Day 6: Picnic.Paillard.Party.

What do you do on a morning there’s no winery appointments? You get out in the vineyards.

We grabbed a bottle of Champagne from the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and we went straight to most famous vineyard in that village. The Clos de Mesnil is arguably the most famous vineyard in Champagne and one of the greatest bottles comes from it, produced by Krug. A bottle of Krug Clos de Mesnil can sell for upwards of 1000 dollars on release, and with age will go for much more. It’s a quiet patch of land surrounded entirely by the village, and totally walled in. We climbed a grassy knoll near the vineyard, popped that bottle of cellar-temp Champagne, (it wasn’t Clos de Mesnil) and drank it overlooking that sacred ground. There's something to be said for drinking Champagne that isn't ice cold. The flavor and aromatics are enhanced, and if you think about it you're drinking Champagne the way everyone in history ever drank Champagne up until refrigeration became commonplace.

We took the opportunity to drive around some more vineyards, taking in the great vistas of the Côte des Blancs- the region where some of Champagne’s greatest white wines come from. It’s actually illegal to plant Pinot Noir in the Côte des Blancs.

We got hungry and it just so happened that we found a butcher shop across from a boulangerie in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. We scored some country bread, head cheese, and a whole roast chicken. We drove through the high woods back to Avize, and found a picnic bench overlooking the vineyards. Picnicking is a national pastime here and we partook heartily.

Later it was time to head up to the city of Reims for a visit with our friend François Colas, who is the sales director for the house of Bruno Paillard Champagne. We toured the winery, scored some tastes of awesome vin clairs and Champagne, and then headed into downtowns Reims. The cathedral is a sight to behold. You can see its imposing bulk on the skyline as you drive in. I’ve seen Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Milan Cathedral and St. Francis of Assisi, but I have to say Reims is the most impressive façade of any of them. It’s just breathtaking, and even a little frightening.

I had a chance encounter with my friend Jim, who passed the MS exam with me last October. We got Champagne in the square and hung with with some friends in front of the cathedral, then François invited us to his house for dinner. It just so happens that his house looks out on the cathedral square, so we had a view for dinner all night long. We popped good bottles, ate François’ slow-simmered veal blanquette, and enjoyed one another’s company. Even in a country with lots of great restaurants, on a trip with lots of great meals, the chance to have a home-cooked meal is always very welcome. I’m grateful for friends in faraway places. Tomorrow it’s off to Paris, and then back to Seattle. Champagne was good to us.

Day 5: Champagne for my real friends

We woke in Épernay after a great night’s sleep, then headed straight to our first appointment in Avize. The Michel Gonet winery where we tasted showed us a range of their wine from cask and bottle, and took us inside their creative process. They were a fun family to taste with: very animated, and snippy with each other in just the right way. We tasted at the table with three generations of the family at once. The grandfather, the son and daughter, and the grandson. Their wines were very elegant and precise. Not a very muscular style of Champagne compared to some other houses we tasted, but finely crafted and delicious.

Next it was off to Robert Moncuit in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. This is the visit we’ve been anticipating for the longest time. This is part of the reason we’re in France. About six months ago, Nelson and I started talking about the possibility of producing a private cuvée Champagne for the restaurant. There were a few names thrown around of potential partnerships, and then we were shown the wines of Robert Moncuit. I would have a hard time stressing enough how impressive these wines are when you first taste them. Intense and full of flavor with substantial structure. Aromatic and playful, yet with gravitas. When the opportunity arose to work with them, we were super excited. We will be putting our own label on a wine to use at Canlis and share with our guests, and this is why we’re here.

Pierre Amillet, the proprietor-winemaker, greeted us at the door with a big smile. His energy and vivacity were visible from the outset. In terms of winery equipment, Robert Moncuit was the most interesting. They have two coquard presses, which are ancient equipment in Champagne. For a couple hundred years, the coquard press was the way by which grapes were turned into champagne. It was a measuring tool and a gentle way of pressing grapes for juice. Every other winery we went to had a mechanical or pneumatic press, but Moncuit had two vintage wooden Coquard presses (see below).

We went from there into their underground stone cellar, dug out in the 1880s. As you can imagine it was ice cold. We tasted from barrel and saw how the 2017s are progressing. Then he took us to the storage room and tasted us on a barrel of their 20 year-old Ratafia, which is a type of liquer made in Champagne from fresh juice and brandy. Then, to our surprise, Pierre brought up a magnum of 1983 Robert Moncuit, from our friend Tom’s birth year.

