Wednesday, April 22, 2009
A couple of months back, I was asked by some of the students in Prof. CC's class if they could interview me for a project they were doing. As part of their Masters degree studies in Negotiation of International Projects, they were producing a presentation on wine tourism in the Languedoc, and wanted an American's perspective.
So, one uncommonly nice afternoon, I sat at a table outside the Bar Vert Anglais and answered some questions. Someone pointed a video camera at me the whole time and I was told that there would be a presentation at the end of April.
Yesterday was the presentation, held at the Château de Flaugergues, a place which has been producing wine since 1696 and is actually within the Montpellier city limits. The interview I'd done was part of a film, a fake news report from "O-TV" (Oenotourism TV), which featured numerous other interviews, with vintners and others in the industry. Afterwards, Pierre de Colbert, the winemaker in charge at Flaugergues, would lead a discussion of wine tourism, and after that would be a tasting of some of his wines.
The film was hilarious -- unintentionally so. The anchorwoman read so fast, and with such odd inflection, that it was impossible to tell what she was saying, although it was obvious she was having a good time. There were the usual flubs and goofs, but hey, it's a student film! It turned decidedly surreal, though, when it came to my interview. My voice had changed, gotten raspier, and had a distinct French accent. Apparently the background noise during the interview had overwhelmed what I was saying, so someone dutifully transcribed it and read it! Many apologies were offered afterwards, but I just thought it was funny. And, seriously, they'd had three months to put this project together from conception to execution, and nobody involved was a videographer or a sound engineer.
The discussion involved some professionals, though. Pierre de Colbert is the son of the count who runs the tourist end of the Chateau de Flaugergues, and he's the hands-on wine guy. His concern was how he balanced that with the fact that the chateau and grounds were a tourist attraction. "My job," he said several times, "is to sell wine." That, of course, is the job of every wine-maker, and given the competition, even within France -- let alone the problem of selling an area which, if it's known at all, is known for low-quality wines -- is a full-time job. And even if you have a good product, between the fickle wine market and the uncertainty that comes with all farming, it doesn't mean you're going to make a living. Also on the panel was a M. Frechet from a winery I wrote down as Domaine de Mascart*, although I see no such place exists. His winery, in business since 1804, almost collapsed, and his brother gave him an ultimatum; change or die. He looked at the land, found 40 hectares of vines he figured he could do without, pulled them up, and put in a campground. The campground makes the remaining 50 hectares of vines profitable, and finances upgrades in the winemaking. Also on the panel was a university student, Francis Linn Scott, who apparently has some winemaking experience and knows lots about the scene in his native Washington. Much was made by him and de Colbert about the difficulty of cracking the US market, not just for French wines, but for wines that originate in one state and want to be sold in another.
What I found most odd about the whole thing was that there was nobody from the tourist bureau of Montpellier, the Hérault region, or Languedoc-Roussillon. Nobody. It was like they weren't interested in what these students had discovered in their research, or in M. de Colbert's and M. Frechet's insights, let alone the issue of attracting English-speaking tourists to the area using wine and food as a hook. Very odd, but then, I'd been warned many times that this was a provincial city, so I was more disappointed than surprised.
One good idea that came up during the Q&A was floated by a feisty geezer from Liverpool, who suggested that a wine club be set up. "All the wine clubs in Britain are all over the place: this month Italian, next month Bulgarian, you never know what you'll get. What if a number of wineries in the Languedoc cooperated to ship off a box of assorted wines with information about the terroir and so on each month?" Great idea; someone should run with it, but see the preceding paragraph. This mindset might be too deeply ingrained. Maybe not.
Sad to say, the sinus infection I've had for the past couple of weeks flared up again, so I can't report about the taste of M. de Colbert's wines. I did buy a couple for layaway, though, including le vin d'Uncle Charles and a plain old Château de Flaugergues. The place is actually so close that I could walk there in a leisurely 30 minutes if I knew where I was going (and I think I do), so it'd be no problem to go back. Not that I have to: they've got a stand in the Halles Castellanes just up the hill, opposite the Vert Anglais.
There was one other disappointment, besides the tourism offices' boycott, and it was a big one. There is a huge series of gardens attached to the château, and we were urged to wander around while waiting for the computerized video thing to get fixed. These signs were all around:
"Does that mean there are hedgehogs here?" I asked. Yes, I was told, but they don't come out until it starts getting dark. Curses. I've always wanted to see a hedgehog. Oh, well, at least now I know I live in a town that has them.
* This has all been cleared up in the first comment. Thanks, Peter.