natural wine

February: How Homebrewing Cures Homesickness

I plunged into the natural wine world somewhat unintentionally. Unlike almost everyone you meet in the natural wine scene, I don't have a story of the bottle that turned me on to natural wines and changed my life forever. I guess I do- but I'm sure it wasn't a cool bottle and if I cited it wine geeks would just politely smile and nod, judging me. I didn't have some revelatory moment over an epic bottle by a mythical winemaker like Jean Foillard or Richard Leroy or Olivier Cousin. I just stumbled upon it.

It was sometime in 2010 and I was at a restaurant in Paris called Les Fines Gueules, which I later found out serves almost exclusively natural wine. I put two and two together and figured that was why I had so enjoyed the bottle of Beaujolais I drank there, from a domain called P-U-R. It was one of the least expensive bottles on the menu and one of the best wines I had ever tasted.

It was during my early years in Paris and I was broke and had been for years, working under the table at a bar and trying to figure out how to get my visa renewed, I don't think I even had a bank account and I can't remember what horrible apartment situation I was in at the time, most likely the illegal sublet in the 9th. In any case, the meal was a special treat, a fancy sit down dinner and the cheapest wine on the menu ended up being the highlight.

I started drinking what I could on a super limited budget, every once and awhile going to restaurants that served natural wines to see what they had on their menu and treat myself to a bottle.

I was only beginning to be curious about the food scene in Paris- I started my blog that very same year- so I didn't have much community to explain the concept of natural wine to me and early internet articles on the subject made it sound so scandalous- does/can organic wine even exist? was the gist of most articles written predominantly by skeptics at the time. I didn't even bother going down that rabbit hole on the internet. Instead, I started drinking what I could on a super limited budget, every once and awhile going to restaurants that served natural wines to see what they had on their menu and treat myself to a bottle. It was at Le Grand 8, a restaurant in the 18th arrondissement, where I first had a bottle of Noëlla's wine. It was her Gamay, Mon Cher.

I started writing a little bit about natural wine, wanting to talk about it in a way that wasn't polemic or overcomplicated or smug, but simple and focused on the work that natural winemakers do. In February 2012, I went to my first Dive Bouteille wine tasting- the woodstock of natural wine which brings devotees from around the world to taste wine made by hundreds of biodynamic vignerons.

I made the rookie mistake of counting on the shuttle bus (which never came) to get me to the tasting- I ended up hopping into a cab with a bunch of strangers, one of whom was a caviste from the South of France who I followed around for most of the tasting, listening to him describe and ask questions about wine.

At the dive bouteille in 2014, distracted from wine tasting by Panache

At the dive bouteille in 2014, distracted from wine tasting by Panache

It was at this tasting that I met Noëlla for first time, I was too shy to talk much and also unsure how to talk about wine at all, I think I managed to go up to her a sheepishly say “I really like your wine” and then run away.

I saw Noëlla in following years at the same tasting and also visited the Loir-et-Cher region, visiting her fellow winemakers in the region, Michel Augé and Christophe Foucher, who took me on tours of their vines and talked with me about their process while we tasted their wines.

I went from girl crush, to boy crush, to crushing Gamay grapes in my front yard.

By 2014 I felt like I needed to know more about how these wines were made in order to better write about them. I asked Noëlla, who still barely knew who I was because I am socially awkward, if I could join her harvest team and she said yes! Then I met Ben and the rest is history. I went from girl crush, to boy crush, to crushing Gamay grapes in my front yard.

So that's how I got here and I often feel like I'm playing catch up because I don't know or understand so many things about the world I live in now. I don't like it when people say they don't have a vocabulary for wine, I love listening to people use all kinds of words and memories to describe a wine they're tasting, but there definitely is a jargon associated with wine, and I'm at a faux débutante level in wine vernacular.

Sometimes, okay a lot of times, I feel left out of wine conversations. I listen so I can learn, but then I get lost. Then my mind wanders to conversations that made me feel like I belong instead of like I'm an outsider. I start missing my Paris friends, my lady lunches at Holybelly, my dance parties with the gays, when we sang Céline Dion at 4am, our arms draped over each other.

California sunshine and craft beer

California sunshine and craft beer

Sometimes the homesickness goes back as far as California, where I remember meeting up with friends in a places that smell like the sea and having a pint of beer. Whenever I have a beer with friends I try to stop and hold that moment for a second before letting it go away, those moments are rare and precious to me.

I can understand Gamay in the present, and I think I’ll get it more in the future, but a sip of beer takes me back.

I don't speak beer jargon, either, but beer speaks to me in a more personal way than wine, probably because I grew up with it. I can understand Gamay in the present, and I think I'll get it more in the future, but a sip of beer takes me back. I haven't had a Miller High Life in over a dozen years- and I'm in no rush to crack one open- but I'm sure once it hit my lips I'd be transported to my early college years, my Wisconsinite college boyfriend, the silly parties, and a whole era that sometimes feels like it belongs to a different life and a different time. Until beer brings it back.

