Category Archives: Inspiration

Patience and wine tasting: What I learned from Francois and three chardonnays

Three glasses of chardonnay, three progressive hues of citrus-tinged, wheat, and golden yellow, three napkin shrouded bottles adorned with rudely scribbled numbers.

When French guests arrive, it is fitting to organize a tasting or two, if you are lucky enough to have been offered a well-cushioned and strategically packed bottle.

A true Burgundian, Sara’s beau François didn’t stop at one. Reserving precious cargo space for pinot and chardonnay instead of superfluous clothing, he made his way through Charles de Gaulle security wearing an extra sweater and two jackets on his way to Louisville last week. His efforts made it all the more appropriate that they should host not one but multiple wine tastings while he was in town, and I, the adoring friend, was happy to take part.

So, after a very American dinner of burgers — accompanied nonetheless by an introductory glass of white wine in lieu of beer — Sara’s family and I find ourselves introduced to Glass 1, Glass 2, and Glass 3 (all chardonnay) by the smiling, soft spoken but assertive, Frenchman.

“First of all, let’s have a look at the color,” François suggests, his accent a melange of his native French and school-taught British English.

The table stirs with conversation; mention of colors gives way to contiguous reflections and questions. What does color mean in terms of chardonnay? Reminds me of wheat fields or mustard. Remember the yellow colza fields of Burgundy springtime?

François refrains from dominating the conversation with didactic discourse. It’s easy to see he is delighted by everyone’s interest. With dark eyes and dark hair, plus a fitted polo and tight black jeans, he is one you might peg as typically European. To hear his nearly flawless English flow into effortlessly gorgeous French further distinguishes him as coming from a traditional, cultured French family. It is no exaggeration to say his love for wine is not so much a personal passion as it is an ancestral legacy.

And yet, this traditional Frenchie has learned to appreciate more than burgers and Bud Lite over the course of his relationship with my friend Sara. He is highly, and might I say uncharacteristically, complimentary of American wine, and encouraging of our interest in learning about wine in general.

But back to color. “One of these is an American wine,” says François, “so its color might not help us when compared to the other two. The others are both Louis Latour Burgundies: a village level, and a Montagny Premier Cru. In that case, the color might tell us something.”

François reminds us that an  older chardonnay will show darker color, but then adds that there is only one year of difference between the vintages of the two Burgundies. “Which is which?” he asks slyly.

At this point, we’ve all been swirling and sniffing. An overwhelming whiff of toasty vanilla leaves me (and my rookie wine student pride) gratified in declaring that Glass 1 must be the Kendall Jackson California Chardonnay.

The remaining two glasses have their own distinct complexities. Reactions to aromas from Glass 2 range from fingernail polish remover to baked apples, peaches, and a hint of port. After that strong nose, we all agree to a general difficulty in defining the aromas of Glass 3.

“It seems muted,” says Sara.

“Smell something else,” suggests François, lifting a homemade gougere to his nose.

Still, Glass 2 dominates our senses, intriguing some and alienating others of us. I have a preconceived notion that this powerful chard must be the premier cru.

When we taste the wines in succession, we all agree that Glass 1 is the California wine. It’s familiar to us. François nods neutrally.

Glass 2 again gets the most attention after its visit with our palates. Nutty and peachy, with that lasting taste of something like port, it is a rich wine and needs food to accompany it. I’m fairly certain it is the premier cru, especially when the closed, acidic third glass leaves us grasping at straws to come up with a description.

We go around the table, offering our final judgments and reasoning behind them. I stand alone in choosing Glass 2 as the premier cru. It is not until François offers his educated opinion, however, that my conviction falls by the wayside.

“I agree that Glass 1 is the Kendall Jackson,” he says simply and definitively, pushing the glass apart from the others as if to visually confirm its otherness.

“But the choice between the two Burgundies is more complicated, just like the wines in this case. Look at the color. Glass 2 is indeed the darkest of the three, which leads us to believe it is oldest. But remember that the Bourgogne is only one year older than the Montagny Premier Cru: this should not be enough to tell a difference. Furthermore, if Glass 3 is a premier cru, it would take longer to develop color, just as it would take longer to develop its aromas and taste. Glass 2, as you can tell, is complex and round and ready to drink now, but it is only five or six years old. It cannot age much longer, can it? Glass 3 is still acidic and mysterious. One might think this is a sign of lesser quality, but it could just as easily be an indication of immense quality and complexity that will not reveal itself for years to come.”

