31 July 2009

We like their wines.

Home sweet home.

We've enjoyed so many wonderful trips together over the years, but this one was unique. Most vacations are about what you see-- museums, landmarks, natural wonders. This trip certainly included those things in abundance, but what defines it in our memories won't be the Louvre or the Alps-- it will be the inexplicable generosity, hospitality, and enthusiasm we encountered at every tasting appointment. Over and over, busy winemakers took several hours of their time to not only taste their wines with us, but to show us through their facilities, their vineyards, and even their towns. They seemed as interested in teaching us about their land, their grapes, and their practices as we were in learning about them. We're not distributors, retailers, winemakers, or even big spenders. Winemakers in France do not generally sell their wines directly to visitors. Most don't even have formal tasting rooms. So the best we can tell, they gave us their time for the simple reason that we like their wines.

29 July 2009

Paris, Day Thirteen

On day thirteen, we tied up loose ends.

We visited....


We walked along...


We nibbled on...

Oh, the pigeon story:

On our last evening in Paris, I witnessed something unusual. We were walking down a café-filled street near our hotel when, in the distance, a sudden movement caught my eye. It was a falling pigeon, although I didn’t immediately recognize it as such. The bird dropped like a stone from the top of a building, glanced off a dormer roof partway down, and landed on its back on a small outdoor table at which a middle-aged couple was dining.

This all took place perhaps 50 meters away – far enough that it played out like a silent movie. I could see everything that happened, but it all occurred in pantomime. The plummeting pigeon landed amidst the dinner dishes in the middle of a small two-person café table. The occupants of the table threw themselves back in surprise. The bird fluttered off the table and into the lap of the wildly gesticulating woman (I’m not making this up). She frantically tossed it back onto the table, where her inexplicably calm male companion attempted to subdue the flopping creature. The bird continued to flop about on the tabletop until the man was able to get both hands around it.

By this time, the scene had aroused the attention of nearby diners, who watched with some interest to see what the man would do with the disruptive bird. He glanced from side to side, holding the pigeon at arm’s length and taking tentative steps away from the table. Finally, he kneeled down and released the bird on the sidewalk. To everyone’s surprise, the bird flew away.

Having an airborne rat suddenly and unexpectedly land on my dinner would be upsetting to me. I thought the man handled the situation with considerable aplomb. As for the bird, who knows? Did it momentarily forget how to fly? Do birds really have to pay attention to what they’re doing? I never gave them that much credit.

We had dinner and walked back to the hotel. And then we packed.

Twenty four hours of travel ahead.... more details when we get home.

27 July 2009

Paris, Days Eleven + Twelve

We arrived in Paris with a museum strategy based on sage advice from several friends. We picked up a two day museum pass so we wouldn't have to wait in lines at ticket booths and we'd save some money. We chose a mix of one major museum and then one or two smaller ones for each day. We followed instructions, to the letter, about how and when to arrive at the Louvre. We carefully planned meals and other sightseeing opportunities around our museum schedule. We're never this regimented when we travel, but we wanted to squeeze a lot into four short days in Paris.

Sunday was our "lighter" day. We planned for only two museums because we wanted to leave time for the Tour de France's last stage. We started our morning with a traditional French breakfast at a café near our hotel-- coffee, juice, a croissant, and a piece of baguette with sweet butter and jam.
Then we walked to the Pantheon, which is just a few steps from our hotel's front door. Despite its imposing size, the Panthéon is an easy place to visit when you're pressed for time. The displays are pretty spectacular, but they're large and there's plenty of room to see them from all sides. On the main level, you can't miss Foucault's Pendulum.
Foucault suspended his pendulum here in 1851 to demonstrate the Earth's rotation on its axis. Down below, there are a series of tombs where France honors many of her most notable citizens. There are so many famous names here, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie and Pierre Curie, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo.

From the Panthéon, we hopped on the Metro and traveled to the Musée d'Orsay. Nothing prepared us for the throngs of people clustered outside the entrance, but our museum passes pretty much paid for themselves when we realized that all of those people were waiting to buy tickets and we could walk right through the door. Within moments, we were through security and in the spectacular lobby. The Musée d'Orsay is enormous, and we knew we didn't have time to see eveything, so we honed in on the galleries that were most important to us: the impressionist and post-impressionist art. The collection here is world class; in any city but Paris, this would be "the" museum. The Van Gogh and Matisse galleries were fabulous-- so fabulous that we could barely get through the thick crowds of eager people to see the paintings. When we found a door to an outside terrace, it was a welcome respite from all that humanity. We soaked up the view for a bit, then took a deep breath and headed toward the Post-Impressionist galleries to see the Rousseaus. Nothing was as crowded as the impressionist galleries, but the Musée d'Orsay in July felt a bit too much like the mall on December 24th. We beat a hasty retreat and crossed the Seine to get a glimpse of the Tour de France. If spectators were rooting for any particular cyclists, we couldn't tell. The crowd was a sea of bright yellow T-Shirts and flags, all with the same logo. It's a pretty unique sight! We must have walked a couple of kilometers just to loop around the end of the course and buy a couple of t-shirts of our own.

