Sunday, December 19, 2010

Almost halfway?

Well, there is snow on the ground, the lights are lit and I am on vacation, bound for England on Monday morning. My French is in good shape, though not great, and after four months of school and five weeks of stage, I realize how little I have written here about what I've learned up to this point. I came here to learn and to work, and though I'm wasting nobody's money but my own, I'm feel compelled to prove here that I haven't been entirely wasting my time.

I spent the last week working at Domaine des Croix and Maison Camille Giroud. Since I didn't manage to get this site up and running before the vintage was over, I should tell you all that DdC was where I worked the harvest and crush. The winemaker in charge, David Croix, is a friend of mine and not only did he offer me a place at the domaine during harvest, but graciously said yes when I asked him again regarding my stage de taille.

La taille, or pruning, looms large in the calendar here, not only because it is hugely time consuming, but because if it is done badly, there is relatively little to be done to repair the damage. Careful pruning controls yields, limits a vine's susceptibility to disease and reduces the amount of work required later in the growing season. Over the past three weeks I've spent just enough time in the vines to see a variety of pruning methods and shapes and at this point I can more or less identify a badly pruned vine and picture in my head how it might take shape in coming months. So I thought it might be fun if we prune a vine together.

So let's look. Here we are in Bressandes, a Beaune Premier Cru vineyard at the top of hillside, where I spent of this past Monday. The weather was spectacular, clear and sunny (if a bit cold) and the only day on which we received no snow. The vines are the youngest of all the DdC plots, averaging about twenty five year and the fruit they yield produces a fairly burly, tannic wine. So let's take a look.

Here is a vine, as pretty as anybody could hope for. We have a baguette, the horizontal cane from which four branches protrude, and two other single branches. If trimmed correctly, this time next year we will have an almost identical formation, and pruning will be simple and then next year and so on. Where do we cut? Let's find out...

So there it is. See that, on the left? That is the courson. We trimmed that branch so that it is left with two buds. When the sap starts to run, around March, the bud at the base will produce two shoots. In an ideal world, one of those shoots will be the baguette for the following year. So now, all we need is to find one for the coming year. What next?

And it's all done. After all of that second-guessing yourself, panicking that you might accidentally cut off the wrong thing and render the vine for this season, it was actually all pretty easy. We left the single branch and just cut off last year's cane. Come February, we'll do the pliage, when we bend and tie the cane to the wire trellis and it's off to the races. If you are still unclear about what happened here, then don't worry. Neither do I!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holiday Spirit

* A disclaimer: My friend Paul suggested to me the idea for this post. I cannot claim credit for it. So if you don't like it, you may post hateful messages at If you do like it, all he did was suggest an idea. I'm the one who wrote it.*

The more one learns of wine, the less one really knows and understands... A cliche if there ever was one. Over the past few years, as I've been exposed to more great wine and good wine and plenty of terrible wine that was supposed to be good, I've slowly learned to prepare myself to always be surprised, to never expect what's in the bottle to correspond with what should be there. No matter what the label says, it is still just  a piece of paper that suggests what should be inside. That label tells nothing of the bottle's handling and storage conditions, whether it was bought once and then resold, and in the case of an old wine, whether it has been topped up or had the cork replaced or even that it might be fake. Not that I often find myself in the position to drink wines so exalted that someone might have taken the time to manipulate them, but I'm always ready and on guard. In the same vein, I try not to dismiss a bottle out of hand before tasting just because it doesn't on the outside conform to my idea of good wine, though I certainly have my prejudices.

With this in mind, let me take you back 
A glimpse of Jongieux
to an October weekend, when my friends Paul, Danielle and I took a trip down to the south of Beaujolais to stay at the house of a winemaker, with whom Danielle had worked the previous harvest. We had mentioned the idea of a wine-related day trip to our host and since most Beaujolais producers were busy with getting ready to release their nouveaux, he suggested the Savoie. It was only an hour and a half away and he could collect some phone numbers for wineries we might visit. So we set out just before noon and only five hours later (having been waylaid by lunch and traffic in Lyon), we were winding our way up the foot of the French Alps to Jongieux, one of the central wine-producing villages in the region.