Even with almost unlimited access to great wine, I still crave beer. It's the thing I want to drink after spending a day working outside, it's what I want to celebrate a change in seasons, a fatty green IPA in the winter or a fresh, citrusy Pale Ale in the spring. These flavors excite my palette and never feel redundant- every beer is a surprise.

We have one local craft brewer in the region and recently a Paris based company called HopBuddy has started delivering craft beers anywhere in France, so there are options for getting craft beer here, but I decided it was time I started making my own.

My first home brew. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce

My first home brew. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce

With ingredients I hauled back from 7 Bridges Organic Brewing Collective during my trip to Santa Cruz and a starter home-brew set I ordered from Belgium I was ready to make my first beer: a double IPA using four different American hop varietals.

I won't go into all the minutia of my first brew day (which was actually a very late brew night), suffice to say I learned a few things for next time and the beer turned out more than ok. But here's what I learned the first time I made beer: Steeped grains that start off your beer smell like Grape Nuts, the morning cereal of my high school days that my brain had forgotten but my nose definitely hadn't. The malts smell like the walk home to a house I had while in college in Olympia, Washington- which took me past the Fish Brewing Company, and this smell, of approaching the brewery on my way home, maybe stopping to glean blackberries on the way if it was the right season, filled my kitchen as I brewed. And then I started adding hops, the color and scent of a Pacific Northwest Forest and so many memories- everywhere from splurging on a six pack from Deschutes Brewery when we were broke college students to happy hours at Le Supercoin in Paris, my favorite beer bar just steps away from my apartment.

Brewin'

Brewin'

Making my own beer felt like a conversation I was a part of, it uncovered memories and made them feel warm and familiar again. It turned the past into something I could almost feel in the present. 

Home brewing is definitely the cure to a shortage of beer, but for me it turned out to be a cure for homesickness, as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

September: It Starts with a Cat Carrier and Country Clothes

Jack's first encounter with countryside footwear

Jack's first encounter with countryside footwear

It's hard to tell where the idea came from. When the plan was hatched and how it happened so quickly. Surely it's thanks to the end of a disappointing marriage to a disappointing person. It likely had something to do with my first sip of natural wine. Perhaps the seed was planted as long ago as the day I started my blog, Paris Paysanne. Without a doubt, the idea became bigger than me beginning with a harvest season first kiss and every day that followed. But the actual move- from Paris to the town of Pouillé (population 754)- where did that idea come from? 

Probably my cat, who was currently cowering in a small carrier asBen and I tried to cajole him into drinking water while we waited for our train at Gare Montparnasse. The cat in question, Jack Meower, had had a rough summer. After over a year of being the sole prince of his Parisian kingdom, he had been forced to make room for an interloper: my wonderful boyfriend Ben. Thankfully the two, begrudgingly, had managed to find a way to co-habitate after Ben came to live with me for the summer.

Waiting for the train

Waiting for the train

If it had been just that- the arrival of a new love in my life- Jack may have been able to adapt, but that summer was one of subtle upheaval and not-so-delicate disturbances. The savings I had been living on after being laid off the year before ran out and I was forced to scramble to do four different odd jobs that I pulled together to pay the rent. In order to help out financially and meet people in a city that was new to him, Ben got a job that kept him working late and feeling exhausted. 

We were grumpy when not together, but deliriously happy when let loose in the Paris streets ensemble. After six years spent with someone whose weekend plans unfailingly involved going to the same bar he had been frequenting since high school, I was thrilled to be with someone who wanted to do things and do them with me. And I wanted to do things with him because, I was slowly figuring out after living in the absence of true love for so long, that's what being in love means. 

We were discovering each other, Ben was discovering the city, I was discovering how great it feels to share happiness with someone. We were full of energy and we were thirsty.

We were discovering each other, Ben was discovering the city, I was discovering how great it feels to share happiness with someone. We were full of energy and we were thirsty. Inspired by wine lists and restaurant openings, we zigzagged across the city, visiting bars, restaurants, and wine shops- spending more money than we had and drinking more glasses than we needed. Every adventure, wine soaked and shiny new, felt like a perfect way to celebrate the fact that we had found each other. 

Obligatory cheesy Eiffel Tower picture

Obligatory cheesy Eiffel Tower picture

We had places to go and bikes to ride and we didn't care if crappy jobs were the price of entry to the adult amusement park that is Paris. 

As workers gutted the entire apartment, drilling directly into what seemed to be a subterranean extension of my bed frame, we tried to sleep and ignore the fact that we had front row seats to the most ubiquitous soundtrack of Paris: pure, consistent noise.

Then the construction started. As everyone took off for their August holidays while their strategically timed home renovations began in Paris, we stayed in the city and worked our crazy hours. From what seemed to be 7 am, but was maybe later (time is relative when you've both worked the closing shift at a bar) until it-didn't-matter-anymore o'clock, the construction downstairs seemed never ending. Workers gutted the entire apartment, drilling directly into what seemed to be a subterranean extension of my bed frame. 