By the time we made it back to the hotel, we were absolutely exhausted. We had a 7PM dinner (very geriatric by Paris standards) at Café Soufflot, a small spot in the latin quarter that's popular with students. We chose it because it felt right-- it was nearby, simple, and cheap, but it had something wonderful that we didn't anticipate-- gruff French waiters. Our waiter wanted to dislike us, we knew he did, but we charmed the pants off him with our earnest attempts to speak French. At some point between aperitifs and the main course, he not only smiled, but met us half-way in English. We enjoyed the place so much that we returned the next morning for petit dejeuner.

People. Everywhere.

We woke up early on Monday morning, had coffee and croissants, and took the Metro to the Louvre. We expected crowds, but we took every precaution: we had our museum passes so we wouldn't have to buy tickets, and we would enter through the Metro station instead of through the palace doors.


If the Musee d'Orsay was the mall on Christmas Eve, then the Louvre was Times Square on New Year's Eve. The heat radiating from the thousands of bodies in the grand lobby was palpable. To their credit, the French have developed a pretty efficient infrastructure to deal with tens of thousands of clueless tourists every day, but still, it's a goat rodeo in there - an ant farm of tourists. People milling about in every direction, huge mobs clustered around the most famous works of art. The worst placement in the Louvre has to be on the wall opposite the Mona Lisa - in that gallery, NO ONE is there for anything but that smiling lady.

We might sound cranky about the crowds, and there's no question that mobs of tourists detract from the overall experience here - but hey, we're part of the problem, so there's no particular point in grumbling about it. We experienced similar mobs at the base of the Eiffel Tower and wandering along the Champs Elysees - fortunately, we have roughly equal tolerances for such things, and it usually doesn't take more than a shared glance for us to mutually agree it's time to bail.

One place we absolutely didn't need to escape from was the L'Orangerie, a smallish museum located not far from the Louvre at the other end of the Tuilleries Gardens. It's a simple and elegant structure, specifically remodeled to showcase Claude Monet's "Waterlilies" series. The paintings are actually a set of eight large murals and are displayed in two very plain oval rooms containing four murals each. The paintings actually curve around 360 degrees of the room (with a couple of gaps for entry/exit hallways), giving the viewer a sense of being completely surrounded by the scene. The lighting is soft and diffuse, the crowds mercifully small and quiet... all in all, a spectacularly successful exhibit. The rest of the museum downstairs is similarly spare and elegant, housing a nice collection showing the influence of Picasso on his contemporaries. We loved the low-key vibe and great collection at L'Orangerie, and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Paris.

It was gray and cool out for a change, so we decided to skip the metro and walk 2 km from L'Orangerie to our next stop, Ste. Chappelle. Ste. Chappelle is an almost eight hundred year old Gothic chapel on the Île de la Cité, very close to Notre Dame. As we crossed the Seine, we felt few light drops. Moments after we stepped off the bridge on to the left bank, the drizzle turned into a downpour. An umbrella would have been nice (both of ours were in our luggage at the hotel) but with the rest of Paris taking refuge in cafés and under awnings, we sort of liked that we had the streets to ourselves. There were a handful of bookinistes peddling posters, tchotchkes, and assorted souvenirs, so we had some diversions on the way.

We've seen our share of churches on this trip, but nothing like Ste. Chappelle. From inside, it feels like the entire structure is made from stained glass.

From Ste. Chappelle we walked another kilometer or so back to our hotel, and then kicked up our sore, soggy feet and relaxed for a couple of hours before dinner at Willi's Wine Bar in the first arrondisement. "Willi"is Mark Williamson, an American expat who's been in Paris for decades. His wine bar is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. We expected a pretty casual meal, which it was, but the food was outrageously good and the wine list was excellent.

Tune in tomorrow for Paris pizza, the Eiffel tower, and the pigeon that fell from the sky on to a horrified tourist's croque monsieur.

Paris (finally!) Day Ten.

So as far as I can tell, Charles de Gaulle airport is the only airport of any size whatsoever that doesn't feature a fleet of hotel shuttles - you know, the independent vans that scoop up a half dozen frazzled visitors and deliver them one by one to their respective destinations. Nope, at CDG, the only people taking vans into Paris are the people who have made reservations ahead of time. We've been in France for a week and a half and it never occurred to me that we'd need to reserve a ride into the city. Oh well, live and learn. After a half hour of trying to score a shuttle ride, we ended up taking a cab that was not much more than the shuttle's cost for two people.

We arrived at our hotel, in the 5th arrondisement directly across the street from the Pantheon museum. We're surprised and delighted by our room: although it boasts a view of some fake bamboo and a blank concrete wall, it's surprisingly large by Paris standards, comfortable, and nicely decorated. The hotel is in an 18th century mansion and has some interesting architectural remnants of its age - including a tiny, winding hallway to our room, and some massive, hand-carved beams on the ceiling of our room. The lobby smells like tuberose, so we tend to linger on our way through.

We were sort of fatigued after a long day of travel, so we decided to find dinner in the neighborhood. We're on the edge of the Latin Quarter, so it wasn't difficult to find a bunch of choices. We settled on a small place that featured an interesting wine list posted on their window - Bistro Laplace. It was a tiny, fun place - basically a one-man show. The menu du jour featured gazpacho, a slow-braised hunk of beef with baby potatoes, and chocolate mousse. We both went for it, and tried to accompany our meal with a Lapierre Morgon, but it was out of stock. Our waiter directed us to a Cotes du Rhone as an alternative. The wine was unexceptional, but the food was wonderful.

