I think of Paris, I never think of the Tour D Eiffel,
or the Champs DElysee, or even the winding charm of
les rues that lace the Left Bank.
of learning to drink wine.
that doesnt 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.
of La Tartine.
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.
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 citys 20 arrondissements is a way of
life, this was no small goal.
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.
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).
education had begun.
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."
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 Chateaus name,
the year of the vintage, and the phrase "bottled for Le
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!").
so it went until fate and the States beckoned me back. I hadnt
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.
up, surprised to see her sisters, le frere, and even maman
herself all standing behind the bar, smiling.
I found a card with an old French proverb:
water one sees one's own face;
in wine one beholds the heart of another.
was my diploma.