One thing I have learned in life—if you travel and can't find good food, good wine and good company, you might as well have stayed home.
In September 2000, I was a young political reporter at Time magazine, living a dream—I was covering a presidential race. For two weeks, I traveled with then–Governor George W. Bush as he crisscrossed the country, campaigning for the White House. Halfway through my stint, the campaign plane headed to Austin. Bush was taking the weekend off, so the press corps had two days free in the Texas capital.
During the flight, Bush wandered back to chat—off the record. The governor was not known for taking questions from reporters, but he did like to chat. When he got to my row, what did I ask the next President of the United States? "Governor, I've never been to Austin. Where can I find good barbecue?"
Perhaps this was a sign I should be covering wine and food, not politics.
I travel several weeks a year for work, meeting with thoughtful winemakers, creative chefs and forward-thinking business leaders to bring their stories to life in Wine Spectator. The rewards come in new vineyards explored, new wines tasted and new relationships forged. And if I'm fortunate, some delicious meals.
I've just returned from a 10-day, 1,200-mile reporting trip around France, including four days in the Southern Rhône. When I reached out to Isabel Ferrando, owner of Domaine St.-Préfert in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, she knew how to charm me. "For lunch, do you like 'bécasses?'," she wrote. A quick trip to Google Translate revealed that bécasses means woodcocks. I grew up in Miami—our idea of exotic fowl was when Pollo Tropical first opened. "That sounds delicious," I replied, thinking anything served with Châteauneuf-du-Pape would be tasty.
So, on a cold February day, while the mistral wind was trying its best to rip the weatherbeaten Grenache vines right out of the stony soils, Ferrando, her young enologist and I sat in her living room, discussing the subtleties of fermenting whole grape bunches, while her husband tended to a small flock of woodcocks on a spit roasting in the fireplace. The smell alone was excellent hospitality.
The bécasses were delicious, especially with a full roster of Ferrando's wines. She had set up a showdown between three of her best Châteauneuf-du-Pape cuvées—all juveniles from the 2011 vintage: the silky Domaine St.-Préfert Auguste Favier (80 percent Grenache with some Syrah and Cinsault), the exuberant, lush Domaine Ferrando Colombis (100 percent Grenache) and the fruity, rich, structured St.-Préfert Charles Giraud (60 percent Grenache, 40 percent Mourvedre). Auguste Favier won my heart with the woodcocks, but I would buy Charles Giraud to cellar.
A good meal doesn't have to be fancy or well-planned, though. Apparently no one eats out in the Southern Rhône on Mondays, because when I walked into the office of Louis Barruol of Château St.-Cosme in Gigondas two days after meeting Ferrando, he was calling every restaurant he knew, trying to get a live person. (My protestations that cheese and crackers went well with Gigondas were ignored.)
In the end, we drove to Le Tourne au Verre, a simple bar/restaurant in Cairanne. Over a bottle of his 2007 La Poste, from a single vineyard we had walked through an hour earlier, we ate hanger steaks and had a heated chat about French politics.
Now I write about food and wine, and talk politics. This is a much better way to live.