After dinner we walked a few blocks down to the river and admired the view of Notre Dame.
We crossed over to the Ile de France and watched a group of amazing skaters who'd set up in front of the cathedral. There were musicians, dancers, and the skaters - all the street entertainment you could ask for. Finally, we wandered back to our hotel, well aware that for many Parisians, the night was just beginning.

26 July 2009

Zermatt to Strasbourg, Day Nine.

En route from Zermatt, Switzerland to Colmar, France, our navigation system asked us to drive on to a train. We resisted at first, but a kindly toll-booth operator told us in flawless English: GPS knows best!

Switzerland has one of the best systems of roads we've ever seen, with endless kilometers of perfectly smooth highways. In the mountains, they've constructed a series of options for travelers to shave hours off certain trips. There are tunnels, bridges, and trains, all with fairly high tolls, that cut right through mountains instead of looping around them. Thrilled at the idea of shaving 90 minutes off our drive to Alsace and having more time to spend in the region, we paid a $25 toll and drove our rental car on to an "auto train". The open-air train holds a single row of cars and nothing else. You drive on, engage your handbrake, turn off the engine, and the train does the rest. At first it felt like a gentle ride at Disneyland. Then the train moved into the tunnel-- a tunnel with no lights whatsoever.

And that’s how it continued: approximately 20 minutes of utter blackness, accompanied by the clacking roar of the train. We sat bemusedly in the dark until suddenly we emerged into bright sunshine and stopped. In less than a half hour of total elapsed time, we cut an hour and a half of driving – around 150 km – by means of a single 15 km tunnel. It’s known as the Lötschberg Tunnel, built over a seven year period from 1906 to 1913. Since diesel costs over a Euro per liter, and since we have been averaging a bit over 6 liters per 100 kilometers, our gas savings alone were about 10 euros – add in the time savings and the toll-booth operator was right: our GPS gave us some good advice on this one.

We continued to roll down through the Alpine foothills and into the rolling hills that make up much of Switzerland’s northern half.
We crossed over the Rhine River into the Alsace region of France and made our way to the small city of Colmar – a previously unknown destination, but one that was recommended by a couple of our European friends. Colmar lost its "hidden gem" status the moment we learned it had not one but two Sephora stores. Sephora's a plague on the landscape here, like McDonald's, and it's such a massive bummer to see one built into the ground floor of an otherwise beautiful old building. Nevertheless, the Germanic, half-timbered, car-free center of town was a scenic place to spend the afternoon. Thanks to our Rick Steves guidebook, a map, and a little help from our phone's GPS, we found L'un Des Sens, a delightful wine bar hidden on one of Colmar's winding side streets. We needed a break from meat, so we ordered a cheese plate and what looked like a salad on the day's chalkboard. The owner explained that it was not a salad but rather "seasonal vegetable caviars". We couldn't imagine what that meant, but we were interested to give it a try. We mentioned that we liked Riesling, so she also asked if she could select some wines for us. Her choices were excellent. One young German, one older Alsatian. The vegetable "caviars" were like pestos... or tapenades... one was made with juicy olives. Another had tomato and oregano. One had zucchini, another had eggplant, and our absolute favorite with a bright red pepper "caviar" that was similar to romanesco. The cheese plate included Delice de Pommard, a cheese that we'd never had before this trip but has quickly become one of our favorites. It's a triple cream goat cheese rolled in mustard seeds, and the piquancy of the mustard is beautifully balanced by the freshness and richness of the cheese. Our fingers are crossed that we can find this one at home.

We said goodbye to L'un Des Sens and then stopped at Pâtisserie GILG for macarons. We weren't sure how long it would take to get to Strasbourg in Friday afternoon traffic, so Melissa decided to give Colmar's pay toilet a whirl. Yup, she's in there in the picture. It's an interesting concept. It's like a vending machine, only you pay to leave something behind. It's not a bad deal for €0,30. Each time someone exits, the interior self-cleans. It doesn't self-dry, so it's important to convince yourself that in this case, a public toilet covered in droplets won't kill you. On to Strasbourg.

Strasbourg lies at a geographical, political, and cultural intersection between Germany and France.
It looks German, smells German, and feels German, but it sounds French. We booked one night at L'Hôtel Cathédrale, just steps from the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg. The 1980s era decor in our room was badly outdated, but the room was huge and the view was amazing. We took that picture to the right from our room's window. Later that night when the whole town converged on the square to watch the Cathedrale's light show, we had a front row view from our room. The show itself was both beautiful and bizarre, with multicolored lights pulsing in tune with classical music. It's the gothic cathedral's answer to Laser Floyd.

And on to Paris.

24 July 2009

Zermatt, Day Eight.

Within minutes of our arrival in Zermatt, Switzerland, I was struck by two simultaneous realizations: first, my adolescent fantasy of walking these streets in the shadow of the Matterhorn was well and truly shattered, and second, that I am a complete sucker when it comes to adolescent fantasies. I really should have known better.

