Our group shuffled in the little stone cabin, bent to shake hands with Jo Pithon and Joseph Paille, all of us flashing beaming smiles as Joseph handed us cool, frosty flutes full of Pithon-Paille sparkling Chenin Blanc. The few hours before this moment spent learning where the vineyards were located, seeing twisted old vines dug deep into recently churned soil, bumping about in our SUV along the Loire River soaking in shades of green from pale olive to heart stopping emerald. Each of our expeditions to this place slightly different, as in how we arrived in the wine business, as French wine lovers, as buyers, all pebbled and laborious but here we all were. In a modestly refurbished stone hut, smiles plastered across our still weary with travel faces, cool glasses of bubbling Chenin Blanc being clinked before we split our dried with vineyard walking lips and let the stony, honey rich froth slip down our gullets.
We sat on the stone bench that ran around the tiny cabin chatting and laughing as our resident comic relief Jim Knight, (of the famed The Wine House in Los Angeles) cracked jokes to ease all our slightly awkward tensions and gushed a little of his own adoration in Jo Pithon’s direction. I was watching but let my eyes wander and inspect the little cottage. I was captivated by the contrast of the mat grey and pale pink stone frame against the energy of the lush green right outside the structure. Joseph’s wife Wendy caught me in the midst of my visual inspection and let me know that cottages like the one we were in were, and are, used to escape the quick change of weather that can occur in places unlike sunny SoCal, that have actual weather, and to have a break, a meal, when the hunger pangs of backbreaking vineyard work would call. Many of those old stone huts now just a crumbling shell of a reminder of the way things used to be, what with cars now making it so much easier to just jaunt home for your midday meal, but Pithon-Paille recently spent hours restoring their little haven of snacks and dry both in an effort to make their lives easier and take less toll on the environment, but also as a reminder of the vignerons that came before them in that spot. The history of their place in the Loire Valley that they hold so important. Wendy pointed to a posted sign on the back of the front door that she translated for me, “Feel welcome to stay but please, just leave it as you found it” seemed pretty damned profound to me that.
“So Jo has been shopping for our dinner this evening and I think we are all quite lucky, he hit the market for charcuterie” Wendy’s booming vigor assuring me that all the things I’d read about Jo Pithon and his passion for pairing food and wine, that it was in fact a real thing and we as a collective group were about to be even more elated. The tiny whisper of bubbly Chenin Blanc just shimming down my throat I climbed back into the car with a mission to taste wines from tank and barrel but with my heart and tummy flips awaiting the dinner table.
The first thing we all noticed was the lack of actual barrels in the barrel room once we lumbered into the winery. The comments I’d heard in passing back home about the combination of difficult and short vintages in France ringing way true in gaps between barrels that reminded me of a hockey player’s smile. As Joseph Paille bounced from barrel to tank and back again he tried his best to sound and share with us their optimism, “Well it has been challenging but if 2014 gives us a good crop things will really be looking up!” and I found myself searching for that hope with each glass of tank or barrel thieved wine. Searching for the bits of heart and determination that a winery like this would pour into whatever fruit they were able to harvest and wine they did create. Not a fucking chance people that would rather grind their bodies toiling and churning over soil for fifty hours, rather than spraying chemicals on their land, would give us watered down or lifeless wines that didn’t speak of their mission and dedication. I knew by the time I had my nose in the second tiny sample of Anjou Blanc Mozaik, took in all that gorgeous peachy fruit and sexy, almost bacon-like savory Chenin complexity, all its compelling salty notes that splashed around in big curves on my palate, I knew these people had done just as I, as all of us that know the difference between true vignerons, or winemakers, and those that need to crank out the “product” vintage in and vintage out, knew they would, they made remarkable wines…but minuscule amounts of it. I was wrecked with the whites, as I had prepared for but the reds, the Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil, (pronounced Bore-Goy like Poor boy) dug their calloused fingers into my flesh and they, well they left a bruise….
I settled down into my seat at the dinner table that night, eyes three times their normal size as I perused the bowls of tiny firm radishes, the meaty slabs of cured pork chops coated in a briny white swath of savory and oily feeling fat. Watched as Jo Pithon’s big meaty hands gently passed us the food he’d gathered for us…saw the twinkle in his eye as we opened our minds, hearts and oh-so-ready- mouths for more. The tub of billowy soft shredded pork rillettes, the thick, sweet, deeply yellow butter we used to prepare our bread for that pork…butter, the warm smiles of people so happy to have us there and the magnificent amounts of perfectly balanced wine to wash it all down with. The laughter and absolute understanding of why we were all there, in that lushly green and fragrant place, all becoming as clear and vibrant as the wines that filled our bellies and made our cheeks pink and warm. It was to make sure these wines had a voice, there in the Loire telling us their story and through us as devoured their brilliance and heard their calling.
Tummies full, much laughing as we drug our plumped up and spinning with admiration bodies into the hotel lobby that night, my ribcage sore with over-stuffing and gut-splitting laughter remembering Jim and watching him fall madly in love with a tub of pork goo, aka rillettes, and making sure we all knew it, the words once again in the form of a floating bubble above Aline’s head, “So, do you guys want to try and find a place to have a drink?” following me to my room but the, “Let’s meet down here in 20 minutes” speaking even louder. I craved sleep and trying to shove my thoughts into my beloved laptop but the call of spending the rest of the night surrounded by the handful of people I knew were floating from experiencing the same food and wine epiphany, just a few decibels louder. I met my Pithon-Paille saturated group for a late night, a later night, out where Jim made bars stay open, we lost Josh and I would play a disastrous game of darts….but as crazy as all that was, it was the wines, food, education and voice of Pithon-Paille that continues to speak the loudest, even now. How can you miss people so badly that you just met? Happens when you feel and taste their life’s work.
It is an honor to stock the wines from Pithon-Paille and you can bet, there will be more…