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