As always, Zermatt remains free from private cars: the only way to get here is to walk, ride a bike, or take a short train ride from the jumping off town of Täsch in the valley below. In any case, when you arrive, you’ll be confronted by a spectacular mountain valley setting – peaks soar in every direction, and a glacier-fed stream tumbles through the heart of town. If you keep your eyes pointed toward the mountaintops, you may be able to avoid seeing the hordes of tourists who mob the streets, the T-shirt shops, the bars festooned in bierstübe dreck, and the endless San Fernando-meets-the-Alps construction that’s going on here.

No doubt Zermatt represents a wildest-dreams success story for some people, and I’m sure most visitors are having a great time here. But for a post-teenage romantic it’s a huge disappointment. It’s so kitschy here that I don’t even feel sad – just foolish that the peaceful Alpine village I imagined probably ceased to exist 50 years ago or more. Now (according to the map I picked up at the bustling and modern tourist information center) Zermatt boasts 27 hotels that begin with the letter “A”. Actually, that fact – though true – is somewhat misleading: for some reason there are way more “A” hotels than any other letter, but still, there are around 100 hotels in this town. Apple-cheeked milkmaids and bell-clanging cows – not so much.

Like any tourist trap, Zermatt abounds in cheesy diversions, from horse-drawn wagons to bungee jumping. The restaurants post menus in French, Italian, German, and English and I swear I saw a Tex-Mex chicken burrito on one menu. Food prices in most restaurants are crazy expensive: a dinner for two in most places can easily run to $150 or more, and that’s for tourist food – hardly haute cuisine.

It’s a pity, really, that this place is being loved to death. Glance down side alleys and you can catch the occasional glimpse of a traditional timbered building, weathered almost black with age. The ancient hand-hewn slate rooftops will last until these modern condos crumble to dust. But for every authentic bit of history you find, there are a dozen competing modern diversions: the Swatch store, the shop that sells Mont Blanc pens, and of course, the ubiquitous souvenir stands selling identical Chinese-made t-shirts and bad handicrafts. At this point, the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland is as culturally authentic as Zermatt. Take away its admittedly beautiful setting and it’s indistinguishable from any other well-heeled tourist town.

To top it off for us, the raison-d’etre for this whole silly stopover, the reason I’ve dreamed about Zermatt since I was a kid – the Matterhorn itself – isn’t even visible. It’s been socked in by unseasonable clouds all day long, and the forecast isn’t encouraging.

I’ve intentionally presented Zermatt in an unflattering light, but as we always do together, we’ve managed to wrest some fun out of our experience here. We’re amused by the scenic church tower in the center of town – it chimes out the first six notes of “Hot Cross Buns” on the quarter hours. We wandered through a few streets, marveling at prices and peering up at the scenery. However, after a couple of ominous thunderclaps and steadily-increasing drizzle, we ducked into the first bar we could find – a true port in a storm. By sheer dumb luck we somehow managed to stumble into what might be the least touristy eatery in Zermatt. It was filled with geriatric locals, including a lively foursome of gentlemen playing cards and nursing drinks in one corner.
A waitress greeted us in excellent English and pointed us to a cozy corner table. The place was friendly and unassuming and we ended up settling in for a corny tourist meal of surprisingly tasty, boozy fondue. After our early dinner, we picked up a couple of pastries at a bakery and headed back to our hotel, refreshed – and despite our ambivalence about the town – happy.

So it’s true that a dream died today, but it was replaced with knowledge (never a bad thing) and some good memories, even if Zermatt did not turn out to be the place I hoped it would be.

ADDENDUM: We left Zermatt early this morning, mostly relieved to get out of the crowds and carnival atmosphere. But before we left I wandered down to the town square to glance up at the big cloudy spot that hid the Matterhorn. For a few minutes, the clouds cleared enough to give a glimpse of the north and east faces of the mountain, which soars impossibly high above the town. It was enough.

23 July 2009

Italy, Day Seven

Every time we engage the navigation system in the rental car, it reminds us that it's not perfect and we should use common sense. In other words, don't make a left turn off a cliff even if the computerized voice sounds really confident that it's the right direction. The navigation system in our rental car has done a remarkably good job of getting us where we need to be, but yesterday it screwed up. We were about three hours into the French Alps on our way to Valle d'Aosta, Italy when the navigation system tried to send us back from whence we came.

We tried to re-enter our hotel's Italian address a few times, but no matter what we did, the car insisted we should go back to France. Slightly panicked, we resorted to a map. We found the perfect scenic mountain road-- the Petit St. Bernard Pass-- and started up the steep, winding incline into Italy. Several kilometers into the pass, we decided to try the navigation system one last time. It flashed an electronic map of our location, and said "make a U-turn as soon as possible!" We pressed on, but we had a "light bulb" moment when we passed a few cyclists: the Tour de France blazed through the Petit St. Bernard Pass the day before, so the road was closed. The navigation system just hadn't caught on that the stage was over and the road was open.

We arrived in the small town of Saint-Vincent at around 6PM and checked into our hotel. We opened up the window and gasped... we were right above the action in the town square, with views of the mountains in every direction. We enjoyed the view for a bit and then set out to explore Saint-Vincent.