The table is silent as the lesson takes effect. Light bulbs are going off. Revelations over three glasses of wine.

Across from François, I nod my head. I am at once disappointed that the seemingly obvious had not occurred to me and impressed by François’ execution.

Sara’s sister breaks the respectful silence. “Can we unwrap them already?” she asks, pointing to the mummy-esque bottles.

François does the honors and confirms his suspicion. The table livens once again, reactions to the solution of the game leading to tangential conversations and reflections.

I sit back in my chair, letting the lesson sink in and vowing not to make the same mistake again. Not that I guessed incorrectly, but that I spoke too soon. With a bit more patience, perhaps I would have come to a similar conclusion. François’ explanation makes perfect sense, and I’ve heard it before. I had been convinced even before tasting it that the village level wine was premier cru caliber (and perhaps it was, since there is only so much wine that is allowed to be labeled “premier cru,” leaving many bottles to be “declassified” each year: subject for another post). Had my mind been closed to other possibilities by this preconceived notion? I’m sure it was.

Patience is a virtue, as they say. More than that, it’s probably the only key to unlocking the mysteries of wine.

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Paris is calling. She says she booked your apartment in the 14th for this summer.

{My room with a view}

An artist’s studio should be a small space because small rooms discipline the mind and large ones distract it. –Leonardo Da Vinci

After living in a room that had at one time been a maid’s tiny quarters, I believe the word “studio” will forever conjure the sound of church bells, smells of rotisserie chicken cooking at the Saturday market beneath my window, memories of cooking experiments in tight quarters, and the odd sensation of stepping out of my shower into my kitchenette.

I don’t remember having many complaints about my tiny apartment. I always had everything I needed at my fingertips, the whole world right outside my door, and the freedom to banish any nonessential piece of junk, because there wasn’t any excuse to cram it into nine square meters.

(In case you still can’t envision the size, imagine this: I could “mop” my entire floor by stretching a wet wipe over a broom and sweeping for five minutes, and I could open my refrigerator without rising from bed.)

Often during the nine months I spent in that bright little place I remarked that I felt inordinately productive. I read and wrote a lot, and I learned everything I know about cooking (almost) on those two slightly slanted electric burners.

I really miss it.

Which is why, my friends, I encourage you to look into renting a hole-in-the-wall studio of your own for a bit. Maybe just a month. Perhaps a week or two.

And why not in Paris? Why not this summer?

It sounds like I have a studio in mind, doesn’t it? Why yes, in fact, I do. My friend Sophie has a little apartment – a whopping twice the size of my beloved studio, mind you – in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Luxembourg Gardens, that she would like to rent out between July 7 and August 18 this year.

Well lit, recently renovated, and furnished (futon, coffee table, chair, sheets, towels, kitchen utensils), this charming studio is typically Parisian, with views of the City of Light’s rooftops and easy access to the metro as well as trains to Orly and Roissy.

Imagine walking down the pedestrian market-street Rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement. Visit the tower at Montparnasse and the museum dedicated to fabulous French photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson. Stop at a café around Place Denfert-Rochereau before a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens. Just the thought makes me wish I could snap this little place up…

You don’t need much to keep you satisfied in Paris. Twenty square meters sounds about right.

The rent, including all charges, is 400 euros for one week, 700 euros for two weeks, 950 euros for three weeks, or 1150 euros for four weeks.

If you’re interested, let me know and I will put you in touch with Sophie!

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Saying ‘I Do’ In France, by Becoming Madame

A few months back, when I started getting questions about the differences between French and American weddings, I thought, I’ll have to write an exposé on all the differences I can drum up. But, much as I’d like to claim proficiency in all things French, I’m still an All-American girl who will have to learn these things as she goes along. When Nicolas told me wedding cakes aren’t white in France, I decided I’d be better off turning the reins over to someone who’s actually been through the process of making her very American idea of a wedding compatible with a traditional wedding en France.

