A lonely scorched survivor

A lonely scorched survivor

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The French View On Wine and Food


While browsing a food and wine magazine recently, I was reminded of a DVD that my wife and I watched some time ago. There was a scene wherein two men, in an unnamed small town in France, were seated in a restaurant ordering a light dinner. One requested an omelet and the other seconded the choice. The server then asked, “Red or White?” Not, mind you, “What would you like to drink?” Just simply, “Red or White?” Without even inquiring about other beverage options, they agreed on red. She returned with a large carafe filled with, undoubtedly, an inexpensive, generic blend from nearby producers. Vin de table, I’m sure. Quaffable, and never offending, it is at the bottom France’s appellation hierarchy.

It also brought to mind an interesting episode that we witnessed years ago in Cavaillon—a small, frenetic city in sun-drenched Provence. We were stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and wanting to absorb as much local culture as possible, I began scanning the various sidewalk storefronts. While gazing through one of the store windows, I was suddenly stunned by the improbable: customers filling up gallon-sized glass containers with wine via a long rubber hose attached to a metal tank, which—I swear—looked exactly like the configuration at your neighborhood gas station! Vin de pump—or whatever that vinous blend might be titled in their appellation—is most likely their bulk, un-bottled version of Two Buck Chuck.

I am struck by the innocence and the outright lack of pretense in the above scenes, and they validate that France’s citizens—particularly countryside dwellers whose lives are spent on the land—regard wine as a food product, not as an image-laden, numerically-rated beverage. To the contrary, their daily table wines (like those mentioned above) are a standard, dining complement much like salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, and the like. It’s unlikely wine will reach that status in America—but we can hope. (Sidebar: Maybe a “McRed” or a “McWhite” in a new “McVino” section at the Golden Arches could move us in that direction!)

Notwithstanding the above, I suspect, however, that there is yet another level in countryside Monsieur’s wine palate. If you were to nudge him, tug at his shirtsleeve and ask, “C’mon, Mon Ami, where’s the special reds that Grandpere gave you? Where’s the really good stuff?” he would not be offended. I suspect he would lead you down to a stash in his cool, underground cellars, or to various wines tucked away inside a handcrafted antique armoire. And those wines would not be characterless Vin ordinaires—no, they would be Premier or Grand Crus of structure and longevity, most likely crafted by one of the better winegrowers in a nearby appellation. Yep, those would be time-tested, quality wines set aside for family celebrations.

The French Appellation System is a product labeling method which guarantees origin, authenticity and, indirectly, quality. Not widely understood or appreciated in America, that guarantee applies not only to wines and spirits, but also to other food products like cheese from Roquefort, green lentils from Le Puy and chickens from Bresse. A nation which has categorized its food and wine products into stringent hierarchical classifications, teaches us more than disdaining Two Buck Chuck or raving about Cult Cabernets. It teaches us to accept (and enjoy) each for what they are.

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