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A Timely Dose of Cheer

Matthew DeBord
Posted: November 14, 2001

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True, there's sadness, grief and even depression across the nation right now. Enter Beaujolais Nouveau, that autumnal elixir of joy, that bounding wide-eyed kid, that bringer of gladness and cheer. From coast to coast, the arrival of the 2001 Nouveau shipment has given everybody an excuse to throw a much-needed party.

The first corks will be yanked at midnight tonight, marking the 50th anniversary since French wine law authorized Beaujolais' early release and officially established Nouveau. Since then, the wine has evolved from a drink largely local to the Burgundy region to a massive marketing phenomenon rushed to major markets around the world. Much of the hype has died down, but this year, the world may need a fun, inexpensive little wine more than ever.

"It's festive; it goes well with turkey," said importer Bill Deutsch, noting that many Americans match the November delivery of the Nouveau with the traditional Thanksgiving feast. W.S. Deutsch & Sons, in White Plains, N.Y., is the East Coast importer for Georges Duboeuf, the savvy, wildly successful French négociant whose promotional efforts put Nouveau on everybody's mind this time of year.

A quality vintage might boost the wine's popularity. "There's buzz on Nouveau this year," claimed Deutsch, who has been importing Nouveau since 1981. "We're bringing in 3 percent more cases than we did last year. It looks like a good vintage, and a lot of restaurants are excited about putting the wine on their lists."

Nowadays, Beaujolais Nouveau typically wings in first by air, a few weeks before its official release date, on the third Thursday of November. (This is a far cry from the early days, when the newly bottled wine was literally raced from Beaujolais to the bistros of Paris as the clock ticked toward midnight.) Importers then stash it away in preparation for the midnight festivities and the crowds that descend on stores, where the wine is often displayed right up front. Signs announcing "Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" appear in restaurant and shop windows. The airlifted wine usually sells for about $8, the later-arriving ship-borne bottles for a buck less.

Deutsch said that he has imported about 126,300 cases of Nouveau this year. In the New York metro area alone, 300 restaurants and hotels and 800 retailers had pre-ordered from him.

Among them is longtime customer Sherry-Lehmann, a Manhattan wine store that has been stocking Nouveau every year since 1959. "It was complicated back then," said Michael Aaron, current president of the family-run store. "It all came in by ship, and you never knew exactly when it would arrive. You hoped it made it by the first week of December."

This year, Aaron is bringing in 2,000 cases of Duboeuf's Nouveau, with plenty of wine available in time for the release parties. Getting a jump even on that, Sherry-Lehmann has already been prominently stocking Duboeuf's Gamay Nouveau, an equally chipper, even cheaper young wine that arrives in advance of the Beaujolais Nouveau because it's not subject to the same restrictions of French wine law. According to Aaron, it's flying out of the store. "If anything, the way Gamay Nouveau has taken off indicates that people want to celebrate autumn this year more than ever."

There will be plenty of opportunities to do that starting Wednesday night, as French restaurants, bistros, bars and wine shops throw their annual Nouveau bashes.

At Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, Calif., this Saturday's celebration will mark the 11th year that the well-known wine purveyor has heralded the new wine with a public party.

"We're going to open our parking lot and put up some tents," said general manager Graeme Blackmore. "We expect a thousand people to show up." Chef Christopher Lee of nearby Chez Panisse restaurant will contribute traditional Beaujolais fare to be washed down with the easygoing quaffer, and a bluegrass band will provide the soundtrack.

In North Carolina, the French-American Chamber of Commerce in Charlotte will continue its eight-year sponsorship of an annual Nouveau fête. According to director Jean-Pierre Riviere, he expects 600 people to gather on Thursday at the city's Founders Hall to welcome the young wine. There will be samples from six different Nouveau producers, and a half-dozen local restaurants will serve Nouveau-friendly dishes, ranging from pâté to specially selected cheeses.

"There will also be a guy wandering around with an accordion," Riviere added. "To set the mood."

In Chicago, some of the Windy City's French restaurants plan to serve "Passport to Beaujolais" revelers a diverse selection of Gallic eats. There will also be a raffle and an auction. Similar events, supported by local French-American Chambers of Commerce, will be held in 16 other U.S. cities, including Houston, Cincinnati and Boston.

But not everyone is going all out this year. In New York, the Morrell Wine Bar & Cafe, next door to Rockefeller Center, will sell Beaujolais Nouveau by the glass but will not repeat last year's festival. "There are security concerns," indicated Morrell & Co. managing director Nikos Antonakeas. "But as always, we will pour the wine."

Other Nouveau outlets are taking a simple, direct approach. "Are we doing anything special?" rhetorically remarked a representative of Wally's, a wine store in Los Angeles, when asked if the establishment had anything special on tap. "Yeah -- we're selling it."

Maybe when it comes to Beaujolais Nouveau 2001, the best party is personal: Uncork a bottle, kick back and slurp your cares away. The wine world's Fall Classic might be a quaint reminder of a giddier time, but there's strength in that. Right now, a simple glass of quaint reminder goes a long way.

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