Steeper than they look from here

Though the countryside was beautiful, most of the wineries we had numbers for told us they were unavailable, having just finished harvest,  and lots of work unfinished. We received only one invitation, from Domaine Dupasquier, the only domaine on our list about which none of us knew anything. And when we arrived we couldn't help but be a bit disappointed. The wines just weren't particularly impressive, each one out balance in some way. The whites were either a bit thin and lacking dimension or overly rich and high in alcohol, while the reds wanted for character or any sense of energy. Still we were having fun and and their Pinot Noir, which, though a little hot and unbalanced, showed some very pretty and exotic red and blue fruit aromas and flavors and I thought it might benefit from decanting. And at 7 euros it was hard to complain, so I bought a few to take home.

Fast forward a month. For whatever reason, I had yet to open a bottle of the Dupasquier Pinot Noir. But three Sundays ago Paul and Danielle and some other friends came over for an impromptu early dinner of oysters (which I shucked myself) and escargots and when the two bottles we had bought for the occasion were finished I opened one and decanted it. It was fantastic.The wine showed none of the awkwardness and alcohol heat that it had previously. It was intensely aromatic, full of red berries, black pepper and a herbal, fennel-like note, and had terrific balance and weight on the palate, bound together by the clean fresh acidity that one hope to find in mountain wines. Everybody guessed the grape correctly, but nearly everyone though it was Burgundy and there was a suggestion it might be Californian. When the identity was revealed, Paul and Danielle couldn't quite believe it, and frankly neither could I. It was nearly a different wine from the one we had tasted a month before and if the other two in the cupboard are like this I'll be a very happy guy.

One often hears or reads stories of a wine tasted in a cellar, and purchased on the spot, but when the bottles show up what's inside is a shadow of its former self. It's like opening the big box under the Christmas tree and finding not the Ghostbusters proton pack you had asked for, but a set of encyclopaedias.  I liked this wine not just because it was great but because it's nice to get open a present once in a while, one that you are ready to hate and instead find something you really wanted... like pictures of Mitch McConnell and Sarah Palin doing lines at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch with Anton Scalia and the chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Them apples

One of the many things that most of my friends have mocked me for at one point or another over the last five or ten years is my ignorance in the matter of driving a car, and admittedly it is something that I give myself a hard time for as well. There was a time when I could blame my parents for this handicap. When I was in high school and inquired with my parents about the possibility of lessons, I was told that it would cost too much to include me on the insurance, that perhaps the subject could be revisited once I started college. College came and went, and though I learned many things, driving was not one of them.

My bitterness over the matter lingered, but eventually I realized I had reached a point where I could no longer pin the blame for this particular shortcoming on my mother and father. I did in fact begin the process this past summer, but could not get it all done before I boarded my flight. In fact, I made relatively little progress, beyond getting my permit and driving squares and figure eights around the tarmac at Floyd Bennett Field. I had originally entertained the idea of doing a driving program here, but everyone I know said I would be crazy to learn from scratch here, especially with the increasingly grim winter weather. It is also very expensive, just over 1200 euros with the state-mandated 20 or 25 hours of instruction. So I still do not drive. However, last Thursday I took a leap forward. We had our first "Machinisme Pratique" class, and I got behind the wheel of this:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Those who can't do teach... A rare exception

The quality of the teaching at the CFPPA tends to fluctuate wildly. There are a few who have good days and bad days. Our vinification lecturer can be very engaging and lively or she can come in having been kept up all night by her very young son. There is the instructor for History of Viticulture, who has no interest in anyone's opinion but his own. A fair number of the French students think he's very charming. I don't really see it myself. There is at least one who barely has a pulse, though fortunately we don't see him often. Then there is Dominique Roy, who teaches Vineyard Protection, dealing with vine diseases, forms of rot and how to combat them. He is always on. He explains himself clearly, gives good notes, takes time to answer questions and cares that one is paying attention and trying to get the most from his class (he is the only teacher to have taken to task the 19-year old who always arrives late, stoned and who sits playing with his cell phone throughout class.)