We've been (mostly) satisfied with our ability to communicate basic needs and requests in French, but we were confident we'd do better in Italian. We didn't. We bombed in a big way. Italian may look like Spanish on paper, but the spoken word is Martian to our ears. Thankfully, almost everyone we encountered was willing to speak with us in the universal language: gesticulation.

We bought a few postcards from a very nice shopkeeper who spoke English, and asked him if he had a favorite restaurant in town. To our delight, he suggested the place we had our eye on anyway-- a tiny Osteria with a "menu staggioni" featuring fresh porcini mushrooms. It was a delicious, inexpensive meal, and we were happy to find a wine on their list from the producer we planned to visit the next day-- Grosjean.

Tangential aside: we had the freshest, creamest buffalo mozzarella either of us has ever seen, and we learned that the Italians call heirloom tomatoes "tomatoes". Imagine that!

We went for a walk, checked out the Church, people-watched, and then decided to turn in for the night at about 11PM. We opened up our window and listened to the soundtrack of Saint-Vincent four stories below: Children play. Dogs bark. Mothers call to them both. Fathers laugh, a bit buzzed. Water spills from the fountain. An a capella choral group practices in perfect harmony. The sounds continued for another hour or so, and then faded one-by-one until the fountain stopped and the square was silent.

Italy, part due.

After a quick breakfast at our hotel, we set out to find Frères Grosjean in the town of Quart. In a fortuitous moment shortly after we planned this vacation, we spotted a Grosjean wine on the list at one of our favorite restaurants in Portland. We'd never even heard of Valle d'Aosta wines before, but it seemed like a fun thing to trace this bottle back to its source in the hills above Aosta. With a few Google Translator-assisted emails, we confirmed a visit.

Although Grosjean bottles manage to get all the way to Portland, they are a fairly small producer, creating a portfolio of about 10 wines, all produced from grapes grown on their adjacent properties. The wines include several varieties indigenous to the Aosta Valley and rarely seen in the US.

When we arrived, after twisting and turning through narrow lanes in the small town of Quart, we were greeted by an old fellow who looked like a charicature of an Italian winemaker: dusty trousers, suspenders, a sun-wrinkled face, and toting an enormous triangular spade. He smiled, greeted us, and asked us if we spoke Italian - we said no. He asked if we spoke French - we admitted to un petit peu. He gave up, grinned widely at us, and pointed us into the winery where he introduced us to a couple of younger people who spoke some English.

A bit later on our tour we saw a family portrait of three generations of winemaking Grosjeans, and realized that the old man we'd met was the patriarch of the family: Vincent Grosjean himself. Our English speaking guides were Vincent's grandson, granddaughter, and their cousin. We took a brief tour of the winery, tasted the Grosjeans' current line-up of wines, and then hopped in their car to visit their vineyards.

Grosjean doesn't make blockbuster wines: only 25-30% of their production goes for export - the rest is consumed in Italy. Prices for most bottles were around 10 Euros. This isn't special occasion wine, it's wine meant to be consumed casually,with food and friends. And on that it succeeds very well: the wines are well-balanced and easily approachable. We particularly enjoyed trying the ones we've never seen in Portland: Torrette, Premetta, and Petite Arvine.

This was another wonderful visit, and as we walked through the vineyards with the younger Grosjeans, we realized something: every winemaker we've encountered in Europe is far more animated in the vineyard than in the tasting room. Perhaps it's because we've chosen to visit producers who make unspoofulated wines, but they really do seem to treat wine as a natural agricultural product and not a chemistry experiment.

We thanked the Grosjeans for their hospitality, and pointed ourselves down one mountain and up another. Next stop: Zermatt, Switzerland.

21 July 2009

The new, improved, road less traveled

For the past several days we’ve been driving through France, by our choice mostly on the vast network of secondary roads that constitute the “scenic” route. Formerly, such an itinerary would have been composed equally of preparation, acrimonious map-interpretation sessions, and frequent episodes of being completely and utterly lost. Frustration, stress, and confusion would have competed with (and frequently triumphed over) the joys of being off the beaten path.

Not so much this time. Our rental car has a GPS system and that, as Robert Frost said, has made all the difference. In a thousand kilometers (so far) of blue highways, we’ve been mis-directed a couple of times, but we’ve really never been lost and only rarely have we not been precisely where we need to be. I’ve impulsively veered onto single-track roads that led to scenic villages or panoramic vineyards, and no matter what hairbrained driving notion I entertain, no matter how many wrong turns I make, the GPS system patiently and effectively guides me back to where I need (or want) to be.

We navigated our way out of the maze that is Charles de Gaulle airport and headed unerringly to our first stop in Reims. We navigated tiny village lanes en route to visit vignerons in Champagne and Burgundy. We drove to our current location – a tiny village in the south of France – without a single missed turn, without a single moment of hesitation.

This is the transformational power of technology. I’m thousands of miles from home, driving down a narrow road in the Luberon, and my position is being tracked by a half dozen or more satellites. A disembodied female voice tells me which exit to take from every roundabout, when to bear left or right, and even directs me away from construction zones and traffic jams. The map on my dashboard not only displays the road I'm on, it shows the even smaller roadways I pass while I'm joyriding through the middle of French nowhere.

