Failing at Wine a Little Bit Less: A Philistine’s Journey from NYC to Paris

Moving to Paris was easy. Choosing what wine to bring to a party of French people was not.

I grew up in a home where my parents often traveled to Italy and France and went wine tasting. Weeks after they’d return, dozens of cases of European wine would arrive at our doorstep. Wine is a hobby of theirs. They are multiple-wine-refrigerators people. So I enjoyed testing the limits of their authority by continuously asking for some during meals or social gatherings before I was of age; not because I had any special affinity towards wine, but because it was alcohol – a fetishized commodity to the American teenager.

Early twenties

In my early twenties, my friends’ and my favorite kind of wine was “big.” If there was an option between a 2009 Pinot-Noir and a huge magnum of something from somewhere without a date, we bought the magnum. The second criteria was that it be above eight dollars but below 20. Above eight because we weren’t savages, but below 20 because we also hadn’t invented a tech startup and did not have that kind of cash to throw around, ok?

I was a little proud of myself when I decided Bordeaux was “my favorite”

The third criteria was to try to recall what kind of wine we drank the last time (if we liked it), and many times that came down to remembering what the wine label looked like. So I was a little proud of myself when I decided Bordeaux was “my favorite”. Furthermore, finally being able to walk into a liquor store at 21 years old and ask, “Excuse me, Sir, where can I find your Bordeaux?” made me feel more sophisticated than the previous five years’ declaration: “I’ll have a solo-cup of whatever is in that bucket, please. Thanks, Brad. Cool sweatshirt!”

 

 

As we got a bit older, “big” stopped being the priority. We could afford to spend a little more. We had started to develop a sense of what we liked, what hierarchy the wines belonged to. We had had special occasions with special bottles. Though we couldn’t afford to drink what our parents were drinking every night, we had now been exposed to good wine enough times that we had developed a little persnickety barometer of our own. (“This is not bad,” “Oh this is nice, it has… ‘floral undertones’?” “I don’t know why I’m calling this “dry” but it feels right”, “I think this just needs to breathe.” “Guys, I broke the cork. We either can’t drink this or need to find a colander.” )

We had it in our minds that the older the wine the better

When it came to French wines, we learned they were categorized and named by the regions from which they derived. We could identify a “full bodied” wine versus something “light”. We had it in our minds that the older the wine the better. We had no specific years in mind, just the notion that a 2006 would somehow be “better” than a 2012 because of…oxygen or fermentation or something….

At 26, that was the wine “knowledge” I had when I packed up my belongings in NYC and moved to Paris.

The Paris Years

I wish I cared about anything – or anyone – as much as the French care about the quality of their culinary experiences. This includes the wine they drink. It is not that the French “are into wine,” like the British “enjoy after-work pints,” or New Yorkers “delight in 17 dollar artisanal cocktails that involve egg whites and unnecessary sprigs of thyme” (New York is its own country in this scenario.) The French – and I am very much including young people here – come installed with software that allow them to know what the soil was like in particular regions in particular years, how big the vineyards are at various chateaux across the country, if said vineyards sit on slopes or hills, why that even matters, how the sun affected the grapes in a harvest three, four, five years ago…there are so many details, and the French are pros.

It is the wine, not the goal of getting drunk, that brings people together

Now, I’m not saying Americans are bad at wine. As I mentioned before, I grew up surrounded by adults who are entrenched in wine culture. And Americans have Napa Valley and vineyards in Michigan and the Hamptons and a slew of other places. But in my personal experience, wine culture in America is something you choose to immerse yourself in; it is something you choose to learn about. Most 16 year old kids in the States have no idea what “tannin” is, or that “taste” and “flavour” are two different things in wine. They’re too busy trying to break into their parents’ liquor cabinet on Friday nights to learn about details. The point of drinking when you are young in America is to get drunk.

