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The Vino Voices Site Has Moved!

September 9, 2019

The web address of Vino Voices is actually Vinoexpressions.com.

Tomorrow (Tuesday), the Vino Voices web address will become VinoVoices.com.

The site has a fresh look, and all past articles (and Forbes articles) are now easier to search for and find.

If you are a subscriber and for some reason do not receive news of a new post at the new site within 48 hours, let me know!

Enjoy….

A Tale Of Two Prague Wine Bars

August 6, 2019
Old Town, Prague

Some wines produced within the Czech Republic are daring and magnificent — tightrope walkers that beautifully balance finesse and control against staid comforts of plummy fruit and sandpaper tannins. Here is an invisible dance of gusto, prodded by the same bold mentality that sent Velvet Revolutionaries to chuck their ossified Soviet past. This landscape now shouts vibrant experimentation. Many other regions (including Bordeaux) could learn from sipping today’s best Czech juice.

Below are tales of two wine bars in Prague. One is local, low key and serves not unattractive bulk wine; the other focuses on quality for mainstream visitors.

Both are lively. One is even lovable.

One: The Sketchy Alley Wine Bar

There are two pathways to the Ma Skleničku Wine Bar within the city of Prague. Both are sketchy. One appears unlikely, because it passes through the inner bowels of a low key and dodgy looking arcade off Jindrišská street. The second option (which I took) leads to the end of an extremely sketchy alleyway. Deep inside this tunnel I was ready to pivot and hoof out for fear of getting mugged until I heard voices on the other side of a dumpster. They sounded joyous, not threatening. I tiptoed three steps forward, craned my neck and saw outdoor tables with wine glasses.

Ma Skleničku Wine Bar

Score!

There were tables in the alleyway, as well as couches in the arcade. There were more seats inside. I entered. Quelle surprise. Adjacent to this run-down alley way, beautifully dressed ladies and dapper men sipped and bantered.

I sat.

Eight spigots sprouted out of one wall. A young guy with black hair pulled on any of these to pour wine.

I ordered white.

‘Ryzlink?’ He asked. ‘We have two types. One is smooth. The other tough.’

Tough.

I loved this place.

He suggested I start with smooth.

Simple, affordable, lively

He poured a generous pour. The label above the spigot classified the juice as Moravian Table Wine, made from the Ryzlink Vlašsky (Welschriesling ) grape. No year was listed.

The décor was sparse. There was no music. No wine list. No charming server. No olives or bread. Water was tap water.

Jackpot.

The eight wine spigots in the background

Locals sat inside. Thursday evening youngsters chatters with animated politeness.

Wooden tables were small, likely hewn from a Czech equivalent of IKEA. The room lacked Aussie, Hanky, Brit or Chinese accents. A guy with purple hair tried picking up magnificent women by spouting ‘hakuna matatu’ in Swahili and insisting he buy them shots (they all declined). A drooling dog roamed across the floor.

Backstreet Prague. The real deal.

Locals gathering

The largest white wall was pasted with brown letters that spelt grape varieties—from Chardonnay to Ryzlink Rynsky. A 30-something year-old well-coiffed man in a pinstripe suite and bow-tie chatted with casually attired coworkers. A blonde and brunette at the adjacent table wore stunning dresses that could have belonged to royalty.

A woman in high heels and ripped jeans with a tattooed shoulder breezed inside. Her blouse slung over one shoulder and flaunted curves, which incentivized Mr. Purple Hair to hover close and offer her a shot. She summarily declined. (Offering shots in a wine bar did not seem to be a particularly intelligent pickup strategy.) He next eyed me and smiled and I looked away, wary of getting near any whiff of his vodka.

I next ordered ‘tough’ ryzlink. The bartender told how customers included people who lived on the block. Apparently, and thankfully.

Bulk wine; not bad either

I ordered a final glass: rosé. This ruby dark juice from southeastern Moravia was truly tough. I whiffed diesel, asparagus and vinegar aromas, then tasted oatcakes.

The inner bar included glimmers of style. Chess pieces filled empty drawers on a shelf. There were enough skirts, machismo, jewels, embroidered blouses and preppy shirts to fill a king’s party chamber during some moonlit Moravian feast. Pickup lines flew, but most well-dressed locals greeted their comrades with discourse and genuine enthusiasm.

There were no free snacks. A blackboard listed available dishes—from Kachní Paštika (duck paté) for about $2.80, to Klobásy (grilled sausages) for $5.

I stood and paid. Three sizable glasses cost less than six bucks. The experience was precious, but it was getting dark and time to eat. I exited and turned left, this time staying well clear of that alleyway.

The alley entry way. Sketch City.

Two: Quality Although Slightly Commercial.

I stopped into Vinograf Wine Bar Senovazne (there are two associated Vinografs in Prague), which is neither pretentious nor overtly commercial. The long bar made from hand hewn wood is attractive; locals hang out to read newspapers. Long necked Riesling magnums stood on adjacent low tables where customers sat in comfortable chairs chatting while work partners uncorked after-toil beverages.

A view of Prague and the River Vltava

An electronic tablet menu in multiple languages here breaks down wines by the glass, of which on the day I visited there were 10 whites, two rosés, nine reds, two sparkling wines and 18 choices from bottles sealed by Coravin. The young servers love wine, and are jazzed to share information and advice.

Vinograf wine list (fortunately there’s also a tablet in English)

I began with a 2017 white made from the Ryzlink Vlašsky (Welschriesling) grape from the ‘flowerline’ series, made by Mikrosvín Mikulov winery. Produced in the southeast Moravia wine region, this wine (no, it’s not Riesling) with a floral nose includes gritty, salty minerality in the mouth—a premium balanced beauty with cheekfuls of luscious acidity and crunchy minerals. The high latitude cool climate crispness includes warmth from summer sun kissed soils.

Rush hour Prague

The second wine was a 2018 Grüner Veltliner (known in Czech as Veltlínski zelené) from Ilias winery. Grüner Veltliner is one of the more widely planted white grapes in the country. This white from the Mikulovská sub-region of Moravia is more Kansas or Missouri than California—a full flush of juice to enjoy a barbecue with—sweet and easy. It is as open as a Pinot Blanc but includes a sliver of spice in the mouth.

Easy drinking white

There are several small wine bars in Prague. What they lack in variety of juice they make up for in abundance of local character. When in doubt, ask locals where to go. Some of the best Czech wines are scintillating: balanced, bold and beautifully crafted.

City scene at night

My latest Forbes pieces include Biondi Sant from Tuscany, Château Ausone from Bordeaux and far more about Czech wines.

And, yes, the new website is still being prepared!

Thanks for tuning in again.

Sizzling Summer Food And Wine Pairings

July 16, 2019

Wildly Winning Food and Wine Combos

As spring merged with summer the scents of fresh food and light wines have splattered across the days. From Majorca to Tuscany to Bordeaux — below are a few meals I was fortunate to sample during these past months, concocted by chefs of renown and paired with wines of solid repute.

These food and wine pairings provide contrasts that showcase Spanish Mediterranean shoreline foods matched with organic and orange wines; Tuscan mountain fare paired with traditional Italian classic vintages, and southern French foods matched with wines from Bordeaux winemakers.

Many of these menus illustrate food and wine pairing principles. These include:

  • Food and wine pairing can be more of an art form than an exact science. Don’t lose sleep over it, and have fun experimenting.
  • Consider dominance: a light wine may get lost if paired with too hearty a beef dish, and a hearty and aged red wine may overpower a light salad. Avoid having either a dish or a wine smother its pairing in terms of power, sweetness or acidity.
  • Sparkling wines are most versatile, because they include relatively high acidity and some sweetness (e.g. — champagne paired with cheese stuffed fried olives).
  • Pairings can be complementary or contrasting. For complementary — consider acidic sparkling wine paired with red snapper and pickled green tomatoes, or a heavy super-Tuscan red blend matched with grilled boar. For contrasting — consider sweet and fruity components of a Saint-Émilion red blend contrasting against Tandoori spices and pepper reduction over poached lobster.
  • Let the best wines take center stage. Remember, a good wine may take 20 years to be ready, while a good meal takes a few hours to cook. If you have a special wine, let it dominate (but not smother) the pairing to highlight its character. An example taken from below is when a 2010 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé is matched in heft, but not overshadowed by, a dish of pigeon and foie-gras.

The four selected dinners are below.

Setting One

The Dinner and Location

Palma de Majorca, on the rooftop of the seven-story home of Swedish entrepreneur Konrad Bergström, who just launched a new fleet of luxury electric boats for sale.

Rooftop of Konrad Bergström’s home in Palma de Majorca
Konrad Bergström enjoying life

The Chef

Chef Frida Ronge flew in from Stockholm to prepare our amazing dinner (she is Culinary Director of Tak, in Stockholm). Frida is an award winning chef and author of the cookbook Rå Som Sushi.

Renowned Chef Frida Ronge

The Theme

Cutting edge and healthy cuisine paired with organic, natural, orange and biodynamic wines selected by Stefan Lundgren, a Swedish art and wine dealer who lays low on the island now and then.

Healthy recipes

The Food & Wine Pairings

Hatt & Söner Champagne—Grand Cuvée Quattuor 2013 – 100% Chardonnay

Matched with …

Various pre-dinner snacks, including maki with green chilli, crab and avocado; green asparagus miso emulsion and salmon roe; grilled pulpo and squid ink, and cheese stuffed panko fried olives.

[Pairing Note: For this mixed bag of appetizers, champagne fits all]

Green asparagus miso emulsion, and more

***

2017 Sparkling white wine made from 100% Bacchus grapes from Germany—2naturkinder pet nat.

Matched with …

Red snapper sashimi in shrimp bouillon with beans and pickled green tomatoes

[Pairing Note: Light white acidic bubbly matches seafood and greens]

Red snapper sashimi in shrimp bouillon

***

2017 German white wine made of 100% Johanniter from Gustavshof in Rheinhessen

Matched with …

Zucchini and squid noodles with wasibi tahini, cress and horseradish

***

2017 L’Ephémère Blanc blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne from Julien Peyras of the Languedoc-Rousillon, France

Matched with …

Fermented salad with lemon, thyme and almond milk

Languedoc blend

***

2016 De Sol A Sol—Tinaja Airén made from 100% Airén grape, an orange wine from Esencia Rural, La Mancha, Toledo, Spain

Matched with …

Tataki grilled mackerel with gooseberries, yuzu koshu and salsa verde

***

2017 La sAoulée red wine from 100% Gamay grape, made by Nathalie Banes of Beaujolais, France

Matched with …

Chirashi sushi yellowfin tuna, tamago and furikake from Sweden

[Pairing Note: This light red Beaujolais will pair with poultry, as well as strong fish]

A daring Beaujolais wine

***

2011 Mas Zenitude blend of 75% Carignan and 25% Syrah from Languedoc-Rousillon in Fance

Matched with …

Granita with cherry and hibiscus syrup

Granita – match with red or orange wine

***

2018 Tout Terriblement sparkling white wine from 100% Gewurtztraminer from Phillipe Brand of Alsace, France

Matched with

Guanaja chocolate with olive oil and salt

& & &

Setting Two …

The Dinner and Location –

The two Michelin star Caino Restaurant is located in the small village of Montemerano in the hils of Tuscany, Italy. It is close to the 11th century castle of famed winemaker Jacopo Biondi Santi, who hosted our dinner and spent the evening telling grand tales of making wine, hunting wild boar and negotiating to buy Denzel Washington’s Humvee while he was visiting the U.S.

Caino Restaurant in the south of Tuscany
Map of Maremma region of southern Tuscany

The Chef –

Valeria Piccini is the two Michelin star chef serving up plates at Caino in the Tuscan hills. She is also the author of several gorgeous cookbooks.

One of Piccini’s many cookbooks

The Theme

Tuscany! Beef and grilled wild boar matched with Sangiovese based wines.

The Food & Wine Pairings –

2018 J Rosé from Castello di Montepò

Matched with  …

Maremmana beef carpaccio, peposo style

Beef carpaccio – Michelin star style

***

2015 Sassalloro Castello di Montepò, 100% Sangiovese

Matched with …

Vignarola’s Risotto with smoked lamb tartare

Beautiful, and delicious, risotto

***

2011 Schidione Castello di Montepò, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

Matched with …

Grilled wild boar

[Pairing Note: This hefty red meets and matches the taste of wild red meat]

Steaming hunks of grilled ‘cinghiale,’ or wild boar

& & &

Setting Three …

The Dinner and Location –

Rooftop of CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux city — Hosted by Château Cordillan-Bages

Rooftop in Bordeaux city

The Theme

This was 15th anniversary dinner for JM Cazes wines.

The Food & Wine Pairings

2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine des Sénéchaux

Matched with …

7-hour confit of Pauillac lamb with lemon and rosemary

[Pairing Note: The strong wine structure complements the lamb; the notes of herbs of provence within the wine match the rosemary]

CNDP – always a hearty winner for a serious main course

***

2013 Xisto from DOC Douro

Matched with …

Roquefort espuma, roasted hazelnut crumble and diced celery

‘Three grape varieties, two families, one terroir’

***

2016 Michel Lynch Prestige—Sauternes

Matched with …

Gariguette strawberries from Médoc with rhubarb ice cream and vanilla and lime cream

[Pairing Note: Make your sweet wine sweeter than dessert; but fruit can handle more acidity, so the wine can be slightly drier]

A visual dessert feast

& & &

Setting Four …

The Dinner and Location –

This Jurade Dinner was held in Saint Emilion at Château Soutard.

Twice a year, the robed members of the ancient ‘jurade’ order of Saint-Émilion, protectors and lovers of wine, meet to induct new members and enjoy a splendid meal matched with fabulous local wines.

Within Château Soutard

The Theme

This year’s Jurade meal at Château Soutard kicked off Vinexpo wine trade fair, held in the city of Bordeaux.

New Bordeaux Mayor Nicolas Florian (left) with Monsieur De Boüard of Château Angélus

The Food & Wine Pairings

Chilled Béarn corn-bean soup, smoked eel, pickled griolle mushrooms and sage

Matched with …

2016 L’Archange from vignobles Chatonnet, Saint-Émilion, and

2016 Château Lanbersac Cuvée Or (red) from Françoise et Philippe Lannoye of Puisseguin Saint-Émilion

***

Poached blue lobster with Tandoori spices, carrot mousse with citrus, Timut pepper reduction with fresh coriander

Matched with …

2011 Château Tour Baladoz, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, and

2010 Château Grand Corbin Manuel, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru

[Pairing Note: Because Saint-Émilion wines are red, pairing them with seafood can mean matching sweetness with spice, or acidity with cream, or both]

Poached blue lobster

***

Farm-raised pigeon and Wellington duck foie-gras with steam-boiled and browned turnips and peaty sauce

Matched with …

2010 Château Soutard Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, and

2009 Château Laroze Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé

***

Matured cheeses, followed by bay leaf panacotta, Menton lemon jelly, almond crumble and gariguette strawberries

Matched with …

2004 Château Troplong Mondot Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, and

1989 Clos Fourtet Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé

[Pairing Note: These wines are not dry, but the medium dryness and fruit will match the sweetness and acidity of dessert]

& & &

OTHER NEWS –

My Recent Forbes posts include the following …

Tenuta Luce Roots Its Wine Reputation In The Hills Of Montalcino

How a Penniless Ten-Year Old Became A Shoemaker Of Dreams

Tuscany’s Il Boro Village blends Tradition and Luxury with Forward Thinking

Why the Collio of Friuli Delivers Crackling and Creamy Wines

France is Changing Key Wine Regulations

This Powerful Little Grape is About To Change the Wine Scene

Why Sicily’s Mount Etna is a Hot Spot For Wine Production

Wine Books

I’m now reading Wine Reads – A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing, edited by Jay McInerney. This compelling collection includes 27 excellent selections, including: the opening chapter of the book from which the Sideways movie was made; a history of events that led Robert Mondavi to create his own winery; a fictional piece about a wine tasting by Roald Dahl — author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

New Vino Voices Web Log –

Still under development! But, getting closer ..

Uncork The Vibrancy of Friuli Wines

June 18, 2019

Castello di Spessa, Friuli

Some Recent News –

Volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily

Keystone Contacts –

During recent wanderings in Sicily and Tuscany I met a pair of New Yorkers who also happen to have a house in Nerja, Spain, where my parents also once owned property. They write bestselling books about wine, which look enticing. It was good to meet these ‘world wine guys’ Mike and Jeff, who are also regular contributors to The Wine Enthusiast Magazine. I also met Syrah Queen Rupal Shankar—whose Instagram account is on fire with excellent photos of vino and geography. Together we spent time with Ryan O’Hara, who writes The Fermented Fruit blog, and is also a co-owner of a grand new restaurant in Washington D.C. And it’s always good to spend time with Sicilian wine friends Salvatore and Andrea …

Friulian vineyards

Friuli –

This post will be relatively short—but I wanted to mention the beautiful white wines of Friuli, in northeastern Italy.

Frico food in Friuli with a lively Pinot Grigio rosé wine

‘Friuli Venezia Giulia’ is one of 20 administrative regions within Italy. Those from Friulia, however, will adamantly tell you that they are not Venezians or Giulians. Friuli has its own language, a conglomeration of influences from Celtic, Lombards, Visigoths and others because the region was basically the geographical door mat for invaders during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Ribolla Gialla grapes from Collio grow over acidic ‘ponca’ marine sandstone

Historical relationships between Friuli and the adjacent country of Slovenia were described to me as that of a ‘cat and dog.’ Because of successive waves of invaders, the Friulian people from the mountains learned to be reserved and somewhat secretive. Apparently even getting a neighbor to share a recipe can be difficult.

Sardine appetizer with Ribolla Gialla wine

Friulian white wines include those made from Ribolla Gialla grapes (which poet Boccaccio once listed as enticing gluttony among sinners). Other frequently grown white grapes include Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. I tasted a handful of wines made by Attems (owned by the Frescobaldi family) and although I’ll expand on those in a longer article for a publication, the impression was emphatically positive.

Fresh fruit and grappa after dinner

I even considered some Friulian Sauvignon Blanc tasted to be ‘Burgundian’ (even though that grape is little grown in Burgundy) because of its overall creaminess, quality and balance. Pinot Grigio from Friuli can include florals as light and distinct as those from wines made from Viognier grapes, while wines made from Ribolla Gialla—sometimes aged exclusively in acacia casks—can combine the creaminess of oatmeal in the mouth with the acidity of plump gooseberries. Delicious.

Winemaker Daniele Vuerich inspects acidic marine sandstone ‘Ponca’ soils within Friuli

Some Friulian vines grow over ‘ponca’ soils—marine marl and sandstone laid down some 50 million years ago when the terrain was below the ocean. These easily breakable soils can result in slopes disintegrating unless they are anchored with vegetation, such as apple trees. The soil’s high acidity combined with cool night temperatures contributes to mallic acidity of wines.

Clio Cicuto, a Friulian and Tuscan wine guide

Food in Friuli is also excellent. Whereas fish, pasta and rice were historically abundant in Venice and Trieste (a sea shore city in Giulia), the more mountainous Friuli region historically produced potatoes, cheese, barley and beans. Dishes here are complemented by meats, typically secured by locals who hunt wild boar, deer and pheasants. One winemaker I spoke with, Gianni Napolitano, told how it took him four years of taking courses and exams before he could be licensed to hunt. Such is the thinking in Friuli—that quality and capability in any endeavor—whether learning to hunt or to make wines— takes time and patience.

Winemaker Gianni Napolitano

Again, I shall write more about specific Friuli wines in another publication. I just wanted to highlight the beauty of the wines and food from this region.

Finally, a Big Thank You to Jill and Jim McCullouch of New Zealand, who visit Bordeaux every year, and en route through the UK always buy me copies of Decanter Magazine’s special Bordeaux summer issues! Much appreciated …

Thanks again for tuning in.

 

 

 

 

Socially Unbuttoning Bordeaux

May 21, 2019

This Vino Voices website/weblog is being redesigned by a professional (finally!)

It will soon be more compact and include a visual menu of previous posts.

Stay tuned.

Also, the Etalon Rouge wine website is also being redesigned, and is temporarily offline.

My recent Forbes pieces are here.

Forthcoming Forbes posts will include the story of a natural-wine loving Swedish entrepreneur who just launched a range of luxury electric boats, as well as notes about a vertical tasting of Ausone and Smith Haut Lafitte wines in Switzerland. There will be an article about the mutual influence of the French and Chinese in the wine world, and a list of five wineries (and their best wines) that are worth watching right now—including selections from the islands of Sicily and Majorca, as well as from the French Languedoc.

Château Soutard in Saint-Émilion, lit up during the annual ‘jurade’ dinner

When spring erupts in southwest France, so do social events. This post covers a few of the usual wine and food events here.

View of vines in the commune of Cars, Bordeaux

La Roche Chalais – where zero degrees longitude intersects the Dordogne River

ONE: Open Doors in Bourg.

This is an annual event in the nearby region (and town) of Bourg where wineries open their doors for two days to visitors. This year it was was renamed ‘Tous ô Chais’ (all cellars) instead of ‘Portes Ouverts’ (open doors).

The premise remains the same.

First, pick up a map listing participating wineries. Next, call friends to join you in visiting several wine châteaux for long tastings in a gorgeous rolling countryside.

Five of us spent an afternoon exploring, and met some local characters shown below.

Not surprisingly in France, the first winery we visited was closed for lunch. However, at the second winery (Château Lamothe) the owners let us unpack our own picnic at this massive indoor table, where we opened a bottle of wine and enjoyed an impromptu off the beaten track lunch of baguettes, cheeses, saucisson, tomatoes and chocolate. Parfait.

Exploration partners (from left): South Africans Martin and Jodi, and Chicagoans Melissa and Jody

Château Lamothe, whose owners graciously offered their banquet table for our picnic lunch

Owner Louis Meneuvrier (and son) of Croix-Davids

Château Sauman

Jean-Yves Béchet at biodynamic Château Fougas

Guard dog at Château Sauman

Château Sauman

Madame Lamothe with a 2018 barrel sample

The below list includes a selection of good quality wines scored for value using my proprietary Vino Value algorithm. In general, wine values in this region are excellent

Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Open Doors Bourg 2019
Winery Wine 100 Point Score Equivalent Range Retail Price – Euros Retail Price – US dollars Value Score
Château Lamothe 2016 Grand Réserve 92+ 8.10 € $9.07 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Lamothe 2015 Grand Réserve 92+ 8.30 € $9.30 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Fougas 2016 Organic 92+ 8.00 € $8.96 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Fougas 2016 Forces de Vies 92+ 19.00 € $21.28 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château La Croix-Davids 2016 La Croix-Davids 92+ 9.00 € $10.08 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Sauman 2018 Rosé 92+ 5.00 € $5.60 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Sauman 2017 MM Émotion 92+ 9.00 € $10.08 Excellent Value ♫♫

TWO: Dinners Asscociated With Primeurs Wine Tastings and VinExpo 2019 Trade Fair

The April ‘primeurs’ wine tastings and this year’s earlier than usual renowned VinoExpo trade fair in Bordeaux city also coincided with dinners throughout the region. Many were formal, with excellent wines and food. I was fortunate enough to attend a Lynch-Bages sponsored dinner in Bordeaux city, as well as the renowned ‘Jurade’ dinner (this year at Château Soutard) in Saint-Émilion. Château Angélus also hosted a rather amazing dinner/spectacle titled ‘Dinner Under The Stars.’

