Wine and Sweat

Wine and Sweat

Balance. That’s what I tell myself when I think about how it was bike racing in France that inspired me to pursue cycling the way I had devoted myself to playing music, only to have that same land teach me to slow down. Yin, yang. Light, dark. Masculine, feminine.

Following the trip that resulted in my newfound infatuation with wine, I organized a tour with friends in which we flew into Nice and did a grand clockwise loop through Provence and the Maritime Alps. I arrived armed with a copy of Wine Spectator‘s newest issue, devoted to wines of the Rhone River Valley. I planned to ride my ass off and try every decent wine I encountered. It was balance, of a kind.

What I never anticipated was the delta between how the chateau in the Southern Rhone would treat a journalist from a respected American wine magazine and how they might disdain a phalanx of Yank cyclists arriving on their doorstep. It’s these niceties of culture and polite company that I can so often misjudge.

Let me explain: Among the various makers of wines in the Southern Rhone, a region that includes Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueras, Rasteau and Tavel, the five famous communities of the Southern Rhone, Wine Spectator has singled out a few of these chateau as must-visits, veritable Michelin three-star destinations. One of them was Chateau de St. Cosme.

I found Chateau de St. Cosme on a map, which was no small feat. The vigneron sits atop a road overlooking the town and under the shadow of the nearby mountains for which Gigondas is famous: the Dentelles de Montmirail—dentelles being French for teeth. We arrived at the gated entrance and only knew we were in the right place based on the sign out front. I climbed off my bike and took a few steps toward the nearest building. I could see no additional signage to tell me just which structure held the tasting room. I’d have scratched my scalp were it not for the helmet strapped sur la tête.

Then, rolling into view with the inevitable but deliberate movement of a prop onto the stage, a tiny Renault emerged from between two buildings. It was clown-car small. The blue paint was sun-baked as the face of a Alpine guide. A tiny man sat in the driver’s seat. In his youth he was maybe 5’6″, but his head tipped from his arched spine like the top of a fishing fishing pole pulled down by a catch.

He braked to as sudden as stop as something moving at 8 mph is inclined. Not exactly dramatic, but the effect was meant to convey his less-than-delighted surprise. One hand spun a still-functioning window down, reached up, pulled the bent Galoise from his lips. He spat a mouthful of smoke and then waved his hand back and forth and growled, “Ferme. Ferme!”

Closed. This, despite the fact that it was close to 11:00 in the morning, on a Tuesday and the edition of Wine Spectator sitting in my room back in Vaison la Romaine proclaimed them open for tastings beginning at 10:00 most weekdays, Tuesdays included. In my experience, only the French can close during a normal business day and look at you as if you’re mad for wanting to give them money during proclaimed hours for commerce. The kicker is the way they can eye you with suspicion, as if you had something more nefarious in mind.

History will show that I would go on to purchase many Chateau de St. Cosme wines, and their Gigondas remains one of my favorites of the appellation.

The engine or the Renault whirred into hamster-wheel action and it inched forward amid a whining clutch and smoke the blue of a bird’s feathers. Eight of us stood, slack-jawed, wondering what was next. Suddenly I recalled that we’d actually passed a tasting room in town, one of only two we would see in Gigondas that day. I waived my arm back toward town and we rolled up to a small tasting establishment, sterile as a hotel bathroom and leaned our bikes against the wall outside.

We clickety-clacked across the tile and I proceed to ask in Français of a juvenile if we might sample the wines. Our host was delighted. His smile made me wonder if he was really French.

This would be where I mention that it was early June in Provence, and the air outside, while more fragrant than anything you might find in a Memphis suburb, was no less hot and held moisture like a sponge. I waited several minutes for sweat to cease it’s run down my arms and back, wiped my forehead as if I’d finished an exam.

We began with a Rosé and moved to a Gigondas and then a Rasteau. I lifted the glass, anticipation filling my nostrils ahead of the fragrance of the local grapes. And then I sipped.

The first taste blazed me with notes of 9-volt battery and arsenic. As did the second. Something about my sweaty condition and a lack of complementary food left me unable to recognize the liquid as anything requiring skill to produce. My brain reeled. Was this crap wine? Was my palette ruined by sweat? Was I too soft to be a day-drinker?