 

 

In this regard, teenagers of the French variety have their shit together far before we do. Drinking for the pure purpose of getting drunk – especially drinking wine for that purpose – would be as appealing to French people as eating for the sole purpose of feeling uncomfortably full afterwards. From the get-go, the French have a respect for wine. Just like they do for their food. There is a dignity to what is consumed in France. It is an affable experience that involves of all the senses.

The French approach to wine does not stop anyone from getting drunk with their friends, but it is the wine, not the goal of getting drunk, that brings people together.

Learning curve

After a few months of living in Paris, I had made some French friends and was invited to my first all-French-people soiree in someone’s apartment in the 20eme. I was a little nervous because 1) My French was God-awful, and 2) It was BYOB. The pressure was on.

In Paris, everyone dissects the label like Baudelaire had personally written a poem on it

In New York City, as a young adult, when you are invited to someone’s home for a party you bring wine, the host takes it from you, thanks you, and puts it on the table with all the other wine.

In Paris, you bring wine, the host takes it from you, and then everyone takes turns caressing its’ body and dissecting the label like Baudelaire had personally written a poem on it. “Les Yeux de les Ivrognes” (#PedanticFrenchJokes). Then they put it on the table.

Okay maybe it is not that severe, but they will hold the bottle up and take time to read the label to understand what they are about to drink before opening it. And they do this out of respect for the wine, for you and for the experience everyone is about to have.

 

 

I was lucky. The party goers liked my choice. Little did they know my wine-choosing process that evening went something like:

I am partial to St. Emillions, I can say the words “St. Emillion” with a French accent, this bottle is inconveniently expensive, and the man who sold it to me at Nicolas seemed really upbeat throughout the entirety of the ‘conversation’ we had that I did not understand. So hopefully everyone will like it.

Two years later, I understand wine better but not well. For some reason, when people attempt to explain the intricacies of categorizing French wine, there comes a point when my brain just shuts off and I end up nodding my head like I do when my father tries to teach me about whatever “the stock market” is.

I’m not a God-damn geographer

In all fairness, it is not a straightforward medium. This excerpt from a Serious Eats article, A Beginner’s Guide to French Wine by Stacey Gibson, was one of the least confusing explanations I’ve found online.

“When someone says “red Burgundy,” they’re talking about Pinot Noir. And when they say “white Burgundy”, they mean Chardonnay. But as with most French wines, you won’t see those grapes on the label, so it’s worth getting to know a bit about the famous wine-growing regions of Burgundy: there’s Chablis in the north, the Cote d’Or between Dijon and Lyon, Cote Chalonnaise, the Mâcon, and Beaujolais.”

By the time I get to the bottom of that paragraph my ADD is in T-rex mode. It’s just too much. I’m not a God-damn geographer. I thought Chablis was its own kind of wine, and now I’m confused about grapes.

 

 

There is an immediate upside to drinking French wine in France though, and that is that it usually costs about 1/3rd of what it does in NYC. There are obviously exceptions for some exceptional or vintage bottles, but in general, you can buy a pretty good bottle of wine for around 12 euros, and a not-terrible one for around five or six. I’m not saying you should serve five euro wine at your wedding, but what I am saying is, you can drink five euro wine and not feel like you’re performing a vinous walk of shame.

Wine in France usually costs about 1/3rd of what it does in NYC

The closest I’ve come to feeling assimilated into French wine-culture so far has been when I was at a Salon Des Vins Des Vignerons Independants with a good Parisian friend of mine this past spring. We’d been walking around, tasting wines for a solid 45 minutes when we stopped at this one stand and tried two wines from the same vineyard. We swished the first one around in our mouths, and then tried the second. I immediately turned to her and without missing a beat chimed, “I mean this is fine but the 2009 is clearly more refined.”

I’m not even sure if I understood what I meant, but my friend wholeheartedly agreed, and I earned my étoile d’or for the day.

Cheers to another year in Paris, and all the bottles – refined or not – to come.

Jordan Nadler is a NYC writer/journalist who moved to Paris in search of creative fulfillment & better carbs. She can generally be found on the Left Bank w/ a glass of something in one hand and a pen in the other.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+WhatsApp