So bright and early Monday, I headed down to the Mercure Central hotel in the deserted section behind the old city hall, and joined a bunch of other folks waiting for the shuttle out to the Parc des Expositions. I'd gotten an invitation from someone through Les Vins de Charlotte, the new little wine shop near me which I wrote about earlier, and a friend from New York who was in town got me a second one, which I handed off to E, so he could continue his education on local wines -- and red wine in general. We agreed to meet at 2, and a third party, Michael, a young guy who distributes wine in Germany, was going to join us, thanks to his knowing a couple of my friends in Berlin. A merry time was in the offing.
Meanwhile, though, I figured I should wander around and get the lay of the land, which isn't easy: the Parc des Expositions, like most trade-fair facilities, is made up of several freestanding halls, linked together by pathways, and each containing a theme: Provence, for instance, takes up all of hall 10, while hall 5, right next to it, is the Spain/Italy/Portugal ghetto, along with "other countries." That connects to Hall 1, Hall 6, and Hall 11. Halls 2 through 4 don't seem to exist. So you can see how this gets confusing, especially once you've begun tasting. I held off on that until our crew assembled in the early afternoon and still spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get from one place to another. Square mats on the floor used their corners to point in the general direction of the other halls, but after being walked on for most of a day, they became askew and, thus, generally unrealiable.
I was trying to get to the AOC Languedoc halls, 7, 8, and 9, so that I could chase down some wines that interested me and find some old favorites to see how they've fared. Somehow, I always managed to get back to Hall 6, which was dominated by Corsica's huge banner hanging in the air with its scary slogan:
That gets filed under "Please use a native speaker when making these sorts of decisions," although I have to admit, it's the same in French. Maybe in Corsican dialect it sounds less threatening.
One thing I'd kept hearing, especially from Jean-Michel at Les Vins de Charlotte, is that in the past couple of years, Pic St. Loup has been discovered as a major source of fine wines, and it's driven the price up. Certainly, the display at Vinisud bears this out:
It was hard to photograph this: there was a door inbetween, leading to the enclosed area where a couple dozen winemakers offered their wares and in the center, a chef gave three hour-long demonstration-lectures on "Fusion Food and the Wines of Pic St. Loup." Yup, sounds like Pic St. Loup has arrived, all right. Meanwhile, I like the silhouettes of the Pic and its faithful limestone companion l'Hortus on the enclosure.
At 2, we assembled at O'Vineyards' stand, as planned, and Joe O'Connell gave us a generous tour of his wines. He's an American, with a French-Vietnamese wife, and a son, Ryan, who is a dynamo for both proselytizing for Languedoc Wines (he has a blog, Love That Languedoc Wine, which I started reading early on to educate myself about this region) and for using social media and the Internet to promote your winery. For all his contagious enthusiasm, though, very few have taken his advice, at least given the overall numbers. Meanwhile, the reason he proselytizes like this continues to exist: nearly all small winemakers skate on the edge of poverty, no matter that some of their wines sell for (relatively) big money. Maximizing the potential, you have to do several things simultaneously. The O'Connells manage it with Joe making the wine, his wife Liz running a B&B on the property, and Ryan making his own wines, giving tours, and doing the cyber-wine thing. (It's actually not that simple, because everyone does everything, but the point is that there's a lot more you have to do to keep your winery's head above water, and the old joke about how to make a million dollars farming -- start out with five million -- applies).
One thing O'Vineyards is good at is branding, with everything featuring that O', and everything with a characteristic sturdiness which then finishes in a firm blaze of flavor. Their efforts have been rewarded by the Hotel de la Cité, Carcassonne's noted luxury hotel, putting their Proprietor's Reserve on the menu. It's a remarkable, complex but friendly wine -- and it's not cheap. Still, they've made it to the point where now Ryan has been able to buy some outside grapes to fashion his new wine:
This has to sit a while, but as a wine for a non-special occasion, as something to drink with some down-home cooking, it's going to be excellent.
There's a problem, though, and it is one which hangs over all of the halls at the Parc d'Exposition: you can't get O'Vineyards wine anywhere in Montpellier. I remember a couple of years ago, Ryan filled the car with bottles and came down here, hitting store after store, and being told, yeah, good wine, but it's from too far away. How far? You can drive the 150 km to Carcassonne in an hour and a half, or so says Google. And while it's true that the geology of this region is pretty tumultuous and that terroir changes every mile or so, these micro-distinctions don't do anyone any favors. I'm all in favor of supporting our local winegrowers, of course, but it sure would be nice if a few wine shops in the bigger towns here would take the risk of stocking a little broader selection from this huge Languedoc-Roussillon area.
We thanked Joe for his superb tour and E and I pushed on to a couple of winemakers I wanted him to check out. Or, rather, that he'd already checked out. Regular readers will remember that it was E's birthday last year that wound up in our getting in the car and driving to St. Chinian, having been inspired by the bottle of Les Eminades we'd enjoyed that evening. It turned out that, of course, Les Eminades had a stand in the St. Chinian area of Vinisud, and since we hadn't met the young couple who run it last year, it was easy enough to do that now. Patricia and Luc Bettoni turned out to be both enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable, as well as in possession of some very old plants -- their Carignan vines are 110 years old, the Grenache between 30 and 60 years old, and the Syrah and Cinsault 40. That explained part of the great complexity they achieve with their wines, and another part, Patricia explained as she guided us through their four reds, has to do with sunshine management.