That’s why today I am ravie to share a guest post from a real American gal turned French Madame! I’ve been reading “Madame’s” writing since I discovered her blog, appropriately called Becoming Madame, last year. She writes about French culture, tradition, literature, and about the art of living in Paris. (Obviously, we have a lot in common!) Because she is much more of an expert on the subject than I am, having been married to a Frenchman for several years now, I’ve asked her to enlighten us (read: me) about all the ins and outs of French weddings, from her perspective.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you think, and I highly recommend checking out Madame’s blog. Un grand merci, Madame!

Saying ‘I Do’ in France
by The Author of Becoming Madame

When my husband proposed to me, I had already been living in Paris for two years. Naturally, upon the offer of his hand in marriage, surprise and thrill and sheer excitement swaddled me in an enchanted haze of happiness, as it does with anyone, I suppose, who’s on the brink of that particular new chapter in life.

I had, by then, completed my self-imposed French immersion and was relatively comfortable in my belief that I understood French life – its customs, its quirks, and its charms. Having lived in France during those first years almost exclusively enveloped in Paris’ expat community, my boyfriend, a Frenchman down to the very last follicle on his head, was my window into real French life. Through him I was privy to the idyllic and mesmerizing world of a French yesteryear in the form of histraditionalFrench family with roots stretching back further than I could fathom. And now I was going to be a part of it.

Once I became a French fiancée, the buffer my boyfriend had proved throughout our courtship was removed and the veil lifted. I was left face-to-face with the beloved French traditions and customs I thought I had conquered; I found myselftête à tête with the wishes and expectations of my to-be belle-famille.

Not knowing any better, I naively began planning an American wedding in France. Little did I know that a wedding in North America is not a French mariage. Sure, the general elements are all present: there was to be a lovely, old, stone church; an onslaught of dust colored roses; candles everywhere; a three-tiered cake; a big white tent; a French lace gown for me; and a tuxedo for my fiancé. I’d had the picture of how all this would look in my mind’s eye ever since I was in high school. The location had changed several times over the years, granted, but the images of my wedding remained net and wrapped in romantic clouds of lace and candle light.

The reality of marrying into a large, traditional, French family truly dawned on me as I sat with my future mother-in-law, a pad of writing paper strategically placed between us, discussing how she saw the event coming together: les procédures, les formules, les traditions familiales. As I sat in a dazed confusion before her, French words incoherently flying over my head, a weary thought passed through my mind: Was this going to be my wedding, the wedding of which I’d always dreamed? Are there really that many rules?

My own mom being four-thousand miles away left me rather alone to coordinate the planning. True enough, my fiancé was present; but save for a few enlightened exceptions, I find that men are much less interested in “the wedding” than women. The former having accomplished their part by organizing a romantic engagement, now pass the baton onto their feminine halves to work out the celebratory details. My case did not deviate from this norm.

Now, I don’t want to alarm any new fiancées who might be marrying into a French family. Much of the color of my experience hails from the history and traditions of the family into which I married. And I say that with the utmost love and respect. Now that a few years have passed, we can all look back on the wedding planning ordeal and share a good-hearted chuckle about it all.

It wasn’t always so funny to me, though. I can remember periods of stress and trepidation, frustration and even a little anger. I’m sure many brides in every part of the world go through a little of this, too. Yet there are a few particular reasons why the Frenchness of my wedding led to moments of acute panic. Certain parts of the French wedding experience are just not the same as they are in North America. Here’s what I mean:

Les Fiançailles

Let’s start at the beginning. In France, the engagement is celebrated by les fiançailles, a form of engagement party, which is traditionally when the man presents the woman with her ring and when the parents meet each other for the first time. After a big meal all together, the engagement is blessed at a Mass before the congregation and the two families.

A couple of these details might strike you as quite unlike the North American custom:

Firstly, the ring is given at the fiançailles and not at the proposal. Although my husband opted for an American style proposal (to my delight), his mother was less than pleased that I was already wearing my engagement ring before the fiançailles transpired. Indeed, the French tradition is for the man and women to decide they want to marry, for the man to ask “Veux-tu m’épouser?” “Will you marry me?” If she agrees, he then asks her parents (very traditionally, the man asks her father while he is wearing white gloves). The engagement is then announced to the respective families and the couple go out together to buy a ring. Interestingly, the French call our ‘man on one knee, velvet box in hand’ proposal a “Hollywood proposal.”

Secondly, the engagement is blessed during a Mass. This is one of those details I mentioned that occurs with more traditional families. Obviously, if the couple is not going to partake in a religious ceremony or they are not religious at all, then this part would not play a role in the fiançailles.

