Monday, August 20, 2007


The horrible summer weather, with its overcast sky, brusque winds, and unpredictable rains continues apace, as do indoor and outdoor maintenance activities at the farm, broken by trips to Paris and back. Yet there is one pleasurable summertime task which doesn't depend on the weather: slowly going through the stock of wines, reverentially rotating a couple of bottles - and carefully choosing the ones to be consumed during the year.

Amerloque has a collection of wines which in France is summarized by the word cave (wine cellar): there are well over three hundred bottles of reds and whites, along with a smattering of rosés. Starting up and sustaining a serious cave over the long term implies a level of enthusiasm and interest in the subject that sometimes borders on fanaticism, and Amerloque is not a fanatic wine drinker by any means. His cellar is simple in the extreme, literally a dark basement with a constant temperature. In keeping with French mores, Amerloque simply feels that wine is not just a beverage: it is a food, with its own well-defined place in the scheme of things. He and the Amerloque nuclear family don't drink wine every day but only with meals that might be termed special: those that require lengthy or complex preparation, or those in honor of a memorable occasion, such as passing an exam, receiving a promotion, celebrating a birthday, or observing an anniversary. Inviting guests over for lunch or dinner implies serving wine, too; during the holiday season offering a crate of wine as a year-end gift to the concierge or to the chef d'atelier at one's garage is rarely taken amiss.

Since the French consider wine to be food, one of the advantages of living in France is that there are literally thousands upon thousands of different, reasonably priced French wines to choose from – almost at arm's length. Practically speaking, one does not have to spend $40 or $50 per bottle (€25 to €30) to obtain a high quality wine or a perfectly respectable vintage. For under $10 (roughly €6) one can usually find a truly decent VDQS (or even an AOC) wine for the day's lunch or dinner - and for about $25 (€15, say) one can purchase a top quality bottle which can be put away and drunk in several years' time, if not in a decade or more.

It is when one lives in France and starts purchasing and putting wines aside for future consumption that one realizes exactly how much a wine's price to the consumer is determined by transport costs and various middlemen along the way. One also realizes how high the quality of life in France can be ! Just as many French people do, Amerloque buys his wines in different venues - always with a view to obtaining the best price/quality ratio possible.

Amerloque learned years ago, during the 1970s, that one excellent place to purchase was chez le vigneron (at the winemaker's). Driving through the wine regions, one was able to stop and to taste various offerings chez le producteur and discuss them with the winemaker himself; one would usually go away several hours later with one or more six-bottle crates of the vintner's best, to be respectfully consumed in the fullness of time … while simultaneously offering an excellent topic for dinnertime conversation. (Ah, oui … ce vin, nous l'avons déniché chez un certain Monsieur …). 'Way back then there were fewer winemakers offering sales on their premises than there are today, of course: addresses of allegedly reliable winemakers could sometimes be found in various gourmet and other special interest magazines. The names of winemakers and their domaines were exchanged among friends and business acquaintances, religiously updated – or thrown away – as the years passed, or replaced by others when the circumstances warranted: it was not unusual to find out that a given vineyard had been sold off or been closed down because the owner had encountered hard economic times, or because the heirs were uninterested in carrying on the family tradition.

Today there are many, many vignerons all over France who have arranged facilities for on-site tasting and direct purchase - without reaching the proportions of wine tourism as practiced in the Napa Valley region of California, with its frenetic sales of baseball caps, tee-shirts, knapsacks and wine tasting paraphernalia emblazoned with the name and logo of the winery. With the improvements in road infrastructures, one can now easily drive from Paris to Burgundy or down to the Val de Loire and back in the same day - during which one can discover the wines at one or two vineyards with similar but not precisely identical terroirs. The French have a saying: Le vin est le reflet de la terre et d'un climat. L'homme n'existe pas. ("Wine is the reflection of the earth and of the climate. Man does not exist.")

There are also many local wine cooperatives throughout France, which make wines (usually VDQS or vin de pays, but sometimes AOC) from the production of many winegrowers, bottle them and sell them. A visit to such a well-run cooperative frequently enables one to stock up on top-notch table wines: excellent for drinking on a daily basis, although perhaps not quite memorable enough for that very, very special occasion. The price/quality ratio can't be beat, though: usually one can purchase ten-liter or twenty-liter jugs of wine, which must subsequently be rebottled at home using a corking machine. As one peels vegetables or grinds meat, so can one bottle wine …

In Paris, buying directly from the producer is actually quite easy, if one is willing to wait for one of the regular wine shows (Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants) to come around. There are two major ones in Paris, in the Spring and in the Autumn, at which independent winemakers run stands displaying their wares. The atmosphere is generally far less relaxed than at a vineyard, of course: Amerloque finds the noise level is staggeringly high, and, as the day wears on, it increases to an almost unbearable cacophony. There are definite bargains to be had: one is not buying blindly: tasting is de rigueur. Frequently the price/quality ratio is astounding. One of the better times to taste and buy can be the end of the show, when winemakers might be somewhat reluctant to pack up all their bottles and crates and haul them back home. There won't be huge reductions in price, though one can reasonably expect a reduction of something like 10% if one buys in quantity.

