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L’Ecole du Vin
Exploring La Tartine, one glass at a time
by Tom Byrnes

 

When I think of Paris, I never think of the Tour D’ Eiffel, or the Champs D’Elysee, or even the winding charm of les rues that lace the Left Bank.

I think of learning to drink wine.

But that doesn’t mean waxing nostalgic over a young, crisp Beaujolais or the simple pleasure of an almost unknown vintage such as the Syrah from Domaine Barthes in the southern region of Languedoc, just above Spain. I think of the place where I learned why the French government, in a rare moment of bureaucratic insight, declared wine to be "a staple of life," thus limiting its price and effectively outlawing the exportation of the truly good stuff.

I think of La Tartine.

As the oldest wine bar in Paris, the "Tart" served as both my living room and my "ecole du vin" for the better part of three years. Set on the Right Bank in the Marais — the true heart of the city — the place was as close as one could come to what Paris was really like during the 1920s and 30s. The old, almost never polished mirrors and woodwork, the grimy marble topped bar, the eighty year old wood refrigerators, the scent of fresh cheese, and the chronic stench of the nicotine that coated the walls blended together in a perfect backdrop for the neighborhood habitués — an ungainly mix of greengrocers, butchers in stained aprons, and hipsters dressed in black, all sharing the same paunchy eyes and a love of the grape.

I lived around the corner in a charming but tiny flat. Within a week of moving in, I had shifted my entire social life to La Tartine. I was there every day, having coffee, meeting friends, taking Sunday lunch, and generally trying to establish myself as a regular. In Paris, where disdain for foreigners of any stripe - including those Frenchmen unfortunate enough to be born somewhere beyond the limits of the city’s 20 arrondissements — is a way of life, this was no small goal.

My first signal of acceptance came late one fall afternoon. Fresh from work, I sailed through the glass doors a tad earlier than usual. Glancing around the uncommonly empty room, I looked up to see the bright red nose and the beady eyes of "le frere" — the alcoholic brother of the ancient maman who ran the place. He anchored the bar, brokered heated arguments about soccer and cycling, and appeared to live on a diet of hardboiled eggs that he fished barehanded from a huge glass jar filled with an unnamed, viscous pink liquid.

"Eh, colloq" he barked at me, using the street slang for "kid." "Try this" I was handed a large glass of les Forts de Latour, a vintage I would soon come to know as the "best second label" on the market, and encouraged to drink deeply. Without asking, I was then subjected to a brief history of the last 100 years of the chateau from whence it came, the difference between the lighter style it offered because it came from a younger grape, and the percentage of the blend (70% cabernet; 30% merlot).

My education had begun.

Since his sister, a frowning woman of unfathomable age who always wore slippers and had her lower legs taped in miles of ace bandages for support, spoke with no one, Le frere soon passed me along to les filles — the three daughters who worked the tables. Ranging in age from their early thirties to mid-forties, they all dressed in black like war widows from another era. Between them, with ample freelance coaching from behind the egg jar, I set off on a systemic exploration of "Le Carte."

This was an ambitious project. Set above the cracked mirror behind the bar, the wooden list of wines was three feet high by six feet long. To add to the complexity, the Tartine had been in business so long that it only bought in bulk and none of the bottles had labels, just simple stickers that announced the Chateau’s name, the year of the vintage, and the phrase "bottled for Le Tartine."

Starting at the top of the first column and working my steadily down, I would have quickly gone astray without the help of the girls. In between tossing backhanded insults at other patrons and serving up plates of cold cuts, cheese, and rough chunks of pain de Poilane coated in Normandy butter, they kept up a steady patter about the merits of a young Gamay ("a good ‘gulper’ and not half-bad chilled") from the Valais over a glass of Sancere ("dry, lively, crisp — a solid sauvingon!").

And so it went until fate and the States beckoned me back. I hadn’t even made it near to the last column. After dinner with friends on my last night, I sat alone in the "Tart" nursing a Chateneuf de Pape ("big, heavy, better with food") to dull the disappointment of leaving when the youngest of the girls came by with a bottle and a small envelope.

I looked up, surprised to see her sisters, le frere, and even maman herself all standing behind the bar, smiling.

Inside, I found a card with an old French proverb:

In water one sees one's own face;

But in wine one beholds the heart of another.

It was my diploma.

 
 
A refugee from the odds, Tom Byrnes vacillates between writing, brand consulting, and associating with what his mother called "the wrong kind of people."