While dining out with reader and friend Jess this week I encountered something that happens to me all the time. We were eating at a Cuban place I had not been to in like five years, I remember thinking it was delicious, not fancy but not divey…um, a lot changed in five years. The food is still delicious, something about that charred chicken, (and they give you half of one) doused in that garlicky, citrusy sauce, covered in sliced white onions and that side of smashed up smoky black beans…wrecks me, I love it but, the place was a lot less, not divey than I remember. I snuck some wine in, had Jess stash one bottle in her purse as well and waited until we were seated before asking, “Um, what is your corkage policy”. So the guy that was giving us our paper napkins had no clue but he was willing to find us someone that did.
“I brought in some wine to share with my friend from out of town, is that okay?” I asked our new server, “Yes but we do charge either eight or ten dollars per bottle” the helpful gentleman sheepishly replied. “Um, that’s fine” I said trying to hide my, what a deal grin while Jess and I pulled our smuggled bottles out of our bags. “From California?” our server asked, “No French” I replied only to see what I have like a million times before….the pouted out mouth and raised eyebrows. What up with that?! Did I say they were fancy pants French wines? Just so happens they were but….
“Sam, come taste this” Randy calling from the tasting room once again. I felt my jaw go icy and my back stiffen with those rigid, “You can’t make me” spikes that I had been sporting since I started at The Wine Country. I made my way to the tasting room already pissed, I just knew he was going to challenge me. I was brought on at The Wine Country to handle the mailing list and deal with shipping. I had zero palate and even less interest in wine. I didn’t get it and didn’t want to….I was also getting my feathers ruffled by this man that kept insisting that I taste these wines that meant nothing to me.
I had tasted wine before and they all tasted like….wine to me. I could not pick out any flavors or aromas and honestly thought the whole thing was flat out trickery. Smoke and mirrors put forth by those looking to hustle, not something I was unfamiliar with in my former life but not something I was looking to be a part of again. I made my way to the tasting room and took the glass from Randy’s hand, he was grinning and I felt my guard get even thicker. I looked at Randy’s beaming face as he told me, “This is from Alsace” I spun the glass as I had seen it done before….felt like such a huckster, so full of shit as I spun the thickly textured wine in the glass. I brought it to my seriously furrowed brow, stuck my nose in it then brought it to my lips, after one taste all my doubts were spinning around me in little bubbles like those cartoon captions….”bullshit” “aromatics” “oak” “oily”…..everything I had heard and denounced as utter horseshit was now sitting on my palate and its fingers were slipping between my buttons and caressing my skin. I got it.
Alsace flipped my switch but it was actually California Chardonnay that helped my find words for my sensory perceptions…popcorn, butter and pineapple. It was like I had just learned to walk and now I ached to run. I spent every spare dollar discovering, researching, tasting. I had volumes of tasting notes, hours of lectures from the then boyfriend, (now hubby) about my dollars spent and hours lost to wine evaluation but it was too late, I was a goner and for me it was French wine that seemed to unzip all my raw and fierce passion.
“So I hear you’re going to France with me” it was Michael Sullivan on the other end of the line. “Um, not that I know of” was my stammering and heart pounding response. “Oh okay, may I speak to Randy” Michael recovered. “Sam can I see you in the back?”Randy over the loud speaker in the store. I made my way back to his office, Michael’s words sending spikes into my fearful spine with each step. I had made my way to Randy’s office like a million times before but this trip, this trip seemed like crossing the Sahara. You know those scenes in the movies where the protagonist is standing still and the whole world is rushing by at like a million miles an hour…yeah, that was my sixty paces walk to the boss’s office.