This dinner in Bordeaux city was hosted by wineries that included Lynch-Bages

Legendary wine producer J. M. Cazes at dinner with Blaye wine producer Les Kellen

Jurade dinner at Château Soutard in Saint-Émilion

New Bordeaux Mayor Nicolas Florian (left) with Monsieur De Boüard of Cht Angélus at Jurade dinner

Below is a quick video provided by Château Angélus in Saint-Émilion of their April ‘Dinner Under The Stars’ during ‘primeurs’ wine tasting week. This was was quite the exceptional event—where magnums of wine from past three decades were served.

 

THREE: Impromptu Social Events

Warmer weather brings everyone out and together. This year has included exceptionally longs spells of sunny days in February, March, April and May.

In our town of Blaye, new South African neighbors recently held a bubbles and cake gathering, to which our French winemaking friend brought several classic old vintages. This is part of the local culture. Wine, cheese, dinners, desserts and social events seep into many aspects of life here in the spring (as well, honestly, during all other seasons).

Friend Monsieur Marchand brought a few beauties to sample …

Neighbor Celia accepts a quick glass of Languedoc wine from Minervois while passing by

There was also that memorable recent hippie dinner in Blaye.

South African, Russian, French and semi-Italian hippies gather for summer love (and wine)

Neighbor Emilie insists on a selfie (photo courtesy E. Boudrais)

This brief post was just a visual whirlwind to demonstrate social spring highlights around Bordeaux.

Remember—this site will soon be redesigned.

Regardless, upcoming posts cover Majorca, Sicily and Tuscany—and will provide more details about their dynamically changing food and wine cultures.

Again, thanks for visiting this site.

La Palma skyline—Majorca island of Spain

11 Tips For Wine Travel

April 30, 2019

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include wise words from 10 winemakers and winery owners, U.S. entrepreneurs launching canned South African wine, how a digital negociant helped change the U.S. wine world, and other pieces on Vinitaly, agriturismos, and the 2018 Bordeaux vintage.

Below are a few hints regarding wine related travel.

One: Seek Local Knowledge.

When you reach a new destination, ask a local sommelier which wines he or she recommends, or get input from a reputable winemaker whose style you enjoy. Try to find a contact involved in the wine world before you even arrive, although it’s best to do your homework in order to find one with a decent reputation. Also, that book you may have read about the wine region, which was published five years ago? Since then, winemakers may have adopted a new style, or have begun experimenting with unusual, or unique, grapes for that geography. To get a current handle on the wine vibe of any locale, word of mouth is valuable, but best if that comes from a proven source.

Two: Serial Winery Touring is Overrated .

Let’s say you visit Sonoma or Tuscany or the Loire Valley. You then make arrangements to visit three or four wineries on the same day. Or else you just begin driving from one winery to another. That’s a great way to see the countryside and to get a feel for regional wine styles (although in Europe, you will need to book most visits in advance rather than just driving up).

But after that first perusal, following the same pattern on successive days may be a mistake. First, you’ll only be sampling wines from one winery at a time, and if you hit a dud, you’ll be stuck with a range of poor wines awhile listening to stories of heritage and terroir and the same old ‘wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery’ story. You’ll then motor onto another locale, and perhaps get the same talk while sipping mediocre vintages. After your initial day of physically visiting vineyards, it may be better to find a wine bar, or a restaurant, and have a local who truly knows the best of the region’s wines pour you several to taste. This is faster and requires less driving. True, vineyard visits are not about speed or efficiency, but life is too short to spend your travel time with vintners pouring mediocre or poor wares. Visiting wineries can be fun, but the novelty wears off rapidly after being toured past stainless steel tanks and barrel rooms five times in an afternoon.

Three: Don’t Swallow Wine Before Lunch.

Swirl, sip, spit, but wait until eating lunch before you begin  swallowing wine. Otherwise you’ll catch a buzz and be less able to appreciate wines you are drinking. If you drink on an empty stomach in the morning (and forget sipping water), you also risk getting a hammering afternoon headache.

Four: When Planning your Trip, Combine Wine with Other Activities and Interests.

For the wine region you visit, consider also food, sport, architecture, history and local literature. The town where I live in France has an annual marathon that passes wineries. Even those who don’t sip wines offered along the trail can enjoy the country by running next to vines. Or perhaps you want to enjoy a morning round of golf before visiting a winery. Or have a guide drive you and tell about the local history, whether related to Romans, monks, or covered wagon settlers. Also, consider buying a book about that region (or even its wines) before you visit. Variety is good for life, and placing your visit within a larger context will help you enjoy your travels even more.

Five: Select Aspects That You Want to Learn More About.

Listen and observe, then select one or two topics that interest you and learn more—whether by reading or asking questions. Whether it is carbonic maceration or the Carménère grape or aging wine in acacia barrels—identify a topic, and make the effort to learn more. This will keep your mind clicking as you travel, and will make aspects of your trip more memorable later.

Six: Respect Lesser Known Regions, Grapes and Producers.

Everyone seeks that ‘hidden jewel:’ that unknown winemaker producing astonishing juice which costs next to nothing. Truthfully—there are plenty out there. However, you’ll either have to taste a lot of mediocre juice first before finding them, or will need to be clued into their identify from locals with knowledge. Just because a château or domaine or tenuta or bodega has produced wine for three centuries and the owner’s offspring are on the cover of a famed wine magazine and their bottles cost north of $75 does not necessarily mean they are the best in town. There is no direct and unrelenting correlation between price and quality in the world of wine. If a guide tells you he or she only associates with the best of the best producers, be wary: the landscape of wine quality changes every year. Remember also that taste is personal. Following big names and famed brands soon turns boring; it is also evidence that you lack any sense of discerning personal taste.

Seven: Don’t Overthink Food Pairings.

There are no perfect food/wine pairings, so don’t regard these combinations as some type of differential equation you need to solve. Allow room for experimentation, and ask the waiter/sommelier/winemaker what they think. Bringing up the topic of food with winemakers often energizes them, and they will often recommend a local dish (have them write it down, with the correct spelling) and may also suggest local restaurants. Here are three keys to remember for wine pairings: simpler dishes are easier to pair with, pairings can be complimentary (e.g. goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc) or contrasting (e.g. salty oysters, sweet champagne), and ‘wine killers’ include vinegar (this includes balsamic), milk, eggs and earthy veggies (such as beetroot or artichoke). Again, don’t over think it: experiment.

Eight: Pack Appropriately.

In years past I traveled with a spiral notebook, tape recorder and 35 millimeter camera when visiting wineries. Today, an iPhone will take care of all that. It also allows you to take notes, interview locals and snap photos. Its GPS will also help you navigate to your next location, and the internet connection can forward pictures to friends instantly. The world has changed dramatically in the past decade.

If checking a bag in at the airport, I’ll pack a corkscrew. Imagine ending up in a countryside inn with a gifted bottle of Brunello di Montalcino and no corkscrew on the premises. That would be like finding refuge in an arctic cabin during a snowstorm that is laden with canned food, but without a can opener. As for clothing—high heels do not fare well in vineyards or up cobbled Italian alleys. Bring warm clothes if you want to get outside and see vineyards (which you should). I am constantly amazed at vineyard visitors who dress as though they were visiting a Prada store on the Champs Élysées or a garden party in Surrey. Remember—a vineyard is a farm.

Nine: Do Your Research (If You Are So Inclined), But Don’t Consider it Doctrine.

Just because five newspapers and two magazine articles in the last three years profiled a certain winery in Abruzzo (or Marlborough) as having the most dazzling wines imaginable does not negate the value of also putting other wineries on your itinerary for that region. Lesser known wineries often offer a more intimate and memorable experience. And even though Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (or Sauvignon Blanc) may be the dominant white grape in that region, that is actually all the more reason for you also to taste white wines made with the Pecorino (or Breidkecker) grape, just to highlight the contrast.

Ten: There’s More To Wine Country Than Wine.

Wine regions also sometimes include good local beers. Consider kicking off an evening (or afternoon) with a glass of suds before you start popping corks (or twisting screwcaps) to enjoy local grape juice. Remember, there are no rules when it comes to travel and wine.

Eleven: Respect Your Own Sense of Taste.

Finally, no matter what the critics or sommeliers say, you are the judge of which wines you appreciate and do not appreciate. If you are standing in an opulent tasting room with a bedazzling view of snow crusted distant peaks and romantic trimmed vines below while drinking from a Riedel glass and listening to quadraphonic classical music and the wine simply does not do it for you, that’s it. Try another. Or move elsewhere. Don’t let the environment hoodwink your mind into ignoring your taste buds. It’s your trip, your life, your experience. Trust your own taste, and don’t succumb to any groupthink.

Most importantly, Enjoy! Don’t take wine travel too seriously.

 

 

A Decade Of Springtimes …

April 16, 2019

Ten years ago (in March) I first arrived to visit Bordeaux city and countryside. In 2017 I wrote a post about that arrival, which included being in a bar where others were dancing on tables when police raided, blowing whistles, because the music was too loud. Several of us escaped out back and went to some woman’s apartment to continue the festivities. What an unusual way to become familiar with a city.

A few years ago, I moved here to live.

During the past four years I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Printemps des Vins de Blaye, a public gathering where, for the price of about $8, you can spend two days visiting the magnificent 17th century Citadelle of Blaye and sampling limitless wines from a hundred local producers.

This year we were graced with excellent sunny weather, and visitors formed a far more international and cosmopolitan gathering than ever before. There was live music (🎼), ample food booths, demonstrations of barrel making (and barrel racing) and plenty of tastings. Altogether, it was a convivial and stellar gathering.

I managed to taste and take notes on dozens of wines. The wines listed below are a few selected based on those that would ‘score,’ on a 100 point scale, between 91 and 96 points, and are also of either excellent or superlative quality in terms of price (as scored using my proprietary Vino Value Algorithm).

It’s a representative list, and there were many other winemakers I would have liked to have visited. All wines are red, unless where noted.

Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Printemps des Vins de Blaye April 2019
Winery Wine Retail Price – Euros Retail Price – US dollars Value Score
Château La Cassagne Boutet 2015 Les Angelots 25.00 € $28.25 Good/Excellent Value ♫♫
Château La Cassagne Boutet 2018 Le Puits Rosé 5.00 € $5.65 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Magdeleine Bouhou 2015 MB Grand Vin 13.50 € $15.26 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Magdeleine Bouhou 2015 La Boha 8.50 € $9.61 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Puynard 2017 Bordeaux Rosé 6.00 € $6.78 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Puynard 2016 The Steps 10.00 € $11.30 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château du Vieux Puit 2017 French Rosé 6.50 € $7.35 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château La Rose Bellevue 2015 The Secret (100% Merlot) 20.00 € $22.60 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Florimond 2015 Réserve (red) 8.20 € $9.27 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Segonzac 2016 Héritage (red) 12.00 € $13.56 Excellent Value ♫♫
Chateau Bellevue 2016  Amorphae (red) 20.50 € $23.17 Good/Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Nodot 2015 Cuvée Prestige (red) 7.50 € $8.48 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Nodot 2016 Cuvée Tradition (red) 10.95 € $12.37 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Canteloup 2016 Château Canteloup (red) 6.20 € $7.01 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Les Graves la Valade 2015 Élevé en Fûts de Chène (red) $6.50 $7.35 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Gauthier 2015 Guathier (red) $8.00 $9.04 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Haut Bourcier 2016 Haut Bourcier (red) $7.50 $8.48 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Môndésir Gazin 2015 Blaye (Merlot / Malbec) $14.00 $15.82 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Camille Gaucheraud 2012 Merlot $6.00 $6.78 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château La Motte Cuvée la Motte (sparkling rosé) $7.00 $7.91 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Peymelon 2015 Peymelon (red) $8.50 $9.61 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Petit Boyer 2016 Vieilles Vignes $12.50 $14.13 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Bel-Air Royère 2015 L’Esprit $12.00 $13.56 Excellent Value ♫♫

 

My latest Forbes pieces are here, including winemakers from five countries to watch out for, Italian jewels, and some recommendations from Bordeaux primeurs.

Thanks for tuning in again.

French Alpine Wines Of Savoie

March 26, 2019

Savoie, pronounced Sav-WAH, is a wine producing region associated with the French Alps. The whites are notable, although you are likely not familiar with the white grapes of Jacquère or Gringet. The first is crisply acidic, somewhat like a Riesling meeting a Pinot Gris.

This region is where Celts and Romans lived, and was controlled by Italy until 1860. The Alps are gorgeous, the food and wine delicious and many towns include stone fortifications (including those constructed by military architect Vauban, in the town of Briançon) that are both commanding and attractive.

Serre-Chevalier ski resort, southern French Alps

Skiing here is excellent, and after-ski racelette with wine can be delicious.

Jacquère is the most prevalent Savoie grape, making up roughly half of vine production in this region that is splattered from below Lake Léman (think Geneva) all the way south to below the city of Chambéry.

Another widely planted white grape is Roussette de Savoie, also known locally as Altesse. Wine from this grape includes tastes of tropical fruit and honey and can often be aged for several years. Another white wine from Savoie is made from Chasselas, typical and abundant also in the Swiss Vallée region.

Old Town of Briançon

Reds include Gamay (think Beaujolais) and more recently planted Pinot Noir, although these do not generally match the quality of whites. Other reds are made from the grapes Mondeuse (dark colored and acidic; as a blending grape it helps red wines to age) and Persan (herbal, well-structured and rare).

Sunny morning on the slopes

The location of these Alps is in relative proximity to Burgundian and Beaujolais wine country, and also the Rhone valley. This provides a wider range of wines locally available, and towns frequented by visitors offer greater wine selections from such different regions (and countries).

Alpine vista from Briançon

The Alps run east to west and then southward—passing through Slovenia, Austria, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and France. Choose whichever country you like, but it is worthwhile visiting these young, jagged peaks for a dose of life that with differing regional cultures (and sports), but also for a taste of distinct local food and wines.

Plaisir Ambré Restaurant in Briançon

In the southern French Alps, dinner and drinks at the Grand Hotel (freshly renovated two years ago) in the town of Chantemerle are excellent, and the little restaurant named Plaisir Ambré in Briançon offers excellent food (and Savoie wine) at reasonable prices. Afterwards, stroll down the inclined main street to view a wildly refreshing vista of snow dusted peaks.

A rare gathering of renowned Alpine Entrepreneurs outside the Grand Hotel in Chantemerle

Whether in summer or winter, alone or with friends, travel here with an open mind, and a hunger to learn about slices of history (and living) far different from what you already know.

 

Lunch with Savoie wine

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include articles about South African wine, about an alpinist Instagrammer, about a winemaking mother in the Malibu hills and also about a French winter sports organizer who decided to quit his job in order to be CEO. There is also a brief piece about running through Bordeaux Grand Cru vineyards.

In the coming weeks I’ll cover the general quality of 2018 Bordeaux ‘en primeur’ wines, and will include a second annual tasting of a range of excellent Swiss wines. There will also be a general post that covers wine from the island of Majorca.

Thank you again for tuning in!

South African Wine

March 5, 2019

Latest Forbes pieces are here regarding South African wines.

This post includes additional photos, and a value scoring of many wines tasted ….

The food, wine, countryside and hospitality were excellent.

View from Anthonij Rupert wines near Franschhoek

Babylonstoren, Stellenbosch

Elgin Valley

Elgin Valley

Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

A gathering of Chenin Blanc producers

Bosman Family Vineyards north of Wellington

Olive Hamilton Russell and Chardonnay from Hemel-en-Aarde

Anthony Hamilton Russell with the ever elusive and excellent Ashbourne Pinotage

Hannes Storm of Storm Wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley

View from Delaire Graff Estate of Stellenbosch

The winemaking crew from Thokozani and Ovation Wines

A firepit at Delaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch

A gathering of Chenin Blanc producers

Wines below listed with equivalent 100-point score ranges and are also rated according to their value (price versus quality) as being Superlative (♫♫♫), Excellent (♫♫) or Good (♫) according to my proprietary Vino Value algorithm. This considers factors such as subjective scoring, objective price information and price elasticity.

Prices provided are representative average U.S. retail sales prices, which fluctuate somewhat depending on the state where sales take place.

Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Cape Region South Africa February 2019
Winery Wine 100 Point Score Equivalent Range Retail Price – US dollars Value Score
Backsberg Backsberg Chenin Blanc. 2018. 91  to 94 $12.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Backsberg Tread Lightly Pinotage Rosé. 2018. 91 to 94 $12.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Backsberg John Martin Reserve. Sauvignon Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $22.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Backsberg Family Reserve (white). 2017. 97 to 100 $34.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Backsberg Pumphouse Shiraz. 2016. 94 to 97 $24.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Backsberg Klein Babylons Toren Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot. 2015. 91 to 94 $24.99 Good Value ♫
Backsberg Family Reserve (red) 2016. 94 to 97 $38.99 Good Value ♫
Babylonstoren Chenin Blanc. 2018. 94 to 97 $19.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Babylonstoren Viognier. 2016/2017. 94 to 97 $26.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Babylonstoren Candide (white). 2017. 91 to 94 $27.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Babylonstoren Shiraz. 2016. 94 to 97 $29.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Painted Wolf Wines The Den Chenin Blanc. 2018. 91 to 94 $12.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Painted Wolf Wines Old Vine Paarl Chenin Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $20.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Painted Wolf Wines The Den Pinotage. 2017. 94 to 97 $12.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Painted Wolf Wines Guillermo Swartland Pinotage. 2014. 97 to 100 $22.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Painted Wolf Wines Swartland Syrah. 2015. 94 to 97 $22.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Natte Valleij Stellenbosch Cinsault. 2017. 94 to 97 $30.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Natte Valleij Swartland Cinsault. 2017. 94 to 97 $30.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Natte Valleij Simonsberg Paarl Cinsault. 2017. 94 to 97 $30.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Natte Valleij Darling Cinsault. 2017. 97 to 100 $30.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Natte Valleij Natte Valleij Cinsault. 2017. 94 to 97 $19.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Rustenberg Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc. 2017. 91  to 94 $15.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Stark-Condé Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon. Jonkershoek Valley. 2016. 91 to 94 $35.00 Good Value ♫
Stark-Condé Oude Nektar. 2016. 94 to 97 $45.00 Good Value ♫
Jordan Wine Estate Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc. 2018. 94 to 97 $19.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Delaire Graff Estate Botmaskop. 2016. 94 to 97 $37.00 Good Value ♫
Delaire Graff Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Banghoek, Stellebosch. 2015. 94 to 97 $70.00 Good Value ♫
Delaire Graff Estate Delaire Graff White Reserve. 2016. 94 to 97 $42.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Neil Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon Jonkershoek Valley. 2015. 94 to 97 $45.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Glenelly Stellenbosch Estate Reserve. 2013. 91 to 94 $27.00 Good Value ♫
Glenelly Lady May. 2013. 91 to 94 $45.00 Good Value ♫
Wildekrans Sauvignon Blanc. 2018. 90 to 91 $17.00 Good Value ♫
Beaumont Family Wines Chenin Blanc. 2018. 90 to 91 $20.00 Good Value ♫
Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $35.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Villion Family Wines Chenin Blanc. 2017. 91  to 94 $14.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Beaumont Family Wines Pinotage. 2015. 91 to 94 $30.00 Good Value ♫
Luddite Saboteur. 90 to 91 $30.00 Good Value ♫
Villion Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon. 2015. 91 to 94 $19.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Iona Sauvignon Blanc. 2018. 97 to 100 $13.50 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Creation Wine Estate Estate Chardonnay. 2017. 90 to 91 $16.00 Good Value ♫
Creation Wine Estate Reserve Chardonnay. 2017. 91 to 94 $25.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Creation Wine Estate Estate Pinot Noir. 2017. 91 to 94 $19.50 Excellent Value ♫♫
Creation Wine Estate Reserve Pinot Noir. 2016. 94 to 97 $36.00 Good Value ♫
Creation Wine Estate The Art of Pinot Noir. 2017. 94 to 97 $62.00 Good Value ♫
Creation Wine Estate Reserve Syrah. 2017. 91  to 94 $25.50 Good Value ♫
Creation Wine Estate Syrah Grenache. 2017. 90 to 91 $15.00 Good Value ♫
Storm Wines Vrede Chardonnay. 2017. 94 to 97 $55.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ataraxia Chardonnay. 2017. 97 to 100 $27.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay. 2017. 97 to 100 $40.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay. 2018. 97 to 100 $40.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Storm Wines Ignis Pinot Noir. 2017. 94 to 97 $55.00 Good Value ♫
Tesselaardsdal Wines Pinot Noir. 2017. 94 to 97 $45.00 Good Value ♫
Tesselaardsdal Wines Pinot Noir. 2018. 94 to 97 $35.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ataraxia Pinot Noir. 2015. 94 to 97 $32.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ataraxia Pinot Noir. 2016. 94 to 97 $32.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir. 2017. 94 to 97 $52.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir. 2018. 97 to 100 $52.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Ashbourne Pinotage. 2016. 94 to 97 $60.00 Good Value ♫
Meerlust Estate Meerlust Chardonnay. 2017. 97 to 100 $23.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Meerlust Estate Meerlust Pinot Noir. 2017. 90 to 91 $23.00 Good Value ♫
Meerlust Estate Meerlust Red. 2016. 94 to 97 $15.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Meerlust Estate Meerlust Merlot. 2015. 90 to 91 $23.00 Good Value ♫
Meerlust Estate Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon. 2015. (price half magnum price) 94 to 97 $27.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Meerlust Estate Meerlust Estate Rubicon. 2015. 97 to 100 $32.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Ken Forrester Vineyards Petit Chenin Blanc. 2018. 91 to 94 $13.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ken Forrester Vineyards Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $18.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Ken Forrester Vineyards Chenin Blanc. 2007. 94 to 97 $18.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Ken Forrester Vineyards The FMC. 2016. 97 to 100 $60.00 Good Value ♫
Aslina Wines by Ntsiki Biyela Aslina Sauvignon Blanc. 2018. 94 to 97 $20.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Aslina Wines by Ntsiki Biyela Aslina Chardonnay. 2018. 94 to 97 $23.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Aslina Wines by Ntsiki Biyela Aslina Cabernet Sauvignon. 2016. 97 to 100 $27.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Aslina Wines by Ntsiki Biyela Aslina Umsasane. 2016. 97 to 100 $30.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc (Swartland). 2018. 94 to 97 $14.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Mullineux Old Vines White. 2017. 94 to 97 $30.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Mullineux Granite Chenin Blanc. 2017. 97 to 100 $80.00 Good Value ♫
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Kloof Street Swartland Rouge. 2017. 91 to 94 $17.50 Excellent Value ♫♫
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Mullineux Syrah. 2016. 97 to 100 $37.50 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Joostenberg Estate Joostenberg Chenin Blanc. 2018. 91  to 94 $13.50 Excellent Value ♫♫
Joostenberg Estate Die Agteros’ Chenin Blanc. 2017. 91 to 94 $20.00 Good Value ♫
Botanica Wines The Mary Delaney Collection Chenin Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $26.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Mulderbosch Vineyards Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout. 2017. 91 to 94 $12.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Mulderbosch Vineyards Chenin Blanc Block W. 2015. 94 to 97 $32.50 Excellent Value ♫♫
Raats Family Wines Original Chenin Blanc. 2018. 91 to 94 $15.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Raats Family Wines Old Vine Chenin Blanc. 2017. 91 to 94 $29.00 Good Value ♫
DeMorgenzon Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc Method Cap Classique NV 94 to 97 $37.50 Good Value ♫
DeMorgenzon Stellenbosch Maestro White 94 to 97 $25.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Bosman Family Vineyards Generation 8 Chenin Blanc. 2018. 94 to 97 $14.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Bosman Family Vineyards Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley Sauvignon Blanc. 2017. 91 to 94 $18.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Bosman Family Vineyards Optenhorst Chenin Blanc. 2016. 94 to 97 $44.99 Good Value ♫
Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfelling Cinsault. 2017. 94 to 97 $25.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ovation Spumanté 91  to 94 $10.35 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ovation Sauvignon Blanc. 2017. 91  to 94 $10.35 Excellent Value ♫♫
Ovation Merlot. 2017. 91 to 94 $11.90 Excellent Value ♫♫
Thokozani Thokozani Shiraz, Mourvèdre,Viognier. 2017. 94 to 97 $15.70 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Diemersfontein Pinotage (‘Coffee Pinotage’). 2017. 97 to 100 $18.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Joostenberg Estate Joostenberg ‘Die Agteros’ Chenin Blanc. 2017. 91 to 94 $13.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Bellingham Wines The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc. 2017. 91 to 94 $17.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
David & Nadia Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $50.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Longridge Wine Estate Ou Steen Chenin Blanc. 2016. 94 to 97 $28.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Boekenhoutskloof Winery Semillon. 2016. 94 to 97 $23.50 Excellent Value ♫♫
Allée Bleue Black Series Old Vine Pinotage. 2017. (cellar door) 94 to 97 $24.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Boschendal 1685 Sauvignon Blanc. VINTAGE? 91 to 94 $17.00 Good Value ♫
Boschendal Elgin Chardonnay. 2016. 94 to 97 $35.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Boschendal Pinotage Rosé. 90 to 91 $13.99 Good Value ♫
Boschendal 1685 Cabernet Sauvignon. 2016. 91 to 94 $24.99 Good Value ♫
Boschendal Black Angus. 2015. 94 to 97 $40.00 Good Value ♫
Reyneke Wines Organic Syrah. 2017. 94 to 97 $25.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Reyneke Wines Reserve Biodynamic Red Wine. 2016. 94 to 97 $25.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Reyneke Wines Organic 17 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot. 2017. 94 to 97 $15.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Reyneke Wines Cornerstone 2015 (red blend) 97 to 100 $25.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Reyneke Wines Cabernet Sauvignon. 2015. 97 to 100 $65.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc. 2018. 94 to 97 $20.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Groot Constantia Constantia Merlot. YEAR? 91 to 94 $28.00 Good Value ♫
Groot Constantia Constantia Pinotage. 2017. 91 to 94 $28.00 Good Value ♫
Groot Constantia Constantia Shiraz. 2017. 94 to 97 $28.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Groot Constantia Constantia Gouverneurs Reserve (red blend). 2018. 97 to 100 $50.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Klein Constantia Estate Sauvignon Blanc. 2018. 91 to 94 $17.99 Good Value ♫
Klein Constantia Estate Constantia Glen. 2017. ?? 91 to 94 $28.00 Good Value ♫
Klein Constantia Estate Constantia Glen 3 (Red blend). 2015. 91 to 94 $27.00 Good Value ♫
Klein Constantia Estate Constantia Glen 5 (Red blend). 2014. 94 to 97 $38.00 Good Value ♫
Klein Constantia Estate Metis Sauvignon Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $24.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Klein Constantia Estate 1685 Clara Sauvignon Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $29.99 Good Value ♫
Klein Constantia Estate 1685 Chardonnay. 2017. 94 to 97 $29.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Klein Constantia Estate 1685 Estate Red. 2015. 94 to 97 $29.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Klein Constantia Estate Stellenbosch Anwilka (red blend). 2014. 94 to 97 $51.99 Good Value ♫
Klein Constantia Estate 1685 Vin de Constance (sweet wine). 2015. 97 to 100 $94.99 Excellent Value ♫♫
Spier 1692 Chenin Blanc. 2018. 94 to 97 $8.25 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Spier 1692 Vintage Selection Chenin Blanc. 2017. 94 to 97 $13.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Spier 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc. 2018. 91 to 94 $22.00 Good Value ♫
Spier Creative Block 5 (red blend). 2015. 94 to 97 $23.00 Excellent Value ♫♫
Spier 21 Gables Pinotage. 2015. 94 to 97 $26.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Spier First Stone (red blend). 2015. 97 to 100 $35.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Spier Frans K. Smit (red blend). 2015. 97 to 100 $80.00 Good Value ♫