Taste buds damned, I gave him a handful of Euro and then unrolled the 1980s-era fanny pack from my back pocket. The pack was a good 16 inches end-to-end and had capacity enough to hold two bottles of wine nose-to-toes.

Back in the Provençal sol, some of our group headed north, taking the shortest, flattest route back to Vaison la Romaine. The girlfriend and I, given our ambitions, headed south for Beaumes de Venise, where we turned northeast to take in Col de Suzette and Col de la Chaine. What possessed me to want to do two minor climbs while carrying 1500ml of grape juice I can only plea was a result of racing bicycles, and even that sounds delusional. Following a 45 mph descent off Col de la Chaine with that fanny pack pulling me toward the outside of every turn, I’d have volunteered as much.

Tilting between two extremes may allow a counterbalance, but I doubt anyone would suggest it was equilibrium.


Images: Chateau de St. Cosme

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  1. Michael

    It is not just the French. This reminds me of a time when my wife, daughter and I were living in Barcelona and, not having any family there, decided to spend the Christmas break touring around outside of town. We stopped at a winery in the Penedés and walked in to the warehouse. We could hear a man talking off in the distance and he had heard us come in. He came partly toward us and asked, in Catalan, if we were there for a tour. i replied that we were, in Spanish. It is easy to understand Catalan if you speak Spanish and at least one of French and Italian, but it is not easy to know which word is going to be the one in Catalan, if you try to actually speak it. He said, in Spanish, that he was giving a tour in Catalan and could we sit and wait fifteen minutes and he could give us one in Spanish, so sit we did. A couple came in and the same thing started to unfold, but when they replied yes, they were there for a tour, they had clear Madrileño accents. He replied, still in Catalan, that he only gave tours in Catalan. They left. He gave us a very extensive tour a few minutes later, in Spanish mostly except when he asked me to help translate some labels into English. The hated Spaniards were now requiring that all labels be in Spanish in Spain (which unfortunately Catalunya was still a part of), and he had decided to go entirely into export so he never had to deal with that, so needed English labels. He viewed Spanish as a useful language for communication with foreigners, but he would be damned if he would use it to talk with Spaniards. Odd thing is his surname is Forester, which means foreigner in Catalan.

  2. Chris

    That part of France is one of my favorites, since living in Paris we’ve been down around 4-6 times and each of them is damn near perfect.

    Glad you enjoyed and got the full experience.

  3. Lucien Walsh

    This also has something to do with the Wine Spectator’s absolute naivete when it comes to visitations. Not sure when this took place, but I’d wager it was a time when the Spectator staff was far more used to swank, well funded, Napa tasting rooms and dedicated hospitality staff than tiny, family operated wineries in France and Italy. Any one of which would have rolled out the red carpet for them in the hopes of gaining recognition in the gigantic US market, furthering WS’s false impression that anyone can roll in.

    Louis Barroul is a singularly focused and dedicated vigneron, a craftsman who works in vines and earth rather than steel and filleted lugs. He poured his heart, soul, sweat, and blood into transforming Cosme from dilapidated farm into the Jewel of Gigondas. Now that he has had several years of success and has truly the wealth to fund a tasting room and a hospitality staff, I imagine you’d get a much different response. In fact it sounds like Louis himself that you encountered that day and I wager he needed to go fishing at that moment in precisely the same way we need to ride at times. In any case, he’s a dying breed in this business…fanatical, dedicated to a singular crazy vision, uninterested in pretense or politesse or anything that stands in the way of what he wants to do. In a business where pivot tables are becoming more important than sorting tables, I just wanted to let you know that in another time and place, you two would get along famously.

    1. Author

      I’d like to think that there was just something lost in translation between St. Cosme and Wine Spectator. It was all of a certain sort of piece. I went back in 2007 and there was an actual tasting room, albeit rudimentary; an octogenarian woman, perhaps Louis’ mother, poured the wines. I’d love to know who waived us off that day; he was much too old to be Louis (who is younger than me), and his father Henri, who planted some of the vineyards they farm today had had a stroke, so I have my doubts that he’d have been driving anything. None of that actually matters; when I see their label my mouth waters.

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