Friday, December 19, 2014

A Barman's Little Wine Column

The story of how I, an amateur to wine, ended up at the Wine Bar of Bistrot Lepic is a long one not worth telling.  I was rescued from a TexMex place by Bruno, the chef, whose crew I took care of on Sunday nights late.  He mentioned opening a wine bar up top of his bistrot.  Within weeks I was down the street, by a few long blocks, to learn about wine from the ground up.  And so I came to preach the gospel of French wine.  Yet another fine example of the meek inheriting the earth.

Knowing nothing, I would ask questions, ones which may have seemed stupid to the real French-born pros I was now working with, who'd been savoring wine since childhood.  But for a thing so elementary, all such questions are good and worth asking.   (I had proposed classic cocktails,in my sit down interview the boss and the wife I already knew, pulled out a Times article, about making your own bitters--this is ten years ago at least now--and wisely Bruno said, well, thank you, but it's really about selling wine, a bottle or two with dinner, to go with the dishes they have.  A small ah-hah moment, and a relief.  Wine with food.)  Real wine people, I find, are not in the slightest bit snobbish.

So I honed my skills.  I'd look through lists, I looked up grapes and regions, and appellations of wine.  So, like, what's a Faugere or a Bandol like, what's a Costiere de Nimes like, and how are they different.  These were questions that distracted the French crew from their normal rounds, but they'd offer a few choice words, 'oh, inky, that wine, sauvage, full of... ' and they'd mumble the name of a grape responsible, and I'd say, oh, I see, of course.  Later much would I learn to translate wine by their own inherent vocabulary and habit and ground, like the bacon-like hedgerow of herb peppery dark fruit redolent thickness of particular forms of Syrah-based wines.  One of the wines we had by the glass, looking back ten years ago, a white, was from Cotes du Tongue, with seven varietals.  Try to explain that one from reading a book.  And eventually, I would.  I learned the basic dexterity, or maybe I already knew a little bit of it, for approaching a wine.  Look.  Sniff.  Spin.  Breath.  Slurp up with curved tongue closed against the palate, swallow, regard the tactile sensations along with the nose, along with the taste, and finally, feel the finish, the wine staying on your tongue.

It was after a hectic Sunday night and my passing downstairs where and when I discovered my wine moment.  The manager, a famous guy from Laos, lots of restaurant history and restaurant people and restaurant customers under his belt, many connections of all sorts, had opened a particular wine and decanted it, sniffing it from a big glass with satisfaction.  It was an Hermitage Du Pic St. Loup, a Kermit Lynch import, probably the closest thing to the house's red wine.   A 2003 maybe.  Boone, quite a guy, poured me a glass, and I swirled it, and then I got it.  In there, yes, there was the manure from the manure spreaders of my child hood, fat back tired, pulled by a pickup truck.  And the manure came in some way from the shale-y underground on which everything in our part of the world grew.

Each time we taste a wine we get that lesson of terroir.  This is what makes wine enjoyable, not to hoard, but to sample, to get a bit about the earth where a wine comes from, the weather, the slopes, the kind of soil, its minerality, and even as a kind of sampling of the DNA of a particular place, its creatures, its flora, the traditional local dishes.  Tasting on Tuesday nights, a real pro, a wine rep with exhaustive knowledge and sensibility, sometimes the proprietor of a small importing company would come to talk and taste, as perhaps the boss had observed I liked to pour people little tastes so that we would reach a mutual understanding, which I did for my benefit as much as theirs.

And all along it's been an experience down to earth.  I decant a Madiran for a couple French gentleman and they savor it along with a venison fricassee, singing its praises when I come by to pour.  The same the other night, except it was a Bandol, the same dish, but this time no need to decant, the lady a trained sommelier.   She tells me she only decants vintage bottles.  "Really?" I reply.  "I'd decant a young pinot or even a Beaujolais," I say.  Beaujolais, I cannot stand Beaujolais, and we chuckle.  There's all sorts of types enjoying wine.  And how can I forget my friend Bruno from a small town in the Languedoc, from a Burgundy wine family, but happy to be located in the south where he rides his bike, in excellent shape well into his seventies.  He had a rosé and a red, and asked him about the vintage.  "Oh, every year is good in the South of France," with a big grin and a hearty chuckle, completely lacking in pretension.

Yes, thank you, Bistrot Lepic and its community, it's been an interesting and engaging ten years.

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