Teaching is thirsty work
Monsieur Roy has his own domaine, in Pommard. I had passed it once on my bicycle and had since been curious about the wines. After all, one's depth of knowledge doesn't necessarily translate to the creation of a good product. He could spend plenty of time caring for his vines with a minimum of interference and employing ecologically sound techniques and then go about ruining that work by over-extracting the fruit and oaking it heavily until the wine is unrecognizable as Pommard, or even as Pinot Noir. So I was jazzed when my friends Christian, Christina and I landed an appointment to taste there, on a Sunday afternoon no less.

We arrived at two o'clock and he ushered us in to his little cuverie, which was a bit of a shock after the generous, even cavernous space that houses Domaine des Croix where I worked this year. He told us a bit about his vineyard and winemaking practices (he works organically in the vines, harvests everything by hand, de-stems, uses only native yeasts, blah blah) and then we went down into the cave to taste. Moment of truth... Would his wines prove him a fraud? Unsurprisingly, the answer was no.
The wines were almost uniformly excellent. As you may or may not have heard at this point, 2009 is a critic's darling of a vintage in Burgundy (and elsewhere in France). The wines are generally ripe, full of lush fruit and relatively high levels of alcohol. I have tasted some wines since arriving that I really enjoy and some that I find too plush. Soft these were not, but rather extremely elegant, full of high-toned red fruit, cedar and with a vein of chalk minerality that ran through the whole lineup, from the Bourgogne Rouge to Pommard villages and on up to the "Rugiens" and "Argillieres" Premier Crus. The oak was present but hardly oppressive. They still had the firm tannins and broad shoulders that set Pommard apart from its neighbors but these were very pretty wines.

He opened a 2008 and 2006 "Argillieres" for us to taste as well, which shared that same sense of restraint and delicacy with the 2009s, perhaps even more so, as they are both vintages which lend themselves to a leaner style. He also talked constantly throughout the tasting, telling us about a winemaking project in China he has been consulting on (his first vintage was 2002), and about vines he is helping plant in Senegal. Clearly the guy is no slouch when it comes to earning a living either.
The whole experience was rather reassuring to me. From all the beatings that trade schools have taken in the press in the US over the last couple of years, one gets the impression that they often employ third rate instructors who teach because they would never be hired in the real world. On Sunday I got to see the fruits of the labor I'm sitting in class learning about all day, and they were very tasty. Alvie Singer, eat your heart out.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Andouillette: When Gluttony and Poetry Collide

As the entrails bulge
She tends to crackling brown skin
Musk and mustard waft

Is there any foodstuff more simultaneously wonderful and repellent than a sausage filled with nothing but stomach and intestine? I welcome your thoughts. Incidentally, for those of you wondering whether I am spending my days doing nothing but fetishing offal, the poem above was the result of a game played in a car ride two weekends ago in Beaujolais. I may be lame, but at least I wasn't alone.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Greatest ever? Who cares...