A sage and serious warning for the many rural walkers in South Africa

Posts during the coming months will include tastings of Bordeaux, Swiss and possibly Burgundian wines.

Enjoy the coming springtime….! And thanks for tuning in.

Wine Detox Part Three—The Algorithmic Regime

February 6, 2019

The bizarre allure of cold darkness

My latest Forbes pieces are here and include articles that discuss the marriage of Azorean tourism with forestation, Germanic influence on Italy’s Friuli wines and a Bordeaux restaurant that oozes with flavors.

I’m posting this from the sunny wine country of the Western Cape of South Africa, where temperatures are in the 90’s F (30’s C).

Hello, Sunny South Africa!

But the story of these wines, and this gorgeous region, will be covered in a forthcoming post after this trip is completed.

This post is the third and final wrap up regarding a wine detox. I’ll share how to lose weight and increase exercise capabilities.

Hands off until February

What’s with the current infatuation with ‘detox’ anyway?

A year or two ago I heard talk about people taking a ‘dry January’ in the U.K.. Now, between four and five million Brits now give up alcohol for the first month of the year. That’s more than the population of Ireland (but don’t expect that entire isle to go on the wagon for even a few hours, much less weeks…I lived there, schooled there, have Irish ancestry, and so have ample license to speak from experience, thank you).

A whole month without booze? I thought it ridiculous. Yet, I did something similar. This was not, however, an emulation of any dry January. This personal decision was based on timing.

Why?

On Christmas day, after bolting down early afternoon flutes of bubbly and then tucking into helpings of Turkey while swilling more wine, I found myself—too soon—knackered. As in, worn out. Tired. Didn’t want to move.

Blaye’s bicycle path begins here

What gave?

I weighed myself. I was six pounds heavier than ever before in life.

That was a wake up call.

A trigger.

So I decided to dedicate January toward changing that situation. It worked out better than expected.

Last Friday marked four weeks without drinking a drop of alcohol. During that time I also modified my eating habits by omitting bread, pasta, cheese and raw refined sugar. I also focused on exercise. The result: in the space of 31 days I increased my running distance from 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) to 10 miles (16 kilometers) and my weight dropped a total of 15 pounds (6.5 kilograms).

That weight is the equivalent of five bottles of wine. The picture below shows the equivalent weight lost in 31 days (glass and liquid combined). Now you understand the smile.

These bottles equal the weight lost in a month

Imagine putting those bottles into a backpack, strapping it on and lugging it around for a day. No wonder I was tired.

That weight is gone.

Tasty and not permissible for January

For those who are interested, I explain how below. I developed a method, a formula. However, I am not a trained specialist in exercise or nutrition. So, seek advice from a qualified trainer and a licensed physician regarding your own personal exercise program.

The secret of making this work is focused distraction.

Here is the explanation.

Citadelle of Blaye

Background.

When in my twenties, I walked into a store called Neptune Mountaineering on the corner of Table Mesa drive and Broadway streets in the city of Boulder, Colorado. There was a typed notice on a bulletin board. It told of how the ‘Boulder Mountain Marathon’ (unofficial, not sanctioned, and not legally permitted) would soon take place. The distance was somewhat greater than the standard marathon distance of 26 miles (it was about 28 miles) and the course wound through the hills of the ‘Front Range’—the hilly topography that forms the base of the mightier Rocky Mountains. The total vertical elevation gain for the course (the equivalent distance that participants climb uphill) was over one mile (1.6 kilometers). This meant that the course was not only 28 miles long, but we runners had to ascend the equivalent of climbing the stairs of the Empire State Building four times.

Without hesitation I decided to run this marathon. I checked a calendar. The event was exactly 26 days away. That meant I had 26 days to train to run 26 miles.

How ludicrous.

Ludicrous enough to be wildly attractive.

That summer I had worked as a mountaineering instructor in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming, hiking long distances for weeks at a time with a heavy backpack at high elevations. I was in generally excellent cardiovascular condition, although I had not run in months, or maybe years. My running muscles, in other words, were not disciplined.

The promise of spring

Still, the challenge was so wild that it gave me a sense of peace. In order to succeed, I had to block out all other thoughts and train with complete focus. Which I began to do. However, you cannot run all day, or every day. During times not running, friends and I also climbed the Grand Teton peak in Wyoming, and traveled back to Boulder to go rock climbing.

After almost three weeks I completed my last training run of 18 miles along mountain trails at a relatively high altitude in the Pecos wilderness of New Mexico. Then I rested for almost a week. During these times I lived out of my pickup truck. I camped out, washed in rivers and cooked potatoes and salsa over a stove under starlight or in the blazing sunshine.

Ten miles before winter sunrise

After this brief, intense training, I drove my pickup truck near Boulder and camped out at a patch of woodland on a steep road off Boulder Canyon. I showed up to the marathon venue in the morning, across the road from the hospital in North Boulder.

One of the race organizers was Neal Beidleman (who later became known in relation to the Mount Everest debacle described in the bestselling book Into Thin Air by John Krakauer). He opened a bag of flour and poured a thin line of this powder across the street. This, he told us, was the starting line. He then mentioned how they had no permit for the event, so if anyone asked us while running, we were supposed to say that we were all friends out for a ‘fun run’ together. Which we did! It was hilarious. The route ascended first by road, and then along trails along the side of Green Mountain. It descended to Eldorado Canyon, and then back along the Mesa Trail and through Chautauqua Park before descending back to north boulder.

It was grueling.

But I completed the Boulder Mountain Marathon. It took over four hours, but considering the elevation gain and total extended distance, I was content.

Running in the countryside is good for the mind

The success hinged on making a decision and then focusing on that decision and goal completely.

This January, with no race or running mates and being a few years older—I managed to focus enough to run 10 miles after 31 days of training (the method described below, however, is for a 28 day period, and is not so challenging).

The lessons of focus, learned from that Boulder marathon, applied again. This time I also wanted to lose weight. As mentioned in the previous blog post, committing thoroughly to a workout can completely eclipse the discomfort of changing drinking and diet habits. Once the mind is galvanized on a challenging physical goal, forgetting about booze and baguettes and brebis cheese becomes relatively simple.

Below is the formula.

Six mile run: perhaps the sports store sells night vision goggles?

At the end of a 10 – before dawn, and expectations of a vinous reward

The Algorithmic Regime.

The French word for diet is ‘regime,’ which implies—in English—disciplined focus. Sounds better than ‘diet,’ right? A diet is about cutting calories, whereas ‘regime’ implies control and a system for getting things accomplished.

The following is a definition for ‘algorithm,’ taken from Yuval Noah Harari in his bestselling book Homo Deus:

‘An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.’

In this case, an algorithm is used to solve a problem: how to reduce weight and increase running distance by at least a factor of four.

I invented the following steps, as well as the term ‘algorithmic regime’ that describes them.

Applied over the space of four weeks—they can help increase your exercise capabilities and weight loss. This method is for 28 days. By going 32 days, you may also be able to achieve significantly more. Again, consult your physician; I am not a trained specialist.

Here is the method:

For four weeks, follow this guidance:

ONE.

No alcohol.

No bread.

No pasta.

No cheese.

No raw, refined sugar or candy bars or sugary soda drinks.

If this is too general and you need structure, follow the General Motors Diet.

 

All well before sunrise

TWO.

Exercise. I chose running, and formulated the schedule below for 28 days. This is my own invention, and is based on the premise that long runs require plenty of rest between them. Again, if you want to run longer, than add five additional rest days, followed by the longer run.

Rather than start off slow and gradually increase exercise, I started with a full-blown schedule of small amounts of daily exercise, then slowed it down. The distances increased, but so also did the amount of non-exercise days. This is because longer runs require more intermittent rest time.

The basic algebra involved in this ‘regime’ is simple. Basically, for the second set (‘Y’), you run the same distance that you ran for the first set (‘X’), plus an additional one third of that same distance. Algebraically, this means:

Y = 4.3X (or, Y=X+1/3X)

Now, look at the schedule below. Do you see a pattern?

You run five days in a row, then you take one day off. Then you run for four days in a row, and take two days off. Then you run for three days in a row, and take three days off. Then you run for two days (although now, you take a one day break between these days) and then take four days off. The formulas and example distances are in the table below.

The Algorithmic Regime

NOTE: Y = 4/3X (or Y=X+1/3X)

Day Formula Set Example Target Miles According to Formula Example Target Kilometers According to Formula Percent Increase of Distance Over Previous Set
1 X 1 1.5 2.4
2 X 1.5 2.4
3 X 1.5 2.4
4 X 1.5 2.4
5 X 1.5 2.4
6 Rest
7 Y 2 2.0 3.2 33.3
8 Y 2.0 3.2
9 Y 2.0 3.2
10 Y 2.0 3.2
11 Rest
12 Rest
13 X+Y 3 3.5 5.6 75.0
14 X+Y 3.5 5.6
15 X+Y 3.5 5.6
16 Rest
17 Rest
18 Rest
19 3X 4 4.5 7.2 28.6
20 Rest
21 3X 4.5 7.2
22 Rest
23 Rest
24 Rest
25 Rest
26 3Y or 4X 5 6.0 9.7 33.3

THREE: 

It helps to personalize this challenge by doing it in some offbeat way. For the Colorado marathon, I trained along the Rocky Mountains, from Jackson in Wyoming south to the Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico, while camping out and climbing peaks and rock walls with friends.

For this recent month, the attraction was waking before dawn and running in the dark (usually in the cold). Do NOT do this unless you wear a headlamp and reflective gear, and preferably stay off all roads. I began and ended most runs before sunrise. This was truly invigorating. The point is, this is not a spin class or a group sport, but a personal mission to lose weight and improve diet. Make it personal. Get creative.

A FEW NOTES:

There are 26 days listed above, and this program is for 28 days. This means you can add another two rest days at your discretion.

I increased my own running distance (over a longer time period) by a factor of more than six, running a total of ‘5Y,’ or 10 miles. I reduced the rest days by one before the six miler, then took five days of rest before the final run (mostly rest, although adding a few small runs is beneficial). However, this may be excessive and I do not encourage you to try it. But if you do, then make the final, longer run at a slow, steady pace.

This system is likely only appropriate if your first run (‘X’) is less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers).

For rest days, you should still walk and get some basic exercise. During the final two sets, when you have three and four consecutive rest days, you may want to go for a short run on one of those days, or a long walk or bicycle ride.

Before any of the runs in session 3, 4 or 5, you may want to eat some fruit and even candy before you begin the exercise. This will provide energy to help propel you along the distance.

Invest in a book on stretching and stretch the night before you run, as well as on the day of the run.

For the final run, you may want to break with the food restrictions and eat a sizable pasta meal the night before to gain calories you can burn along the trail (although I did not and felt very energetic throughout most of the long run).

Check the weather forecast the night before your runs, and dress appropriately.

[Dawn Darkness]

Days 14 and 15 are critical, because you hit and pass the half way mark. The running distance becomes more challenging than earlier, but the free days between running sets has also increased. By this time you should have lost about half the quantity of pounds or kilograms that you intend to lose over the four weeks.

Begin each run slowly. Slow and steady wins here.

The first run of set four will be a challenge. Begin slowly and keep a low, steady pace.

Running in the dark with a headlamp is dangerous, so I do not recommend doing so!

This will be challenging, but hopefully enjoyable. If you feel any pain or discomfort or hesitation, then back off.

Thanks again for tuning in!

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Detox Part Two—Why Exercise And Weight May Not Relate

January 22, 2019

The chilly beauty of dawn

This is Day 20 of being alcohol-free this month, as well as abstaining from bread, pasta, cheese and raw, refined sugar (except for an occasional spoonful for coffee). I’ve also been running—mostly at 6.30 a.m. in freezing temperatures in the dark. I dropped over eleven pounds (close to five kilograms) and tripled the running mileage.

A ‘wine detox’ is just an excuse for getting exercise and losing weight. Avoiding a corkscrew and bottle is only partially related to any health effects of saying no to a glass of Chablis.

But exercise, apparently, is no key to losing weight. This news is bizarrely counterintuitive, although it may jibe with what many of you have experienced.

I recently picked up a copy of a July, 2108, Scientific American publication titled ‘Revolutions’ and read a surprising article titled ‘The Exercise Paradox.’

Take a walk and clear the mind, but don’t expect it to impact your weight

Recently, a scientist named Herman Pontzer and colleagues spent time in the African bush of Tanzania with members of the Hadza tribe, a group of traditional hunter-gatherers. These tribespeople hoof it through the bush to stalk prey or rummage across vegetated plains and hills to dig tubers and roots and pluck berries to munch.

Vines ahoy

These scientists worked with specific tribal members to have them drink a certain amount of water each day, into which they had placed harmless trace amounts of the rare isotopes of deuterium and oxygen 18. They then collected urine samples daily from these same individuals (I knew there was some reason for avoiding science as a career). These samples were then transported to the Baylor College of Medicine in the U.S. and analyzed. This procedure has been used for some years and is called the ‘doubly labelled water method.’ It measures carbon dioxide production in a human body, and from that determines the amount of energy individuals expend on a given day.

The results were not as expected.

Taking a break from this nectar

The Hadza tribespeople, who cover miles on foot and exercise regularly, burn about the same number of calories each day as regular 8 to 5 individuals in the U.S. or Europe. For men that’s roughly 2,600 calories a day, and for women it’s about 1,900 calories.

Other similar studies have shown a similar pattern. Traditional farmers in Guatemala, Gambia and Bolivia were shown to expend about the same amount of energy daily as city dwellers. A 2008 study by a Loyola University of Chicago researcher found that rural Nigerian women and African-American women in Chicago expended about the same amount of energy each day, despite the fact that they were involved in different activities, at different levels of intensity.

A subsequent review of 98 studies from throughout the world showed that those living with comfortable modern conveniences burn about the same quantity of calories every day compared to less affluent persons working more physically demanding jobs. Sedentary people, another studied showed, burned only 200 calories less per day than moderately active individuals.

Australian researchers found similar results between sheep and kangaroos kept in pens and those allowed to run freely. Chinese scientists found the same was true for pandas, whether they lived wild or in a zoo.

The reasons are still unknown. Perhaps, the author speculates, the mind and body make subtle changes to behaviors in other daily physical tasks to save energy. Perhaps, on physically demanding days, less energy is spent on maintaining organs and regulating internal cellular activities.

Uphill we go

I suspect a reason may be that human and mammalian bodies try to maintain constant levels of energy consumption. Imagine you have a factory, and on some days the production is low and on other days it’s high. The facility will, generally, still consume the same levels of background energy. Although the conveyor belt carries fewer boxes of television sets or breakfast cereals or whatever is produced, it still needs to run at the same speed. The same number of employees are also there, so the quantity of oil for heating and the amount of electricity stays the same for lighting. Also, staff levels are not reduced just because the factory is going slow for a few days—so cafeteria stoves burn the same amount of fuel to provide the same number of meals per day. It may be less costly, in terms of energy and stress, to maintain a constant burn on energy, even when that burn is more than is needed.

Just a guess.

[Video: Goodbye to this for several weeks]

Regardless the reason, whether or not you exercise apparently has limited impact on the total calories you burn.

Pontzer writes: ‘All of this evidence points toward obesity being a disease of gluttony rather than sloth. People gain weight when the calories they eat exceed the calories they expend.’

He does not discount the value and benefit of exercise for health, however, and writes, ‘You still have to exercise…Exercise has tons of well-documented benefits, from increased heart and immune system health to improved brain function and healthier aging…but evidence indicates that it is best to think of diet and exercise as different tools with different strengths. Exercise to stay healthy and vital; focus on diet to look after your weight.’

Yet from experience and a common-sense perspective, many of us will likely agree that keeping a specific, lean diet and exercising are mutually beneficial.

Goodbye to this for a month (except a few slivers of meat)

If you are changing diet, or going on a detox, exercise will help flush away waste cells. If you are exercising, changing the protein/fat/carbohydrate profile of your diet will help build muscle tissue and provide appropriate energy levels for your workout.

Together, the two may also have synergistic effects—where the result exceeds the sum of individual inputs. This seems to be the case with regard to the mindset needed to execute both at the same time.

Here’s what I mean.

Pre-dawn running in the frigid cold – refreshing for the brain, but wear a wool hat

Avoiding alcohol and types of food you are used to, as well as exercising, requires mental focus and discipline.

In fact, if you are truly challenging yourself, then the discipline required for exercising (for example, rising at 6.15 a.m. to run miles in freezing darkness along twisted, hilly country roads) can mentally eclipse any hunger (or wine) pangs you may have during that same day. This means that by undertaking exercise and diet at the same time, you may be less likely to notice the diet or detox. I’ve become focused enough on the challenge of forthcoming chilly hill jogs that that I’ve forgotten the lure of sugary hot spiced wine, or even gooey chocolate almond croissants.

[Video: more of what I said goodbye to for a month]

Here’s another, different, example of the same phenomenon.

In college I was once emotionally upset about a relationship with a woman. Then I checked my calendar and was shocked to find out that the next thermodynamics course exam, which I had thought was NEXT Wednesday, was taking place THIS Wednesday—two days away! Galvanized with a goal and intent on passing, I immediately cracked the books and…completely forgot about all of that emotional angst. There was no space in the brain, effectively, to contemplate both subjects (which, considering the pettiness of what I was upset about, turned out to be a good thing). It’s the same with combining exercise and diet.

In other words (and this has nothing to do with any research mentioned above) when we commit to one challenging goal that unambiguously absorbs and focuses our resolve and direction, we can sometimes simultaneously achieve lesser goals along the way, often with greater ease compared to how we would view these tasks if we lacked a larger, overriding, objective.

Plan your run, then run your plan, and switch on the headlamp

After a total of four weeks, I’ll certainly enjoy vino again (which is timely, considering an upcoming trip to a now sunny segment of wine country). But the goal this month—to feel a lighter—has reaffirmed the benefits of combining diet with motion…even if that means just taking a walk and skipping ice cream and apple pie after dinner.