The technology isn't perfect, but it's amazingly close: on one or two real cowpath routes we've taken, the GPS has gotten confused. And sometimes there are new roundabouts or other road features that the software doesn't recognize. But the overwhelming majority of the time, it's almost creepy how accurate the technology is.

I can't over-emphasize how incredibly cool this all is. We love road trips, but the typical price for automotive impulsiveness is a lot of extra effort expended on getting un-lost. No more. It's liberating to follow a road simply because it looks interesting, and all the while feel confident that we will still find our way to our next planned stop.

Tomorrow we're navigating a circuitous path from here on the edge of Provence, up through the Alps and into Italy. I've tested a half dozen alternate routes, even seen driver's-eye views of the roads on Google maps - another astounding bit of technology - and I've plugged in my choice. Tomorrow, I'll literally be guided on every turn from this flyspeck French village to an equally obscure Italian town - and the only wrong turns I'll make will be the ones I choose.

Provence, Day Six

We love long, scenic drives, but as we left the Rhone Valley town of Chavanay (home of Faury wines) on Monday afternoon to check into our hotel in Cliousclat, we both came to the same unspoken conclusion: it doesn't make sense to come back to the Northern Rhone tomorrow. In our excitement to visit as many of our favorite producers as possible, we booked tastings in Cote-Rotie two days in a row even though our hotel was well over an hour to the south. A two hour round-trip wouldn't normally bother us, but this particular trip is through one of the more industrial and congested parts of France. With regrets, we canceled our appointments at Ogier and Delas Freres and used the day to do a whirlwind tour of Provence.

Although we didn’t venture into Aix, Avignon, or Orange, we covered the Provencal countryside pretty well, thanks to Rick Steves and GPS. Combining some recommendations from Steves’ book with a few from our hotel hostess, we stitched together a scenic loop around the Dentilles de Montmirail – a famous rock formation in the heart of the southern Rhone wine regions of Vacqueyras and Gigondas.

Our first stop was in the quaint little town of Marsanne, where we stumblingly managed to order a late breakfast from a local café. We ate in the shade of one of the town square’s massive elm trees and devoured fresh bread with preserves, honey, and sweet French butter, washed down with café au lait. The weather has been quite hot, but in the morning shade, it was delightful – a pleasant glimpse of village life here in the southern part of the country.

Our route took us along winding backcountry roads just barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Fortunately, traffic was light and we had the scenery – mostly oak and olive trees, fields, and craggy hills – to ourselves. The occasional field of lavender or sunflowers provided bright splashes of color in an otherwise sunbaked landscape. The villages in the south are distinctly Mediterranean, with tile roofs and shady central squares.

We passed through several quaint little towns, often driving through cobbled streets only inches wider than our car. We didn’t feel a need to stop often – we were satisfied to watch the scenery roll past. Later, as we entered the town of Nyons, we decided to stop for lunch. Nyons is a prosperous-looking place with a large central park area that includes a very popular swimming pool, athletic courts, and lots of trees. Of course, cafes are ubiquitous.

After a light lunch in Nyons and strolls through Suzette and Gigondas, we drove through the hilly country to the Dentilles – so named because their jagged profile looks like teeth. And speaking of teeth... Steve has a toothache. We have an unfortunate habit of damaging our teeth in foreign countries. Last year in Amsterdam, Melissa lost her crown to a particularly sticky caramel, and held it in place through sheer will until we got home four days later. Advil helps, but if Steve's tooth gets any worse, we may need to look up the French word for "dentist".

20 July 2009

Beaujolais and beyond, Day Five

This morning we bid a sad farewell to Burgundy and drove south to the tiny village of Villie-Morgon for our 11AM appointment at Domaine Marcel Lapierre. Villie-Morgon was a surprise to us. We tend to associate Beaujolais with Burgundy, but it could not be farther removed. It looks and feels far more like the Mediterranean here than the Côte-d'Or! We were very excited about this visit, because year in, year out, Lapierre Morgon is one of our favorite 'everyday' wines. We were supposed to meet with Monsieur Lapierre's English-speaking son Mathieu, but Mathieu and the Lapierres' english-speaking employee were both very busy with winery operations. Rather than pull them away, Monsieur Lapierre decided to give us the tour himself. He warned us at the beginning that he does not speak much English, but his English was actually quite good.

We started at the winery, and walked through the cellar, the fermentation and crush facility, and then the bottling line. Right now, the wine's being bottled and corked, then allowed to rest (albeit very briefly) outside in pallets on a warm day while the corks expand to seal the bottles. Then the bottles are quickly loaded into a climate controlled locker so the wine won't be damaged by the summer sun.

After showing us the winery operations, Monsieur Lapierre took us on a tour of the vineyards. He showed us the granitic soil, and then explained to us that he was pulling some grapes (and a few clusters) off the vines because they were damaged by fungus. 2009 has been a wet year here so far, and immature fruit is far more susceptible to fungal damage. Since the damage is not extensive and it's already July, Lapierre considers it a small problem and is not concerned that it will significantly compromise the vintage. One of the things that's really fascinated us (well, Steve anyway) is how specialized the equipment has to be in a winery or vineyard. While we walked up and down the vineyard rows, we watched a special machine move through the rows ahead of us. It was designed to fit perfectly between two rows, and had two functions-- the front trimmed the wines to let more sunshine reach the grapes, and the back cultivated the soil and removed weeds. From the top of the vineyard high above Villie-Morgon, Lapierre pointed out each of the Beaujolais Crus to us, and explained how each site's location contributes to the wines' characteristics.

