Magazine | December 16, 2013, Issue

In Search of Lost Wine

Childhood among the vineyards

As we all learned young from Peter Pan, human beings have somewhere within them a happy thought that is sufficiently delicious to enable them to fly. Strangely for such an Americaphile, mine is a memory of France.

I was 21 years old, lying in a hammock with a good book on my knee. To my right were endless rows of vineyards, the stalks shifting slightly in the breeze; to my left, I could see down the old, broken, cobbled streets behind the house that we had rented. And in my right hand was a glass of wine.

The wine had been poured from a bottle without a label, and that bottle had been filled by a wizened but handsome old man whom my parents referred to simply as “monsieur.” He was the local winemaker and busybody, and he had come around to meet us — as he did to meet whoever borrowed the house — and to let us know that he had a few full barrels out in front of his property from which, for a couple of euros a time, he would be happy to pour his wine. My friend and I had taken him up on this offer with particular enthusiasm, bringing the empty bottles from dinner the night before to his makeshift bar and replenishing them for a few of the loose coins in our pockets.

“Now, you must go there,” he had said when we had filled the sixth and final bottle. He pointed up the road in the general direction of the boulangerie or the boucherie or the pâtisserie — it wasn’t clear. “You must go and get some food to go with the wine.” This hadn’t so much been a suggestion as an instruction — a local rite of passage, perhaps — and we had obediently taken him up on it. We bought saucisson sec and pâté and a few of those long, pale loaves of bread that only the French appear to be able to make so soft. Someone once told me that the bread is that way because of the butter they use. But I am not convinced, and I occasionally wonder if somewhere there is a secret recipe upon which Western modernity has been unable to intrude.

France, and its astonishing wine culture, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, I spent most of my summers in ramshackle houses along the vineyards of the Dordogne River — houses that were owned by lovely, doddering old widowers in berets with whom we tried to converse as best we could, and to whom we were forced routinely to apologize with a thousand repeated cries of “Je suis désolé” when we had done something silly like draw a face on the side of the barn in shaving cream or throw a ball against a window pane with a little bit too much force.

Almost every year, we would pack my small family, a couple of friends, and a month’s worth of clothes into my mother’s car, and drive from our house in England to take the ferry — or, later, the Eurotunnel — over to Calais or Cherbourg. And then we would head for wine country.

During the days, we would visit vineyards and châteaux, and my father would behave in a manner that I simultaneously adored to watch and found inexplicable. For him, wine-tasting was an almost religious experience, and the labels on the various bottles were his holy texts. He liked the wines that “tasted of somewhere,” and he was keen to point out that the different shapes of the bottles were an indicator of origin. So too the line “Mis en bouteille au château” or “. . . au domaine” or “. . . à la propriété,” each of which translates roughly to “Bottled at the château.” This he compared favorably with mass-produced wines — those that had been “mis en bouteille dans la région de production” or, worse, that merely read “Mis en bouteille par . . .” These, he would proclaim, “hadn’t been loved.”

Truth be told, as a child it was all the same to me. Before I was 13 I would have a little wine with dinner, perhaps. And a little more than I was supposed to if I could get away with it. But I certainly didn’t care what it was or whence it came.

Tasting, my father would lift the glass to his nose and comment first on the color. Then he would smell it. And, finally, having swirled it around, he would take a sip. After putting the wine down and smiling, he would look over at us all for approval and say some things I didn’t understand to my mother. Being somewhere between my not caring and his caring an awful lot, she would say that it was very nice.

France is perpetually sybaritic, and it can certainly be irritating to spend time in a place in which shopkeepers simply close up for the day if they have hit their targets and in which you are unable to get hold of anything necessary during the afternoon. Yet it is this attitude that affords it a love affair with food and with wine that no other culture can match. The French think nothing of sitting for three, four, five hours and eating lunch. It is almost impossible to get a bad meal in France.

Some things you understand only when you grow up. Gastronomically at least, for me these included mushrooms, black olives, and — eventually — wine that came from somewhere. And the zeal of the convert is fierce. As a child, I needed entertaining when on holiday, but in my late teens I began to grasp that imperceptible rhythm that makes cultures unique, to embrace one at odds with my own, and — for a few weeks a year, at least — to live life at the pace of the vineyard.

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