Sunday, August 19, 2012

Little Town, Big Wines

It's always nice to get visitors in mid-summer, and when my old friends from Berlin, Ben and Yuhang, said they were on the way, I was glad to hear it. They'd been at my going-away dinner at Wok Show, the Chinese restaurant Yuhang had discovered and encouraged to serve real Chinese food instead of "Asia cuisine," and they're both wacky and full of fun. Yuhang is pregnant, so no wine tasting for her, but Ben's brother Micah was visiting from Chicago, and was along on this trip, and they had a rented car, so I was hoping they could stay another day and I could give them my Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour.

And I admit it: I also had an ulterior motive. The rosé wine I'd had at the Estivales a couple of weeks ago, Domaine d'Archimbaud's Les IV Pierre, had made a real impression on me and after haunting all the usual places looking for it, I realized I'd have to go to where it was made to find some more, and if I did this trip just right, we could hit St. Saturnin, where it's made.

So the first day I did a credible job doing the walking tour and showing them the history of Montpellier, and finding an okay place to have dinner. They were staying over behind the train station, literally with the tracks across the street, in one of the funkiest apartaments I've ever seen here, with a friend of Micah's who promotes hip-hop shows at the Rock Store, a friendly young guy named Clément who likes Americans to call him Clem. We hooked up with him and his friends after dinner at the Beehive, the wonderful English pub over near St. Roch church, which was a reminder of the only disappointment of the day: missing the annual St. Roch celebration, which happened sometime on Thursday afternoon. Good old St. Roch: a saint's day on August 16, which is always in the running for the very hottest day of the year.

At the end of the evening, the contingent decided that a tour the next day was in order (ending up at the Estivales in the evening), so we met and took off about 11:30. It was later than I usually like to leave for this tour, but once we got to Sommières, I saw it had the great advantage of our getting lunch there rather than at the pizzeria I usually use at the second stop, St. Martin de Londres. The Moroccan joint we went to, chosen as much for the amount of shade it offered as anything, was perfectly wonderful, although they were out of a lot of menu items. It was burning hot, so we did a quick turn around Sommières, jumped in the car, and found the road to Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus -- and thence to St. Martin -- in no time.

That drive remains one of my favorites, and this time I paid attention to looking for a hallucination I had last November: I thought, just as l'Hortus becomes impossible to see, that I'd seen a multi-story building attached to it. I did: it's there. It comes and goes so quickly that I couldn't even approximate how old it was or what it could have been. So there's another project: there's a new visitor center at Pic St. Loup, which I'd like to see, and then I'd like to find out something about this odd building.

St. Martin de Londres was its usual quiet self, no tourists at all, and the 11th century church just as cool in the midday sun as always. After a visit and a ramble through the village as we headed back down the hill (Micah is on a mission to scratch every cat in the Languedoc, apparently, and the village cats had absolutely no objection to this), we headed off to the Pont de Diable visitor center to determine if it made sense to take the shuttle bus to St. Guilhelm le Désert. Given that the parking lot was almost totally full, the answer was a resounding no, even if the majority seemed to be people swimming in the Hérault River at the beach there. After a look at the explanatory exhibits in the visitors' center (pointing out the need for the bridge as a connection between St. Benedict's church in Aniane and St. Guilhelm's up the hill), and a quick trip to the bridge, we jumped back in the air-conditioned car and headed to St. Saturnin. A guy who overheard us while the troops were cooling down with ice cream in the visitor's center assured us it was ten minutes away by car. I'm real glad we didn't encounter him driving on the way over.

Photo by Ben Perry

St. Saturnin is remote. Looking at the road map, you'll see that, if you're heading north, after a while, both of the roads out of town just stop. The reason it's there is wine: lots of St. Saturnin wine in the supermarkets, all from the caves cooperatives, most of it pretty good (and definitely cheap) but no better. This article gets it about right: nothing special. It's the end of the road, except it's not, exactly.

Photo by Ben Perry
There's one main street, and in the building down there where the road turns, you'll find one of the two winemakers in town who don't use the caves cooperatives. (The other is the famed Virgile Joly, who was on his way to Montpellier to set up at the Estivales). Marie-Pierre and Jean-Pierre Cabanes bought the Domaine d'Archimbaud some time back, and in 2009 separated from the CC to make a transition to organic wines. The estate itself has supposedly been used for wine off and on since 1313, and today its 12 hectares grow syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, old-vine carignan, vigonier, and muscat. They're best known for their great big red, La Robe de Pourpre, aged 12 months, 50% syrah, 30% grenache, 10% mourvèdre and 10% carignan, deep, complex, the kind of thing, as I mentioned as we tasted it, that you want to get in the winter, when you've got a nice leg of venison roasting in the oven. "Or," Mme Cabanes suggested, "mousse au chocolat!" It costs a whopping €12.50, and I know a couple of places I can get it here in town. They also make a wine called L'Enfant Terrible, which is sold out for this year, so we didn't get any of that, and then there's Le Tradition, which is the same composition as the Robe de Pourpre, but just a bit less showy. There's a leathery nose to these two reds which seems to be a house trademark, and when the evenings cool down here, I'm going to investigate both of these at my leisure.