See you in February

And running on country roads in the dark? The freezing cold and quiet countryside blackness can help wake the mind, while also keeping it calm and focused. But if you do this, be very, very careful. I wear a headlamp and flashing electric armband, and strongly advise that anyone else do at least the same. Daylight running is likely safer. Certainly it’s somewhat warmer.

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include management advice from top hotel owners, the expanding Swedish wine scene, and how converting plastic to fuel can help to clean up our oceans.

Thanks again for tuning in …

 

 

This Wine Detox Is A Bhutanese Parasite

January 8, 2019

A New Year is here. Open mind, open horizons.

Clearing the mind

Many of us splashed our way through midnight, then decided to enjoy celebratory bottles again for a January 1st lunch, delaying that promised exercise regime until January 2nd.

Or was it the 3rd?

New Year’s Chablis

About four times a year I undergo a week-long ‘detox’ that involves eating mostly fruit and vegetables and drinking no alcohol. This January I’ll do alike, but will prolong the session to clear the mind, drop some weight and increase productivity.

Just one final glass – promise! – before beginning that detox

I usually follow the ‘General Motors’ diet (Google it) which eliminates pasta and bread and cheese. This time I’ll substitute fish for the beef component. Combining this with some exercise—running, walking or gym—means that in seven days from the beginning I should feel shinier and more energized. But this year that time span will be extended.

Ain’t that the truth

I’ll also incorporate ‘detox’ methods others have suggested—such as a half lemon squeezed into hot water and sipped between 5 and 7 a.m.—when the liver produces most bile. [Suggested by friend Brant Hartsock, whose Asian medicine doctor recommended he do this 3 to 4 times weekly.]

Or taking ‘liver cleanser’ tablets that include seeds, bark, roots and fruit. I’ve begun downing two daily. [Gifted by friend Elena, who picked them up in Goa, India, after she spent two weeks at a ‘dynamic meditation’ retreat there.]

Or good quality honey and turmeric taken in the morning [suggested by neighbors Les and Clarissa here in Blaye].

Labelling that is not in any way subtle

There is also tea gifted by friends when I visited Bhutan last year. I had put this box of ‘cordyceps and green tea’ on a shelf until—intrigued by seeing recent photos taken by these Bhutanese friends and posted on social media—decided to brew a mug, and do some internet research.

This may be hard to believe.

Daddy I think it’s time for your cordyceps detox.

Basically, cordyceps is a form of fungi, of which there are several hundred species. They attack insects from within, sometimes commandeering the body of, say, an ant, and telling it to climb to the high point of a grass stalk and cling on. Strands of cordyceps then spring, or at least grow, out of its head (best seen in time-lapse photography) thereby killing the insect and providing the fungi with nutrients. (Check out this video clip from BBC’s David Attenborough telling about cordyceps in general.)

The real life feats of these killer fungi make zombie movies look tame. In fact a video game was invented years ago that has 60 percent of humanity wiped out by a species of cordyceps.

Yak herding Layup women live at high altitudes in Bhutan, and wear distinct conical bamboo hats

One species is known as Cordyceps sinensis and is prevalent in Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. It lives above 11,000 feet altitude. This form of cordyceps invades Himalayan caterpillars when they are buried below the surface of soil, where they keep warm for winter. The spores will kill a caterpillar from the inside, then grow a long thin shoot out of the dead body, making the two species appear as a bizarrely fused, elongated critter. This grows vertically upward until it pokes out of the soil. The spores transform the entire caterpillar into a fungi (although it retains the outer shape and appearance or the displaced caterpillar).

Colorful and light hearted roadside police in the land of cordyceps – Bhutan

At high altitudes in June, teams of pickers, including the Layap people who live above 13,000 feet elevation (the women wear distinct, conical, bamboo hats) crawl on their bellies over the earth in search of shoots. They then dig below the surface to unearth the rest of the cordyceps, attached to the now dead and transformed caterpillar. Historically, herders noticed that their Yaks became energized after grazing on grass with these shoots. This led the herders to boil cordyceps for tea, and they learned of its medicinal properties. Since then, they have spent thousands of years harvesting cordyceps for beneficial effects.

Wonder tea: caterpillar annihilation = detoxification

This stuff is not easy to hunt—think slender truffles at high altitude—which is why cordyceps can command a very hefty price. Apparently Chinese athletes were sucking down cordyceps tea during the 2008 Olympics to try to gain an additional competitive edge.

Gateway to cordyceps country in Bhutan

This marriage of insect and fungi excavated from hillsides may look odd, but apparently does wonders for the body.

It can apparently prolong life, increase memory and—according to an esteemed cancer center in the U.S.—includes ingredients that can slow down cancer. Additionally, it can improve kidney function, reduce heart disease and—indeedy!—boost sex drive.

Yum – put the kettle on (Photo credit: Tshering Chojur)

Using lemon, honey, cordyceps tea, fresh air, fruit and vegetables – I’ll let you know how this January’s detox goes.

[If you are interested in obtaining real deal cordyceps, let me know; my Bhutanese friends spend weeks in the mountains at harvest time.]

I wrote no Forbes posts in December, but posted one for January. This originated from meeting and interviewing a visionary Swiss entrepreneur who is a sailor, businessman and engineer. The post is about wristwatches, navigation and turning plastics into fuel to clean up oceans.

Thanks again for tuning in!

I hope your 2019 turns out to be Magnificent 🙂

 

 

Subtle Intrigues on The Paris to Bordeaux Flight

December 18, 2018

The Opera House on Place de la Comédie, Bordeaux

The Paris to Bordeaux flight on Air France is an excursion into a lifestyle. Passengers generally appear trim, fit and polite. They are cordial rather than effusive; graciously calm instead of overly animated. Their attire is lean, not bulky; elegant, not flamboyant. Any casual (never gaudy) passenger may sport an earring, a glinting watch or a leather satchel that signals inconspicuous and unobtrusive wealth. Most wear tight, thin layers in subdued shades of gray or black or tan (with an odd splash of red or yellow on a kerchief): a snug buttoned vest, a thin winter jacket, a business suit that appears more Zurich than Dallas; a daypack more Milanese chic than Barcelona summer.

The Seine River and Notre Dame, Paris

Even younger passengers, giddy with sexual tension, touch rather than fondle, laugh instead of cackle. Their tattoos are likely more Celtic pattern than Marvel comic character. Footwear, like clothing, is prim and functional—designed to walk city streets instead of stomp coastal pathways.

Bordeaux at night

Hand luggage is slipped (never shoved) into overhead compartments. It is compact and sleek, never sloppy or loud. Some bags have bright colors: token garnish beside more modestly hued main dishes.

Darwin, Bordeaux

This overall flight experience is slim and taut. Narrow, like the plane. Professionals travel light; passengers returning home appear modest and calm. At the end of this sleek and rapid aerial transect of France you look down through the window at the sight of the muddy, meandering Garonne River below. It snakes across a plain pitted with vineyards and farms and tame rural enclaves outside Bordeaux—the gorgeous stone city without skyscrapers.

Grand Hotel, Bordeaux – opposite the Opera House

The view will take you back into the ordered courtliness of 11th century Aquitaine, a land ruled by a woman named Eleanor, a fecund, fertile sunny domain of romance and wine and bawdy chivalry. Rather than hold the title Queen of France, or Queen of England (she was, at different times, both) this ruler clung to her title as ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’ because this land she ruled—the terrain between waters—was renowned as Europe’s richest in terms of wealth, agricultural bounty and progressive thinking toward love, commerce and life.

A wildly edible chocolate garden in a Bordeaux store

A drink and snack are served during the flight—a satisfying quick nibble and quaff. Eating and drinking in this land of the Gauls is enjoyed in moderation—which is why wines are 12.5 to 13.5 percent alcohol rather than booze bombs laden with gobs of fruit and tannin.

Market time

The flight takes one hour. The baggage carousel at the main airport terminal includes a few towering bottles that advertise wine. The airport garden is—of course—a vineyard.

Baggage claim, Bordeaux Merignac airport

There are no visible customs agents at the airport. Why would there be? Who would smuggle opiates into a land that oozes with oodles of excellent wine? They are there, certainly. But hidden. Inconspicuous. Unobtrusive. This is the land of the Bordelaise, where subtlety rules. Why make a fuss when you have it all?

In 1933, Air France was created from a merger of a half-dozen airlines, unions and navigation companies. It remained the French carrier until merging with KLM fifteen years ago. A year later the airline was Europe’s largest, with a quarter of the continent’s market share. (Well choreographed safety video is below.)

All wine served on Air France is French. On long haul flights even economy passengers are offered Champagne (incidentally, my friend Gabrielle Vizzavona wrote this excellent recent piece on champagnes, for Le Figaro newspaper; even if you ne parle pas Francais, just check out the names, and drool). Because aridity and air pressure on airline flights modifies our sense of taste, tannic wines are best avoided while fruity choices turn pleasant in the air (I wrote about the effects of altitude on wine in this past post).

So many choices, so little time …

Air France selects excellent food and fresh wines that will age well within the next four to six years. After Emirates, according to The Wall Street Journal, Air France pays the next highest average price per wine bottle served on its flights. This year the World of Fine Wine ranked Air France as having the Best Airline Wine List in The World.

Burgundy and Rhone wines

Air France employs Paolo Basso—voted world’s best sommelier—as a wine consultant. Earlier this year I met Paolo in Switzerland at a wine event and sampled his own wine—which is excellent. We talked about the city where he now lives—Lugano, Switzerland—where I also spent four years living in youth. He has good taste. If Paolo nods assent at a wine, I’m all for it. Even decent wine is something to appreciate during a flight. I once sat in business class on a U.S. air carrier crossing from Chicago to Los Angeles and was served a red wine that tasted more like bubble gum than a fermented fruit beverage. The event made me reconsider the worth of accruing air miles with that company.

Bordeaux wine

Still, integral to the French culture, employees of Air France sometimes strike. This past summer the airline was sporadically on strike for months during the same time that the national rail service—SNCF—went on strike. Even after that ended I arrived at Bordeaux airport one day to learn that air traffic controllers had gone on a sudden one-hour strike during lunch hours. One hour! Perhaps they needed more time to finish their crème brûlée. Still, no harm. The upstairs restaurant was open. I scooted inside and sat. Their wine list? Splendid. One hour with a good meal and a bottle of Bordeaux was the right way to kick off a day of travel.

Airport waiting time

Thanks for tuning in. Next month’s Forbes articles will tell of a four-year ocean expedition promoting technology that converts plastic into energy. It will also foray into the world of high-end watches, as well as Swedish wines.

Meanwhile, enjoy your holiday season!

 

Kick Off Any Event With Creamy Crémant Sparkling Wine

November 27, 2018

A lineup of modest yet endearing crémants

Consider crémant sparkling wine as a non-sophisticated entry point to any gathering—whether barbecue, picnic, dinner or party. It’s an opening act, the liquid equivalent to a bowl of pretzels before dinner. The juice is clean, zippy, low in alcohol and lively. It’s like fresh orange juice before breakfast or a rinse off shower before plunging into a swimming pool or a one-page prologue that begins a novel; it’s the vestibule entry way leading into a castle. Crémant is more passageway than place to linger.

The French word crémant (pronounced CRAY-mon) refers to sparkling wine that is made in the same way as champagne. A secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle rather than (as with Prosecco) in a steel vat controlled for pressure and temperature.

‘Secondary fermentation’ means an extra dose of yeast and sugar are added before a bottle is sealed, allowing the generation of carbon dioxide fizz.

Looks like Crémant O’ Clock

The word crémant was once used in the Champagne region to refer to sparkling wines made at lower pressures than champagne. These provided not a fizzy feel in the mouth as much as one that is creamy. Today that meaning has vanished; the word now refers to sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne.

Ten regions produce crémant, eight of which are in France, one in Luxembourg and one in Belgium. The newest French appellation for this drink—Crémant de Savoie—was established only in 2014, while that of Alsace was created in 1976 and that for Bordeaux in 1990. Crémant producing regions of France are: Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Loire, Savoie, Jura, Die, Limoux and Alsace. All appellations must use hand-picked grapes and juice must age at least nine months on the lees (which means keeping yeast in the barrel).

These sparkling wines are basically bargain bottles of effervescence; kick off cocktails for a delicious early event buzz.

Dusk means crémant hour

Advantages of crémant over champagne include lower cost and flexibility—it can be made from a geographically more diverse range of grapes. Many regions producing this beverage include—as a base for whites—the two classic Burgundian grapes of Chardonnay (providing acidity, freshness and elegance) and Pinot Noir (providing structure and fruity aromas). Crémant regions not including these two grapes are Bordeaux, Die (in the Rhone Valley) and Savoie (in which Pinot Noir is not used, though Chardonnay can be). Crémants also include locally popular grapes, and many—such as Mauzac, Chenin Blanc and Aligoté—include aromas of apples and lemons, as well as other fruit.

To gauge the ease of access and price, at a local supermarket (and at one nearby winery), I purchased crémants from four regions of France, then sampled them with a colorful array of characters at the local wine bar: two are winery owners and one individual is not involved with the trade, but is a fiction author from Canada.

Their collective comments are below.

Left to right: Ben, Les, David

Cremant Bourgogne (Burgundy).

Veuve Ambal. Grande Réserve. Demi-Sec. 12% alcohol.

Euros 7.95 ($9.00)

The four included grape varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Aligoté and Gamay. Whereas Aligoté is acidic and adds structure and taste (including lemon and green apples) Gamay is the Beaujolais grape that bursts with fresh fruit flavors.

I considered this demi-sec as a gorgeous and sweet opener for the evening.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Nutty and dry for a demi-sec. Includes tastes of ripe yellow peaches.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Tastes of strawberries. Good desert wine.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘Flavorsome, but a bit sweet.’

The cold winter season is ideal for cold, sharp crémant

Cremant Limoux (rosé).

Antech Alliance. Brut. 12% alcohol.

Euros 8.55 ($9.70)

This includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac. The last grape, also known as ‘blanquette,’ is used in another regional sparkling wine known as ‘blanquette de Limoux,’ which was supposedly the first sparkling wine ever made, predating even champagne.

I enjoyed the subtle tastes of lemon and nuts.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Stunning color, not pink or apricot but in between. Beautiful tiny bubbles. Dry off the tongue, but with a beautiful finish that lasts.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Flavorful but subtle, silky and refreshing.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘Very lemony and fresh.’

Bubble Up

Crémant de Loire.

Ackerman Grand Millesme 2016. 11.5 % alcohol.

Euros 7.99 ($9.05)

The grapes include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc. The Chenin Blanc is the locally prevalent white wine grape of the Loire Valley, and offers high acidity, which is good for sparkling wine. Rosé crémant from the Loire Valley can include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and also locally available pineau d’Aunis.

I enjoyed the citrus taste, and appreciated how the wine developed and improved in the glass after five minutes.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Elegant and smooth; best yet.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Wildflowers, blackberries and lemon.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘Beautiful and notable effervescence, reminder of pop rocks candy. Sharp, but balanced on the tongue.’

Beaune city in Burgundy

Crémant de Bordeaux.

Clos du Notaire L’héritage. 12% alcohol.

Euros 7.50 ($8.50)

Crémants from Bordeaux are made from the same grapes as are used for red and white blends. This particular crémant from Bourg is unusual because it includes only one white grape—Semillon. This grape is today a darling of Australia’s Hunter Valley, and also once covered 90 percent of white grape vineyards in South Africa in the early 1800’s (today it represents only one percent of grapes found in the cape region of South Africa).

For me this has heft, structure and power, as well as aromas and tastes of lime, nuts and pineapple. It is not as complex as that from the Loire.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Ebullient sparkler that has oomph. Reminds you that it is in your mouth. Extremely dry finish; sort of melts away.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Pomegranate and vanilla, very spicy. A lot of character and punch.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘This stays in the mouth longer than any others.’

These observations highlighted the truth that a demi-sec is notably sweeter than a Brut, that lemon certainly is a characteristic of Mauzac grapes, that Semillon has commanding structure and body and that Chenin Blanc, combined with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, can produce distinctly complex wines.

The range of quality and style for crémants is wide and offers much to appreciate for little price: blasts of fruit, commanding power, rich complexity and also subtle shades of flavor—depending on which bottle you choose, and from which region. As corks pop during the holiday season, offer your friends something different with crémant.

^  ^  ^  ^  ^

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include one on the digital marketing of champagne and the physics of bubbles, on why Cru Beaujolais wines made this year are looking powerful, on hunting for a war ancestor in central France, and why the city of Beaune is a good base for exploring Burgundy.

Thanks, as always, for tuning in again!

A Military Ancestor Stationed Between Burgundy And Champagne

November 13, 2018

Un Ancêtre Militaire Stationné Entre Bourgogne et Champagne

Mayor of Beauchemin, and the ‘porteur de drapeau’ or flag bearer (Jean-Baptiste’s father)

The Armistice that ended World War One was signed at 11.00 a.m. on November 11th, 1918. Eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month. A century ago.

Years ago my mother told me that when she grew up, Americans around Chicago used to dedicate a minute of silence to that moment (although they used Central U.S. time, not French time—because otherwise they would be sleeping). She remarked that few did the same any more.

Peace in a rural French village

However, they still do in Europe. Ten years ago I entered a supermarket near Durham in the U.K. with my American friend Barbara, and—ignorant of the hour or the day—was shocked to see all shoppers frozen in place. It was like a Zombie movie. I soon realized the truth, and respected their respect for history.

Earlier this year my sister prepared an album detailing family history. I saw an image of my grandfather on my mother’s side—Lester Peter Ray. And there was a scan of a letter he wrote, with a map.

Lester Peter Ray

 

Card showing travel route

 

In 1918, he had traveled by boxcar from Brest, on the west coast of France, to the city of Langres—north of Dijon in central-eastern France, and was then sent a few miles away to the village of Beauchemin (‘beautiful trail’).

I decided to visit this year, but kept putting it off. Last Thursday, on a whim, I bought a plane ticket on Easy Jet to Lyon, rented a car, and on Saturday morning drove to Beauchemin for a quick visit in the rain before a more lengthy visit the next day. The village has 103 residents. A local man I chatted with suggested my returning the next day, Sunday, in time for the memorial commemoration. I agreed, then drove to Langres, a wonderful walled city designed by the military architect Vauban. There, I slept the night.

On Sunday I returned to Beauchemin. No one showed up at the memorial at 11.00 a.m., but they trickled in about 11.05, because they considered the key commemorative moment to be at eleven minutes past eleven, or at 11.11 a.m., on 11/11.

Portion of letter that accompanied map from Lester Peter

 

The mayor stood before the village war memorial and read a proclamation telling about the war, while the flag bearer stood beside him. The group of some 30 villagers next moved to the cemetery, where the mayor read another proclamation. Apparently, the mayor does this every year, and the same is done in villages throughout France. This is done annually not only on the day that commemorates the end of the First World War, but also on the day that marks the end of the Second World War. These rituals remind the locals of the importance of these historical events, and trigger conversations about lessons learned.

Can you imagine how Americans’ respect for history in general could be improved by encouraging such events? Our state of education concerning history and geography in the U.S. needs improvement, and such voluntary family events could be excellent ways to wake children up to the importance of both subjects. Our future leaders, if clueless about the past, may otherwise be ill-trained to lead us in sensible directions forward.

We then all moved into the town hall (it used to be a cheese processing plant) to drink a few glasses of wine and eat snacks.

A woman named Alix Prodhon spoke with me and said she knew a local historian I may want to meet, then brought me to her home near the memorial where she and her husband Jean-Baptiste and two wonderful children Clemens and Rose cleared the table and prepared lunch. We ate a salad with bacon and onions, then a main course of chicken and also wild boar (hunted by husband Jean-Baptiste) as well as lentils. Jean Baptiste poured out glasses of Beaujolais wine. Then, a plate with four types of cheese—including Emmenthal, Morbier, Langres and Epoise. What luxury!

Parents Alix and Jean-Baptiste, and son Celesten and daughter Rose

Both children—aged 10 and 8—spoke of how the love school, how they thrive on history and mathematics, and pulled out colored books that provided history lessons with attractive drawings and text. It was quite inspiring to see how much they had already learned about local and international history, and how much more they wanted to learn.

Cheeses after lunch

We soon drove five minutes to another village, Marac, where Franck Besch has collected U.S. military memorabilia for 30 years. He has opened a museum in Marac. He was delighted to meet, took details about my grandfather and within a day emailed me a copy of Lester Ray’s hand written registration card with the military, as well as details about his regiment, position, arrival and departure dates from France. Talk about a serendipitous encounter and situation…

At center is Franck Besch before his museum with a ‘History of ‘Doughboys” – and the most hospital local residents

Lester was apparently in the D company of the 5th anti-aircraft machine gun battalion and had arrived in Beauchemin in October of 1918, then departed for the U.S. on January 2, 1919. The city of Langres, a fifteen minute drive away, had hosted over ten thousand U.S. soldiers during this war, where they set up training schools in communications, medicine, and veterinary science (because of all the horses involved in the war).

Inside the museum

Lester Ray, after returning home, would eventually go on to become an executive at a Chicago company that managed a series of tunnels below the city for transporting and storing goods. Fortunately, he did not go to battle when in Europe.

What an incredible day!

In the village of Marac, drinks and stories before a roaring kitchen fire

We visited the house of more friends of Alix and Jean-Baptiste and sat before a roaring wood burning stove in the kitchen and drank more wine as I told them of what had become of Lester Ray’s children. The locals were rapt and joyous and spoke about the ‘magic’ of that moment, and assured me that Lester Peter Ray was above us, watching.

Indeed.

I was immensely fortunate to spend time with such generous, good-hearted, curious and bright people.

The coziness of a French country village home in autumn

Quite an amazing day.

Freshly painted memorial in Beauchemin

As for wine, that which Jean-Baptiste opened was a Cru Beaujolais, rather than a ‘nouveau.’ The cru are the top quality wines from the Beaujolais region (these wines are made from the Gamay grape), and unlike the less expensive ‘nouveau,’ these wines can be stored for years. Of the ten regions that produce Beaujolais Cru, the northernmost is Saint-Amour (which we drank for lunch) and is light and delicious. After lunch, Jean-Baptiste gave me a gift of a bottle of 2015 Claude Loup Saint-Véran, which is a white Burgundy Macônnais wine (made from Chardonnay grapes). The appellation for this wine is located in Burgundy, very slightly north of that of the Beaujolais we drank.

White Burgundy wine from Saint-Véran

The Saint-Véran appellation was established in 1971, at the far south of Burgundy, and is produced by six communes on chalk and clay soils up to 450 meters elevation. I cannot tell you how the wine tastes, because I’m saving this bottle for a very special occasion.

The nearby city of Langres straddles the Burgundy region to its south, and Champagne, to its north.

The walled city of Langres, north of Burgundy and south of Champagne

It turns out that the uncle of the flag bearer met in Beauchemin (on the right in the first picture above) used to bring in bottles of liquor for American soldiers stationed in Beauchemin during the war. (I wonder if they picked up a taste for less alcoholic wine.)

