Last Thursday afternoon was a wet and chilly one, but I decided to explore the city anyway. Not only am I a fan of cooler weather but it’s also a chance to wear my scarf around town, which makes me feel like I’m blending in with the Euro-folk.
As I bounced from one neighborhood to the next, a recurring motif lay scrawled 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 stuff 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 had dropped taking the temperature with it, one of these 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 relaxed nonchalant French I could muster, I ordered a glass of the Beaujolais Nouveau, s’il vous plait. The friendly bartender gave a slightly perceptible shrug of disappointment and walked over to siphon me a glass out of the box. Even I know a box is a bad sign. 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 than we are, which is something I’m not only getting used to, but learning 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 somehow it still felt cozy and respectable rather than kitsch. Besides me the only customer in the place was an older fellow who popped in quietly for a late afternoon beer. The bartender, a laid back shaggy artsy type around my age, blended well with the scenery. Despite his slight disdain for my choice of beverage, I could see he was a nice guy. I started silently rehearsing the next ice-breaker phrase I would throw his way, but he beat me to it.
“Alors, le Beaujolais Nouveau?”
“Umm…j’aime pas trop en fait. Oui c’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 here, but I knew preaching to the choir was the way to go in this spot. I continued on about having just moved here, discovering French wine as I go, and how my purchase of the cheapest wine on his menu was merely for research purposes, of course.
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 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 chatting about the Rhone region where it’d been made. The discussion apparently excited him a bit as he took 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 small 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, content to have stumbled onto such a fun 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.
Returning 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 it has to offer. After learning the price of a bottle goes for the equivalent of $42, I concurred that it should’ve spent a few extra moments on my tongue. Finally, after seeing my appreciation of the two finer wines he reached toward my original Beaujolais Nouveau to throw it out. I could’ve saved face here by allowing it, but the fact was I’d paid for this drink and I was going 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, but I was basking in my Parisian moment and didn’t want it to end. To a Frenchman the idea of reverse-cycling like that is surely an abomination, and had I been financially able I would’ve declared “A bottle of the good stuff for everyone, including you, quiet beer guy!” Regardless, I was honored by the whole event and lucky to stumble upon a friendly bartender feeling generous at the end of his shift. Like so many others here, 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 gastronomic education, I guess I’m a like the 2010 vintage: a bit green around the edges with the potential to improve with a few more years in the barrel. I predict I’ll also one day go great with steak, lamb, or savory cheeses.