My own fiançailles was a wonderful afternoon at my to-be parents-in-law’s property where the wedding would take place a year later. My family came over for the celebration and met my fiancé’s family for the first time.The whole event was a charming, if unexpected, prelude to the wedding itself.

Atmospheric Variances

If I was pressed to name the most significant difference between North American style weddings and those in France it would be a matter of tone. What do I mean by tone? With North American TV shows like Bridezilla and hundreds of wedding websites, a couple dozen glossy bridal magazines and thousands of professionals ready to aid the North American bride create her dream day,weddings have become more of a show, a cabaret of sorts, a service industry cash cow, more of a production than a family celebration. Although the wedding industry is inevitably coming to Europe, and to France in particular, it hasn’t reached the borders quite yet. Thus French weddings remain more low key, family-oriented affairs akin to a family reunion, more in tune with what weddings were in North America 50 years ago.

Although set in the grounds of gilded chateaux or under billowing white tents in vineyards or on rolling lavender hills in Provence, French weddings embody several degrees less of the theatrical hoopla than their North American counterparts, which is an aspect of French weddings that I greatly respect. The original meaning of the ceremony is not overshadowed by efforts to impress or outshine or dazzle. As is the case with most of French culture, the order of the day is good old-fashioned enjoyment. And because French weddings are so much more down-to-earth, in a sense, they cost a fraction of what a similar event would run State-side. Stretch limos, for instance, are rare in France. Couples tend toward renting or borrowing antique cars or a shiny sedan. Lovely flowers are arranged on the tables and there are cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and music at the reception. But the component parts add up to a totally different equation. It’s all much less ‘done.’ As my mother-in-law explained to me at one of our early planning sessions: “A [French] wedding is about the coming together of two people and by extension two families. The party that follows is a celebration of that union and must not be dwarfed by the whims of la mode.”

My wedding, by the way, was far too ‘done’ for the likes of my belle-mère even with my sincerest efforts to follow her lead and dial down most of my ideas. In the end, it became abundantly clear that the essence of what she perceived to be a proper, respectable wedding, and what I had grown up learning to desire as a wedding, were simply not the same.

Wedding Planners

Wedding planners exist in France, but as you can imagine they are rare. The industry is a budding one and the quality of services and their expertise vary greatly. I hired a planner for my wedding to overcome three very specific obstacles:

(1) I was living in Paris while I was trying to plan a wedding in Dordogne (something akin to living in NYC and planning a wedding in Kansas);

(2) Being an American, I had no contacts in France for caterer (les traiteurs – I didn’t even know the word for a caterer back then), tent rentals, florists, bands, photographers, church musicians, etc. And I didn’t know how to deal with the totally new vocabulary that comes with planning any wedding, but especially when doing so in a second language: fabric types and colors, flower names, tent types, candle shapes, ribbon fabrics – you’d be astonished how much there is to learn when you plan a wedding, even in your own language!

And (3) I needed a buffer to mediate between me and my belle-famille in terms of our rather variant ideas on how the day would progress.

After a long search, I ended up discovering a fabulous bilingual wedding planner in Bordeaux who decreased my stress level by a percentage very worthy of her commission.

Two Weddings

The second most pronounced difference between North American and French weddings is the fact that in France you are obligated to marry twice. In fact, all weddings take place at the City Hall first and then if the couple wish to do so they can marry in a church. The separation of Church and State with respect to French weddings is absolute. The two ceremonies are not combined as they are in the Anglo-Saxon traditions. It does not matter when you marry civilly as long as it is in advance of your religious wedding. You might recall that the Prince of Monaco was married back in July 2011 twice – once civilly, once religiously.  Many French brides decide to have the civil ceremony the morning of their religious wedding. I chose to have mine the evening before so as to follow the North American tradition of not seeing my groom before I walked down the aisle on the day of the religious wedding.

Paper Work

As there are two weddings in France, there is also twice the paper work.

For a civil marriage, you must supply the City Hall with all types of ID and proof that you aren’t already married. A pamphlet of all required documentation is available at the Mairie where you plan to get married. Remember, in France you have to be domiciled in the place where you plan to get married civilly. I refer you to a post I wrote all about the procedures of getting married in France. (Look here for more detailed information.)