To those soldiers who served in the First World War, to my ancestor Lester Peter Ray, and to the exceedingly warm, hospitable residents of Beauchemin (and Marac)—here is a toast to our freedoms, our respect for history and our ability to enjoy wonderful food and wine together.

Sante!

Just What IS ‘Good Wine’?

October 23, 2018

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Trentodoc sparkling wine from Trentino, in northern Italy

What is a ‘Good Wine’?

Good question.

Not difficult to answer:

It’s whatever you like.

Simple.

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Vneyards at Château Angélus in Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux, France

Tasting different wines over time is like visiting different countries, or learning fresh phrases in another language or exploring country or city roads around where you live. It’s like getting to know a neighborhood or building a house or writing a book or riding a bicycle. The more you do, the more familiar you become with the process and the entire landscape of that activity. Over time drinking different wines, you experience different tastes and styles and strengths; you tune into more details and understand the bigger picture of that entire agricultural industry.

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Etalon Rouge vineyards in Fours, Bordeaux

In time you may find that the plonk you once adored now tastes a bit one dimensional and lame. That wine you slugged back as a teenager that gave you a cracking headache the next morning? You realize it never even tasted that good.

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Riesling wine from New York state in the U.S.

As with reading or traveling or cooking, after time sampling different wines you grow hungry for more variety and exploration. The greater range of wines you drink, the more you also appreciate different levels of quality.

If I drink wine and think about it (does not always happen) I look for three basic levels of quality.

First—is the wine balanced? Unbalanced means there’s a dominance of some characteristic that’s not very pleasant, or is only appreciable in small doses. Balanced means that the different components—including fruit and tannin and alcohol—meld together in your mouth in a way that is at least pleasant. You won’t wince.

That’s a good baseline for a decent wine: balance.

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Teroldego wine from northern Italy

Second—complexity and/or coherence. Complexity means that that taste of a wine has different layers, or levels. It’s like a movie that has a subplot, or at least a few unexpected surprises. Or, imagine you go to a party and meet not only friends you know, but intriguing or funny or memorable new characters who make you laugh or think differently or provide fresh information or viewpoints. Complexity is like having a dinner course with multiple flavors and even textures—creamy risotto as well as crunchy green beans and maybe even succulent sweet baby carrots. Think layers, surprise and exploration.

Coherence means that even if complexity is lacking, there’s strength of character in one aspect of that wine that pleases you and commands attention. It’s like going to a party and there’s a stage show and the comedian or singer or magician completely captivates your attention. It’s like reading a book where the plot may be thin, but the central character dazzles, or at least attracts and pleases you.

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Casual wine bar in Saint-Tropez, France

For example, it may be a simple New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wine with a dominant and intriguing grapefruit character. Or the peppery snap of a well made wine from Carmenere grapes. It could be the beautiful and fruity roundness of a specific, gorgeous Merlot. ‘Coherence’ is a word I’ve adopted regarding wine to mean one memorable, focused aspect that makes you concentrate and perhaps even mentally applaud.

Complexity and coherence together are also possible: imagine going to that party, meeting fresh faces and also enjoying the stage show. It’s like eating a dinner where you not only appreciate the delicacy of that lemon sole—which captivates your attention—but are also mesmerized by that mint chocolate chip ice cream dessert that follows.

If a wine is balanced, and also has complexity or coherence, you should be a happy individual—smiling and satisfied.

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Two cheerful Russian women enjoying excellent wine in Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux

The third level is emotion. You won’t get this very often, but when you do it’s memorable.

Let’s say a balanced and complex wine—even before any of the alcohol impacts you—makes you experience emotions you did not expect: joy or sadness or euphoria or whatever causes a flood of feelings to course inside. If wine tickles memory or jostles feelings which make you feel giddy or unusually high—that’s a bonus.

I recall sitting in the wine bar L’Univerre in Bordeaux City and sipping red Burgundy with a friend and being so blown away with the scent and taste that I wanted to get up and walk to other tables and clap strangers on the back and insist they sample the liquid nectar in my glass. Fortunately, my drinking companion convinced me that was not a wise idea. But the emotions caused by that wine? Outrageous.

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Plenty of wine to taste and books to read

Emotion is when you go to a party, perhaps unexpectedly, and fall in love. It’s like watching a movie that makes you cry or laugh or decide to alter the fundamental trajectory of your life. It’s having that unexpected meal—quite likely in a small tavern in a tiny town you never heard of before and only stopped in because you got a flat tire—and being blown away by the medley, the gastronomic chorus, of different flavors from that plate.

That’s what I look for in wine, if making a mental effort to ‘look for’ anything. Plenty of wine is unbalanced (including some expensive bottles made by supposedly ‘renowned’ producers). If I just find balance, that’s great. That’s enough. That’s contentment. Throw in complexity/coherence, and that’s a treat. That’s special. That’s bonus and pleasure, and probably even involves sharing good times with friends.

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A misty harvest morning in Etalon Rouge vineyard in Fours, Bordeaux

Emotion? That’s a jackpot. That is spotting, for the first time ever, that lovely woman seated inside the café working with pen and papers by her mug of tea and realizing she is intensely beautiful and attractive to you, although she is unaware that you even exist. It is meeting that individual introduced to you on a train platform on some rainy day when your mind was filled with complaints about not wanting to be there and hating the fact that you forgot your umbrella when suddenly the world—on encountering that friend of a friend when you least expected it—transforms to lightness and beauty, uplifted by this magical new individual who just blasted into your life.

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Spanish Ribera del Duero wine in Madrid

Finally, one of the beauties of wine is unpredictability. Whereas you want one brand of beer to taste the same year to year, bar to bar, throughout the world, you want the opposite in wine. Even a wine made from grapes from the same vines each year by one producer will change in taste from vintage to vintage, year to year and bottle to bottle. The taste will also change depending on your mood and the weather, as well as the company you keep.

Which means, and this is an odd thing to say and even odder to realize, that sometimes—not often, but sometimes—you may find a wine that is not necessarily balanced or even complex but that, because of the situation on that sunlit autumn afternoon on that grassy hillside beneath an oak tree with a picnic and a blanket and wonderful company—still provides powerful and memorable emotions you can never replicate. Sometimes, in other words, the highest levels of quality in wine may unexpectedly emerge from a wine that until then was unknown, not renowned and until that moment never before mentioned as remarkable. Perhaps it’s a special vintage, or the angle of sunlight, or …. well, who knows.

That only happens sometimes.

Which is part of the magic of wine.

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A casual afternoon glass of red wine inside the citadelle of Blaye, France

&   &   &

Now, visitors.

Remember weeks ago I wrote a three part series about driving a loop through south west France? There was Part l, Part II and Part III.

I did it as a way of saying goodbye to travel writing. I had always wanted to write books like those from travel writer Paul Theroux or Laurens Van Der Post or William Least Heat Moon. But I wrote a few travel books (self-published, and listed here) which never generated too much interest. So, I decided to do that little trip and write that little piece as a way of saying goodbye to travel writing.

Which I did.

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Susie and Davide enjoying their visit to southwest France

And then, weeks later, out of the blue, a woman named Susie from New Jersey got in touch. She’d read these pieces. She said she wanted to visit France with her boyfriend Davide and do the same journey. Sure, I thought. Whatever. I never expected to hear anything more.

But they did! They showed up in the town Blaye, then drove that route up to Soulac-sur-Mer and spent a few evenings with me drinking red and white wines in our cellar and in a local restaurant and telling stories of travel and exploration. They said, keep writing, keep the ‘dry wit’ and to make my email address more conspicuous on this blog. That was a most unexpected surprise! They also ended up sharing novelties they learned about our own neighborhood, as well as that of nearby Saint-Émilion.

Sometimes only after you say goodbye to things does their very essence return. This may even encourage you to modify your direction a bit, then continue forward. There are no rules in life, and until we embrace that truth, our vision and opportunities will be limited.

&   &   &

My latest Forbes pieces are here and include more articles about sailing than wine in recent weeks, after a recent visit to Saint-Tropez.

[In the above video – Clarissa and Monica work hard at the harvest]

Our hand harvest of all Etalon Rouge Cabernet Sauvignon grapes was completed after 2.5 days of grueling effort (thanks to all who helped out, including Kim and Julie Hopkins, Monica, Pierre, Sonya and Thomas Marchand and many others). The new winery that Les and Clarissa undertook to prepare on Rue Saint Simon in Blaye is completed, spectacular, and now includes grapes merrily fermenting in oak.

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New Etalon Rouge winery on Rue Saint Simon in Blaye, Bordeaux, France

Thanks again for tuning in!

Contact me anytime at: tjlmullen@gmail.com

You can also find me on Instagram or at my Roundwood Press site and blog.

 

 

Foire Aux Vins Makes For A Colorful Outing

October 2, 2018

LeClerc grocery store having its wine sale bonanza

In 1973 the French supermarket chain LeClerc held a wine sale called ‘Foire aux Vins,’ or the ‘fair of wines.’ Wines from all over the country were discounted, put on sale and were soon snapped up by bargain hunters.

The practice has blossomed, and now most supermarket chains in France do alike. Some do so both in fall and spring, although the fall season has most sales.

I was invited last night and showed up at LeClerc at 7.50 p.m., took a grocery cart, and was held at bay outside the doors until the main grocery store closed. At 8.10 p.m., the doors opened and a parade of shoppers bust forward clinging onto their carts.

Sampling of inexpensive, decent wines

I had expected a wine tasting only. Not so. A platoon of ladies greeted entrants by handing out plastic glasses filled with bubbly, and winemakers gave tastings along the aisles. I soon stuffed bottles of wine from Languedoc, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Loire Valley, Provence and Bordeaux into the cart, as well as bottles from Italy and Austria. Most ranged in price from about five to fifteen Euros, although there were bottles from Saint-Émilion and elsewhere for up to 80 or 90 Euros.

In minutes, the cordoned segment of the supermarket turned into a sort of polite French carnival. The empty cartons I had put into my cart kept getting pilfered by others when I looked away, and wine sellers and makers not seen in months shouted their hellos across aisles. I watched two men who found a shelf of Languedoc wine selling for 2.50 Euros a bottle rapidly clean off the entire shelf into their basket with hungry gusto. A female doctor we know, who somehow managed to get into the store early, rapidly loaded up her cart, which was almost twice her size.

This can lay away for another decade and will still taste wonderful

After loading a few boxes with bargains from all over France, we pushed the cart to the check out and paid, happy to have scored bargain wines and to have participated in a slice of French consumer culture.

Comparing local prices to those on the Vivino app (which is somewhat of an average for the U.S.), retail prices in the U.S. range from being similar to those in France to about 75 percent more.

As an example, a few bottles are listed below with their equivalent Euro prices converted to U.S. dollars, as well as their U.S. price.

My kind of shopping cart

Savigny-Lés-Beaune Sous Lavières. 2017. $22.50 ($39.00 in U.S.). [Burgundy]

Cht de la Gardine Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 2016. $35.65 ($44.55 in U.S.) [Rhone]

Jean Chanussot Mercurey. $18.50 ($24.25 in U.S.) [Burgundy]

Cht de Cazeneuve Cynarah Pic Saint Loup. 2016. $10.30 ($14.99 in U.S. [Languedoc]

Cht Larrivet Haut-Brion. 2013. $29.40 ($27.20 in U.S.) [Bordeaux]

Cht La Tour de Mons, Margaux. 2015. $20.20 ($33.99 in U.S.) [Bordeaux]

Cht Haut Bourcier Cuvée Remy. 2012. $9.25 ($15.99 in U.S.) [Blaye, Bordeaux]

Cht Roland La Garde Tradition. 2015. $6.90 ($15.10 in U.S.) [Blaye, Bordeaux]

Campo Ai Sassi Rosso di Montalcino. 2016. $17.26 ($18.00 in U.S.) [Tuscany, Italy]

Weingut Autrieth Grüner Veltliner Eiswein. $14.75 ($14.86 in U.S.) [Austria]

Etalon Rouge hand harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

I checked the purchased wines with U.S. prices when I got home, and mistakenly thought that my Esprit de Valandrau from Saint-Émilion cost 19 Euros locally and $178 in the U.S.

Whoaa! I hustled back to LeClerc this afternoon to buy more bottles. But, no. Truth is, the Esprit is the second label, which costs comparatively the same in the U.S. as in France. The $178 price is for Valandrau’s top tier wine.

False alarm.

Thanks for tuning in again.

My latest Forbes pieces are here and include interviews with two who have hiked the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail in Spain, sparkling wine from near Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, why I grapple with grappa, the virtues of Hungarian oak and biodynamic wine making in Oregon.

Harvest lunch – before the main course of chicken

Finally, as I mentioned on social media—we recently harvested the first half of our one hectare (2.5 acre) Etalon Rouge (‘Red Stallion’) vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This year looks like it might just produce a Stellar Vintage!

Vineyard harvest lunch break in the commune of Fours in Bordeaux

 

 

 

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France – Part lll

September 18, 2018

[This is the last of a three part series about a recent journey. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

This post is a few weeks overdue…

General location in France

The overall, brief but colorful, route

The final route segment

PART THREE: FOREST, SHORES, CITY

Soulac-sur-Mers

I pulled off a sweater, rolled up sleeves and began the 3.5 mile drive to Soulac-sur-Mer.

The roadside included pine and palm trees, sandy road shoulders and villas behind trimmed hedges, white wood fences or chains linked by squat brick columns. This made the locale appear to be a similar but slightly shaggier version of famed Cap Ferret further south. One bonus here: ample parking.

A scaled down statue of liberty as tribute to Marquis Lafayette

Near the Atlantic Ocean I found a museum run by the Memorial of Fortresses in North Medoc. Part of France was occupied by German forces during the Second World War, including the country’s coastal western strip. Resistance was organized and coordinated (including by the British) both in England and surreptitiously in France.

Inside I looked at old uniforms and guns and photos and maps in glass cases. There were hand grenades and medals and rusted pistols and drab olive green gas masks as well as buttons and belt buckles. Everything was aged and oxidized and most had been dug out of local salty sand. The curator at this little outpost sat me down before a small television screen that showed a black and white video of war footage in France. It was all people prancing with victory music and aerial shots of bombarded ships and capped French officers hoisting flags as American tanks squeezed along dirt roads. The black and white footage included medals pinned on soldiers, salutes, handshakes, marching in formation and roadside crowds cheering on French troops. If only victory had been that clean. The museum is a reminder of how heavily fortified and defended this peninsula was by Germans, as well as of bloody battles required to recapture this terrain.

Looking toward the distant Phare de Cordouan lighthouse from Soulac

One war story is that of Operation Frankton, where a group of 10 soldiers, led by the initiator of the plan—Herbert ‘Blondie’  Hasler—paddled five canvas canoes (each with two-persons) from the mouth of the Gironde Estuary to Bordeaux city, placed mines under German ships and then retreated to a northeastern estuary bank near Blaye before escaping on foot.

The operation was akin to the Doolittle Raid of Tokyo in 1942, when 16 U.S. aircraft bombed that city. The real damage was not physical but psychological—alerting enemies to unrealized vulnerabilities in the heart of their best defended positions.

Only four of these soldiers made it to Bordeaux to inflict minimal damage and only two—Hassler and canoe partner Bill Sparks—escaped. Two canoes, swamped by ocean waves, immediately vanished at the mouth of the estuary, and another six men were apprehended and executed. After the war Hasler organized, and participated in, a single-handed transatlantic ocean race between New York and Plymouth.

Fresh fish for sale

Outside I spied a blazing trio of flags—American, French and European. I pulled over to where dunes rose and waves roared. Here was a bronze miniature Statue of Liberty. Rescued from abandoned disuse in Paris in 1980, the statue now celebrates the Marquis Lafayette, who at 19 years of age departed France in 1777 to fight for liberty in America, then returned to France to participate in the Revolution. The statue was made from original molds used to model the actual Statue of Liberty.

A father walked his two young daughters, each three feet tall and wearing a turquoise bicycle helmets as well as mirrored sunglasses with colored frames. He carried their bicycles across the street into town. If not for victory, I wondered, what freedom would those children have now?

Beach art

I kicked off sandals and climbed dunes, toes squishing through delicious layers of warm and cool sand, and looked westward across waves, ever attractive and always inspiring. Soon I visited another beachside memorial that included four French flags and names, hundreds, inscribed on a black marble wall commemorating the 1944-1945 liberation of Point de Graves, this northernmost tip of the Médoc.

Soulac-sur-Mer is a regular beachside holiday town, stuffed with roadside parked cars and a waterfront with dozens of international flags. Along walkways and the main road moved morning joggers, a stylish young brunette in a polished black Mini, a stroller carrying a scared terrier in his arms and ample men with ugly, unkempt and unwashed Rastafarian braided dreadlock hairstyles—each moving arm in arm with a female mate, each resembling a runway model. Did I recently miss the onset of this bizarre latest trend?

At noon, I ordered an orange juice at Les Chiens Fous. From an outer table I watched a healthy parade of multicolored generations reveling in the wind bitten and sun soaked day, evincing joy and health and movement and some sensible disregard for social media for at least a few hours.

Soulac’s summer highlights include ample bicycling, family friendly everything, juicy fresh fruits and historical reminders of a darkly jagged history where liberty eventually prevailed over an industry of genocide. Times have changed, people have moved on, nations and identities have—thankfully—merged.

On the southern edge of the city I found a shack of a wine store. A glazed eyed man in a cap with a remote and faraway look melted into his lawn chair out front. I walked in.

Fresh from the market

A rotund and chummy woman appeared. We spoke. They sold two types of wine. One from Perpignan, on the other side of France; one from Castillon on the other side of Bordeaux city—itself far away.

I inspected the Castillon. Five euros for a bottle of red. And the Perpignan. Three euros a bottle for rosé. That included the cost of shipping it across the country. I decided to buy both to try. If the rosé was a go, perhaps California’s Two Buck Chuck may have met its match. I pulled bottles from the counter. Later I tried the rosé. Not Bad. Not good. Not really a surprise.

Montalivet

The beach of Montalivet, further south along the Atlantic coast, parallels thick pine forests and dunes demarcated by a long and shaggy wood picket fence. Here again there was bicycling for all ages, surfing, kite surfing, beach volleyball and beach soccer. The town’s abbreviation in ‘Monta,’ hence signs for Monta Surf School and Monta Pizza.

Pedestrian Avenue de L’Ocean was as jammed and sweaty as a summer outdoor concert. There were bikers in black bandannas, a skirted boy wearing a pearl necklace and a swarthy, bearded chap in a pirate’s hat. I counted 24 people in line outside the ATM. This crowded summer family scene with too many bodies hungering for fast food made me return to the car and get out…fast.

Montalivet – too crowded

The southern outskirts of Montalivet skirts several forests: Dunaire, Vendays and Junda. There are adjacent miles of bicycle trails, as well as a separate asphalt bicycle path paralleling the road through deep, dense, lovely woods—all a glorious escape after the pedestrian human zoo of Montalivet. Long distance bikers (many with children) moved with loaded panniers, while shirtless boys skateboarded. One couple picked roadside blackberries. The towering, expansive woods of the Médoc are a cathedral, a living and breathing respite from nearby sea tides of humans clustered on narrow streets. Although this road is a patchwork of asphalt repairs—a buckled, neglected semi-artery through the woods—it magnificently lacks bleating crowds.

Hourtin-Plage

I liked Hourtin-Plage immediately: a square grassy park, uncluttered side streets, dispersed groups of people with nothing to prove. I sat at a shaded table at Le Grillon Restaurant and ordered fresh tuna with herbal vinaigrette sauce and Château Pouyannne white wine from Graves—poured into a less than pretentious big bulb of a glass with the words Gallo Family Vineyards printed on the side. Then, aha! Once again: seated dead ahead—another lame knot of ugly and unwashed dreadlocks on an enervated youth eating lunch together with a ten star babe. What is going on, World?

Rated restaurants hope to neutralize unpredictability by providing consistently good food. Sometimes this works; not always. There’s strange, unpredictable magic in dining out. Michelin Star restaurants offer food that is visual artwork, although not always delicious, and staff can be as stilted as furniture in a doll’s house. Better to have good people, soul filling and reasonably priced fare that is delicious as well as decent wine (even table wine) with friendly staff who treat diners alike whether they are celebrities or off duty dishwashers. You can’t predict when you’ll find this confluence. This restaurant ticked those boxes, and was a pleasure to visit. The atmosphere was quiet and happy, and the staff unrushed but efficient.

For dessert I ordered a café gourmand (you don’t know what this is? It can change your life) before motoring south to Bordeaux city.

Bordeaux City

This has been a cracked and brutal summer with tree leaves, burnt and withering, turning yellow and brown mid August. August is an odd and mobile month in France, a time when train stations may close on Friday mornings (for whatever reason), when libraries often close for the month and school-free students with weird haircuts loiter and slouch and share lame jokes at train stations or on street corners. This is traveling season when commuters haul luggage more often than shopping bags and vines look trim and grapes full and dangling.

The Garonne River looked gloriously muddy, its shores a pastel of muck and weeds while beyond rose beautiful Bordeaux city spires and stately architecture, all as deliciously proportioned as a well decorated Christmas tree.

Spires in this city welcome you, a reminder that this was home of Eleanor of Aquitaine and centuries of medieval knights and troubadours, sword and ax fights and wandering bards. The spires piercing skylines are part of lithic architecture that curls parallel to, and along, the city’s winding waterfront.

I parked near the main railway station, Gare Saint-Jean, which is as much destination as thoroughfare. Here classical piano music rang out and the overall vibe was less raucous than stations at, say, Paris Montparnasse or Milano Centrale.

Out front were trams and a bendy bus departing for Place de la Bourse (5 stops). I boarded and paid. Away it whooshed and rattled along past road construction near Pont de Pierre, the stone bridge crossing the Garonne with 17 arches, one for each letter of Napoléon Bonaparte’s name.

Place de la Bourse

Near the water of River Garonne is Bourse, a wall of beautiful stone apartments and offices. Across the street is a sizable horizontal fountain with multiple jets that spray mist or flood the surface with water a half inch deep. Kids lay down and did snow angels and belly rolls and everything that makes parents cringe at seeing their children wallow on stone earth before a battery of strangers. Still, kids here are generally not bratty or loud or obstinate but whisper and sing and cuddle their parents with overt affection.

A tour guide who looked pre-teen carried a red flag on a stick and marched a group of visitors across Place de la Bourse, She was followed by a sizable woman and several youths attired with the latest style of backpack—basically pear shaped leather pouches on strings slung so low that they bounce off wearers’ rear ends.

Others drove rental bicycles over square cobbles, jouncing butts and boobs and halting to take toothy selfies. They’re all very stylish these French: couples with matching sailor shirts and a woman in debonair silver lace sandals pulling a chique but heavy chunk of luggage across cobblestones. This contrasted sharply to the attire I saw weeks earlier in the aisles of Walmart in rural New Mexico.

I moved by foot into the sunny heart of this magnificent city, compact and clique, global yet quintessentially French. Here is a smattering of public squares—places—that makes the city infectiously attractive: I begin at Place de Parlement with woofing dogs, two lost cyclists, a three year old holding her mother’s bouquet of flowers and roadside stone bollards linked by thick and weathered chains. I passed a parked pink Vespa near to where diners scarfed down plates of salad nicoise and drank golden ales and light yellow wines.