After tasting through the lineup of finished Champagnes and discussing what our private label might look like, we went outside and Pierre showed us their estate vineyard. One of Champagne’s dark secrets is that for years it was the garbage depository for Paris. They would literally take trash bags and put them right into the vineyards. You can see the remnants of old bags, wrappers, toothpaste tubes, plastic caps, and all manner of other things in the soil. It was seen as quality compost at one point in time. Pierre told me that workers even used to get stuck with used needles through their shoes…ugh. Thankfully the trend has been in reversal for quite a few years, but it’s still surreal to dig your hands in the dirt and see broken up trash from the 1980s. Pierre took the magnum of 1983 from the cellar and disgorged it in the parking lot, then poured it around for us. A funky, complex bottling with loads of character. It’s a treat to be poured old wines straight from the cellar. We had lunch with Pierre and his wife, then headed to our next stop.

Our next appointment was at Frédéric Savart in the village of Ecueil. Fred is a stocky guy with swept back, shoulder length hair, vineyard-soil covered sneakers, and a crazy look on his face. He sized us up and then took us upstairs to his barrel loft to taste with him. Fred’s barrel samples were great like many of the other ones we tasted, but they had a different level of intensity and craziness. Every barrel was diverse, and all of them seemed to exude a little bit of crazy in their personality.

Besides trying France's version of a big burger at Sacré Bistro in Épernay, that's it for the day. We got a great handle on several producers, so I left this day feeling educated and excited about where Champagne is going as a region, and stoked to have our own cuvée for Canlis with the excellent Robert Moncuit.

Day 4: Through the Countryside

I woke up and ran down to the Serein river, and followed the trail along the green water and rushes. The morning run has become my savior on trips like this, where we’re up late and drinking wine. It’s an opportunity to get the blood moving, clear my head, and get ready for the day.

We headed straight through the rolling green hills to Chablis, where we stopped at the winery of Eleni & Edouard Vocoret. Eleni greeted us at the door to show us around. She’s a badass, just so you know. Lip ring, intense glare, sharp wit. She’s 9 months pregant, full term, ready to deliver her baby at any instant. She came to the door, showed us the winery, and tasted us on a few of their wines. They reflect the humor and attitude of the maker-creative, boundary-pushing, confident. I wish more women were winemakers, and that more of them were leading tastings. Eleni and her husband Edouard have great things ahead of them.

After our tasting at Vocoret, we walked through the Chablis Grand Cru vineyard. This is a southwest-facing slope that overlooks the town. We hunted for fossilized seashells and eventually found one. We headed to Chablis and had our first beer in a long while, which was surprisingly refreshing. There’s something about having a beer after wine tasting that is particularly restorative. We had reservations at a restaurant called Fille de Zinc, which ended up being a great idea. (It was actually Eleni’s idea, she told us to go there). Amongst the four fantastic dishes we had, the best was a dish of asparagus fritters with a dijon mustard foam. I’d never tasted anything quite like it, and it disappeared quickly from the plate. Not only was the food and wine fantastic, but we ate overlooking the picturesque canal running through Chablis. Easily the best meal we’ve had in France.

Next it was a fast drive through more verdant French countryside straight to Champagne. Here, the terrain moves from steeper slopes into lower, broader, more rolling hills. Hills that roll over the course of a mile or more, flat and massive. Our first stop was at Dhondt-Grellet, and we were greeted by Adrien, a young winemaker who took over from his parents six years ago. His wines were precise, bright, and full of character, and we were able to taste straight from barrel. When you taste from barrel in Champagne, you’re tasting vin clairs, which are the dry whites used to make sparkling wine. They’re very tart, acidic and intense. But these are the ingredients that create the rich, luscious wines we’ve come to expect from Champagne. And each winemaker seasons with these ingredients to make their magic.

We then checked into our AirBnb, and dropped by Les Avisés in the village of Avize. We had tried to schedule a tasting with Jacques Selosse earlier over email, but had been rebuffed. Selosse is one of the Champagne producers that has inspired many sommeliers, myself included. These are special wines that are next to impossible to find. This winery makes about 20,000 bottles per year, which when you divide it across the world is very little quantity. So when we found out that we’d be able to taste with Guillaume Selosse, we were elated. Guillaume popped into the room, wily and cagey, with a big friendly smile on his face. He looks like a cross between Elijah Woods’ Frodo, Ramsay Bolton, and Bruno Mars. He started pouring wines. Wines that we weren’t expecting to taste. Wines that are impossible for us to get. And then came the Substance. If you don’t know about Substance, it's a solera Champagne started in 1986. It’s a blend of more than 30 vintages. For someone like me who loves both Champagne and Sherry, it’s a pretty special bottle. Guillaume pulled a taste of the original reserve wine for us and we all stood tasting it in reverence. We weren’t deserving of this tasting, but we had the chance to experience it, and it will live in my memory forever.

