Last Thursday was wet and chilly but I decided to explore the city anyway. I’m generally a fan of cooler weather and it’s also a chance to wear my scarf around town which makes me feel like I’m blending in with the Euro-folk.
Strolling across several neighborhoods I saw a recurring theme in restaurant windows and on cafe chalkboards: the first French wine of the 2010 vintage had arrived that day, known as Beaujolais Nouveau, and vendors were eager to use the hubbub to entice passers-by. In my limited wine research I learned it comes from a well-respected region of France, but due to its youth and other factors isn’t considered to be very good. Some argue its release is little more than a marketing ploy and you’re better off waiting until the real 2010 wine comes out later on.
I’d decided to trust the Wiki-gods on this one and had no intention of buying into the hype. But after the sun dropped and took the temperature with it, one of those small chalkboards tempted my cold fingers and achy feet with a glass of the new stuff at the reasonable price of €2.50. I’d ordered wine at café tables before, but never propped up at the bar like those authentic old-school gents you always see, so I shuffled in.
La Cantoche was all but empty. In the most nonchalant (albeit thoroughly rehearsed) French I could muster, I ordered a glass of the Beaujolais Nouveau, s’il vous plait. The bartender gave a perceptible shrug of disappointment and walked over to siphon me a glass out of a cardboard box. As he placed it in front of me I tried to make conversation.
“A votre avis, c’est bon?” (What do you think, is it good?)
“Pas du tout, moi je le bois jamais.” (No way, I never drink this stuff.)
Not the most encouraging thing to hear as your drink is served to you, but I appreciated his honesty. The French are far less worried about hiding opinions which is something I’m not only getting used to but beginning to admire. I decided to take his comment in stride and enjoy the experience anyway.
As I sipped my blood back into proper circulation I took stock of the bar’s interior. It certainly wasn’t a classic décor: faded hopscotch grid on the floor, collection of Pez dispensers on a shelf, Kermit the Frog sitting atop a disco ball in the nearby lounge area. But it still felt cozy and respectable rather than kitsch. Besides me, the only customer in the place was a quiet older fellow who had popped in for a late afternoon beer.
The bartender, a laid back shaggy artsy type around my age, blended into the scenery well. Despite his slight disdain for my choice of beverage I could see he was a nice guy. I started silently rehearsing my next ice-breaker phrase but he beat me to it.
“Alors, le Beaujolais Nouveau?”
“Eh…je l’aime pas trop en fait. Oui il est bien fruité, mais jeune.” (I don’t like it very much actually. It’s quite fruity, but young.)
I barely knew what I was talking about but I knew preaching to the choir was the way to go in this situation. I continued to speak about having just recently arrived in France, and how I’d never drank alcohol before moving here but was determined to discover the wine, and how my purchase of the cheapest one on his menu was just for research purposes, bien sûr.
He grinned and said something I didn’t understand at the time but translated later into something along the lines of “You seem like a good guy”. He then asked if I wanted to taste a real French wine, and in a flash I had a second glass in front of me with a splash of Crozes Hermitage, accompanied by a glass of water to cleanse my palette in between.
I gave it the recommended sniff-swirl-sniff, finally taking a sip as the bartender and quiet beer guy awaited the American’s reaction. It was clearly much better and I gave him a big thanks while looking over the new bottle and asking about the Rhone region where it’d been made. The discussion interested him enough to take it a step further.
“Et maintenant, mon préféré…on va faire une petite dégustation.” (And now, my favorite…we’re gonna set up a bit of a tasting.)
I was officially excited now. He grabbed a third glass for me, but this time one for himself as well. Two doses of 2008 Hautes-Côtes de Nuits were poured, sniffed, and swirled. I now had 3 glasses of distinctly different red wines in front of me and I was thrilled to have stumbled onto such an unexpected experience. This must be how normal French people interact with each other, I thought to myself as I sipped back and forth making mental notes.
When the bartender returned a few minutes later he picked up his glass and showed me the technique of taking small sips and sucking in air as the wine sits in your mouth to increase the flavors. I’d seen this done before and figured it was his way of politely suggesting I slow down to appreciate all the experience had to offer. And after learning the price of a bottle goes for the equivalent of $42, I agreed that it should’ve spent a few extra moments on my tongue.
Seeing my appreciation of the two finer wines he reached toward the original glass of Beaujolais Nouveau to dump it out. I suppose I could have saved face by allowing it, but I paid for that drink and I was determined to finish it.
“Mais ça va être encore pire après les autres!” (But it’s gonna taste even worse after those other ones!)
I knew he was right; to a Frenchman the idea of reverse-cycling like that is surely an abomination. But I was basking in my Parisian moment and didn’t want it to end. Had I been financially able I would’ve shouted “Ok a bottle of the good stuff for everyone, including you, quiet beer guy!” But what I could afford was to stretch out this glass of two euros fifty.
At any rate I was honored by the whole event and grateful to have found a friendly bartender feeling generous at the end of his shift. Like so many others I’ve met he was proud to show a newbie the ropes, and I realized later that his initial balking at the cheap wine wasn’t so much a slight against it but rather an affirmation of how much better the other stuff can be.
As for my education on wine and the French language, I guess I’m rather like that young 2010 vintage: a bit green around the edges, but with the potential to improve with a few more years in the barrel. Clearly this random bar stop on a blustery Thursday afternoon was a sip in the right direction.