Then, up Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges with its abundant little eateries—terraced and table clothed—such as Le Saint Georges and Osteria Da Luigi. Next—past Place Camille-Jullian with an ancient Roman column and performing tightrope walker and trimly dressed ambling Asians who smelt of lavender.

For a light dinner I ate at an Asian restaurant across from Bradley’s Bookshop (‘Coffee & Tea Taste Better with a Good Book!’). This is the confluence of Rue Saint-Siméon, Rue de La Merci and Rue Arnaud Miqueu.

Earlier in the bookstore I had purchased a Jared Diamond book The World Until Yesterday as well as Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and three short stories by Nabokov and then walked outside and relished the gorgeous temperature. There on Rue Saint Siméon clunky dented bicycles were chained in twos, like drunken sentries, on metal rails and I noticed several American visitors dressed alike: sneakers, beige cargo shorts, gray t-shirts.

There I dined outside—à l’extérieur—and ordered Saké Teriyaki and a half bottle of Château Boyrein white wine from Graves and wallowed in the acoustic beauty of young French ladies chatting at the adjacent table. The dress and comportment of families and couples here was sleek and trim and bereft of loudness or bulk.

Eating with chopsticks, I noticed the constants of summertime: mirrored sunglasses, tanned legs, older wrinkled French wives sucking on vapes, short sleeves showing off intricate tattoos. Most families, even when herded on crowded streets, stayed harmonious and polite.

Even in the most hectored and aggravated cobbled intersections, stuffed with ambling bodies and toddling toddlers I was amazed to see driving school vehicles shunting along these rues (one came close to taking out the entire table of gabbing teens beside me).

If not full on savoir-faire on the part of visitors who obviously just arrived, they displayed a quiescent hush, as though in a cathedral during service. This toning down of loud voices showed respect for a location different from their home.

It is easy to love this city, including its understated power (three times it functioned as the alternative capital of France) and its yawning confidence—much like a Grand Cru Classe wine that commands a committed audience and generates a fat bank balance. A thousand years ago the Aquitaine was the veritable living Elysian Fields of Europe.

Without being reputed so, this city is also a pillar of style and fashion and architectural glory (dusted off by Mayor Alain Juppé, who led the cleaning of stone buildings since his election in 2006).

Next, up the main shopping street—pedestrian Rue Sainte-Catherine—which, near its northern (theater) end, is slightly inclined and heaved with swarms of pulsating humans, sweeping their own divergent paths, clutching plastic bags and bicycle helmets and with clicking heels navigating baby strollers and parading tattooed thighs or signal-red lipstick as they cooed and froed and peddled scooters or paraded along this artery, this aorta, of an ancient yet revitalized city. Tanned sisters bantered about lingerie before Yves Rochet while necklaced divas darted into H&M, and a snoozing, horizontal indigent—his cap and framed family photo propped up on the walkway before him—actually made money while he slept.

I diverted westward off Saint-Catherine along Rue de la Porte Dijeaux. At first the stone road was inclined in a steep V for drainage and had a whiff of urine but I sallied forth past the stores: Galeries Lafayette and L’Atelier du Chocolat (try a feuilleté blanc or Rocher Suisse Noir—sinfully delicious) and passed young ladies gandering at summer dresses in the window of Bimba y Lola.

This street / rue then intersected with Rue Vital-Carles, which offered an inclined gape at the rosary window and graceful spire of Cathédrale Saint-André. Here, a tram car passed—not the blocky stocky style like those from Lisbon but sleek and blue and whispering efficiently along rails tastefully embedded in stone pavement.

Here at the corner is Librairie Mollat—a book selling institution in the city with its blue tinged wooden window frames showing abundant titles (Varuna by Charles Frazier, The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse and A Column of Fire by Ken Follet).

Then, on foot through the ancient stone gate—Porte Dijeux, built in the 1700’s to commemorate the ancient western, Roman entrance to the city. Outside Le Bistro de la Porte drinkers at round marble tables languished with books and parfaits and eerie green cocktails while loud jazz throbbed through a cheery humid Friday afternoon.

I spotted second hand books for sale, including one on how to be a perfect gentleman—Le Guide du Parfait Gentleman—with a chapter titled comment être sexuelle (how to be sexual).

Place Jean Moulin gave a flurry of brazen impressions—gesticulating visitors wearing Hawaiian shirts and girls rolling cigarettes and every person in this open space belittled by the ancient, shiny, imposing spire of Saint-André cathedral.

Next, down Cours Pasteur—eerily empty at 4.51 on a Friday afternoon, past a bicycle store selling bangers and a vapid ‘international bar’ that can’t even attract locals. I sauntered through Place de la Victoire with its live Peruvian flute music, an Egyptian obelisk and a magnificent old stone Román door beside a sinuous street. I hiked along at a rare clip in order to drive northward to catch the ferry back to Blaye.

Then along Cours de la Marne past Marché des Capucins where strange spices, bizarre fish and esoteric vegetables flourish in cool interior stalls during weekends. From Bordeaux city I drove northward, through the famed wine country of Médoc (which I’ll omit, having covered it in so many other stories and articles).

The Ferry Home 

The road northward to Lamarque ran along groomed and clean roads passing well snipped hedges and grassy but mowed road shoulders. The church spire of Lamarque resembles a long bullet, or the capsule cover to a syringe.

Finally, homeward on the Lamarque to Blaye car ferry. The 3.45 p.m. boat left on time, pirouetted in sun dappled but muddy water and the day, with fresh breezes on that Friday afternoon in August was uplifting and, considering it marked the completion of this local driving loop—perfect.

During the 25 minute ride to Blaye I sat upstairs in sunshine where the sight of the nearing cliffside Citadelle looked beautiful. Perfect. Like home anywhere.

^  ^  ^

Thanks for tuning in again.

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include sparkling wine from Trentino in Italy, why it’s worth visiting the beaches of Bordeaux, and a slice of Bali in Bordeaux.

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France – Part II

August 28, 2018

[This is the second of a three part series about a recent short journey. Part I is here, and Part III will come out next week. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

PART TWO: NORTH AND WEST.

The Big Picture – Location in France

It’s preferable to travel by train or bus or on foot if you are writing about travel. A car, obviously, needs to be driven. You can’t write while driving. You need to pull over. So, I often endlessly search for rest areas or alleys to pull into to capture notes and thoughts. All of this searching can suck away part of the joy of freewheeling and being on the road. Or else you can remember what you want to write about by constructing mental images—mnemonics (think of the book Moonwalking with Einstein). Years ago I once met and shared beers with a canoeist in Atchison, Kansas along the Missouri River. I had no recorder or notebook so configured his story mentally using a pyramid of interconnected images, then later transcribed our conversation, virtually verbatim, into a chapter.

Grapes from our Etalon Rouge vineyard in Four, near Blaye

The bizarre part was that he had worked overseas in Guam with land titles for 20 years, left his job, returned to the U.S., bought a canoe and launched into the upper Missouri River to paddle south before learning that the river had dams. Several. Each of them massive. Much of his expected river adventure turned into a series of lake water paddles.

The relatively short overall route along the Gironde estuary and in the Médoc

Back to France:

Regardless of the challenges of driving and writing, I continued on from the town of Blaye in southwest France, moving north.

I exited Blaye on an Ektachrome blue morning past the handsome slate spire of Château Lagrange and country roads with full, flourishing greenery and thick hedgerows. Around a country corner I passed Château Segonzac (near the final landing point for Operation Frankton canoeists during World War Two; more about that next week) across the street from a field of sunflowers.

The sunflowers of Charente-Maritime province

Here were reeds, plains, spires, fields filled with stubble and dirt clods, and cyclists moving along thin roads bordered by wild earthen canals. Along the Route du Marais and Route de Montalpin beside Canal de Ceinture, I saw—miles ahead—four white cylinders, like salt shakers from a cheap diner, marking the local nuclear power plant—the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. Located on a plain east of the estuary, this assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy.

Part II – Blaye to Le Verdon-sur-Mer

It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.

Countryside near Braud-et-Saint-Louis

Next, through the town of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, gateway to the nuclear compound, and except for a roundabout and an eerily placed set of emergency warning klaxons on the roof of the mayor’s office, I saw little else. Visiting the power plant is off-limits except during special visitor days, so I moved past this thunderclap of power en route to Mortagne-sur-Gironde.

‘The locks,’ ‘The port,’ ‘Everywhere’

Miles up the road I stopped at Saint-Ciers-sur-Gironde, a bustling hive and cluster of Tuesday morning errand runners. At the Super U I bought a two chausson aux pommes and a mango passion fruit smoothie for breakfast. In the check out before me stood a woman with two girls—likely 5 to 7 years old—with their new school notebooks and markers and, bizarrely, a paperback copy of The Disappearance of Josef Mengele by Olivier Guez. Light reading, not.

Five star Château Mirambeau accommodation

I next drove through a happy slab of slanted vineyards and open views and entered the province of Charente-Maritime and within yards saw the first field of corn. There were doves and cooing pigeons and semi trucks hauling hay bales in this twisted, hilly, little known patch of geography that sizzles with quiet landscape beauty. I then navigated through thin roads in towns such as Petit Niort and lively Mirambeau, with its purple window shutters and rows of thick eucalyptus trees.

Chalky cliffs outside Mortagne-sur-Gironde

Mortagne-sur-Gironde

There is an upper and lower portion to the town of Mortagne-sur-Gironde, the upper being a long row of sand colored stone buildings, the lower being a port, perpendicular to the massive Gironde Estuary, with dozens of boats and a few waterside restaurants. During the same December flood of 1999 that gnashed at the nuclear power plant near Blaye, the tempest ruined a polder at Mortagne, a 470 acre (190 hectare) crop of diked and reclaimed land. It was never fully reclaimed.

Harbor at Mortagne-sur-Gironde

The port is lively on a summer afternoon. I parked and walked past grassy spaces next to wooden gated locks, campers with fold out canopies and garishly colored lawn chairs, children dancing under trees, zones of poor internet service and a bikinied bicyclist taking selfies along a stone harbor wall. The Gironde is about a mile, or a kilometer and a half away, but the beauty of limestone bluffs meeting a silty delta next to prim and tended grassy parks with shaded benches makes this port attractive. A menu outside a linen table clothed restaurant gastronomique showed it was selling buffalo mozzarella gazpacho as well as duck cannelloni with herbs, but I decided to wait until the next town before lunch.

Little used side canal in Mortagne-sur-Mer

Talmont-sur-Gironde

Miles to the north, the view from the town of Chenac-Saint-Seurin-d’Uzet toward the town of Talmont-sur-Gironde shows a visually alluring angled slab of bright white sea cliff (likely limestone). This land includes cylindrical hay bales and mixed agriculture—dirty small sheep north of Mortagne, sunflowers, vines and muscular and cream-colored cattle chomping grass with fury.

Limestone cliffs just south of Talmont-sur-Gironde

In Talmont-sur-Gironde I sat in shade on a restaurant porch and ordered merlu (hake) fish and a Leffe beer, followed by an apple tart—tarte aux pommes—slathered with caramel covered ice cream.

Estuary view from Talmont-sur-Gironde

Whereas Mortagne is shaggy, Talmont is prim. Parking at Mortagne is free, but costs in Talmont. Campers and bikers and locals flock to Mortagne, while urban families and couples with convertibles trundle into Talmont. On busy summer days, Mortagne is a fiesta, while Talmont is a zoo. In Mortagne, lunch lasts an unrushed two to three hours, while in Talmont, four separate servers on a crowded patio cater to every need, as though in the U.S.,and whoosh out dessert before you even switch from drinking an entry beer to a glass of dry white wine. In Mortagne, the restaurant staff speak French; in Talmont they practice English, whether or not you like it. Mortagne is France; Talmont is California. And if both were in California, one would be Ventura, the other Newport Beach.

Typically bright colored shutters in Talmont-sur-Gironde

‘Now, coffee and bill,’ a server said loudly in English as he plopped both on the table before I’d begun downing the glass of wine. His action was polished, though slightly rude and harried.

Still, walking after lunch was golden. Views within and from little Talmont are splendid—mud flats and fluttering birds and tidal waters all somewhat reminiscent, on a minuscule scale, of Mont Saint Michel in northern France. Here there is wind, a balustrade of climatic temperance that mitigated an otherwise harshly hot week. This wind becomes a song in the ears—rustling reeds, licking tree branches, scudding cumulus and vibrating its bounty of peace. Clean air and clear vistas from the shores of Talmont: magnificent.

The church of Saint Radegonde in Talmont-sur-Gironde sits above the estuary

Estuary waters look muddy from here, though the sight of snow white egrets and the laugh of cycling couples is, in the wake of wine and beer and a seafood at lunch, sumptuous. Truth is, I love Talmont.

It’s a wee promontory around Saint Radegonde church, originally constructed in 1094, a time when Saint Marks Basilica was consecrated in Venice and just before work began on the Cathedral of Durham in northern England. The church and village jut into tidal waters and are riddled with cobbled alleys and little stores. I love its stony white paths, elevated trail above water and sight of seabirds on seaweed coated isles; the brazen blocky église, the photogenetically trim vistas and the myriad of colors on rock and soil and cobbles. There is a Venetian profusion of little alleys here (again, on a minuscule scale) leading to who knows where.

View from Saint Radegonde church of the Gironde estuary, in Talmont-sur-Gironde

Bicyclists of all ilk gather here, whether healthy and not, compelled by a shoreline visit that blends brutal history with skittish and deft scenes of nature. So, more power to both venues—Mortagne and Talmont, although I’d hate to see the ritual of a lazy two wine bottle lunch supplanted by Anglo Saxon infatuation with speed, table turnover, efficiency, profit and time.

This is also home to Les Hauts de Talmont wine, which produces biodynamic wines, including a 100% Colombard white, as well as a red and a rosé made from Merlot. Co-owner Jean-Jacques Vallée told me the story about these wines when we met.

Jean-Jacques Vallée is now co-owner of Les Hauts de Talmont wines

I left town but soon pulled over and parked in a park within the nearby villages of Arces-sur-Gironde because the church is a beauty, and I marched through a ghostly silent village, relishing birdsong interspersed with silence.

Church in Arces-sur-Gironde

Back in the car I listened to Gregorian music while passing slanted fields of sunflowers—tournesols—their heads pointed downward to avoid August sun in this land of escargot and pineau fortified wine and estuary sturgeon caviar and the summer clank and rumble of rubber tractor wheels and grinding motors.

Royan 

The next morning I woke to rain and soon dialed the car radio to a channel named musique (which was classique) and by 5.20 a.m. heat pushed into the car, forcing me to crack open windows. The scent and whoosh of nature zipped in and, combined with the beauty of outer fog sheets, felt uplifting.

Waterview from near the ferry port in Royan

I passed the lovely small beaches of Meschers and the long open sands of Saint-Georges-de-Didonne and moved into the cloying whiff of highway diesel outside the city of Royan. Many buildings in this city of 18,000 residents are concrete and rectangular and painted white with navy blue porch rails. Streets curl along with seaside topography and are generally wide and lined generously with trees. It’s a cross between some 1960’s Floridian beach architecture and that of a modern coastal California suburb. Strategically located at the northwest entry point to the Gironde estuary (largest in Europe), the city was 80 percent leveled by bombs during the Second World War, so the absence of medieval charm is understood. Parts of the city have a positive and prosperous vibe, with BMW sports cars sweeping out from occasional gated communities to secure family morning lattes.

A wooden walkway and a parallel stone bicycle path curl around the beach periphery lined with profusions of planted flowers. The waterfront here is a maintained and orderly, with an air of respect for health and fitness. At 7.00 a.m. both a gardener and a leaf blower were humming with industriousness.

Waterfront flowers in the city of Royan

I stepped into dawn light and the salty, invigorating scent of ocean air, then shivered in a cold 60 degree breeze while wearing shorts, sandals and a thin shirt. I sat on a park bench at an ocean point on Boulevard de la Côte d’Argent—reminded by its ocean freshness of California’s Laguna Beach or Ireland’s Salthill. (Another reminder of Laguna Beach: a conspicuous sign notifying that from April 1 to September 30th, no dogs are allowed on the beach.) A tractor was grooming the cove’s sand beside Casino Barrière and red-roofed waterside stone homes across this little bay—Plage de Pontaillac—appeared attractive and cozy. The memory of having packed a warm sweater in the car was welcome.

Pontaillac Beach in Royan

At 7.08 a.m., men in their 60’s were going swimming (freezing!) or bicycling and a 30 some year old woman, all togged out in sports wear and strapped with some electronic health monitor, went for a very slow stroll. The breakfast porch of four-story and three Star Hotel Miramar looked inviting, but I whiffed the scent of fresh croissants from down the street and hunted the source on foot, still shivering.

At pâtisserie-boulangerie Chocolat’in, on Rue de la Plage, I bought a roll filled with chocolate chips, then sat on another bench near seagulls and strollers. I eyed the northwest elevated edge of the cove with its two dozen painted white wooden fishing shacks. Here be palm trees, joggers and slow rolling waves during the easy morning transition to dawn.

Bakery delights in the city of Royan

I soon meandered along a park profuse with geraniums and roses. This square—Mado Maurin—includes a curling bike path near a pizzeria. Standing youths wearing suede jackets finished their breakfast pastries and then, in bare feet, push started a friend’s Fiat near the Surf Club Royan. I was underdressed but excited about the up coming ferry ride across the yawning mouth of Europe’s largest estuary. The car ferry, known as le bac in France, next departed next at 9.00. I paid at the entry booth, parked next to vehicles with snoozing vacationers, then went for a walk.

Anchored close to the Captainerie building bobbed tugs and massive catamarans, sleek yachts, rubber dinghies with heavy engines and sailed fishing boats.

View of Gironde estuary from south of Royan

I wondered why this northern ferry cost 50 percent more than the ferry between Blaye and Lamarque further south. After departure, I realized that it is, in comparison, an asphalt highway compared to a dirt track, a Marriott versus some Motel 6. You pay at a booth from your car window before even entering the dock space, are assigned a waiting line, and eventually drive straight on to park. Simple. No ejecting passengers who have to walk aboard on foot, no maneuvering 180 degrees before being barked at to reverse into a narrow back slot and then having to stand in a line to pay. The indoor waiting room of this northern ferry includes not just a coffee machine, as in Blaye, but a cafe staffed by two selling an ample range of drinks and snacks.

Northern Médoc

The ferry departed at 9.00 to a massive horn blast, then aimed at the far shore with its sloping green grassy sand dunes, a point of natural beauty. Westward and within the ocean stands the towering white Phare de Cordouan lighthouse, oldest in operation in France. It was first built by the Black Prince Edward of Wales in the 1360’s, about the time the bubonic plague ended, the Chinese Ming dynasty began, the 100 Years War raged, Pope Urban V tried moving the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon, Muscovites built a Kremlin Wall around their city to oppose Lithuanian invasions and the Thai Kingdom conquered (once again) Cambodia.

Pointe-de-Grave on the ‘left bank’ of the Gironde Estuary

Waves on this crossing are oceanic, not estuarine: whopping great swells that lurch stomachs and shift stances only minutes after departure. The bac pivots up down and sideways—like a traveling fairground ride—impacting platoons of passengers: capped grandpas, cuddling lovers and families munching baguettes. After twenty minutes it threaded a needle between concrete pillars and entered the modern harbor at Pointe de Grave. Vehicles and dozens of bicycles disembarked, including families and a lean bronze muscled couple paddling tandem with backpacks.

Point-de-Grave harbor

I soon stopped across from LeClerc supermarket Le Verdon-sur-Mer and walked across the street to Epicerie Chez Cathy—small and stocked with fruit and veg. There I bought a peach from a prim and polite young lady and outside saw a beautiful roadside counter of fish on ice garnished with greens. Two energetic women at this mobile poissonnerie—Bateau Cassy—sell maigres, bars, dorades, and soles, all festooned with slices of lemon. Both businesses—Cathy and Cassy add a local market dimension to the looming adjacent chain store.

Next, south to Soulac-sur-Mer, and then onto Bordeaux City.

 

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France

August 21, 2018

[This is the first of a three part series about a recent journey. Parts two and three will come out next week and the week after. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

PART I.  HOME GROUND.

The Shape Of A Short Trip.

The Big Picture – location in France

Inspiration to explore my neighborhood came from writer Paul Theroux. I first heard of this author when I took a train from El Paso in Texas to Mexico City with a backpack, decades ago. I paid 36 dollars for a 36-hour train ride in an old 1940’s American train caboose with my own cabin, including toilet and bed. A conductor walked along the hallway swinging a silver pail and selling iced beers. The train sometimes stopped in the middle of nowhere and we’d step outside and buy homemade tamales from kids.

During this trip I met a house painter from the highlands of Colorado. He suggested reading The Old Patagonian Express—By Train Through the Americas by Theroux. I did. Years later, the author’s writing inspired me to join the Peace Corps. I ended up in the same African country where he served—Malawi—and on the same month that we volunteers arrived an article appeared in National Geographic, written by Theroux, about his revisit to that nation. This curiously timely coincidence encouraged me to continue wandering. I savored his book Riding the Iron Rooster—By Train Through China while malaria ridden in a village without electricity or running water south of Chitipa in rural Malawi, and years later while working in the desert outback of Namibia, Africa, relished The Happy Isles of Oceania.

Theroux’s latest travel collection is Figures In A Landscape—People & Places. I read it weeks ago. In one essay he mentioned a desire to explore his neighborhood and I was seized with the sudden certainty to do alike.

The relatively short route along the Gironde estuary and in the Médoc

How to explore my neighborhood here in southwest France? First, my vintage, bulletproof Mercedes that once belonged to the Nigerian ambassador in London now lacks air conditioning and the motor is prone to overheating. This means I can’t travel too far during any brutal August day because the heat—la chaleur—will be sweltering and may cause engine problems. Yet I had to get beyond known terrain. Before plotting a route on Google maps I did so mentally. Locations to visit unfurled like a counterclockwise semi-spiral across the provinces of Charente-Maritime and Gironde. The trail resembled a snail’s curl, or the cross section of a squashed croissant. When I looked at a map this little route was not a spiral so much as a reverse P, or a capital Q. Finally, I plotted this tour on Google and the shape of the journey resembled a tilted slipper, or an amoeba with a flagella tail. Perhaps a partially peeled banana. In some regards, then—yes—a spiral.

But, seriously, who cares?

I stuffed a sweater and corkscrew and extra iPhone batteries into a cotton shoulder bag and throttled off at dawn, beginning the wonky semi-spiral path leading, of course, back home in time for weekend parties. The route began at Saint-André-de-Cubzac, headed north through hometown of Blaye, upward to coastal Royan, across water by ferry to the Médoc, southward past beaches and then on to Bordeaux city.

On y va. Let’s go!

Part l – Saint-André-de-Cubzac to Blaye

Saint André-de-Cubzac, Bourg, Corniche de La Gironde

I entered Saint-André-de-Cubzac at a traffic roundabout with a statue of a leaping dolphin wearing an angled red cap, because this is the birthplace of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. I then slipped into a parking space outside the gare—train station—and wandered off to hunt for the morning market.