To be married religiously in a Catholic church in France, you are required to meet with the priest of the church where you are getting married and he may request that you undergo a certain number of pre-marital sessions with your fiancé(e). My husband and I enrolled in a 14 session pre-marital course that I was quite weary of at first but thoroughly enjoyed in the end. In these meetings, we met several other young couples from our parish who have now become great friends.

“You may kiss the bride!”

Or not! In a Catholic French wedding, the priest does not say “You may kiss the bride” at the end of the ceremony. The picture that you and I have grown up imagining with the congregation clapping as the officiant smiles upon the embracing newly-weds, is not a little French child’s bridal fairytale. In fact, the bride and groom do not normally kiss until they exit the church and are standing before the waiting congregation on the church steps.

For my wedding, I was prepared to sacrifice a great deal in order to appease my belle-famille – compromise, yes, compromise –so that the celebration would prove meaningful not only to me and my family but to my husband and his family as well. However, the kiss was non-negotiable. I had my heart set on this particular Anglo-Saxon tradition which proved a real exercise in my most profound negotiating skills. The priest who married us felt that any change to the normal French wedding program was sacrilege, and right up until the week before the wedding he held on to his refusal to say those five little words: “Vous pouvez embrasser la mariée.

Le tenu du marié

I’d always pictured my fiancé waiting for me at the altar in a tuxedo with a white rose pinned to his lapel, cummerbund and bow tie in place. But that’s not how it works in France. French grooms have a choice between a jaquette (most common for country weddings) – what we in North America would call a Mr. Darcy suit – or a habit (most common for city weddings), which is what a chef d’orchestre wears with white bowtie and tails. The traditional French groom also accompanies his jaquette or habit with a top hat and white gloves. Tuxedos in the North American sense, as was explained to me by my father-in-law, are appropriate for a Parisian Ball or if you were, say, invited to dine with the President of the Republic. Save for those two elegant occasions, tuxedos are left to the waiters of chic French restaurants and they are by no means appropriate outfits for a groom. Being a musician, my husband chose the habit for himself and matching jaquettes for our fathers and his temoins.

The Wedding Party

Speaking of les temoins reminds me of yet another marked difference between French and North American weddings. In France, groomsmen and bridesmaids do not exist. Instead, the French have les temoins who are friends or family members chosen to be witnesses of the ceremony for the bride and groom. The gender of the temoins is of no importance. A groom’s temoins may include his sister just as easily as his best male friend. Naturally, as there is no wedding party, there is no procession up the aisle by paired-off groomsmen and bridesmaids. The groom enters the church just before the bride and escorts his mother up the aisle. A Best Man and a Maid of Honor also play no role in a French wedding. There are, however, les enfants d’honneur, akin to our flower girls and ring bearers, except that their job is to tend to the bride’s train.

I must admit that I changed almost all of these rules for my wedding. I chose my sister as my Maid of Honor and she walked up the aisle on the arm of my husband’s brother (one of his temoins) who stood by his side at the altar. I engaged our two nieces as flower girls and two of our nephews as ring bearers.

Given the absence of a wedding party, it follows that the North American Rehearsal is also not a part of a French wedding. Yet, since I introduced many of the associated North American elements to my French wedding, we planned a Rehearsal for the day before the ceremony.

Salon du mariage

The Salon du mariage is the one exception to what I previously mentioned about French weddings not being all about pomp and circumstance, hoopla and excessive preparedness. In fact, it is one of the benefits of planning a wedding from Paris. Posters for these Salons, which are held around the city at various times of year, begin popping up on billboards in early spring. Thousands of to-be brides flock to these expositions to sample caterers, secure a band or a photographer, sign up for their ‘liste de mariage,’ try on dresses, order invitations, pick out wedding bands and select a florist. My husband and I enjoyed walking through a few of these Salons as fiancés. They are a particularly useful resource for couples planning their wedding themselves and, shall we say, a rite of passage for all French brides.

First Dances

One the questions most asked of a newly married couple in North America is “So, what was your wedding song?” This question purports to acknowledge our tradition of the couple’s First Dance and the chosen melody that will forever be ‘their song.’ This is not a part of the French wedding tradition. Rather than the couple warming up the dance floor with their First Dance or perhaps more à la mode these days with some sort of choreographed dance routine, the French begin the dance portion of the wedding with a Father-Daughter waltz. After a few minutes dancing with this daughter, the father of the bride hands her over to her husband and the couple finish off the waltz as man and wife.