Alternatively, one can attend a salon simply to taste and buy a few bottles – and make a fistful of worthwhile contacts for a subsequent trip to the winemaker's domaine. Calling up and visiting a winemaker after meeting him (or her – there are more and more vignernonnes) on a stand at a Salon means the initial ice has been broken, and that one is not just another customer, but genuinely interested in what the winemaker is offering: what goes into the wine – including the degree of personal commitment - and exactly how it is produced. In Amerloque's experience, winemakers usually make an extra effort for such customers, perhaps by granting an extra discount or by throwing in a few free bottles (le treize pour douze), or even inviting the customer to share the family meal. Usually a customer purchases at least a case of twelve bottles: four different vintages, from different parts of the domaine, is a common choice.

Another excellent place to purchase wines is at the Foires aux Vins (Wine Fairs) held by the hypermarket chainstores every autumn (2007 dates). The range and number of wines presented is staggering, the prices are keenly competitive, and the crowds are fairly heavy, at least on the initial days. Several weeks before the fairs, a printed catalog is distributed: the wines are photographed and listed: the prices displayed. If a wine has won an award at a show, the fact is prominently indicated: Medaille d'or Macon 2005, for example, or Medaille d'or Concours Mondial Bruxelles 2006. If a wine has received a favorable mention in one of the numerous annual guidebooks, that is stated, too: something like *** La Revue du Vin de France or ** Hachette Vins 2004 might be seen. There is also information as to whether a given wine can be drunk immediately or be kept a number of years before consumption.

Amerloque has found that the trick – at least to his way of thinking – for making the most of a given Wine Fair is: preselect several wines that appear attractive because of producer, vintage, terroir, or price; hustle over to the Fair on the very first day; purchase one or two bottles of each preselected wine; at home, look over the labels and bottles to see if there are any surprises (bottling by a négociant rather than a producer as expected might be one of them, as might having a screw-top cap rather than the traditional cork); open the bottles and taste them carefully, even though one or more wines might be "too young"; choose which wine(s) one is prepared to buy; return to the Fair and pick up one's chosen wine(s) – if there are any left, since other consumers are doing precisely the same thing ! Unless one is willing to "buy the labels and not the wine", as the old saying goes, there is really no other way to proceed at a Wine Fair, in Amerloque's view, especially if one intends to put the wines aside for a number of years. Amerloque has found that there is rarely anything more disappointing than to open a bottle of wine some years after purchase - only to find that the wine inside is not very good.

From time to time, Amerloque enters a wine merchant's shop (of which there are fewer and fewer, alas) to see what is on offer. Sometimes he even purchases several bottles on the recommendation of the person behind the counter. Amerloque has found that independent winemakers are turning increasingly to the internet individually to make their products known, and that initial contacts can be made quite easily. He also visits major websites on line, not necessarily to buy but more to see which vignerons and negociants are being featured, which terroirs are fashionable, and how prices to the consumer are faring. Nevertheless, he would be lying outright if he said that he hasn't been bitterly disappointed at times by some bottles recommended by the wine merchants. Yet he never loses sight of his goal: finding good wines with best price/quality ratio possible.

Of course, "buying the labels" is an easy way to purchase wines – millions of people seriously interested in wine do it every day of the year ! There frequently is no other way to judge just how good a wine is or will be: one pays attention to the winemaker's name and label as a criterion of quality. The same for recommendations: from a specialized publication such as The Wine Spectator to general interest newspapers, wine critics share their tasting notes and selected winemakers with readers. Wine connoisseurs (and social poseurs, of course) pay attention to – and sometimes act on - what is written as though it were Gospel. At a particularly chic dinner en ville one might hear "Oh, yes, the wine you're drinking was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal recently …" or "Oui, GaultMillau en a parlé …". However, the degrees of one upmanship, their desires to keep up with the Joneses, among many of these same wine connoisseurs (the same desires are found in, say, the realm of exotic cars or of vacation rentals) can be a bit offputting at times … especially when the meal is not up to the standard of the wine !

Amerloque appreciates wine hobbyists and connoisseurs tremendously, for they, like all enthusiasts in whatever field of endeavor, tend to pull the market upward for everyone. He also admires those who come to France to "do a wine tour", who seek their Holy Grails in Burgundy or Bordeaux: the French offer the whole gamut of wine touring products, from short trips to the Champagne country to luxurious sojourns aboard a barge. Under the enormous pressures of globalization - driven in some respects by these very same wine enthusiasts - some French wine producers have been modifying their labels, adding varietal information so as to be plus lisible (more readable) for the foreign consumer (it was illegal before the year 2000, by the way). Some have deemphasized the traditional terroir, while still others have even gone so far as to industrialize their production by calling on a consultant to "improve" the taste. The traditional French wine industry is suffering: there is no doubt about that. The recent (2004) award winning film Mondovino describes the crisis forthrightly; Amerloque advises those interested in France and the French not to stop with the film, but move on to the DVD television series, which admirably fleshes out the issues.

Amerloque - living in France and being interested in wine as food, and not as a measure of social status or peer interaction – invariably finds that his usual summertime task of gently turning a few wine bottles and selecting those to be drunk in the forthcoming year is a real pleasure, not a chore. Rain or shine.


Disclaimer: Amerloque is not involved in the wine trade in any way whatsoever. This post should not be considered as an encouragement or recommendation to purchase or to sell wine in Paris or anywhere else. Readers are advised to seek independent and competent professional advice before acting on anything concerning wine contained herein. Caveat emptor. "L'abus d'alcool est dangereux pour la santé. A consommer avec moderation."

Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright reserved to copyright holders, including Amerloque