Linked to a major motorway as well as a railway line, and located on the Dordogne River, Saint-André is a gateway to greater Bordeaux city. This town has long been a center of commerce. Twelfth century rulers built north-south and east-west roads (known as the ‘cardo’ and ‘decumanus’–terms invented by clever Tuscan Etruscans) with a church at the intersection. It was pivotal for trading wine with those living in that angle of land between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers known as ‘Between the Rivers’ or ‘Entre-deux-Mers.’

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Birthplace of Cousteau

Streets here hum and moan and screech with traffic—chortling semi trucks and belching SUV’s. These pass handsome buildings assembled from tan sandstone. Many rues include clusters of hairdressers, banks and real estate agents.

I passed a jogging girl and a man painting the iron rails around his garden. An ambulance driver honked at his friends. But where was the market? Better still, where could I get a mug of coffee? I walked past the stone Justice de Paix building where a woman dressed in orange pulled her matching brick colored shopping trolley, obviously heading to (or from?) some market. I followed.

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Quiet street in Saint-André-de-Cubzac

Streams of strollers coalesced near Place Raoul Larche, where I entered Bar Brasserie of Cafe de l’Hotel de Ville across from a charcuterie. There I ordered a grand cafe crème from a stout, affable tanned man who, when I asked est-ce que c’est un marché aujourd-hui? nodded and replied simply, oui, then pointed in the direction from where I just came.

Merde. Which means, shite. Had I somehow missed the market?

Market fresh

I sat and sipped the bitter morning brew on an unkempt terrace littered with ciggie butts. Knolls of grass poked through cracked masonry where roots, long ago, heaved through bricks.

Yet, aha! There was another road leading slightly uphill and to the left. I finished the coffee and moved that way past Le Rolling Snack, the Boucherie Fortin (‘entrecôte bordelaise Euros 1.90/kg’) and found a sign: Marché Réglementé (regulated market) outside a parking lot where stalls covered in white canopies stood.

Although not as picturesque as a market in, say Sarlat-la-Canéda or Périgueux in the Dordogne, the wares were fresh and the sellers flashed friendly smiles. There were covered stalls and portable refrigerated counters and food for sale included massive green grapes, fig jam, sweating watermelons and Madagascar crevettes (shrimp). There were sesame loaves, firm ‘haricot’ beans and skinned rabbits – heads and bulging black eyeballs still attached. A uniformed pair of Police Rurale officers patrolled, and the sun began baking shoppers by 10 a.m. I heard the scoop of ice and vendors whistling and the eternal trio of farewells, spoken together: ‘merci, bon journée, au revoir.’ I bought a loaf of pan muesli from a smiling dark haired beauty with turquoise painted fingernails.

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Monument to those who died in World War l

This market square—a parking lot that sometimes transforms to a social quadrangle—is bordered on three sides by flourishing trees and on a fourth by a community center. It provides a lively gathering point for neighbors and shoppers inspecting colors and shapes and textures of unpackaged wares. Here, twice weekly, locals bond with market vendors under the lash or scorch of outdoor weather. These open-air markets excel not just as shopping venues but as places to share news with neighbors and even, for a stranger such as myself, making me feel suddenly welcome.

I returned to the car via back alleys, then drove north through Saint Gervais past the twin stone round towers outside Château de la Brunette. This road passing vineyards, la route du vin de Blaye et Bourg, wends over speed bumps through the town of Prignac-et-Marcamps, where a side road leads to Grotte de Pair-non-Pair. I had visited that site before: a 65-foot long cave where generations of Neanderthals and (later) Cro-Magnon humans lived. Protected from weather, wolves and bears, generations lived here until some 20,000 years ago and carved images of mammoths, rhinos and giant deer on walls.

Vineyard on the Gironde estuary

Bourg

Then into Bourg, a special place not only because of wines (think Châteaux Gros Moulin, Mercier and De La Graves) but also because the curling blacktop road down Rue des Douves leads to an ancient port on the Dordogne River, once a keystone for Roman and medieval commerce. The city is also called Bourg-sur-Gironde, although this is technically incorrect because it sits along the Dordogne River, and not the Gironde estuary. Hundreds of years ago, before the estuary silted up and moved the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers four miles (6.5 kilometers) upstream and north, Bourg was on the Gironde. That’s why it was built as a fortification, in order to view and defend the entire estuary. No longer. You can call it Bourg-de-Gironde (‘de’ instead of ‘sur’) because it belongs within the administrative department that also happens to be named Gironde, but locals might not warm to that. Save yourself a hassle if you visit and just say Bourg.

Bourg seen from the port – foreground building used to be for doing laundry

This city was once, centuries ago, a stopover on the timber route, when inland and upriver trees from the forests of Cantal—between Bordeaux and Lyon—were shipped downriver for making leather or barrels or the supports for coal mines in boats called gabares. After delivering their wares, these boats were axed up as firewood or fencing and the pilots jogged back upstream to their homes to repeat the process. The Dordogne River was only navigable for a few weeks each year, and during then hundreds of boats floated downstream to deliver their sellable goods.

Today Bourg is quiet and peaceful and soaked with history, whether of medieval carpenters building catapults for castle invasions or of passing boats with quarried sandstone moving from Saint-Émilion to Bordeaux to provide construction materials for that city’s cathedrals and châteaux.

The town includes a covered structure that was was 18th century water pool, a communal laundry point. There is also a beautiful arch, made both from natural limestone and masonry that covers a sloping pedestrian walkway. From the upper ramparts (below tree cover and the shadow of a church spire) is a strategic view of the great, glissading, often log-bloated waters of the Dordogne River miles south of where it merges with the Garonne.

Inside the cool, peaceful and ancient public laundry house in Bourg

You stop in Bourg. You don’t stay in Bourg. Beside the attractive port and lovely ivy and flower coated walls there’s little to do except visit the glass walled wine bar—Maison du Vin—when it’s open on Fridays and Saturdays in summer, or the annual Nuit de Terroir food, drink and music festival organized each August by the region’s young winemakers on lovely castle grounds.

Still, the frequently blazing blue sky and curious tinny tinkle of church chimes, combined with the swearing of a harsh fisherwoman by the waterfront, and the chance to circumnavigate this pleasant petit ville on foot past water vistas make visiting Bourg well worthwhile.

The inclined and one-way main street, with tea shops, wine stores, a boucherie and several closed boulangeries (bakeries) is both attractive and somehow sad, a reminder of an era when there were more prosperous locals, and fewer indigents on the dole (au chômage) littering local cafes. During the past two centuries the population of Bourg plummeted by one third. Somehow, this town makes me lonely. Yet, friends who moved here from Australia or Bordeaux city tell of gregarious locals making them feel welcome, and of their appreciating quietness and calming vistas.

Flowers in Bourg

Several pedestrian and driving conduits link Bourg’s upper town and its lower port—stone channels, chutes and staircases. This town is a historical gem. But it is the hinterland of Bourg more than the city, the swelling hills and steeples and lost roads and sprawling vineyards and wine producers across miles of this ancient locale that give not only grace but economic agricultural abundance to this region.

I stopped at the winemakers’ crêperie restaurant near the water, avoiding the larger chain restaurant slightly uphill (a garish concoction of electronic menus and TV screens, food that appears to have been defrosted via microwave and staff who, at best, are disinterested). It was 11.43 a.m. The crêperie owners, a couple biding time on their porch, told me, after inquiry, that they would open at noon—‘midi’—and obviously cared not a fig about possibly seating me earlier to offer a pre-lunch aperitif.

Across the street I peeked inside a refurbished restaurant with a menu that included roasted goat cheese salad, moules (mussels) and dessert. I sat, ordered a glass of white wine from Château Mercier and food. Splendid.

Roasted goat cheese salad, moules and Sauvignon Blanc wine

After lunch I moved toward Blaye along the lower shoreline routes, Pain de Sucre (sugarloaf) followed by the Corniche de la Gironde. Here cute stone homes are separated from waterside gardens, transected by an old and thin rolling road. A woman in a rainbow red dress set glasses and cutlery on a garden table for lunch in proximity to where summer apartments—gîtes—are rented. Further ahead and behind the vines of Château Tayac, a stone roadside porch overlooks the estuary waters toward Bec d’Ambès, the point where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers merge and mate to form their mightier offspring, the Gironde Estuary, which flows north to the Atlantic Ocean. On this tongue of land, unfortunately, rest an ugly set of refinery tanks that should to be relocated.

This is close to where I live in the city of Blaye. I used to drive here and go running because the energy of open space and waterside vineyards and the confluence of rivers always churns out optimism and upwelling, a countryside certainty that just as seasons follow each other and plants bud once again after winter, life will continue regardless of financial or emotional worries, and irrespective of whether we hunt for certainty in a universe where that is elusive and slippery at best, and likely nonexistent.

Next, I passed the glinting church of Bayon—a gorgeous cluster of sandstone shapes: block, cylinder, column. Originally built in the 12th century and again a few centuries ago, the structure is a visual beacon of form and finesse, conspicuously seen from across vineyards.

The sweet little church of Bayon

Again, a thought arrived: what is a confluence but birth? A reminder that parents die and then only offspring exist. Just as rivers merge and parents mate, both produce downstream, or future, manifestations, whether estuary or child. And an estuary eventually flows into the ocean—itself a broad and almost boundless recipient of every confluence on earth, a possible metaphor for afterlife where the outpourings of every terrestrial river on this planet coalesce and mingle and one day evaporate to precipitate and transform, again, to some new and gurgling stream.

Along the corniche run gleaming sandstone houses with painted pastel shutters on a band, a belt, a strip of human habitation between estuary waters and nearby cliffs. This is a breezy land where residents tend to tend gardens, take walks in local hills and sometimes ride small skiffs in the flowing estuary.

My heavy (remember: bulletproof) silver Mercedes passed through villages and locations with gendered names: (masculine) Le Rigalet, (feminine) La Mayanne and sexless Marmisson. Here water splashed over reed covered rocks and a few marine engines throttled and I passed the still masted, though rusted withering shipwreck of the Frisco—scuttled in August of 1944 two days before Bordeaux was liberated from German occupation. During the war, these waters were riddled with mines to prevent invasion of of occupied Bordeaux city.

The ‘Frisco’ – scuttled in August, 1944

This journey takes place through both the ‘left bank’ and ‘right bank’ of the Gironde Estuary. Basically, left means west, and right means east, while the Gironde Estuary originates from two tributary upstream rivers mentioned earlier—Dordogne to the east and Garonne to the south (and, eventually, also east).

But what is an ‘estuary?’

It’s basically where a river meets the ocean, a combination of freshwater—from rivers—and saltwater—pushed upstream by oceanic tides. The constant smashing of river and tide churns up the water bed, spewing out nutrients on which marine life thrives.

The Gironde is the largest estuary in Europe, and the impact of salty tides is felt 100 miles (160 kilometers) upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. The estuary, by definition, runs from the mouth of the river at the Atlantic southward to the Bec d’Ambes (remember? Dotted with petrochemical storage tanks), the point where the Garonne and Dordogne meet.

This estuary is 47 miles (75 kilometers) long and 7.5 miles (12.5 kilometers) at its widest point. When you consider its total area, the waters of the Gironde at any moment form a region larger in area than Malta or Barbados, Guam or Andorra, or the Isle of Man and pour a quarter million gallons (one million liters) of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean every second.

Vines and landscape of rural Bourg

Twenty thousand years ago, when much of Europe was coated in ice, the ocean was hundreds of feet lower and this river valley held a mere trickle. But the climate warmed (gosh, without even fossil fuels or highways), waters rose and because Bordeaux city needed defending, forts such as Bourg and Blaye were crafted by stonemasons on limestone cliffs.

The Gironde has been a navigation and trade route since the Bronze Age, when copper flowed in from Spain, tin from Cornwall, and—later—wheat and flour were exported to Rome. From Spain came ham and olives and from northern Europe leather, wool, meat and dried fish, all gleefully traded for hogsheads of wine. But the wedding in 1152 of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, future King of England, drove a boom in trade as wine began flowing to England with accelerated gusto. True, it stopped flowing for awhile after the 1453 Battle of Castillon (which ended the 100 Years War), after which the French booted the English out.

The lands around these waters buzz with life. Today the estuary’s marshy environment is a place of cattle herons, white storks, black kites and coots. Here are threatened pond turtles, as well as deer and wild boar. These waters run below a migratory axis for 130 birds species who alight to feed and mate and rest.

Blaye

Blaye, a city of some 4,000 residents is where I live. It has gained recent popularity, although was historically always strategic, being an estuary crossing as well as located along the route of commerce flowing from the interior of France and Bordeaux City (via the Garonne River) to the Atlantic seaboard as well as the world. It’s also a wine haven (both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, while visiting Bordeaux, visited Blaye by boat) and a strategic military point (every king of France, except one, has visited).

Blaye at high tide

Between 1685 and 1689, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban—engineer, architect and author—oversaw the construction of the Citadelle of Blaye, a defense fortification that incorporates earlier forts and castles from as far back as the eight-century into its design. Built on 94 acres (38 hectares) that incorporated a village, this handsome lithic defense perches on a cliff above the estuary. It was a garrison for soldiers as well as a strategic canon perch (along with Fort Médoc on the opposite bank, and Fort Pate, on an island in the estuary) to thwart potential invasions of Bordeaux city to the south. The entire complex is now a UNESCO heritage site. Today it includes stores and restaurants, and holds fairs related to gardening, antiques, classic cars and wine.

Blaye (pronounced blYE), a town exposed to tides, is itself tidal with rhythms of change—whether quiet dark months of winter interspersed with bright summery crowds flooding to the international horse jumping days in July, or restaurants closing and being replaced, or the September grape harvest, a pinnacle moment, being matched by the equally buoyant wine tastings of April. There are tides of population movements: visitors, moving residents, cruise ship tourists gaping in shock at seeing lampreys and eels and horse meat for sale at the market.

View from the Citadelle to the city of Blaye

There are free concerts on Sundays in August within the Citadelle, before magnificent views of the estuary—packed with faces both never seen and familiar. French is the rooted language in Blaye and to live here, you need some facility with that tongue, which means you actually need to grow roots to be a part of the fabric, the cultural warp and weft, of this locale.

What was once a significant medieval garrison (Blaye comes from Blavia, meaning the ‘Road to War’) as well as a hub of commerce now relies economically on wine production, jobs at the up-estuary electricity power station and tourism.

It’s easy to be at ease here. Within minutes from the front door I can stroll to the post office, bank, dry cleaners, boulangerie, fromagerie (cheese store), fruit shop, newsagents, bookstore, barber, coffee store, wine store and a half dozen restaurants. The vast inner open space and parkland of the Citadelle are a seven minute walk away and within three minutes I can step onto a ferry to the Médoc or wheel a bicycle onto a path leading eight miles (14 kilometers) northward through vines.

From the Citadelle, the view of the mile long Estuary and its islands Paté and Patiras is uncluttered and inspirational. This estuary, according to a local artist, is ‘the Mississippi Of France,’ and the right bank (here) includes amazing wine values. Which is why I’m publishing this little travel story on my blog instead of on Forbes: I don’t want anonymous hoards to show up and start unpacking.

2016 Château Puynard at La Cave wine store in Blaye

There are ample festivals throughout the year for food and music and wine. Youth adore the annual Black Bass Festival, though fortunately it’s not held in Blaye, but somewhere out in the bush. If you play one song on stage there, you’ll acquire serious cred and likely be guaranteed a bevvy of groupies for life. I’ve never gone, never will. Not my scene. This year the listed bands include Hangman’s Chair, Psychotic Monks, Swedish Death Candy, Cannibale and I am Stramgram. Not exactly my playlist. But, hey, enjoy.

Here are moonrises and views of the estuary, inexpensive delicious wines, local seafood that sells for a fraction of most city prices, ample festivals and sound and resonant country roads to travel on by bicycle or vehicle or motorbike and enjoy peace, quietude, cafes with shots of espresso along fecund, burgeoning, lively and blossoming acres of fertile countryside. Here you live, love, spare a moment to reflect on life, starlight, long meals and ample camaraderie over a bottle of Etalon Rouge or Peybonhomme Les Tours wines to keep your soul ticking, satiated, insulated from mainstream politics and juiced up with the sight of phases of the moon.

If I could bottle and sell this experience, I’d make enough to retire here.

Thanks for checking in. Recent Forbes articles include pieces about Ruchè grapes in Piedmont, Italy, social entrepreneurs gathering at Windsor Castle and a lively new book about cocktails.

 

Missouri Wine Has A Long History

July 31, 2018

Recent Forbes posts I’ve written are about wines from Sicily and Puglia, as well as from Prosecco country in northern Italy. There is also a review of a lively new book about aperitifs, by Kate Hawkings.

Now, heartland wines …

I stopped to visit friends Barb and Andrew in Kansas City, Kansas

I recently drove across part of the United States to transport books to a cabin I own in a remote portion of the state of New Mexico.

The trip was both reinvigorating and mind clearing.

From Columbus, Ohio, I spent days driving across parts of the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S. states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, where I finally unloaded books. I then spent a night on that land, and later at the property of friends who own a new ranch where they produce ‘grass fed/grass finished’ beef (apparently the demand for this beef is too high for them to satisfy).

Norton, the Missouri state grape, produces a hearty red wine

Much of the portion of this journey crossed parts of the geographical and cultural ‘heartland’ of the United States, which few people associate with wine.

Yet in the past they did, and may well do so again.

As mentioned in my book Vino Voices—Wine, Work, Life, before Prohibition (which basically outlawed alcohol in the U.S. between the years 1920 and 1933) the state of Missouri included the second largest winery in the U.S. It was named Stone Hill Wine Co., and was located in the town of Hermann. It was reopened in 1965 as Stone Hill Winery, and now thrives. Back in 1915, it sold wines with names such as White Pearl, Starkenburger, Ozark Queen and Sweet Scuppernong. The property included a nearby forest as well as a sawmill and the owners produced their own barrels. Stone Hill then sold 1.25 million gallons of wine a year, which won prizes in Paris, Vienna, New Orleans and Buffalo. Even earlier, in the mid 1800’s, a greater volume of wine was produced within the state of Missouri than in any other U.S. state.

In June of 1980, the first American Viticulture Area (AVA), [similar to a European wine appellation], was established. This defines required practices for producing wines within certain geographical regions (if they are to be accorded with AVA status). The first ever AVA status in the U.S. was conferred on the region of Augusta, Missouri. It was only eight months later that the second AVA was established—in Napa, California.

Because of Missouri’s sometimes harsh continental climate conditions, grapes here include those from both vitis vinifera (European) and vitis labrusca (American) vine species, and grapes are often clones. Popular grapes include—for whites—Traminette, Chardonel, Vignoles, Vidal Blanc; for reds they include Norton (Cynthiana), Concord, Catawba, and Chambourcin.

Today, Missouri’s wine industry is worth more than $1.5 billion annually.

According to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, between 1995 and 2015, grape production increased in Missouri from about 2,400 tons to 5,500 tons. During that time, the land bearing vines soared from 900 acres (360 hectares) to 1,700 acres (690 hectares). Today, the most planted grape vines are Norton (20%) followed by Vignoles (15%), Chambourcin (10%) and Vidal Blanc (8%).

Apparently July 21st has been designated as ‘Junk Food Day’ and a published guide pairs Norton with Nacho Cheese and Corn Chips, Traminette with Caramel Corn, Chardonel with Buttered Popcorn (note the prevalent role of corn in day-to-day life in much of the U.S.) and Chambourcin with Chocolate Sandwich Cookies, or Oreos. (French friends may not understand this celebration, no doubt.) A handy online map of Missouri wine trails breaks the state into 11 distinct regions, and identifies 65 wineries in a state that is about half the size of Montana, twice as large as Portugal, or roughly the same size as either Cambodia or Uruguay.

Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, Missouri

[I wrote about wines from Missouri before, in this article, and in this.]

While passing through Missouri, I stopped for a wine tasting (spitting only—no swallowing while on the road) at a winery named Les Bourgeois, off Interstate 70 Highway.

Below are tasting/value notes for wines tasted at Les Bourgeois. On a 100 point scale, wines here rank between 89 and the early 90’s.

These have been ‘value-evaluated’ (which relates overall quality to local price per bottle) as ‘superlative ♫♫♫,’ ‘excellent ♫♫,’ or ‘good ♫,’ based on my own proprietary Vino Value algorithm that matches subjective input (taste) to local bottle prices. Prices are local.

Solay – a blend of white grapes

2017 Vidal (white). $25. [Good Value ♫]

Nose and taste like a cross between Chardonnay and Viognier. Grapefruit on the tongue; an acidic mouthful.

2016 Solay (white). $20. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]

Like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc on the nose. Brittle, crisp and tart in the mouth.

2016 Chardonel (white). $25. [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Ash and pears on the nose, meringue pie and chewy bananas in the mouth.

2016 Traminette (white). $25. [Good Value ♫]

White flowers and a massive hit of lemon drops on the nose. Candy cane in the mouth.

Image is titled ‘Discombobulated,’ and is by Bill Manion

2015 Syrah. $25. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]

Cherries and cherry cough drops on the nose. Black and white pepper in the mouth.

2015 Norton Premium Claret (red). $25. [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Leather, ash and smoke on the nose, though subtle. Acidic with mild lemons in the mouth.

2016 Noiret (red). $25. [Good Value ♫]

Like a sweet Tempranillo. A stiff taste of wood in the mouth is offset by decent charcoal aromas and spice.

Below is an extract, about Missouri, from my book Vino Voices—Wine, Work, Life.

This piece includes the second half of a chapter about Stone Hill Winery. This ends a segment about co-owner Jon Held, and then includes an interview with their South African winemaker, Shaun Turnbull. [My writing is in italics; interview quotes are in non-italicized font.]

We return to the winery and enter a large tasting room. I look at photos on the wall. There is an award for Small Business 1982, presented to Jon’s parents by President Reagan in the Rose Garden.

Jon stands behind the counter and pours wine together with Shaun Turnbull. Shaun and his wife moved from South Africa five years earlier to work at Stone Hill. Shaun is young, tall, black-haired and wears a brown t-shirt. When Jon could find no local winemakers with the experience he desired, he recruited Shaun from South Africa.

Shaun:

I come from close to Stellenbosch in South Africa. Grew up there. College as well. I saw my future in the States. I’m pretty much a rock spider—an Afrikaaner who doesn’t speak very much English. I was brought up in Afrikaans culture, but also subtly with the westernization of South Africa. We seem to fit more in American culture than our own South African culture.

It’s pretty easy to make wine anywhere else in the world, but it’s not easy here. To make decent quality, you really have to know what you’re doing. It’s phenomenal. Pretty much the whole spectrum of wine styles is out there. Like Traminette and Vignoles grapes, which are very diverse. You can experiment and that’s really exciting. You don’t have to think inside the box. There’s always some new variety that pokes its head out that suits our climate. There’s a whole big pot of stuff you can work with.