After the vineyards, Monsieur Lapierre took us back to his home and set up the picnic table off the kitchen for a tasting. He, Mathieu, and Nikolai all joined us for a round of tasting. The setting was absolutely perfect and we had a great time. Several of the wines that we tasted were ones we've had at home, but we also had the opportunity to taste some wines that are not distributed on the west coast (or in the U.S. at all). Once again, we had an experience that far exceeded our hopes. We were sorry to leave, but we had an hour's drive to the Northern Rhone for our appointment at Domaine Phillipe Faury.

The GPS system in our rental car (more on this later) has been an invaluable tool here, but it was no match for the steep, narrow roads in Chavanay. We took a few wrong turns and showed up fifteen minutes late to our 3PM appointment. We enjoyed the line-up at Faury, but we were both pretty tired from a long day in the car and our three hour visit in Beaujolais. A lot of wine enthusiasts will visit three or four wineries in one day, but from now on, we'll limit ourselves to one.

If you blink, you'll miss Cliousclat.

From Chavanay we headed south to the tiny village of Cliousclat,
where we'd reserved a room at the lovely La Treille Muscate hotel. Our room has a panoramic view of the picturesque valley below. Well, sort of. It's picturesque most of the way across the horizon, but we were curious about the steam rising off in the distance to the right. Through the camera's telephoto lens, we found a landmark you don't see everyday: a nuclear power plant. With no oil resources of its own, France gets 75% of its energy from nuclear power. Hey, we're all for clean-green energy and all, we just didn't expect to vacation so close to the control rods.

Our hotel's restaurant is closed on Mondays, so we walked down into the village and found a casual place with its own sweeping view of the fission factory. We settled into two bowls of absolutely delicious gazpacho, a charcuterie plate, and a pitcher of rosé.

Tomorrow, a big detour.

19 July 2009

Beaune, Day Four

Today we got priceless dirt on our pants.

The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) produces breathtakingly expensive red and white Burgundy from several Grand Cru vineyards, but none more coveted than the wine produced from the Romanée-Conti vineyard itself. The vineyard dates to 1232 AD, and many consider it the best site for Pinot Noir in the world. We looked into procuring a single bottle from our wedding year, but even a young bottle from an average vintage like 2004 commands prices in excess of $4000. In lauded vintages, the price can double. A great vintage that's been cellared to perfection can cost more than a car, and we're not talking Kia. According to the Domaine, it takes three full vines to produce a single bottle of DRC Romanée-Conti, and the vines are over forty years old each. Their value is measurable, but just barely. And unlike most vineyards in Burgundy, which are divided into parcels with many owners, Romanée-Conti is a monopole. The DRC owns the whole thing.

From Vosne Romanée, we drove through several other villages in the Côte-d'Or. We saw a magnificent Romanesque Church in Nuits-Saint-Georges, the fourteenth century Eglise St. Symphorien. Parishioners filed past four hundred year old graves for Sunday services-- an interesting glimpse of France's living history. Maybe it's because there are so many old things here, or maybe it's just a different view of history, but the French don't try to hermetically seal 'old' things the way we do. They use them!

From Nuits-St.-Georges we passed through vineyards in Pommard and Meursault, scattered fields of Charolais cattle in Orches and Evelle, and then we stopped for a break in Puligny-Montrachet. In Puligny-Montrachet (and Chassagne-Montrachet next door) Chardonnay is king. There are dozens of Premier Cru Chardonnay vineyards here, and a handful of Grand Crus. Among the Grand Crus is Le Montrachet, which lies between both villages. Le Montrachet is to Chardonnay as Romanée-Conti is to Pinot Noir. There are more than 20 parcels that are farmed by different producers (like the DRC, which owns part of Le Montrachet) and many of them can command prices well over $1000 per bottle. In a "blockbuster" vintage like '05, DRC Montrachet prices can exceed $5000.

Almost everything is closed on Sundays in France, so when we spotted an open café in Puligny-Montrachet, we decided to stop for lunch. The buzzed, happy French guys in the middle said to tell you 'hi'. This little place had a great lunch menu, which used many local, seasonal ingredients in non-traditional ways.
The chevre-chaud salad combined warm discs of creamy goat cheese with tomato, basil, and pine nuts for something more Mediterranean than Burgundian. The pizza-type thing was Burgundy's answer to flammekuchen-- toasted boulé with époisses, lardons, onions, and a touch of brandy. We debated for a while whether to order a white Burgundy since we were in Puligny-Montrachet, or a red Burgundy to pair with the époisses. We hemmed, we hawed, and then we did what we always do when we're flummoxed: we ordered a Provençal rosé. We shared everything but the wine with this guy, who batted his big brown eyes at us. He had impeccable table manners and didn't try to grab anything until we offered it. It's not obvious in the picture, but he was the size of a St. Bernard!