We started the testing with the other Les IV Pierre, a white, of all things (one thing Languedoc is not noted for is white wine), which had been awarded a gold medal in this year's Concours des Vins de la Vallée de l'Hérault. Who knows how those things are judged, but this vin de pays (80% vigonier, 10% white grenache, 10% muscat) has an eccentric composition but a wonderful smoothness, with the same mineral opening I noted in the rosé followed by stone-fruit, but mellowed by a floweriness that would make it go, as Mme Cabanes suggested, with fish or white-fleshed meat (poultry, rabbit). After all the time I've spent investigating the local wines, I'm surprised to say that I might well find myself spending €9.50 for a bottle of this some time down the line. And, of course, there was the rosé, the reason I'd come. Mme Cabanes informed me that there were two wine-shops near my house (ones I, of course, never think to go to) which stock all of their wines including this one, so that's good news. And €6.50 was a much easier price than the ten smackers they'd been obligated to charge at the Estivales.

After sticking our purchases in the car, we wandered through what remained to see of the village.

Photo by me
Just to the left of this shot is a small street which leads up an incline, ending at what appears to be a very old church, but one which is so oddly placed that it's almost impossible to figure out what it looks like, socked in on all sides by other buildings, except at its rear which is rounded like Romanesque churches are. There was a pile of wood by the church (which was closed) and a sturdy-looking Weber grill nearby, so I decided that whoever St. Saturnin was, he was into barbeque -- my kind of saint.

Also on this street is what appears to be a very lovely and affordable hotel, L'Hotel du Mimosa, and across the street a very nice-looking restaurant, Le Pressoir, which apparently has a 130-bottle wine list. I can't think of a better place to be based for a couple of days' driving around some of the region's most beautiful countryside.

It's straight ahead! Photo by me

I put those fantasies on ice, though, as we returned to the car, drove back to Montpellier, and inserted ourselves in the chaos of the Estivales, which, I'm afraid, really is too crowded after a given point. I love the opportunity to taste small wineries' products (we nabbed a couple, an amazing Terrasses de Larzac red called La Tête dans les Étoiles and a very nice rosé from a Pic St. Loup producer called Château de Lascours, both of which are currently being researched) but the fight to get to where you can buy some food -- or, later, to get within pouring distance of a tasting-glass of wine -- and the incessant terrible music (anyone who wants to flatten the tires of Las Vegas Wedding's van is okay with me) takes away the fun. The best procedure would seem to be to arrive early -- the event opens at 6:30 -- get your tastings (and, if you want to eat early, a few things for dinner) and then go somewhere else for your evening meal. In fact, if I hadn't been so exhausted by the whole day, I would have recorded the ambient noise from my apartment and posted it here so you could see what I sometimes have to put up with.

Ben, Yuhang and Micah and I said good-bye, and I trundled home. The next morning, I got up to go to the market rather late, and arrived closer to noon than my usual 11am. Imagine my surprise to be greeted by Yuhang. Their 8am departure hadn't quite worked out, so I helped them shop for road food (peaches, small heirloom tomatoes, melons, some of Mimi's good saucisson sec) and we said good-bye a second time. Thanks to the Perry Three for the wonderful ride. I really did need to get out of the house, and what a way to do it!

Now...who's next?

Photo by Ben Perry

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The First Commandment

Tomorrow, Sunday, sometime in the morning, it will be 19 years since I landed at Berlin Tegel Airport looking for the guy whose apartment I was planning to live in for the next six months. He never showed (and I had no idea that his girlfriend was, at that moment, trying not to bleed to death after delivering their son), and it was the first thing that went wrong after I arrived in Europe to live. Oh, I got into the apartment okay, Christine lived, and all of that, but I always get introspective and moody around August 12.

Bet you'd be surprised to know it was raining when this was shot! Photo by wiggly.

In Berlin, I jumped right into a job -- literally the day after I arrived, I found myself setting up an office with some other folks to get an event called Berlin Independence Days started. I was too busy to think about stuff, and there was, indeed, some stuff I should have been thinking about. In September, I jumped on a train for a weekend and went to Munich for Oktoberfest (because Oktoberfest happens in September), and came back realizing that that was one more thing I didn't ever need to do again. I ate out a lot because I could never get it through my head that all the stores -- all of them -- closed at 5:55 sharp, and at 1:55 on Saturday afternoon, except for the third Saturday of the month when they closed at 3:55.

Suddenly one day Berlin Independence Days was over, the guy who'd emerged as the head of it during a power struggle that had co-existed with the planning told the three Americans working there that because Americans had done nothing to stop the Vietnam War and had, as a consequence, destroyed Vietnamese culture, he wasn't going to pay us because he hated Americans (he was German, just for reference) and there went a month's salary.

