|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE FIVE|
Winelovers who don't understand all the fancy terminology espoused by the 'experts' ~ and we all read such stuff in wine magazines and hear it when those same experts give an occasional interview ~ may wonder if they are missing something. Do we wine drinkers not know what to look for in a wine? Is it okay to assume that if we like it, it's good ~ no matter what any 'expert' may say? Well, this is the book for us! Even though it focuses on a small region of France, it begins by telling us that all the fuss is not necessary nor does it exist in France.
Michael S. Sanders, author of the recent From Here, You can't See Paris and The Yard, spent a few years with three families who produce Cahors wines, and his book is a fast-paced and interesting account not only of his introduction to this very good wine, but of the warm welcome he received by these wine producers who permitted him a personal glimpse of their family life and histories, explained their theories about what they believe wine is all about, and let him in on what is really involved in their day-to-day lives to produce the best wine they can. To quote the author, "In the lives and minds of the winemakers themselves, too, there is little of the exotic or romantic in what they do, or even in the way they think. Seen through their eyes, wine is not a mystery or an elixir reserved for members of the inner temple, but a product wrung from the earth by honest labor."
The author chose a secondary wine producing region ~ the region around the River Lot in southwest France away from the vineyards and châteaux of Bordeaux or the golden slopes of Burgundy. It was here he would learn to love the wine itself ~ Cahors, the 'black wine' of France ~ a wine he says has 'escaped Parkerization', referring to wine critic, Robert Parker, of course. He explains what a good rating from Parker can do for a wine and to a winemaker...not always a good thing. He touches on the various views people in France have of Parker...often favorable, but not always. Sanders points out that the serious winemakers of France are usually more concerned with the weather forecast than they are with wine critics.
He chose three families: they are the Jouffreaus who have been involved in winemaking for nearly 400 years in the region, the Baldès family and the Bernède family (the latter two are related) who have roots in winemaking going back 150 years. None are newcomers to the business, and none live in fancy châteaux or grand manor houses. He chose them because they are genuine, "both in their enthusiasm for their work and in their blood", and, as we read the book, we come to care about them, and we appreciate the challenges they face as winemakers. In the end, perhaps we all will take wine a little less for granted.
We learn a lot as well, but in an easy manner as this is not a wine textbook. We learn that Cahors wine is made from the Malbec grape. Many people have never even heard of it before, so the book is not taking any of us who read about wines over the same old road. We also learn from the author, who is obviously interested in what is becoming of the wine business in the 21st century, that modern wine-production practices, of which these families are not guilty, are giving us 'hot' wines: wines with extremely high alcohol content. He is critical of US, Australian and South African wines that are too fruity made from overly ripe grapes producing a highly alcoholic wine that doesn't complement food and that can make the drinkers "keel over into their plates after a few glasses". Readers of Families of the Vine, will quickly grasp that the book is informative while also filled with the author's humor. In the introduction he states, "The only nose I have is, sadly, the rather large one on my face," and that his 'wine cellar' is actually a "battered cabinet in one corner [of his basement] that was once used to store paint, to judge by the stains."
Sanders takes us on a discovery tour of the Cahors winemaking business from the viewpoint of the vintners, each intending to maintain a strong link to their history and tradition. We follow them through the interesting and the mundane: grape-picking schedules, crises of weather, fertilization of vineyards without chemicals, measuring the sugar levels of grapes still on the vine, and eventually the harvest leading to winemaking itself as fermentation and maceration begin. Sanders provides a concise history of Cahors wine which began with the city of the same name some 2000 years ago, established by Celts ~ the Cadurcians ~ hence the name.
Finally, the author tells us a little about wine tastings (dégustations) including the etiquette involved and what year wines to expect to taste in a particular year and what vintages not to expect. Perhaps we have all participated in wine tastings at vineyards in France and elsewhere, but after reading Familes of the Vine, a simple glass of wine at home or sampling a winemaker's product at his vineyard will be an entirely new experience. This book brings us a new perspective and certainly a greater appreciation for the effort, planning, dedication and risks associated with bringing a fine wine to the table.
of the Vine: Seasons Among the Winemakers of Southwest France
by Michael S. Sanders
Chasing Matisse - A Year in France Living My Dream
Who among us isn't tempted one or more times during our lifetime to pack it all in and take off for foreign shores? Young people do it all the time, but they have less loose ends to tie up and less to sell or leave behind. When an older couple takes the leap, it is a much more complex event.
Writer (and aspiring painter) James Morgan and his wife, Beth, also a writer, did just that. As the Morgans saw their youngest of four children off to college, their much-loved home in Little Rock, Arkansas, went up for sale, they put things into storage, made arrangements for their dog and cat (and their bills), and left for France ~ to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Henri Matisse. This book, Chasing Matisse, is not only a travelogue of their year in France, but it is a look at Matisse's own journey as an artist and as a man. The book tells us in the end that dreaming and following that dream is often the best we can do for ourselves.
Things didn't go all that smoothly, for his book advance was spent and the house still hadn't sold ~ and they were already in Paris four months. Finally, while in Brittany, they received news that the house had been sold, and Beth then wrote in her diary, "The real adventure begins."
Morgan had been encouraged to focus on "" Matisse colors" by his brother-in-law, a New York decorator, years earlier when redecorating their Crafstman house in Little Rock. During their years in that house, they both wrote ~ and accumulated debt. Morgan writes about the melancholy in his family tree, of a grandfather who shot himself to death in his study. His admiration of Ernest Hemingway waned when he, too, took his own life. His new hero was Matisse with his cheerful bright palette and his unending creative spirit.
The author's early life included an interest in drawing and, once they were settled into their Arkansas home, James Morgan signed up for art classes for several months. When they ended, he just forged ahead on his own. The trip to France to chase Matisse was going to be more than an exercise to compile a book about the painter, it was also going to mean that he would sketch where Matisse had been, where Matisse had painted, often from the exact vantage point of the artist. The book is filled with James Morgan's drawings, 28 in all, which he kindly describes in a list of illustrations so readers know where they were done.
This was not the Morgan's first time in Paris or France, of course, and along the way the author introduces us to many of their friends and acquaintances ~ people he knew who encouraged him in his chase and strangers who helped them find those particular places visited by Matisse. He writes about seeing as an artist sees; he discovers from expatriates in Paris how tough life can be there for a 'freelancer' (that hit home); and he is always remembering Matisse's own words which give continue to give him faith and encouragement. We also share their haggling with a merchant in Morocco where they finally acquire three Berber rugs and the time during their visit to France when the sudden death of Beth's mother had them quickly returning home.
Chasing Matisse isn't just about France, as the Morgans were true to the painter's route. They traveled, as we just mentioned, to Morocco where he decides that his favorite Matisse painting is Porte de la Casbah, and eventually to trail's end in Nice where Matisse spent his final years. Their adventure began in Paris and took them to Brittany and Nantes, to Saint-Tropez and Collioure. Finally settling in Paris where they now reside, their old American dog, Snapp, at their side, the Morgans have come full circle.
Readers will see that James Morgan's unique approach to following in Matisse's footsteps helped him to truly understand Matisse, to help us to learn so much about Matisse through the author's eyes and the painter's own words, and, because of his chase, he discovered much about himself and lived his dream.
Matisse - A Year in France Living My Dream by James Morgan
A Mule in Rouen
by Rob Silverstone
the December edition of FRANCE On Your