It was drizzling as we stepped off the train at the Saint-Émilion station, so we pulled up our hoods and covered our backpacks before charting the path on my cell phone and setting off. We turned away from the ancient wine town barely visible on the hilltop and headed three-miles in the opposite direction.
Château Milens was our destination—a Bordeaux vineyard that produces between 5,000 and 15,000 bottles per year, depending, we would soon learn, on the weather. Our appointment was in an hour. We had no idea what to expect as we walked past plot after plot of grape vines and homes more modest than their designation of château evoked.
We passed a sole commercial establishment: a tractor and farm implement store; the parking lot was full. For the last month, I’d been listening to wine podcasts where time and again the French wine maker referred to himself as “a farmer.” Their words resonated with the essence of this place: farmland. We moved into the damp grass to allow a tractor to nudge past.
As I looked around, I could find scant evidence that this was one of the most renowned wine regions in the world.
An hour later, we arrived. A man broke away from his chores and told us we were a bit early, he’d be with us shortly. He was near 40, lean, dressed for field work in denim pants and knee-high green rubber boots. I had no idea who he was as I watched him drag wood cuttings into the back of a van. Once everything was stacked in place, the door firmly closed, he returned, shook our hands, apologized for his limited English and added, “I’m Gregory. The wine maker.”
I explained how we came to be here. That over a year ago, we had stopped in Saint-Émilion for a wine tasting and had bought three bottles of 2010 Château Milens as part of a case that we shipped to the US. The manager of our B&B in Bordeaux had said, “I bought a case for my personal cellar, the 2010. It was a fantastic year.”
Then I told Gregory we had recently tried it, and it was wonderful. “But I can’t find it for sale in Paris. That’s when I emailed Château Milens. Thank you for having us.”
(The unabridged story: I bought a bunch of homemade ravioli at the Italian market in Philly and Ryan invited friends for dinner. We decided to clean out old alcohol from his fridge: a few beers, a bottle of champagne, a well-past-its-prime bottle of wine. The drinks paled against the food. After one bad drink too many, I decided to open a bottle of the Château Milens we were aging in the basement. It was delicious.
Ryan made me swear I wouldn’t open another. It was classic role reversal as he scolded my poor decision making while I contritely agreed not to do it again. (there may or may not have been a slightly drunk pinky swear)
I promised I would replace the wine when I got back to Paris. And I tried to. I traipsed across the city, stopped at every wine store I passed, met some wonderfully informative people—two of whom told me they were aging this exact wine in their personal cellar—but couldn’t find it for sale anywhere. By the time I sat down at my computer to construct an email, I was forbidden-fruit desperate. The Château Milens web site only mentioned large group visits. I hoped they would allow us to come.)
“My pleasure,” Gregory replied.
He suggested we start in the fields, “Because that’s where I spend 85 percent of my time.” He explained the pruning process, how he fostered the branches to grow up, culled the grapes so that they had the perfect amount of separation, hand-picked, hand sorted. As an afterthought, he pointed off in the distance. “See that château on the hillside, the Hundred Years War ended there.” I contemplated history. And a Roman-wrought wine tradition nearly 2000 years old.
Then we convened to a garage not much bigger than a typical suburban three-car where he tapped into an oak barrel of 2016 Merlot so that we could taste it. And then he tapped a second, a blend of Merlot and Cab Franc.
I asked him at what point he knows that a particular vintage will be good. “When I taste the grapes. If the grapes are good, I know I can make good wine.” He smiled. Not arrogantly. Confidently. Then he added, “That 2010 you liked? That was mine.”
When our tour concluded, he told us, “I’m sorry for my English. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain how much I love this.” But it was OK, I assured him. Because in that one sentence, he had managed to convey everything.
When I asked if we could buy some wine, he directed me to the back office with a shrug, “I make the wine, but I have nothing to do with the business of it.” With that, he returned to work.
In the office, we met Valerie, the woman who had replied to my email—and the owner. I explained that I wanted more of the 2010, but I also wanted our grandson, Jack’s, birth year—2015—a fantastic year for Bordeaux.
“Unfortunately, the 2015 has just been bottled, and it’s not yet labelled. I’m sorry, it’s not for sale yet. But the 2009 is also fantastic.”
“Can I order a case of the 2015 when it’s ready?”
“Do many people visit you?”
We ended up buying 18 bottles split between 2010 and 2009. Valerie agreed to ship one case, while we loaded the remaining six bottles into our backpacks. It was well past noon, and we’d only eaten a meager breakfast. The wine was heavier than I imagined. Valerie offered us a ride back to the train station which we wearily accepted.
As we were leaving, she pulled back a tarp revealing hundreds of bottles heaped in an metal crate, grabbed one and handed it to me. “I’m sorry it’s not labeled, but please, take this as a gift from Château Milens to your grandson. It’s the 2015.”
Although English is my native language, I struggled to find the right words. So I simply said, “Thank you,” and hoped my smile conveyed the rest.
Categories: Life in Paris