We tried to sleep and ignore the fact that we had front row seats to the most ubiquitous soundtrack of Paris: pure, consistent noise. It took a toll on all of us, but it was Jack that suffered the most. He became listless, a word whose meaning I fully understand now, because it is exactly what he became- totally lacking in “list”. 

While we decided to fight in defiance of the wall of sound, Jack had chosen flight, bolting out the front door one morning after I left it open while pleading with the workers downstairs, begging them  to give us just 30 more minutes of sleep. Ben found Jack in the building manager's apartment, clutching to her curtains and clearly on the edge. He was limp in our arms and hadn't eaten in almost two days. I decided our attempts at soothing him weren't cutting it. We grabbed a cab, leaving behind Mme. Dasilva, our concierge, who tsk-tsked us from her front door saying ,“Cats need to live in gardens!” 

At home in Paris

At home in Paris

We went straight to the vet who sat us down and asked us how we were doing. “A little stressed?” he guessed and we nodded our heads in agreement. We told the kind animal doctor about our summer- our jobs, the rushing around, and the construction downstairs. It felt good to say it aloud. Jack wasn't the only one who needed a visit to the vet, it turned out.

A prescription for cat Xanax and a few other anti-anxiety pills later (for the cat, not us) and we were on our way back to an apartment that suddenly seemed less hospitable. 

Throughout the summer Ben and I had joked about needing a vacation house in the country- maybe we should just find a permanent house in the country?

Maybe Mme. Dasilva, who was an avid urban bird watcher and knew about the importance of being able to fly free, was right- maybe cats should be in gardens. Throughout the summer Ben and I had joked about needing a vacation house in the country- maybe we should just find a house house in the country? We immediately thought of the Loir-et-Cher region and the little village of Pouillé, where we met and fell in love during the 2014 grape harvest with winemaker Noëlla Morantin. Our imaginary country home started to seem real and the joke transformed into a plan of action. 

That brings us to September, waiting for a train to take us to our new home. Ben was carrying Jack and I had a backpack with enough clothes for two weeks of harvest and a brand new Moleskine notebook to record memories. Having already moved from his apartment in Nantes earlier that month, Ben's bed and things were waiting for us and made for a half furnished home (I was keeping my apartment until October). The purpose of the trip was to acclimate the transplanted Parisians (me and Jack) to our new surroundings and to participate in what was left of that year's early grape harvest. 

I was always incredulous of the fact that I, through some magical, mysterious chain of events got to live in Paris.

The best things that have happened in my life are the things I didn't even think were possible. Much like the move to the countryside, I can't remember the details of how I got the idea to move to Paris. To this day, I am still incredulous of the fact that I, through some magical, mysterious chain of events got to live in Paris.  In the days before moving to France from California, I remember that the only thing that seemed real was my plane ticket to Paris, proof that it was really happening. 

Paris started with a plane and the move to the country started with this train and a person brought to me through a different magical, mysterious, wine-fueled chain of events. A person so perfect I couldn't believe he was all for me. Standing there with him, my cat, and my backpack filled with grubby jeans and all the country clothes I'd need, I was ready to use this new ticket. 

Ben and I both harbored semi-secret ambitions of making our own wine, but we never expected that we would be doing so within weeks of moving to our new home.
Late harvest days

Late harvest days

This train ride, the beginning of a new life, would lead to many unexpected opportunities. It would take us far from the city, but also bring us closer to dreams we thought were not yet within reach. Ben and I both harbored semi-secret ambitions of making our own wine, but we never expected that we would be doing so within weeks of moving to our new home. 

When we arrived, the harvest season had concluded for the winemakers- but the vines hadn't finished bearing fruit. In the period following the vendanges while the winemakers were tasting their juice and dreaming of the wine it would become, the grape bunches that were green weeks earlier began to ripen and glow under the late summer sun. 

Ben and I, along with our friend Juliette, asked if we could harvest these late bloomers- a request our winemaker friends were happy to accommodate. Gleaning grapes was a win-win situation for everyone- the vines would be relieved of nourishing the grape bunches that would otherwise be unused and a drain on their resources, we would get to try our hand at making a garage wine, and everyone would benefit from a little more wine to drink around the table together. 

Bottling our Gamay

Bottling our Gamay

About a month later, we were putting our ruby red Gamay, pressed under our feet and made in a small shed in front of our house, into bottles. Jack rubbed up against our legs as we used a pitcher and funnel to bottle the fermented grape juice by hand.

It was late October by then and the waning autumn sun created enough warm spots for Jack to lay down and take one of his last outdoor naps of the season, in his very own garden. Ben and I soaked up the sunset while sitting outside- content in the knowledge that we didn't have to go farther than our own front yard to find good wine. 

Château Dilling's first cuvée!

Château Dilling's first cuvée!