We're in love with the Côte-d'Or. Unlike Reims, which is littered with international chain stores at eye level, most of the Côte-d'Or still looks and feels purely French. This may be a popular destination among travelers, but it's not the canned, Disneyland experience you'd find in Napa Valley. Beaune welcomes its visitors, but does not dumb itself down for them. This makes it the purest and most authentic wine-centric travel experience we've ever had.

18 July 2009

Beaune, Day Three

At some point this afternoon, we had the unmistakable feeling that we were dreaming. We were bouncing around off-road in a Renault Expert amidst some of the most famous vineyards on the planet with the sun shining through intermittent clouds, a panorama of Burgundy spread out beneath us. It seemed almost too good to be true.

We woke up early this morning and decided to make haste from Reims to Beaune in order to catch the last hour or so of Beaune's extensive Saturday market. We zoomed out of Reims at around 7:30 AM and motored south, following the prompts our our invaluable GPS system. After a couple of hours of driving through one village after another, we discovered that our GPS directions were set up with an option to avoid toll roads. Normally we prefer the scenic route, but in this case we really wanted to cover the 200 or so kilometers between Chammpagne and Burgundy in as short a time as possible. Shortly after we changed the GPS options, we found ourselves roaring along a French toll road at 130 k/h, making far better time, and ultimately reaching the center of the Burgundian wine region shortly before noon.

At a friend's recommendation, we're staying at the Jardins de Loïs. We'll be hard-pressed to stay at a nicer place during this vacation. Ostensibly a B&B, JdL includes just four guest rooms in a beautifully renovated structure. Our room is big and bright, with a terrace overlooking the gardens. Another perk is our location: we're three minutes by foot to the center of Beaune. We never got around to eating breakfast today, so after we checked out the market, we settled into a cozy brasserie for coq au vin, boeuf bourguignonne, and a cheap '93 Jadot Passe-Tout-Grains. This place was completely generic-- indistinguishable from any one of a dozen places just like it in this town, but we absolutely loved it. It was barely 60° F this afternoon, and the food was just what we wanted-- simple, hearty, and authentic. The staff made our day by speaking French to us slowly and deliberately in a way that made it possible for us to understand every word.

After lunch we headed to Savigny-lès-Beaune for our tasting appointment at Domaine Pierre Guillemot. Pierre's son Vincent represents the sixth generation of his family to make wine in Savigny-lès-Beaune with the Guillemot name. He looked like a kid to us, maybe 20 years old or so, but he's been groomed to make great wine for his entire life. He took us into his cellar and pulled fresh bottles of all of his current releases for us to try. We've only tastes Guillemot's wines back to '01, so Vincent also pulled an '86 Savigny-lès-Beaune Dessus Les Golardes and a '73 Serpentieres so that we could see how these wines evolve. It was fascinating to speak with Vincent about his family's vineyards, and how each parcel of vines expresses Pinot Noir differently in the glass. He graciously loaded us into his car and drove us up into the vineyards above the village. By visiting each site, we were able to actually see the differences in the vines and the soil. Vincent's tour gave us a sense for Burgundy that we've never gotten from books. Compared to the U.S., where a person or corporation buys a parcel of land, gives it a name, grows grapes on it, and then makes wine, Burgundy is very fractured and confusing. From the eleventh century on, Cistercian Monks identified and demarcated vineyard sites based on the hundreds of soil types that exist here. With centuries of experience, they were able to study trends, and they found that some vineyards produced consistently superior wines. Fewer than forty vineyards in all of Burgundy are classified as "Grand Cru", and the wines made from those grapes represents only 1% or so of all the wines produced in Burgundy. Over the centuries, those vineyards have been divided many times among heirs, and now a single vineyard might be owned by dozens of producers. Vincent took us to Le Corton, where we saw for ourselves how this Grand Cru vineyard is divided into many parcels, including the portion that belongs to his family.

Vincent's English was infinitely better than our French, but we discovered that there were certain concepts, like the passage of time, that he could not express in English and we could not express in French. It forced all of us to choose our words more carefully. After hours of tasting and touring, we invited Vincent to join us at a local bar for a beer. We sat outside, and he told us about his travels to the U.S.-- his impressions of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and his fondness for some decidedly modern-styled Pinot Noir from California (especially Etude) that's the polar opposite of his family's traditionally-styled wines.

Maybe it's because we've visited small producers who are neither selling wine in a tasting room nor hosting hordes of tourists, but our tasting experiences in France have been remarkable-- far beyond what we ever dreamed possible.

We made our way back to Beaune for dinner. Several friends have told us that despite the Michelin-starred restaurants in town, their favorite place to eat in Beaune is Ma Cuisine. The menus in the window looked superb, but we were sorry to learn that Ma Cuisine is closed on Saturdays and Sundays-- the only nights we'll be in Beaune. On a whim, we headed to Piqu'Boeuf, a popular restaurant among locals that specializes in Charolais beef. We spent the rest of the evening there, with courses that featured several local specialties. There was raviole d'escargot... potatoes cooked with a very rich, pungent local "moutarde", a deeply beefy Charolais entrecôte with cèpes, and wedges of Brillat-Savarin and Époisses de Bourgogne that were fabulous with our Pommard. Again, there was not an English speaker in the place, but the staff were very gracious about speaking slowly and deliberately to help us understand. Note: it looks innocent enough, but Snails lurk beneath this pretty puff of pasta.