My favorite travel memories, I’ve come to realize, involve one of two things: food or people. This story involves both.
October 2, 2021
At the main junction in the village of Pommard, a handful of tourists and bikers were assembling. Used to walking the Burgundian fields in solitude, I turned away— uninspired to join them—and started toward the next village of Volnay.
It was then that I looked up an alleyway and saw an ouvert sign next to an open door. I hesitated, but ultimately decided to keep going towards Volnay, walked 50 feet further, and stopped.
This might be a good time to mention that I’m a believer in signs—cosmic signs. In lieu of any form of rational, fact-based process, I believe the universe will guide you. It’s how I make both big and small decisions. (This is the point in the story where Pat rolls his eyes.)
My gut was telling me to go. I turned up the alley and walked into the domaine courtyard. There stood the winemaker talking to a woman. Just then, another woman walked into the courtyard behind me. Two Americans were looking for a tasting.
This might be a good time to mention that the universe is an imperfect tour guide. But it was too late to gracefully turn back.
The winemaker led us into his—for lack of a better word—shop. In reality, it was substantially less fancy than that word implies, musty with a light coating of dust. Perfect, in a barnyard sort of way. Here, the winemaker conducted his tastings and sales.
The American women set about arranging a tasting of a fleet of whites. I asked him if I could buy a glass of a more mineral white, but buying wine by the glass—as I expected—was not allowed. He offered to pour me a larger tasting of a Chardonnay from Saint Romain.
That works, I told him.
Since he seemed friendly, I asked if I could borrow a knife. He disappeared inside and came back with a bottle of Saint Romain, poured a liberal amount into a glass, and handed me a well-worn knife.
I invited him and the two Americans to join me for cheese outside. In these Covid times, I assumed they’d decline, but before too long, all 3 came out into the courtyard.
As I write this, I realize this next part sounds sketchy even in non-Covid times, but I pulled a dried sausage from my backpack and a quarter round of cheese from my jacket pocket. Both, I explained in an effort to establish credibility, I had bought in the Beaune market earlier that morning. I laid them out and took the only photo since entering the domaine. We all nibbled as the winemaker told us the history of the cheese.
“This is the cheese of Cîteaux Abbey. After the revolution, the abbey lands were confiscated, and eventually sold. Since the monks could no longer make and sell wine, they learned to make this cheese. It pays their bills, and it’s become quite famous.”
He leaned in and cut off a heartier slab of cheese. Each of the women did the same. There ensued a round of appreciative moaning. “Take more,” I encouraged them, “I’m not going to carry it in my pocket to Meursault.”
One of the woman laughed, “If I had this cheese I’d strap a cooler to my back and carry it everywhere..”
We all laughed with her.
As I look back on this story, I realize it was a perfect pre-social media moment. It was a lovely conversation, yet we didn’t end it by swapping emails or Facebook information. If we shared names, I don’t recall them. It ended when they simply left with no expectation, or even possibility, of a conjoined future.
It was reminiscent of how we used to meet people on the road, flickers of light that soon would extinguish save for in our memories. I rather like this feeling of finality, the magic inherent in the mystery.
The winemaker and I lingered. He told me that his great … great grandfather bought the vineyard in 1793 after the revolution. I asked if he had sons and he smiled. “Of course. A Burgundian winemaker must have sons.”
“Just like the kings of France,” I said.
“Exactly,” he replied, and we laughed.
He talked about the difficulty of this last year. After a devastating late frost, the summer was rainy. The winemaker spent much more time in the fields checking for mold. He described his job as 90% farmer and 10% winemaker. “The quality this year is very good. Yet when you have so few grapes, it’s hard to make wine. You still must fill the vat.”
Then he pointed up to a dormer in the roof. “That’s my great … great grandfather. He’s watching us.” I looked up and saw a wooden head propped up in the dormer window.
Yikes. “Does that ever scare you?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. I like to look up and remember that he’s watching me as I make the wine.”
With that, I handed him the last bit of cheese, the knife, and some money to pay for the wine. He told me I shouldn’t pay, “Tastings are free.”
“I came in here knowing I couldn’t buy a bottle, yet you gave me a glass of wine and a knife. Let me linger. Told me stories of your family. I want to buy a bottle. I just can’t take the bottle with me.”
He relented, went back inside, returned with an unlabeled bottle of wine, and poured me a glass. “Pommard has no grand cru wine, but if we did, this would be it. It’s from a clos within a clos.” I told him that I’d noticed the stone wall inside of another stone wall on my way into town.
He raised the bottle. “That was this.”
As I sipped that wine, he talked about his relationship with other winemakers. “In the village, it’s good. Beyond the village, it gets complicated. And then we have the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits. That’s complicated too.”
With no intonation of self pity, he told me about three consecutive vintages, 2012-2014, all lost to hail. C’est la vie.
I recounted a story of my father’s friend—a farmer—who lost his crop to August hail just as it was about to turn an annual profit. He shook his head in commiseration. It’s memories like these that have caused me to buy local produce whenever possible and never to grouse about the price.
As I got up to leave, I thanked him again. On my way out of the courtyard door, I stopped and took a photo of the vineyard name. Then I stepped back into the courtyard to take a photo of the wooden head in the dormer.
The winemaker peeked around the shop door. “Ferdinand,” he said as I was leaving, “His name was Ferdinand Coste.”
I don’t plan to write anymore about walking Burgundy. I loved it, but it turns out, I kept a fairly good journal on my Instagram account. Yet I’ve gotten some questions about how to do this. If you’re are interested, shoot me an email. It’s simple.
Categories: Exploring France