Yesterday was given over to travel for a unique and delightful experience. Brian (Two Dogs) and I got up before the sun and headed out to Burbank Airport to catch a flight on my favorite airline to Oakland. Incidentally, the flight up and back were two of the smoothest, nicest flights I have been on in over a year. Really great.
Anyway, north– up to Oakland to take part in Forum Vinum, a French wine tasting and trade show in which wine-makers from all over France came to pedal their wares and attempt to get back into the American market. It was an eye-opening and educational experience but at the end of the event yesterday, one thing remained clear: These wines and these people were wonderful, top notch and quality. I couldn’t believe the consistent quality of each of the wines from different regions and how completely different the French wines were from their American counterparts. As a certified sommelier, I have no real experience in French wines other than what I read and I still feel I need about 10 years to even begin knowing the wines.
The region that stood out most to me was the Alsace. Known for its white wines, light and delicate in nature, these common names in French hands were not at all like their American cousins. Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and not a one of them sickly, syrupy sweet. They were light, almost fragile and with a nuanced focus on the fruit that allowed their natural sweetness to come through. It was the first region we tasted, too–and we tasted probably a total of around 40 wines. Still, the delicate flavors, floral and honey aromas and golden, straw and pale gold colors still stand out in my mind.
Burgundy was not widely represented, but there were three producers. Burgundy is the producer of the wines we Americans know as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The standout here was the red Burgundy or Pinot Noir. If you’ve not had a Burgundy, it is hard to compare it to American versions with the possible exception of the Oregon Pinots. As is the case for almost all of France’s distinct wines, the wine-makers concentrate on expressing terroir–or place. The soil and the ambient environment come through and so flavors of mineral, loam and smokiness peer through far more than they do in the fruit bombs of the new world wines. That was true here as well and the two Burgundies we drank were really subtle, beautifully crafted wines with finishes that lingered. As late as the drive home, upon landing back in Burbank, some 3 or 4 hours after the event ended, Brian and I could still taste the Burgundy–and remembered their charms.
France does wine differently from the U.S. The A.O.C. has very strict rules governing how wines are labeled and sold. Marketing is a relatively new practice for the French largely because of the rules imposed by the A.O.C. The fraud that took place in descriptions of wine contents during and after the Napoleonic era caused a very focused, very strict set of rules to be put in place. One gentleman, James–from Provence, is working through his wine company to update those rules and relax them a bit. He’s a marketing specialist and his challenge is not in providing quality wines (the rose’s from Provence are stellar–and were delicious), but in marketing them using names that the A.O.C. will allow. It was a powerful education in the complexities inherent in a wine region that is some 5000 years old.
One of the other factors facing the French is the sheer number of wine producers. For example, in Languedoc, an area smaller in size than Santa Barbara County, there are some 1500 wine producers. By comparison, Santa Barbara County boasts fewer than 200 such wine producers. Competition is a good thing, yes–but essentially, in a global market, it’s hard to make a lot of money selling wine when you produce about 1000 cases a year or less. For many years, the French simply grew wine for themselves and for the locals in their area. But in an era of global competition, that business model won’t survive. No tears, now–that’s not the point. It’s just a change in something that hasn’t changed in a very, very long time.
The people were good natured, funny and passionate about their wines. The last wine we drank was poured by a woman named Mary who, in fact, wasn’t French but Irish. Mary, a trained oenologist, fell in love with a Frenchman, married and moved to France. Now, she travels the world–and the country–helping him promote his wines. Of course, since she spoke English–and in that beautiful, lilting accent, she was easy to get to know. The wines she poured were typically delicate and truly unique. She had the only Tempranillo we tried that day and it was beautiful in its delicate and smoky cherry flavors. It was a real treat.
We headed over to hear Angelo Tavernaro speak, too. Angelo is a Master Sommelier who worked for 20 years at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas as well as several other high profile jobs. He grew up in Italy where, as he says, “wine is simply a way of life.” He talked about the French A.O.C. but spent a great deal of time on the very real and very specific health benefits of a lifestyle that includes wine in the diet everyday. Of course, moderation is the key, there–as it is in so many things. And, as a teacher, he spoke near and dear to my heart in mentioning that “Americans make a big mistake when they make wine–and alcohol–a taboo. There are more incidences of teen binge drinking, teen alcoholism and improper behavior when it comes to drinking in America than anywhere in Europe.” I have to give the man his due. I think he’s right about this. I’ve seen it.
Finally, not one of the people we met fit the stereotype of a French person that Americans have come to adopt. Everyone was kind, gentle and friendly with not an air of “superiority” or unkindness anywhere. Yes, they were there to sell wine–but I never once got the feeling that they were putting on a brave face and saving their commentary for when all the Americans left. On the contrary, they seemed grateful and happy to be there. This would be the third time I’ve had occasion to be around French people and I did not find any of the stereotypes during any one of those times. This, combined with the fact that in France’s recent elections they put into a power a man who promised closer and better ties with the U.S. and the fact that Germany did the same thing in electing Angela Merkel, makes me wonder about the media-hype that says that Europe hates us. I simply don’t buy it–I don’t think it’s true. And my evidence is pretty clear.
Some pictures of the trip:
Angelo Taverarno, Master Sommelier, talks about the wine life–and the French A.O.C.
Brian pays rapt attention at the Master’s seminar. Even after being awake at 4:00–we wanted to sit and listen. Tired doesn’t count when you love what you’re doing.
Our Irish oenologist, Mary and me bonding over some Tempranillo.
Rose’s du Provence-a name which, until recently, was not allowed to exist by the A.O.C. Our new friend and wine marketing guru James De Roamy pushed through the changes that allowed these names to exist.
Oakland has a certain…well, a reputation. Still, there are some gems here in the East bay not the least of which is some really cool, older architecture.
Sue, Peanut and I were just here in Oakland–here at the Marriott Convention center, less than a month ago. The weather then was rainy, cloudy and cold. But the Tribune building caught my eye and I kept thinking it would make a great photograph on a sunny day. Little did I know I’d be here 3 weeks later–so, there’s the Tribune–more cool architecture.
It was too early to think about getting the camera out at 7:00 A.M. in Burbank. But, I’m a sucker for airplane and flying photos–so, on the way home, I got shutter happy with few stellar results. Still–our plane was just over half full going home which allowed us to taxi very quickly into position and take off from the midway point on the runway. We rolled out from the gate and less than a minute later, I snapped this pic going out over the East Bay.
On the ground at Burbank exactly 12 hours and 5 minutes after we took off that Wednesday morning. I love Southwest–they helped me learn to go flying and traveling again and I’m a loyal customer. Plus–I think their airplanes, in this case the Boeing 737-700 series (Southwest flies 737’s exclusively), look really, really cool.