While we were tasting, all hell broke loose as a large number of people in robes carrying signs started parading through the hall. I only managed to get a couple of blurry shots, including this one with an embarrassed woman looking to empty her spittoon only to be blocked by the parade:
I'm still not sure exactly what was going on here, but it appears that these are members of organizations dedicated to the winemaking efforts of various Languedoc AOCs, chevaliers devoted to celebrating the area's food and wine.
Our next stop was my old favorite, Mas de la Serrane, whose wines I've enjoyed for years, thanks to their distinctive complexity, wide variety, and comparative affordability. I was already very familiar with all but the highest-end wine they make, Antonin & Louis, which I'd had but not particularly enjoyed. "It's broken; it just doesn't work," a wine expert told me a few years back, but I'm happy to report that whatever it was that was the problem seems to have been fixed.
"I get it," said E, as we hightailed it to the Outsiders' tasting, "it's like a family. All the wines have something in common, something which unites them, but they're all different." Exactly, and we'd just been afforded three excellent demonstrations of that fact.
The Outsiders tasting was definitely going to be something different. Ryan had been talking it up for weeks on Facebook, and so had the indefatigable Louise Hurren, publicist for a number of Languedoc wineries and another proselytizer for the area's top wines. In the short speech he gave before we got going, Ryan gave a hilarious presentation of word-clouds used by the tasters in the Wine Spectator's notes for its top-rated wines -- all of which were bland but enthusiastic. He then crunched some comments on his own wines into machine-generated reviews and machine-generated words. The point was simple: there are more ways of communicating ideas about wine than the standard, and exhausted, vocabulary of today's wine journalism allows. To this end, they had assembled 24 pictures -- a bunch of kittens, a Swiss Army knife, a bunch of ice-cream cones, a Lego guy, a firebomber, an ancient Citroën truck -- and asked us to taste the wines and, instead of making a comment, match each one with a picture, or a couple of pictures. Michael, the German guy, had joined us, and we were sitting next to each other. I was curious about what he'd do, as a professional, against me, who's only not been allergic to wine for 20 years and missed over a year's education to taste failure. We got pours of a Domaine de Cébène 2009 Felgaria from Faugères. We tasted. We spit. We tasted some more. We scribbled numbers in the tasting book. We compared notes.
We had picked the exact same picture: the multicolored ice cream cones. "Okay," said Michael, "this is interesting." What was also interesting is how utterly different from the mainstream virtually all of these wines were. Not just Jonathan Hesford's odd "mistake" MO2 wine, which was sort of orange and got matched to an odd face-shot which was half female, half male, but things like Château d'Anglès' Grand Vin Red (can't get more ordinary than a name like that), which got matched to the Swiss Army knife, Château de Combebelle AOC St. Chinian Rouge (old books), and my favorite, Domaine Jones' Fitou Rouge 2010 (four Renaissance portraits).
Everything was on the same high level, and I was approaching taste-bud fatigue. Also, no matter how much you spit, alcohol does get into your bloodstream through your tongue and mouth lining, so now that it was 5pm, I was about tasted out. Yesterday, I begged off because I had my other blog to write, and briefly considered going in today when I realized that I still had enough residual sensory information to process that it probably wouldn't increase any of it very much. But I'm very happy that it worked out that way: too much tasting beats not being able to taste hands down.
* * *
There was a larger issue, too, which began coalescing as I sat at home after Vinisud and thought about all that had happened. The Outsider issue stuck in my mind: as the webiste says, the members of the group come from all over -- the UK, New Zealand, Sweden, the U.S., other parts of France -- and predominantly not from winemaking backgrounds. They came down here and got to work, and many of them discovered that they were "outsiders" in another way: the French can be cold and clannish, particularly, it appears, when a sacred part of their culture is being threatened by "outsiders." Not, it should be emphasized, the other small winemakers: lots of these people belong to organizations which purchase farm equipment in common and share it out, and lots of them exchange tips (and bottles) with their winemaking neighbors. No, it's others who seem they'd rather you weren't there.
And I felt relieved hearing these stories, because after three years here, I've felt the same thing. It's different from the experience I had when I first moved to Germany: the Germans, many of them, were friendly towards Americans for obvious reasons. But not in France. My solution has been simple: ignore it. I know it's not all French people who feel this way, so I'm not offended. And I know another thing: the day E and J and I went to Ambrussum, we were walking along and J said "You know, of all the places I've lived, I've never felt so much at home as I do here." Which is a pretty odd statement for someone living under these conditions -- and yet I knew exactly what she meant, even if it's supremely difficult to articulate it myself.
I like it here, and I'm going to stay if I can. I'll be an outsider the whole time and I don't care. There's enough of this place for us all to share and enjoy our own pleasures, and, I bet, enough friendly French people, hard as they are to find, to clue us in to some of the nuances. All of this takes on a greater meaning now that I'm readying my annual trip to the States. I'll be leaving Sunday to visit a friend in Paris, then flying to New York on Monday. I'll also hit Texas, California and, well, the end of the trip hasn't been figured out yet. The next few posts will be from the trip, and I'm happy to have the break.
But I'm really looking forward to coming back here in April. As an outsider. Go figure.