2pm local time and I feel as though I should be crawling into a comfortable bed, or at least a sleeping bag. The TGV is flying through central France toward the wine region of Chateauneuf du Pape. Despite only sleeping two hours on the plane, I could not close my eyes. This is my first wine trip and not a minute will be missed. Although raised by a mother who speaks fluent French, I am not able to pronounce a single syllable. A few coworkers attempt to assist me in a crash course of basic phrases, yet I am unable to get past ‘je.’ The young lady in the seat across from me tried to block out my failed attempts, but her appearance gradually changed from one of annoyance to that of contempt. The train slowed into Avion and we gathered our bags. After a long march through the station we arrived at the rental car counter, only to find that our reserved van had been given away. The French man’s elegant phrasing made the news seem less tragic. After an hour of bouncing up and down off sticky seats (shocks must have been an extra not included on this van), we arrived in the ancient town of Orange and slowly extracted our sore derrieres. Peter Weygandt, the wine importer with whom we would be traveling, greeted us at the door. A serious man, Peter was all business and his attire, tan shorts and a green tee shirt, gave the impression that we were about to embark on a safari.
Orange is renowned for a remarkably well preserved Roman amphitheater, and a massive stone wall, dating from the same era, still circles much of the town. After checking into the hotel, we once again boarded the van. Dry and barren, the landscape was a continuous sea of rolling hills. The skeletal remains of a castle are visible in the distance. Short, stumpy vines run by the windows in an endless stream. We scaled the hill on which the ruins rested and parked in its shadow. Pope Clement V had transferred the papacy to nearby Avignon in 1308 and his successor, Pope John XXII, built the castle in 1320 as a retreat from the city. All that remains is the façade of one tower. The retreating German army blew up the structure, which had been used as an ammunition dump, on the way out of town during the Second World War. Standing on the hill, it is easy to see why the Pope had picked this location for his residence. The Rhone River winds its way through the valley below and the hills stretch to the horizon. Although it is nearly 6pm, the sun still blared. Returning to the van, we sped off towards the famous vineyards that once belonged to the Pope, just a few miles away.
Laurent Charvin is an artisan winemaker whose modest home sits off a dirt road. Collectors have coveted his wines ever since the Pope started visiting. Not the religious leader who lives in Rome, but rather the wine critic known as The Pope of the Patomac. Laurent makes a majestic red wine made from grapes grown in Chateauneuf du Pape, of which only 500 cases are bottled each year. The family domaine was passed to Laurent in the late ’80’s and he soon attracted the attention of the Robert Parker. Positive reviews appeared in Parker’s journal, The Wine Advocate, and he even compared Laurent’s wines to those of the legendary Chateau Rayas. In the early ‘90’s, Peter Weygandt began importing Charvin to the U.S. and the estate quickly became the star of his Rhone portfolio.
The tires crunched over the gravel and through the dust I could see a man standing in front of a building speaking to a small group. Tumbling out of the van, I could hear English being spoken. The group, from Seattle, had been unable to arrange an appointment with Laurent through Monsieur Weygandt. Not to be deterred, the group found the winery and knocked on the door. We waited in the driveway as the group disappeared inside the building. The sun, still bright, coated the surrounding vineyards with a warm glow. The only noticeable sounds were a steady breeze rustling the trees and the occasional van rattling down the road. After the group left, a stocky, polite man approached and apologized for the delay. Laurent Charvin explained that we should first visit the vineyards. Back in the van we went.
After a short, but bumpy drive, we parked amongst shrubs. Rocks the size of large bagels littered the ground, which felt warm under my black sneakers. Laurent explained in detail the particular aspects of the vineyard and the training of the vines. My mind wandered…..food, wine, bed with soft pillows. The sun continued to blaze and I am convinced that I will be crying for mercy before it says goodnight. After what must have been an hour, Laurent mercifully said it was time to head back to the winery for a tasting. Surprisingly, there are no barrels in Laurent’s winery, just huge concrete containers. Each of us walked up to Laurent as he opened a tap on the concrete facing. A dark colored wine gushed into my glass and a strong perfume of red fruits hit my senses. The rich and powerful wine sloshed around my mouth. Despite its intensity, the wine was smooth and refined. Laurent’s vines are located in a cool, sandy sector of Chateauneuf du Pape and this probably contributes the finesse that his wines exhibit. After spitting the young wine into a grate on the floor, we followed Laurent out the door and took a right turn towards his house. Madame Charvin was chopping a pile of potatoes as we marched through the kitchen. A large table on the deck was set for dinner. Finally, the sun decided to depart and it began a slow retreat behind the mountain range on the horizon. Its exit was punctuated by a burnt orange sky. A glass full of a beautiful rose colored wine was extended towards my hand and I drained it within a few seconds. Hit me again….Platters of various grilled meats were placed on the table, and we were summoned to our seats. I inquired about the origin of the meats, and Laurent started pointing to various parts of his body, none of which I had previously associated with food. Several vintages of Chateauneuf du Pape were served. Praise Bacchus, I have reached Utopia!!!
Fromage was passed around the table and Laurent asked which wine we had enjoyed the most. Sensing a window for humor, I responded that the rose was the best wine of the evening. Judging by Laurent’s reaction, he did not take my declaration as a compliment. Perhaps this was a sign that I should keep my mouth shut. Seated to my left is Madame Charvin, who does not speak English. She had prepared this large meal by herself. Someone should thank Madame Charvin for the effort, no? Floating around my brain were the French phrases that my colleagues had tried to impart on me. I turned to Mrs. Charvin and said “Je t’aime.”
“What did you say to my wife?” Laurent demanded in English as he jumped from his seat. I shot a panicked glance around the table. Peter Weygandt was pale and he appeared as though he might be choking. David Bowler, my boss, had the look of a man who just seen the bright light shining down from Heaven. A coworker leaned over to my ear and whispered.
“You just told Mrs. Charvin that you love her.” A deep freeze settled over my functioning brain cells. I stood up, faced Laurent and raised my right arm.
“I love your wife, I love your wine and I love your country!” After a long pause, everyone at the table exploded in laughter, with the exception of Mr. Charvin. My companions attempted to explain that I was clueless and did not mean anything by the declaration. After saying goodnight, we climbed back into the van. I stared through the window at the vines, which stretched out into the darkness. Never again, I told myself, would I say or do anything stupid while on a wine trip. I can do that, really.