Living here in Beaune, I am continually asked by people from home and elsewhere in the US if I am eating well; have I eaten any great meals; what is the best meal I have eaten since I've been here? And I always have an answer. I have had great food since I arrived. I have eaten lunches and dinners at winemakers' homes that would leave the food in a lot of restaurants cowering in shame. I have eaten in restaurants where the food, the carefully chosen wine list and the warm and precise service combine in such a way that makes obvious why dining in France is still a model for the rest of the world. I have made some pretty terrific meals myself. As my friend Beaver said to me, if you aren't eating well in Burgundy, then what is the point?
The reason for all this is not to brag. I was talking to my father a few minutes ago and he mentioned an interview he heard on Friday on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC, with Jane & Michael Stern and the editor of Saveur Magazine, regarding the magazine's current issue, dedicated to "The 25 Greatest Meals Ever," a collection of food memories by writers the Sterns admire. I listened to the interview after getting off the phone and thought about what I would have said and something occurred to me. People are always half-heartedly cursing me under their breath for the chance to live and work here, among all the delicious things, and rightly so. But when I started coming to France, I did not eat well. The first time, I was a high school sophomore, on a trip organized through school and we were fed chicken and rice each day, and it was uniformly bad. Of course there were croissants and bread and cheese but being 15 and totally naive about the cost of those trips, I made a fuss about the food, to no avail. My second time around, I stayed with a family in the Loire Valley for a month one summer. Here, one would think, my luck would change. But alas, though my French improved, the mother's cooking remained...not good. Then there was the week I spent in Nice with two friends in spring of my freshman year at university. Though the street food I ate while wandering was at times a major step in the right direction, in the evenings we routinely ended up eating in the wretched tourist traps that crowd the old city.
So despite my affinity for culinary life here, I discovered it late.
And when I thought about great meals, the one that I kept coming back to was my first in France that truly left an impression. In February 2002, my father was rescued from New York for a week. He and my mother had separated several months before and a friend had devised a week's respite for him, disguised as work, in Geneva. This happened to coincide with my post-exam break at St. Andrews and I flew from Edinburgh to join him. We had a good time, though the afternoons in Geneva in February that I spent alone were uneventful at best (Geneva is pretty but boring). However, at our friend's suggestion, we took the train to Lyon one day to have lunch. That's how he said it too, "Go to Lyon for lunch, there is one street called Rue Merciere where you can walk in anyway and have a great meal." So we did exactly that and an hour and a half we walked into Le Bouchon Aux Vins, and all of a sudden it became clear why people talked about nothing but food when they remembered trips to France. Until that moment, I had always remembered everything but the food.
That day I started with onion soup, not with a crouton and gruyere as I'd seen working the previous summer at Pastis but more like a consomme, with tiny lardon floating in it along with the onion strands. My father had steak tartare, egg and all. Then I had rack of lamb, with gratin Dauphinois and braised leeks, with all the butter a person could want. I forget his main course, sadly, but we finished with housemade hazelnut ice cream for me and a big piece of truly reeking cheese for him. We had a half-bottle of wine. It was Duboeuf Beaujolais and I would cringe now except we enjoyed it so much. I ordered our whole meal in French. And in those last glorious pre-Euro days, lunch cost less than forty bucks.
Some friends and I went to stay in Beaujolais last weekend, and we went to Lyon for lunch, at a restaurant recommended to us by our hosts. Before we left Beaune, I had looked up Les Bouchons Aux Vins to see if it was still there, and nearly suggested we eat there. In the end, I decided against it, though maybe I'll go by myself at some point. I think I was worried it might disappoint, that I would discover it to be much less great than I remember. I prefer to preserve my memory of our oohs and aahs that afternoon, a brief moment when we forgot about cholesterol and school and trouble at home.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Beginning

**This is a warning for what lies ahead. The target audience for this page is a group of about eight people, all of whom are curious about my new life and studies. I once had a travel blog that I used to email out to a huge number of people. I have decided this time around not to burden my friends directly with the details but rather to let people come and go as they choose. I will not be offended if you read no further than the end of this paragraph. **

Well folks, I've been here in Beaune more than a month. My French is improving, I am well-fed, I have some friends and a new bicycle. There have been great great wines and great little wines, and there will be plenty of time for you to read about them here. But this can't simply be a forum for my own particular brand of gastronomic pornography, and though I'm sure there will be days when I shall feel compelled to share all the filthy details of those conquests, I want to start off on the lighter side.
So let's harken back to last Thursday, when the day's work at Domaine des Croix finished surprisingly early. A free afternoon during the first couple of weeks of the vintage was rare and with the sun shining down it felt more like a month's holiday. So I wandered into the center of town, which was bustling with tourists to have a drink, read the Herald-Tribune and do some shopping for dinner, all at a rather leisurely pace.On my way back to my apartment, I found myself walking behind a very ordinary middle-aged woman, a bit shorter than me, with black hair and glasses, no different from any other that I could see had I been looking around.
But then she slowed suddenly, and as I quickened my pace to pass her on the right, she stopped for a split-second, lifted her left leg in a motion I recognized instantly... and farted audibly. I was stunned. Had I really just witnessed this? Her focus and determination on this single task would have made my brother (at age 15, not the 25 he turns this week) proud, and the length and volume would have made her performance a candidate for any child's joke noisemaker. I contained my laughter only as a result of having nobody to share this extraordinary moment. However I was also disappointed. In our house, the standard response to such an emission was always "Talk to me," and if this had happened on the streets of New York, I would not have hesitated to answer, even to a total stranger. Alas, my French is not yet that quick, and I was a further 30 feet up the road, before the words "Dit-moi plus," (Tell me more) popped into my head. But will I ever get a second chance?