If you ask a French couple what their Wedding Song was, they will assume you are talking about the musique d’entrée which is a song chosen by the couple to be played when they enter the reception. The French tradition is that guests rise to their feet at this moment, clap their hands and twirl their napkins over their heads.

In a wave of international compromise, my husband and I combined the two traditions. We forewent the musique d’entrée, began the dance portion of the evening with a waltz to which I danced with my father who handed me to my husband. Then later in the evening, we cleared the floor and danced to our Wedding Song.

Wedding Cakes

Finally, a word on French wedding cakes. If you are anything like me, when you think of a wedding cake you picture a tiered structure likely with white creamy decoration, laden with fresh flowers, perhaps even a little ribbon, and topped with a small statuette of a bride and groom. By now, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that this does not describe a French wedding cake. And what’s more, it is not easy to find a pastry shop, even in Paris, that will readily make you one. If you do find a volunteer, they want to charge you almost as much as if you were having the darn cake shipped from home in a refrigerated plane! No, I exaggerate, but only a little. I found a wonderful shop in Bordeaux that made my ivory tiered dessert for me and with Butter Cream icing, to boot, rather than the more traditional French almond paste.

The traditional French wedding cake, by contrast, is called une Pièce Montée and is made of small, golden, cream-filled balls called les choux mounted with caramel glaze into a triangular tier shape. Cutting the cake in France, as you can imagine, takes on a different meaning.

*

By way of conclusion, I will leave you with a short etymological tale which I found rather enlightening on the differences between French and North American weddings as well as a chart of the main cultural contrasts.

One of my future brothers-in-law asked me while I was in the process of planning my wedding what the difference was in English between the words ‘wedding’ and ‘marriage.’ “In French,” he said, “le mariage seems to signify both of your English words. We don’t make the distinction.” How insightful and astute his question was, indeed! Quite tellingly, in English we have a whole separate word for the celebration of the marriage, whereas in French the celebration and the lifelong commitment are all wrapped up in one seven-letter word.

Main Differences between North American and French Weddings:

North America                                                                                  France

Combined civil and religious ceremony Two separate ceremonies
Lots of hoopla! A whole lot less hoopla!
Tuxedos for grooms Jaquette or habit for grooms
Rehearsals and Rehearsal dinners No Rehearsal or Rehearsal dinner
Wedding parties (groomsmen/bridesmaids/ flower girls/ ring bearers) No groomsmen or bridesmaids, les temoins of either gender instead, les enfants d’honneur
“You may kiss the bride.” The kiss is on the church steps after the ceremony
Engagement Parties Les Fiançailles
Knee and ring proposals Mutual decision proposals, ring bought together
Couple’s first dance and wedding song Father-Daughter Waltz begins the dance
Tiered wedding cake La Pièce Montée

For the translation from Marie-Amelie click here: Continue reading

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Wine is not a cocktail, it’s a condiment

Wine is alcohol, so wine is a cocktail.

It’s 8:00 pm and I’m in my running clothes, sitting on the floor with wine books around me. The phone is tucked between cheek and shoulder as I bend over a piece of scrap paper and take notes. Daniel, whom I think I can rightly call my wine mentor by now, is on a roll, spouting out facts and figures, recommending wine writers, and coming up with publishing analogies to make sure I get what he’s talking about. (Alluding to the value of studying wine before I am professionally involved in the industry, he says “it’s like a writer going into publishing. The job becomes less about writing and more about marketing.”)

I struggle to write fast enough, getting only fragments of sentences down before Daniel switches gears and is on to the next subject.  Tonight he stresses the importance of understanding the American mentality toward wine, and how people in the industry must react to that perspective.

“Americans don’t drink wine before they are in their 30’s,” he says definitively. He pauses, but not long enough for me to mention I’m an exception to that rule.

“First of all, there is no wine culture for us before we are 21, because it’s illegal. That means many of us get our introduction to alcohol in college, where we drink sugary concoctions to mask the cheap liquor taste. But we get used to it. Most of us are raised on sugar anyway, so we might actually like it. Then, out of college, we stick with what we know, which is syrupy sweet. When it is finally appropriate for us to drink wine (let’s face it, college kids associate it with snobbishness), we want it sugary, or big  and alcoholic, and we want to sip it like we sipped our cheap cocktails. But wine is not a cocktail to be sipped. It is a condiment.”