After Selosse it was off to check out the new spot in Épernay, “Sacré Bistro.” It’s a hamburger and fries joint with a killer Champagne list...a business model that I wish had more traction in the USA. I had a “Charlemagne” burger and we enjoyed some Champagne and Burgundy with dinner. It turns out our buddy Adrien from Dhondt-Grellet was there too, so I brought him some of our 2002 Roumier Clos de la Bussière. It’s a small world here in Champagne. We went back to the AirBnB and I slept like a chalk rock.

Day 3: Sinking Teeth Into Burgundy

After what may be our only great night of sleep this whole trip, we got up, had a wonderful breakfast of baguette, eggs and charcuterie, then headed to our first tasting at David Duband.

David Duband is based in Chevannes, which is in the Hauts Côtes de Nuits, which is about a half hour away from the main stretch of vineyard land. This drive was absolutely stunning, and the type of terrain that calls to mind the French countryside I had in my head all this time. Think rolling hills, tiny stone villages tucked into valleys, thick clustered woods where there were once wolves, and perfectly manicured farmland divided by hedges and stone walls. You always imagine life here like it might have been centuries ago. If you were a peasant, that big stone mansion on the hill was owned by your lord, who also owned you. If you were a farmer, those wolves in the forest presented a real danger to your family and your livelihood.

When we arrived at David Duband he burst into the room like an explosion, all smiles and handshakes. Every winemaker has such a different personality, and David’s exuberance absolutely shows through in his wines. We tasted his range of Premier Cru and village wines from the 2016 vintage. The reds were great: aromatic, with plenty of flair and verve. This vintage is awesome. Lifted, pretty wines with good structure that are drinking great right now. After having several 2015s next to their 2016 counterparts, I have to say I prefer the way the 16s are drinking right now. Duband makes an Hauts Côtes de Nuits Blanc that he calls “Chevannes-Montrachet” after his village, but we didn’t taste that one.

Our next appointment was at Roulot. When I talked about Roumier in my last post, I mentioned some religious qualities. Devout interpreter-winemaker, hallowed ground, rare insight and revelation. If Christophe Roumier were the high priest of red Burgundy, Jean-Marc Roulot would be the wise prophet of white Burgundy. Getting a tasting here is nigh impossible, so I’m grateful to our hosts at Grand Cru Selections for making it a reality. Thirty years ago, one could tour around Burgundy and drop into people’s cellars to taste wine, and that is absolutely not the reality today. Appointments and recommendations are necessary. As a member of the trade I’m able to be included in these tastings, and I’m very thankful to have the opportunity.

A very capable and knowledgable gentleman named Paul greeted us at Roulot and took us through the lineup of 2016 Meursaults. The four of us seasoned wine professionals at the tasting were like giggling kids, looking at each other and realizing the gravity of the moment. These are wines that I can’t even get for the restaurant I work for. Maybe I can get a few bottles a year of one or two cuvées, but getting to taste six of them side by side was incredible. The Meursault Charmes lived up to its name with a rich and velvety texture, the Perrières likewise with brisk acidity and powerful structure. These are not white wines for wimps. And anyone who tells you they don’t like Chardonnay would have their heart and mind changed after a tasting like this. I’m still in awe.

After our tasting we went to the grand crus to get a look around. We walked around the entirety of Montrachet, the greatest white wine vineyard in the world. I was again surprised at the humility of this little place. This is a smaller patch of land than a soccer field. In a difficult year this whole vineyard might yield only 5000 bottles across the several producers making it. And each bottle of Montrachet might average 1000 dollars or more upon release. An acre of this land could go for almost 10 million dollars. So you can see the way rarity and access play a huge role here. Just getting to walk around this vineyard and see its soil was a treat. We then went to the red grand crus vineyards, got reprimanded by a horse-drawn ploughman in French, and headed up to northern Burgundy.

We drove north to a little town called L’Isle-sur-Serein, and dined at a pretty epic restaurant there. The epic-ness doesn't apply at all to the food, but in fact to the wine list. An amazing selection of hard-to-find wines, and surly service that did the wines no favor at all. But even if you're treated poorly it's pretty fantastic to have the world's most difficult-to-find wines at a premium. This felt very French somehow, even though most of the service we've gotten here was friendly and heartfelt.

The next morning necessitated exercise, and I got to run along the Serein river before we headed north to Chablis.

Day 2: Into the Labrynth

Oh good lord, to be in France, drinking French wine, eating French food.

