about Metallica or the Francophone rapper MC Solaar. Usually I return the favor in New York with dinner at A Voce and a drink afterward at Milk and Honey. Or, I'll have them along to a Yankee game.
Now, these trips usually are crammed into a small time frame, where I'll try and visit three or four houses a day and squeeze in a lunch filled with cheese, various pig parts and a couple of bottles of wine. Then it's on to a three-star Michelin blow-out for dinner, followed by the same thing the next day. About a week before I leave, I'll come up with a plan to balance all those extra calories by running or swimming. Once I'm in France, I will inevitably fail, and fail miserably. The first morning when I finally get up and put on my running shoes in some ancient wine town, which is always on a hill (why does it always have to be on a hill?) and start to run, I end up walking after the first mile, because I want to die, and because I am stuffed with 10,000 calories worth of all the exact right ingredients to bring on the gout.
My level of passion hasn’t changed in my 20 years in the game of good cooking and good wine. But these days, I don't have to sleep in the car.
It's a tough life, but somebody has to do it.
James Molesworth — June 20, 2007 11:48am ET
Paul M Hummel — Chicago, — June 21, 2007 1:18pm ET
Andrew Carmellini — July 10, 2007 5:34pm ET
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