I wasn’t expecting that. Wine is a condiment? The first thing that pops into my mind is a big, red bottle of ketchup on a picnic table. Wine is a condiment?

But I have no time to protest.

“I like to call it synergy,” Daniel says. “Food-wine synergy.”

I write it down.

“You wouldn’t eat ketchup by itself. You wouldn’t sip salad dressing. Wine is like that. It always goes with food.”

I’m surprised he doesn’t have any qualms with referring to ketchup and wine in the same context. “A condiment, Daniel?” I ask. “Really?”

With a shrug I can imagine over the phone, he acknowledges my hesitancy with pure confidence. “Really,” he says. Period.

“We have to reach out to the consumer with this in mind, always encouraging them to expand their palates. We have to talk to them about terroir and sub-appellations, and the fact that southern French wine pairs perfectly with Herbes de Provence for a reason; that Muscadet is made for mollusks because its grapes are salted by the Atlantic.”

Remembering my famous bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges, I mentally add Burgundy pinot noir with the local sauce à l’Epoisse to the list.

“As people start to get to know wine,” Daniel continues, “they can choose which best complements their meal. But if they don’t try a lot of wine, they’ll stick with what they know. And we have to get them away from the unfortunate wine-as-cocktail schema!”

I chuckle to myself. Wine as ketchup is better than wine as cocktail?

But what he says is true, and I respect Daniel for using the unflattering term “condiment.” It brings the whole subject of wine down to earth and forces us to wonder in which context wine is at its best. It really is meant to be drunk with food. The French philosophy that it is best to beraisonableapplies here: is it ever very reasonable to drink without at least a little something to eat at the same time?

As our conversation concludes — five pages of notes later — I think about the experiences I have had drinking wine in France. Call it the power of suggestion, but a host of pairings comes to mind: Chignin and fondue, Nuits-Saint-Georges or Aloxe Corton and coq au vin, vin jaune from the Jura and a slice of comte cheese, Champagne and popcorn, crepes and cider… Every region has its wine, and every dish has its drink! It has been fun to learn about the pairings, and to branch out from the old, and very general, standby of white wine with fish and poultry, red wine with dark meat.

If you’ve recently experienced great food-wine synergy, let me know. If not, what are you waiting for?!

Cheers!

Click here to read the translation from my future belle-soeur! Continue reading

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Winemaking 101: Bottling Day

You can take the girl out of France, but you can’t take France out of the girl. Sort of. This Saturday’s wine bottling adventure proved to be trés Americain despite the presence of French blood (compliments of Arnaud, Marc, and Patsy). In a Uof L red basement, where wine bottles mingled with year-round Halloween decorations and quirky monkey masks, a group of us bottled wine from the 2011 Kentucky harvest. Yes, we apparently have vines in Kentucky, and although the terroir is anything but Burgundy, there are certain grapes that seem to do well here.

Take Traminette, for instance. I had never heard of it before, but I got to know it pretty well over the course of the afternoon, as I heaved the arm of the corking machine and secured dozens of corks in the bottle necks. It’s a cross between a French-American hybrid and the German grape Gewürztraminer. Made around 1965 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign, Traminette has become Indiana’s signature grape because of its ability to thrive in this region’s climate and soil. Unlike many other grape varieties, Traminette is very resistant to fungus (important in our humid area) and can withstand colder weather than Gewürztraminer. It also does well in strong and direct sunlight — something Kentucky and Indiana can proudly boast.

Let me be clear for all of my Burgundian friends who are reading this: we are far from being able to flaunt even a tenth of your magic. But I must admit it was really fun to be a part of the process and learn a thing or two along the way!

TRADUCTION A LA MELIE:

Le B-A BA du vigneron : la mise en bouteille

Tu peux sortir la fille de France, tu ne peux pas sortir la France de la fille. Enfin presque. En dépit de la présence de sang français (merci Arnaud, Marc et Patsy), l’aventure de la mise en bouteille de ce samedi s’est révélée très américaine. Dans un bâtiment rouge de l’Université de Louisville, où les bouteilles côtoient les décorations annuelles d’Halloween et d’étranges masques de singes, un petit groupe mettait en bouteille le vin de la récolte 2011 du Kentucky. Oui, apparemment nous avons des vignes au Kentucky, et même si le terroir n’a rien à voir avec la Bourgogne, certains cépages semblent se plaire ici.