Missouri River and bluffs

The climate for grape growing, for winemaking, that’s challenging. Last year, October; cold, wet, we never saw the sun. It was like living in the northwest. Raining all the time. The leaves were falling off and turning yellow. That was quite a challenge. Sometimes you can plan a harvest and what you’re going to do. But here it’s like four seasons in one day. The weather can change like that. You’ve seriously got to make decisions on your feet according to what we get.

What drew me also was that it was a relatively unknown wine region. There’s no vinifera grape varieties in it. The size of the operation also blew me away for a Midwest winery. Just seeing all the equipment and the amount of effort that goes into producing. It’s not just a fad. I come from an area and a wine growing culture where it’s very, “Oh, wineries, cool, let’s try that.” But business wise, they were run like a hobby. But you come here and see this and you’ve never heard about it. But it’s a success, and there’s potential. It’s also a niche. It’s got its own identity. It’s kind of an angle. It’s unique. You don’t want to get ridiculously commercialized. You want your identity.

We try to keep our grapes from Missouri. I like that idea, keeping your own identity. Some producers around here, they’re buying straight from California to make a Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Why do that? It’s just another bandwagon.

Vines belonging to Stone Hill Winery, Missouri

We descend to visit the old vaulted cellars.

Shaun:

These are the old cellars, dug out by Germans. Think it took them eighteen years to dig. Imagine them by candlelight. They didn’t have electricity back then. This is the Apostle cellar. Used to have twelve big casks, and every cask had an apostle carved on it. Prohibition destroyed most of it. Legend goes that some of the barrels got saved and put on a train and shipped off to Germany, but nobody really knows. I like drinking red wine. I like making red wine. I like thinking about red wine. Believe me and my wife, if it’s ninety, one hundred degrees out there, we’ll drink red wine. We really enjoy red wines. I seriously like coming up with the best red wine in the bottle, making red wine from beginning to end. I’m not one of those winemakers who likes the limelight. I like spending time in the cellar, the creating part. I enjoy that.

Winemaking is a very patient process. You can think a lot about it while you make it, while you wait for it. You can ponder on it. You really think about what you’re doing and how it’s going to turn out and what you need to do. Wine is like an oil painting—you’ve got layers and layers to make it more complex. The more complex the wine, the better it’s going to be.

What’s winemaking all about? Balance. What’s grape growing all about? Balance. You want balance at the end of the day. In your vineyard, you want balance and vigor. With canopy management, with crop load, everything’s got to be in balance. When it comes to the winery—acid, sugar, complexity, flavoring, density. All that’s got to be in balance.

It can be frustrating. You’ve got to take a lot of care with this product because it’s a living, breathing entity. It’s got microbes in it—bacteria, yeast. You can spoil it easily. You could lose some complexity, some of the fruit aroma. You’ve seriously got to be very careful. One of Missouri’s challenges is to get educated people into the industry. The key wineries, they’ve got educated, experienced people. The reason? They’re business owners and do not treat it like a hobby.

I didn’t want something to tie me down in the office. I wanted to create something and knew I may as well use my God-given gifts; my palate and nose. I’m from the suburbs and had to compete with a lot of guys coming from the agricultural community. That’s what drove me. I really wanted to make it and prove to myself that I can actually do this. I never look back.

Eventual arrival in southwest New Mexico…

Thanks for tuning in…

A Quick Spin Through North, East and Southern Europe

July 10, 2018

Summer is in full gear, and wines are flowing.

There have been few posts in the past month, as I was traveling a bit to northern, eastern and southern Europe. But before I get to those lands and wines…

First, a few recent Forbes posts are here, which include a quick spin through some shining wine regions of Hungary as well as southern Italy, a stellar wine meal with Angélus wine in Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, and dinner at a beaut of a new restaurant in Paris. There’s also coverage of the Volvo Ocean Race from Sweden, as well as new maritime technology that includes ‘self-docking’ boats that may bring cocktail hour even faster on the seas.

Also, our Etalon Rouge 2016 red wine (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) has been bottled, and it’s the best yet—even better than 2015. As you can see in the photo below, U.K. wine writer and television personality Oz Clarke truly enjoyed a glass when we spent time together in Hungary recently.

Wine author Oz Clarke enjoying Etalon Rouge

Other good people met in Italy, including press, television and blog journalists from Italy and the U.S. also enjoyed glasses of the rouge.

Media personalities in Brindisi downing Etalon Rouge

Skipper Caudrelier

And, as you might remember, French Skipper Charles Caudrelier is seen here holding a bottle of Etalon Rouge from our meeting in Hong Kong back in February.

The news?

His Dongfeng team won the Volvo Ocean Race a few weeks ago in The Hague, Netherlands. Big victory. The New York Times included a full page spread about the story.

Also, if you are interested in my blog about publishing and ways of thinking, click here for today’s post from Roundwood Press (usually posts alternate each week between these two blogs, but this is a ‘loss of synch summertime,’ and for today, they come together….).

 

 

 

Now, a few unusual and worthwhile wines to try.

Visits to various locations in the past month have involved sampling multiple stellar vintages.

Those travels, with endless miles and meals and information overload (and constant note taking) within a short time mean it’s now time for much appreciated R&R back here at home base in Blaye, France.

It also means days of eating only fruits and vegetables and reducing coffee and wine intake to revamp the body.

We’ll start with Hungary.

HUNGARY

In Budapest, a funicular leads down to the Danube River

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Vineyards of the Somló region in Hungary

Vineyards of the Tokaj region of Hungary

Vineyards of the Hungary’s Eger region

A brief overview of Hungarian viticulture:

Wines here are generally increasing in quality, and younger winemakers are more focused on quality than quantity; reds make up 40% of wine production, and the best grapes generally include local Kékfrankos, often blended with international grapes in order to make Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone style wines.

Dry whites are dominated by Furmint (which is also the basis for the famed Tokaji sweet wine) while Viognier, Olaszrizling, Juhfark and Hárslevelü are also nudging up in quality.

Recently in the Eger wine region, ‘bulls blood’ blends (such as the reds mentioned above, with Kékfrankos as a base) known as ‘Egri Bikavér’ have been joined by white blends known as ‘Egri Csillag,’ which means ‘the star of Eger.’ Such wines must include juice from at least 4 white grapes, of which Carpathian Basin grapes should comprise at least 50%, while international varieties can make up the balance.

Budapest and the countryside are beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. Because winters are cold, try visiting in spring or summer. Also, boating on Lake Balaton is excellent.

One Hungarian winemaker in the Somló region names his 500 and 1500 liter oak casks after Hungarian kings from the past. One of these (or so he told us) was named Viagra (as seen on the label of a bottled barrel sample in the photo above, bottom right; notice Oz hovering nearby?).

ITALY

Palermo, Sicily

The countryside outside Sicily’s capital city of Palermo is gorgeous and includes such lesser known grape varieties as, for whites: Insolia, Catarratto, Grillo; for reds: Frappato and Nero D’Avola. The two with the strongest characteristics appear to be Insolia for white (think zesty lime and tangerine), and Nero D’Avola for red (think smoky and oaky aromas, and licorice and chocolate tastes).

On the southeastern coast of mainland Italy is the Puglia region, still seeking its own contemporary identity to present to visitors. It, too, offers wines from grapes you have likely never heard of (but don’t turn them down if someone thrusts any under your nose, preferably with a plate of steaming pesto risotto). Here, enjoy white wines made from the Minutolo grape (think flint and apricots) and red wines made from the Susumaniello grape (scent of charcoal and taste of blackberry pie).

Italian food, as always, blows visitors away. There’s detail, pride and a shovelful of sparkling flavors in every mouthful. Certainly, France, I love your magret canard (duck breast) and chocolatines, but when it comes to pasta, prosciutto and cinghiale wild boar, the descendants of the city of Rome should gastronomically lead the way.

Far to the north in Italy, in the Veneto province, the wine region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadne (which is now all classified at the highest DOCG level for quality) produces excellent Prosecco, but also a few (unexpected) stunner reds.

From the video below of a Valdobbiadene winemaker, you now know it’s encouraged to play with your food: create a little volcano in your risotto, then pour in Prosecco.

Who said growing up wasn’t fun?

Finally, as for caffeine in Italy, remember that no milk is allowed in a coffee beverage after 11.00 a.m. unless you’re at an airport. Consider it illegal. Seriously. I tried to order a cappuccino one evening near Palermo, but a local advised me that such an the act was treasonous, posing risk of imminent deportation.

Be forewarned, and instead, down an espresso.

Swimming pool at Baglio di Pianetto guest house south of Palermo, Sicily

SWEDEN

Just a quick note from the southwestern portion of this island riddled land…

Recently I enjoyed dinner with friends at The Grand Hotel of Marstrand, which is on an archipelago island northwest of Göthenburg. We traveled there via boat for almost an hour. This place is especially popular during the abbreviated Nordic summer here, and the wine and food pairing were excellent. Dinner included their famed langoustines, together with wine poured from a magnum of Alsace Riesling from Gustave Lorentz, as well as a Pinot Noir from Hahn Family Wines in Monterey County in northern California.

Both wines were excellent and the food and setting unique and splendid.

The takeaway came from speaking to a local, who told me that Sweden now produces its own wines.

That’s right! Swedish wines.

I’m working on sampling a few bottles to provide feedback. Soon enough.

Thanks for checking in again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quirks And Qualities Of Life In France

June 5, 2018

The park within Place des Vosges, Marais, Paris

First a bit of news – weeks ago I had the fortune to be invited to Abruzzo in Italy to receive an international wine writing award (‘Parole di Vino,’ or ‘Words of Wine’) from Il Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Abruzzo. Several of us, including Emanuele Gobbi (Spirit of Wine journalist), Giorgio d’Orazio (independent Abruzzo journalist) and Stevie Kim—Managing Director of Vinitaly International, received awards.

Grazie Mille…

Abruzzo is gorgeous, and the quality of life there is yet untrammeled by hoards of visitors.

More splendid news: our Etalon Rouge wine was just named by the U.K. Independent newspaper as one of the ‘wines of the week,’ within the Top Ten ‘Esoterica’ bottles at the recent London Wine Fair. Huge News!

Sadly, however, a rapid and vicious hailstorm more than a week ago damaged a massive amount of grapes in the Blaye and Bourg wine regions where we live (Etalon Rouge, fortunately, was not impacted). Some vineyards were completely knocked out. When the damage is better assessed, I’ll provide more information.

Now, a little about life in France….

Recently, I got lucky with trains.

Fortunately, the rail transportation strike did not take place last Wednesday, although it did on Monday and Tuesday. ‘Lucky’ because that let me travel to Paris for an appointment. The railway strike, which has lasted for months, is still on. Schedules have evolved a pattern: roughly (though not always) three days of strikes are followed by two days of trains. This cycle repeats—endlessly.

This strike—la grève—affects terrestrial transportation arteries that impact daily lives of millions of commuters who rely on them throughout France. It will apparently continue for at least another month. Perhaps more.

Looking out from Bordeaux’s train station – Gare Saint Jean

A national airline strike has also been going on for months. Air France canceled flights by the bucketful. I recently walked into Bordeaux’s airport to catch a KLM flight and the terminal was a ghost town. Only one ticket counter was open. After checking in, the airport seemed to be all mine: empty coffee stores, ample seats, no check out line after buying the Financial Times and passing through security was a breeze.

Flying the skies above Bordeaux and the Garonne River

Weeks ago I boarded a BA flight from Bordeaux to London. It was delayed for one hour—exactly—because air traffic controllers, not pilots, had decided to stage their own little strike. For one hour. At lunch time. Perhaps someone wanted more time for dessert and coffee? Although this had a minor impact on my schedule (I was late for a wine tasting—hardly a dire event) that was not true for a friend destined to Hong Kong via Heathrow for an important wine sales presentation. All because of a one hour strike. Ouch.

Lunch setting at the new Anne Restaurant of Pavillon de la Reine Hotel in Paris

This is all part of life in France. Call it cultural. As with any location, there are benefits and pitfalls of living here. Certainly, wine here is inexpensive and delicious, police are rarely militant about whether you actually halt at a stop sign (and—bizarrely enough for the linguistically proud French—these are actually red, hexagonal and include the English word ‘Stop’) while the selection of cheeses at any market is dizzyingly attractive.

Americans often gripe of encountering aloof or snobby Parisians. This would not happen if they merely dropped a polite ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ in French. The exception is not in the city, but in the countryside—if you attempt to get a seat (and food) at a rural restaurant at 2 pm. Otherwise, the French are disarmingly charming and friendly.

Here is what I love about France: watching female bicyclists in Bordeaux—elegantly dressed, casually insouciant and capable of navigating, with aplomb, narrow twisted alleys in the company of snorting vans and gnashing dump trucks, all while displaying kittenish and coy zeal, as though auditioning for a Vogue photo shoot. It’s art.

Also: boulangeries and patisseries (the two differ) with their sinfully fresh, artful concoctions laid out each morning before the parade of burly farmers, female fishmongers and suited lawyers who march in to order their quotidian share of pain raisin or campagnarde (a type of baguette) or endlessly woven layers of scrumptious mille-feuille. And those chocolatine aux amandes? Dangerously delicious.

There is also lunch.

Ah, lunch in France. Legendary.

More ritual than meal, really. Baguette and bottle of wine and perhaps olives, but at least olive oil. A cork pops from a bottle of rosé and conversations stream, then torrent while plates appear with steamed white asparagus and grilled duck (topped with a nodule of foie gras), or roasted veal or pasta with slivers of salmon sprinkled with turmeric or tarragon. Then more corks pop and the Rhône Valley red begins to flow.

The French also have time.

Very important.

There is always time in France for conversation and friends. My friend Gabrielle is busy running her own wine consultant business: teaching classes, writing for Le Figaro, consulting for restaurants and appearing on a TV cooking show. Last week she booked dinner for us at a new restaurant, named ‘Anne,’ within a five-star hotel off Place des Vosges in the Marais (she prepared their wine list).

As always, when we met, she relaxed, never checked emails or took phone calls and instead engaged in witty, charming discourse over at least three courses and three bottles—Chablis, Bandol and Bordeaux—during a meal with digestifs that lasted, well, six hours (okay, a fourth bottle and the chef ended up at the table). Each time we meet, she has time. Like most French, she truly, irrefutably, inarguably and uncompromisingly has time for other people in this fleeting, precious, mysterious and limited concoction we call life.

 

§    §    §

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include pieces about how biohacking may change the health industry, wines from the Canary Island, a Sotheby’s wine auction in London and white grapes you have likely never heard of from Abruzzo in Italy. And more about that Parisian dinner to come.

Finally, a quick video I shot on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands some weeks ago. I’m including this of Pablo Matallana because he produces excellent wines—though only 500 reds a year and 70 whites. At 10 Euros a bottle? A steal.

As always, thanks for checking in.

 

 

Photo Splurge – Canary Islands and Madrid Countryside

May 15, 2018

It’s been awhile since posting – mostly due to travel. This post will include only recent images taken on the Canary Islands as well in the countryside around Madrid.

Recent Forbes posts I’ve written include text, and some are:

Why The Vines And Wines Of The Canary Islands Will Twist Your Head With Surprise

Why Swiss Wines Continue To Impress

Wines From Madrid Are Not What You Expect

The Entrepreneur Streamlining The Sale Of Top Wines

Why The Wine Vintage Of 2017 Has A Dual Personality

A Cookbook Created From Picnicking In Paris

Why Bhutan Is Still Out Of This World

 

Now, Photographs taken recently.

Lanzarote Isle, Canary Islands (Spain)

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Tenerife Isle, Canary Islands (Spain)

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Countryside surrounding Madrid (Spain)

Again, thanks for tuning in.

Forthcoming posts during the coming months will include a few doses of Italy as well as a European city more renowned for lager than for wine…

Bordeaux Jewels Of Wine And Life

April 17, 2018

The region where I live in France is a sizable, though little known, portion of Bordeaux (technically and administratively known, basically, as the ‘Gironde Département’) where wine prices are reasonable, historical intrigue is ample and day to day living is blissfully unrushed.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited this wine region of Blaye (taking boats from the city of Bordeaux for visits) on the right bank of the Gironde estuary. So has every king of France except one. Eleanor of Aquitaine (queen at different times of both France and England) also passed through here during the age of troubadours and female trobairitz (wandering minstrels who sang love songs) in the 12th century.

We are surrounded here by oceans of vineyards. There are several hundred around the towns of Blaye and Bourg, though it can difficult to discern exactly how many. The winemaker-sponsored website and literature about the Blaye—Côte de Bordeaux appellation neglects to number the wineries within the 12,900 acres (5,213 hectares) of vines. Bourg, which is smaller although in some ways better organized for international visitors, has 157 wineries (châteaux) within 9,800 acres (3,979 hectares) of vines, or about 15 square miles (40 square kilometers) of juice growing terrain.

Within these spaces, winery names can be disarmingly confusing. Many wine châteaux (which is the name of a winery here; singular is château, plural is châteaux) have similar names.

The team from Château Clos de Loup providing tastings at Blaye Printemps des Vins Festival this April

The effort of wine producers to distinguish themselves with striking originality in naming their brand is largely absent. Heritage appears more important than gaining a competitive edge. It is this attitude toward life that, though sometimes illogical, provides a sizable sliver of attraction for this region.

Looking at the estuary from Blaye Citadelle

For example—there’s Château Barbé and Château de Barbe, Château Nodot and Château Nodoz. There’s Château Lagarde and Château Roland La Garde. Château Monconseil-Gazin and Château Mondésir-Gazin. Château Bellevue and Château Bellevue Gazin. There’s Château Canteloup as well as Château Haut-Canteloup.

Most of these wine producers with similar names are veritable neighbors. Driving distances between the above listed pairs of wineries are: 3.8 miles, 4.5 miles, 3.3 miles, 1.4 miles, 0.5 mile and 0.5 mile.

Oddly, few locals appear confused. If you ask the difference between two like sounding châteaux, any local may walk to a window and point outside and inform you that over there is Château Barbé. He or she will then pronounce the two names slightly differently, with subtle tone and mannerisms implying that your linguistic deficiencies may be mildly heathen.

Should you dare mistake Monconseil-Gazin for Mondésir-Gazin, locals will likely shrug, shake mystified heads and query whether you enjoyed too many verre à vin last night?

It is now spring. Suddenly begins a parade of festivals: wine festivals, mountain biking and wine festivals, port festivals, music festivals, a black bass festival, an asparagus festival and a snail festival (which I tend to skip).

We recently had our annual Printemps des Vin de Blaye festival, where some 90 winemakers set up tastings in tents and ancient rooms in the local centuries-old Citadelle in Blaye. For a meager six Euros, visitors received an empty wine glass, a map and a pass that let them sample all the vino they desired for two days.

This is not a high cost or internationally renowned wine region. Yet I’ve tasted some local wines that cost between 7 and 15 Euros. Back in the U.S., some wines of the same quality might cost four times that amount.

Conviviality is key here. Friendless trumps marketing efforts.

Below is a visual tour of Printemps des Vins.

The smiling sisters from Château Lagarde

Each year I taste several wines and compare quality and cost to determine overall value, using my proprietary Vino Value Algorithm.

Below are results for a few reasonably priced good wines, together with value score: Superlative, Excellent and Good Value. (Subjective scores for taste were factored in, although not shown below.) All wines listed in this table are worth drinking. Unless noted, all are red.

Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Printemps des Vin de Blaye – April 2018
Winery Wine Retail Price – Euros Retail Price – US dollars equivalent Value Score
Château Nodot 2015 € 9.00 $11.07 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Domaine de La Valade 2015 Tradition Rouge € 4.50 $5.54 Excellent Value ♫♫
Domaine de La Valade 2015 Cuvée Prestige Rouge € 5.80 $7.13 Excellent Value ♫♫
Tour Saint-Germain 2015 Cuvée Tradition € 11.00 $13.53 Good Value ♫
Château Rose Bellevue 2015 Secret € 18.50 $22.76 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château La Motte de Lignac 2016 € 7.00 $8.61 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Jussas 2015 € 6.50 $8.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Capron (Cantinot) 2011 € 10.00 $12.30 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château du Vieux Puit 2012 Les Racines € 6.50 $8.00 Good Value ♫
Château Clos du Loup 2012 Le Louveteau € 7.50 $9.23 Good Value ♫
Château Florimond 2014 Réserve € 7.70 $9.47 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Haut-Terrier 2015 Élevé en Barriques Neuves € 11.00 $13.53 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Moulin de Prade 2014 € 5.00 $6.15 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Segonzac 2015 Vielles Vignes € 7.00 $8.61 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Les Margagnis 2015 € 7.20 $8.86 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château de Calmeilh 2015 € 6.00 $7.38 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Lagarde 2015 Excellence € 12.00 $14.76 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Les Bertrands 2015 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes € 6.50 $8.00 Good Value ♫
Château Les Bertrands 2015 Cuvée Prestige € 8.50 $10.46 Good Value ♫
Château Magdeleine Bouhou 2015 La Boha € 8.50 $10.46 Good Value ♫
Château Marquisat La Pérouse 2016 Cuvée Prestige € 8.50 $10.46 Good Value ♫
Château Morange 2015 € 6.00 $7.38 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Morange 2014 Vin d’Augustin Morange € 9.60 $11.81 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Monconseil Gazin 2015 € 7.80 $9.59 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Haut-Colombier 2015 € 7.50 $9.23 Good Value ♫
Château Haut-Colombier 2016 € 8.00 $9.84 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Haut-Colombier 2017 € 8.00 $9.84 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Grillet-Beauséjour 2015 No. 2 € 6.00 $7.38 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Petit Boyer 2016 Grand Réserve € 12.50 $15.38 Excellent Value ♫♫

Monsieur Stéphane Heurlier, renowned local winemaker

Sampling reasonably priced bubbly from Domaine du Cassard

Monsieur Eymas of Château La Rose Bellevue

The Wizard of Château La Cassagne-Boutet, Nicolas Vergez, once again commands an audience

A cooper demonstrates barrel making

Friends having lunch after tastings

Primeurs 

In contrast to our humble wine region, there are better known, and commensurately more expensive wine regions located nearby. Each year for a few weeks in spring, châteaux hold ‘En Primeur’ tastings of wines made from grapes harvested the previous fall. These events take place to our east, around Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, or across the water to our west, around and within the Médoc, Pessac-Leognan and Sauternes appellations.

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include a synopsis of tasting some 100 Bordeaux wines during this recent En Primeurs week, and discovering the dual personality of that recent vintage.

Below are a few photos from some of the events to give you an overall flavor of how spring kicks in here in southwest France.

Chilean Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz takes time off from Luxembourg financial work to enjoy Primeurs

 

A warm smile from Margot from Domaine des Chevaliers

 

For lunch, a double magnum of 1999 Château Smith Haut Lafitte.

 

Hospitality Manager Alex from Château Smith Haut Lafitte…with four excellent wines

 

Gardens in spring bloom

 

Daniel and Florence Cathiard, generous owners of Smith Haut Lafitte

 

It is the Season…(isn’t it always?)

 

Lunch at Château Rauzan-Ségla

 

This 3rd floor tasting room within Château Haut-Brion includes only nine seats, surrounded by ample bookshelves