And at last I was alone, in a tiny apartment, with no work and a German winter coming on, and my 45th birthday coming on, too. I didn't know it, but I was just beginning to learn stuff. In December, my landlord in Texas told me he needed my house (which I'd sublet to an employee of a friend of mine and a couple of her friends) back because his wife was divorcing him. The decision, which I'd anticipated making in March, of whether to stay in Berlin or go back to Austin, had been made for me. One way of looking at it was that I was stranded. Another was that I'd just been handed a great adventure. Both of those statements were true.

Somehow I survived the adventure, the highs and lows, fame (but not fortune) and frustration, and the growing realization that I really, really didn't like living in Germany, although by now I knew how to do it. I started writing a book, The Accidental German: How Not to Expatriate, hoping that by getting an advance for it, I might be able to move away from Berlin, but the literary agent who was going to sell it for me turned out not to actually be an agent after all. And then, in November, 2008, a ghostwriting gig came my way and I was able to pile stuff into a car, hire some movers, and move to the place I'd found that I really wanted to live: Montpellier.

If you've been reading this blog, you've pretty much got the picture on how that's gone. It's like anything else: it's got its good points and its bad points, and neither is exactly where you'd predict them to be. I was hobbled by getting burned for $20,000 of the ghostwriting money right off the bat. I had horrendous problems with various phone companies. My apartment was far smaller than advertised, and I still haven't unpacked. The movers destroyed my almost-new washing machine. I got horrible advice from a guy who, it turns out, just makes shit up. French people were seriously unhelpful. I lost my sense of taste and smell for a year. But I also regained it, mostly. I got to know the surrounding countryside and loved it. I learned a lot about food and started learning about the local wines, and fell into the rhythm of the seasons and their output. I learned a lot about the history and culture of the area: who knew that France had bullfighting? But that's what's happening in Béziers this weekend.

And becasue it was something I did in Berlin, I hooked up with a bunch of expat websites and organizations to help others, and that's been very interesting.

We get tourists here in the summertime, which, in France, basically means August.

Le Petit Train
We get [Le Petit] Trainloads of 'em. They go to the Fountain of the Three Graces.

I have no idea why it's our symbol and most famous tourist attraction, but there you go. And they take pictures of each other.

Umm, guys? The fountain's in the other direction...
And we even got written up in the New York Times the other day (although it's a severely eccentric list of stuff to do, promoting a now-closed opera production and a dance festival that happens in June and July, as well as favoring a very small Sunday market over the huge one on Saturday).  And people (British people, mostly: Americans almost never come here) look around and like it. Hell, I did, and on a weekend where it was colder here than in Berlin. So they move here.

From time to time, people tell me they want to leave the States an move to France. Before that, I'd hear from people who wanted to move to Berlin. Why? They'd visited and liked it. They ask for advice. And, both for that book I wanted to write and for the advice I give, I realized that there's one thing anyone contemplating a move like this has to internalize. The first commandment of expatriation is that you must realize you're not on vacation any more, ever.

That may seem so obvious. It's not. I don't know how many British people I've read about or read comments from who've moved to France (or Spain or Portugal) and who say "We always had so much fun on holiday, but this is so disappointing." When I was hanging out at the late, great English Corner Shop, I marvelled at the products people asked for -- and bought! Bread! White bread! I mean it: frozen loaves of English bread flew out of that place. I'm happy about that because my friends made a lot of money off of it, but seriously, folks, if there's one thing the French know how to do it's bread. Maybe not the dense, dark, seed-and-nut-bearing breads of Germany (but on the other hand, have you ever had a German baguette? Don't.), but not only the familiar French breads, but also sliced sandwich loaf. Really: it's called pain de mie, and if your corner baker doesn't have it, the supermarket will. I've certainly got nothing against slipping into one's native cuisine from time to time (and I'm planning to have breakfast tacos tomorrow morning), but this smacks of the Dutch tourists who come down here in caravans loaded with food from Holland and never pay a cent for anything in France. Except, of course, that the Dutch go home. (Usually: one of the forums I read had a tale the other day about a Dutch couple who'd built a house in a local village, bringing both the building supplies and the bulders from Holland. Bet they have problems with the neighbors.)

I was complaining about something on Facebook the other day, and someone commented "That's okay, Ed, you're living the dream for the rest of us," and I thought, hmm: grass, fence. To me, the dream would be either a regular income that covered the rent and food and bills and then some or a huge hunk of money in the bank from which I could draw those funds; a place to live where I had enough room to move around; enough work of the kind I like to do to keep me busy; the opportunity to travel from time to time; and (just in case there's a God and he's reading this) maybe a brilliant, spirited woman to hang out and share all of that with. I would be happy to live that dream here, but after 19 years, I've realized that I'd also be happy to live it just about anywhere. Will I celebrate my 20th anniversary in Europe next year? Probably: even the best-case scenario doesn't see me turning this situation around that quickly. How about the 21st?

Well, as the alcoholics say, one day at a time. The furthest-off plans I have just at the moment involve breakfast tacos.
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