Prenez le Traminette, par exemple. Je n’en avais jamais entendu parler jusqu’à présent, mais j’ai appris pas mal de choses au cours de cet après-midi, en poussant le levier de la machine à bouchonner, mettant ainsi en sécurité des douzaines de bouchons dans le goulot des bouteilles. C’est un croisement entre un hybride franco-américain et le Gewürtzraminer allemand. Créé vers 1965 à l’Université de l’Illinois Urbana/Champaign, le Traminette est devenu le cépage de l’Indiana par excellence en raison de sa capacité à prospérer sous le climat et sur le sol de cette région. Contrairement à beaucoup d’autres cépages, le Traminette est très résistant aux champignons (important dans notre zone humide) et plus résistant au froid que le Gewürtzraminer. Il supporte également bien un ensoleillement intense et direct – dont peuvent se vanter le Kentucky et l’Indiana.

Mettons les choses au point pour tous mes amis Bourguignons qui lisent cet article : nous sommes à des lieues d’exhiber ne serait-ce qu’un dixième de votre magie. Mais je dois avouer que c’était vraiment amusant de prendre part au processus et d’apprendre une chose ou deux en chemin !

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Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru: a birthday wine

“Everyone always asks how I got into wine…”

It’s a popular way to start the “About Me” section of wine blogs, wine books, winery sites, and as I am reading this one in particular, it occurs to me that most of the time I could guess the answer to the question without reading further. The only thing left to be determined is the year.

What I mean, of course, is that everyone seems to remember the bottle that got them into the wine industry. Not the winemaker or wine writer per se, but the bottle of wine, the taste on their lips that produced an “aha moment” of complete certainty and conviction.

I wonder if ten, twenty years from now I’ll be remembering the bottle of 2001 Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Vaucrains Premier Cru that Nico and I shared for my birthday.

Having decided on the main courses at our favorite Sabot de Vénus, we scrutinized the wine list, applying our basic knowledge in a game of chance. “No Gevrey-Chambertin,” I said, pointing to the top of the list. “Probably too fruity to go with our sauces.”

(I had ordered a chicken dish with a strong Epoisses cheese sauce and he a filet mignon de porc à la réglisse.)

“You’re right,” he said. “I was thinking Nuits-Saint-Georges.” I followed his finger down the list.

“2001,” I said, raising my eyebrows.

It was my birthday. We ordered it.

Delicious at first taste, its spiciness eased with a little air as we enjoyed our first sips with the appetizer. My face warmed as it traveled across my palate. I searched for the word to express its earthiness.

Then came the main courses. A little more air, a little more time, and the wine had transformed again. Faced with the Epoisses, it rose to the occasion with an explosion of macerated plum and floral accents.

“Taste this,” Nicolas said, offering me a bite of his filet mignon, eyes wide.

And that, my friends, is when this wine went from delicious to exceptional. Off the charts. Dare I say life changing? The licorice of Nico’s sauce still on my palate, I took a sip of the wine and, boom! Another taste altogether. The plum and rose from a moment before gave way to a sweet, rooty complement to the licorice, as if mirroring, or trying to one-up the réglisse in Nicolas’ meal. Imagine a wine that starts of spicy and a bit tannic and twenty minutes later could be considered candy! My eyes closed; I relished the long finish. Nicolas chuckled.

With a sip of water and another bite of chicken, my glass of wine complied. Once again full bodied and vigorous, there could not have been a better companion to my plate.

Or to Nicolas’.

This wine was magic.

Seduced by its power, we later did a Google search with hopes of buying several more bottles. Not possible, at least for the 2001 vintage. “It’s the quality of the domaine that counts. I’m sure the 2004 would be similar,” encouraged Nicolas, having found some bottles for sale.

Half disappointed, half intrigued, I willed the taste of the wine to come back to me by way of memory. A hint of it did. And from now on, that hint is all that I will ever have of that magical bottle.

But there are so many other wines to discover.

How did I get into wine? I owe it to a 2001 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru from Domaine Dupasquier & Fils.

For Mélie’s translation: Continue reading

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Life in Images: When you know something good is just around the corner

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