“Michael Sullivan just called” this I already knew and my crazy ass brain was bugged by the fact that Randy didn’t remember who had alerted him to the call…I was grasping at this point, trying to find anything I could to be annoyed about. “He has asked that I let you join him on his buying trip this year” Randy said as he leaned back in his chair, smug grinning face and fingers laced in a basket that the base of his head was resting on. Fear had already gripped me by this point, it had consumed me and was now about to speak for the crazy chick that was rendered damn near speechless. I felt my mouth open but was completely distracted by the uncontrollable twitch that had taken hold of my knees and was making them bounce like I had a jockey on them. “I can’t go to France Randy. I have a kid and a store to run” I blurted feeling the venom trickle down the sides of my mouth. Randy looked at me as if I had just delivered him a swift kick in the nuts…he had been bugging Michael for a solid year to take me on this trip. Bought extra wine, purred stories of fantastic meals and charming winemakers in my ears, probably emailed and called Michael relentlessly. Here I was….ungrateful, snide, bitter and once again crinkling my brow at a man that was simply trying to open me.
I tried no fewer than ten times to get out of the trip, I just knew I was not ready and it was a giant waste of both Randy’s money and Michael’s time….boarded the plane and felt my eyes well up, what the hell am I doing here? Sailed across to France and as I dumped my twenty five days worth of luggage in my way too tiny room I completely broke down…what am I doing here?! Met my travel mates in the lobby and rode the Metro to whatever spot it was that we were having dinner in Paris, ahem…in Paris people…wine that I didn’t know, people that I didn’t know and a mouthful of blood sausage that Michael made me eat and I was a wreck.
Slept all of two hours that first night. Sat on the edge of my tiny bed watching the clock…just waiting until eight, our scheduled meeting time for breakfast. I sat there watching one travel mate act as if he didn’t know I was breathing, (that would be Sullivan) and the other slurping damn near raw eggs that I could not eat after trying to work the boiling machine. I shoved my bags into the van thinking that there was no way I was going to make it through the whole trip. So, something happened…France happened and once its flavors were injected into my somewhat reluctant body I was done with.
It was not just the place, the smoky smells, the ancient streets…it was the wines that spun me. The Loire with its steely, vibrant, racy flavors. Burgundy with its deep, hauntingly sexy aromatics and the way the wines seemed to seduce…the way the wines stained not only my palate but left me swollen with want and a profound desire for more. Rhone and its range from wild to reserved, spicy red fruit in the south, dark alluring black fruit in the north. The way the whites with their peachy, white flower packed flavors seemed to shock our purple stained palates back to life. By the time we had made our trek throughout the country I was drunk, spellbound and in tears once again…this time not quite ready to come home.
That first day back in the shop, back from the trip that would forever change me….I just walked around the French department. I let my fingertips touch bottles, remember faces, meals, laughs, tears….each brush of my fingers bringing to life a moment, a flavor and a reminder that this is where my heart and lust lives…in France. I taste and love many other wines but my first love, the love that made me continue, pushed me forward in this crazy business were those from France and they will forever be the wines that I love, want…ache for. Will be the wines that all others must live up to.
Does that make them fancy? Hell no, more often than not the wines that I am drinking from by beloved little country are value wines. Those in the ten to twenty dollar range…no eyebrows and pouty, “fancy” mouth. Wines that were meant to enhance a meal, vibrate the palate and give us just the sweetest little kiss of balance….fuck I love that. Ache for that and seek that in every sniff, taste and swallow.
I’ve never quite understood why people give me the snooty nose when I mention that I am a French wine buyer, French wine lover…where does that come from? Is there some kind of inferiority deal happening? Some idea that French wines are more expensive, (um, dude…I can attest to the fact that they are not) or more snoot worthy…better? I know I have never once in my jillion year career implied anything like that. I like them better but that in no way implies that they are better wines. They just work me, make my hairs vibrate, make my mouth water and have this knack for reaching deep into my heart and stirring up my passion...my memory and the only thing I have to give them in return is to show others. Put those bottles in the hands of those that have yet to make their voyage, that are open to having that snap zing across their palate.
Is it easy? Not in the least, I just spent thirty minutes on a woman that after my whole, bubblin French deal told me, "I would rather spend my dollars here in the US"...did not even flinch when I told her that the importer in question was born and raised in California....