I’m a lifetime believer, and I just got let into the inner sanctum of the temple. Here’s an illustration. If you’re wine tasting in California, most likely you'll walk into a tasting room with a staff all its own. Someone will pour you one of the wines they make. If it's a big winery chances are they make a couple hundred thousand bottles of their main wine. Or a million. You may never meet any member of the 25 person winemaking staff. In burgundy, many of these wineries make 10.000 bottles in a good, plentiful vintage. When the winemaker takes you straight down to the cellar and starts popping corks, it's a big deal. There's no marketing budget or magazine ads behind these wines. Just a winemaker, their wines, and some barrels in an ancient cellar. 

Cristophe Roumier greeted us at the door of his winery today. For someone visiting burgundy for the first time, this is a big deal. If Burgundy were an old religion, he'd be one of its high priests. It's like an aspiring actor moving out to LA and meeting George Clooney on set their first day. We headed straight down to the cellar. This was my first tasting in Burgundy, and damn it was a good one. Not only did we get to taste barrel samples of the 2017 vintage, which has yet to finish malolatic fermentation, but we also popped some bottles of 2016 and 2015. The 2015 and 2016 Bonnes Mares were absolutely off the chain. If you’re wondering what Bonnes Mares is, it’s a grand cru vineyard, one of the best spots of land in the whole of Burgundy. Christophe Roumier was an extremely generous host.

In France, buying even some basic groceries is a whole different experience. In a small town like Beaune, the markets in the town are all split between specialties. The butcher shop provided the weight of our lunch, and the boulangerie gave us something to spread paté en croûte over. It's insane how good of a lunch you can have with a handful of things you picked up from the corner store. I had really been hoping to find a Panera, but the boulangerie was good enough. 

After lunch it was back to Meursault and Volnay. We visited Domaine Génot-Boulanger to taste their lineup. The house is one third of a massive château building built in the 1600s. Guillaume was our host, and took us out to the vineyards in the village of Meursault to see where some of the world's greatest whites are made. I am continually struck by how humble everything is in Burgundy. There's no glamorous signs, no wineries with golf courses and spas, no fake castles built 10 years ago. Just vineyards and tiny little wineries. This is a place that is as honest as possible about who and what it is.  

This ethos was still felt at Marquis d'Angervilles, a storied estate in Volnay. Even better than drinking the Clos de Ducs wine in the Clos de Ducs vineyard was drinking the water from the freshwater spring sputtering right out of the ground. You could call it Eau de Ducs. 

Our evening concluded with a trip to Caves Madeleine in Beaune. Smoked trout with potato. Two things that are heaven together, especially with champagne. Phew. There's still more to eat and drink. Time to put in work.

DAY 1: Une grande mélange des choses

My flight was late, so there was no relaxing walk down the Champs-Élysées on my first day. Maybe later this week when I’m back in Paris. Add on to that a train strike and you have a situation on your hands.

I’ve grown accustomed to the great Italian tradition of train strikes. Indeed, if the train workers aren’t striking in Italy, it’s almost as if something’s wrong. I expected the French train workers to be a little bit more reserved in their striking habits, but man was I wrong. I have two loooong taxi rides and the accompanying bills to prove it. Because if there’s not a train, and you don’t want to wait four hours for a bus that takes another four hours to arrive at your destination, then it’s gonna be a taxi. Ouch.

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train beer, don't care

I took a long TGV from Paris to Lyon and had my inaugural French train beer. I saw lots of little farms along the way, and I observed that French animals have families. I think animal husbandry is a more highly-evolved and gentle process here. Calves frolick with their mothers in the fields, unlike many of the operations I’ve seen in the US, where genders and ages are separated very early. I don’t profess to be some livestock expert but it looks to me like french cows are just happier. And this goes for the sheep and goats I’ve seen too. I think this happiness is readily apparent in the cheese.

I missed our first tasting today because of the train strike. It makes getting around that much harder. My taxi dropped me off right in front of David Chapel’s winery in Régnié-Durette. We had our first tasting with Emily and David Chapel, a young couple who just bought land in Beaujolais a couple years ago. They’re raising two small kids, creating some awesome wines, and carving a spot out for themselves in Beaujolais. We started the tasting with some 2017 tank samples, then tasted their 2016s. These wines were crackling with energy. Fresh, bright, full of life. My personal favorite was the 2016 Juliénas sans soufre, which they only bottled a few hundred of.

After that it was back to our apartment in Beaune, and dinner at Maison Combier. Incredible wines, great charcuterie, and a wonderful pork belly and sweet potato dish. Later that night, Tom and I used umbrellas to demonstrate why staircases were spiraled in old houses hint: it involves swords. France treated me well. Very well. See you tomorrow, au revoir!