A story about wine—and life

The unchateau chateau

This story begins in late August of this year at the restaurant Parc on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. My son Ryan, Pat and I had all ordered the steak frites. My job was to choose the wine; I wanted a left bank Bordeaux.

“Perhaps this Pauillac?” I said to the sommelier.

He nudged me towards a similarly priced bottle from Margaux. “Besides, it’s an interesting story. The winemaker is blind. You can rub the label and feel the braille.”

I choose the Margaux.

We loved the wine. Raved about it throughout dinner. Rubbed the label and felt the braille.

As we left the restaurant I said to Pat,“Let’s extend our trip to Paris next month and visit the vineyard.”

“Sounds good,” he replied.

That night, I changed our flight and emailed the winemaker. By the next morning, we had set a tasting for Saturday, October 8th at noon.

Margaux, France: October 8th

The appellation of Margaux is prestigious, but don’t tell that to Yannick. He is a fourth-generation winemaker growing grapes on a nondescript plot of land that borders the Margaux train station. Picture a stately French wine chateau—Chateau Margaux perhaps.

Now picture the opposite of that chateau.

A dirt road. A steel-rod fence painted deep red—the gate propped open. Chickens pecking in tall grass. A concrete and red structure of the type that typically houses tractors and other farm implements.

Before our trip, I had asked wine merchants, sommeliers, and servers if they knew this wine.

Non, they all replied.

Our Uber driver joked that maybe the vineyard didn’t exist. But it did. Literally and metaphorically on the other side of the tracks and up a dirt drive.

But Yannick was not there.

A hand-written sign taped to the door announced that the tasting room was indefinitely closed because Yannick’s son was hospitalized with an extended illness. The note went on to say that his wine could be purchased at a shop in Margaux or one could call to set up a tasting appointment. An arrow pointed to a phone on the wall. I picked up the receiver and immediately it began to ring.

“Bonjour. I’ll be right up. It’s no problem. I’ve been expecting you.”

Yannick is a burly man in his late 40s. Dark eyes, bearded, a bit of grey flecking his black hair. He was wearing jeans and a Metallica T-shirt under a navy hoody. He smiled as we shook hands. I said, “Yannick. It’s ok. Your son is sick. We don’t need to do this.”

“It’s no problem. My son is home at the moment. He has leukemia, but he’s between treatments.”

Pat patted his hand over his heart and said, “I’m sorry. I know this is difficult.”

We told him about our grandson, Jack, a cancer survivor who was diagnosed at the age of 3.

Childhood cancer families form bonds forged through the shared experience of enduring the unimaginable. This day had taken a turn I could have never envisioned.

Was this trip serendipity? Or was it fate?

I told Yannick about drinking his wine in Philadelphia—the city where Jack was treated. How we had decided that night to come here. He seemed incredulous that anyone would travel so far to his meager vineyard to buy his wine.

We moved inside into a room filled with oak barrels containing the 2021 vintage. I explained to Yannick that I hoped to buy the 2015, not because it’s a fantastic vintage—although it is—but because it’s Jack’s birth year. For a long time, I didn’t buy this vintage at all, afraid to jinx a future that was so frighteningly unassured. But now that Jack’s doing well, my goal is to put up enough bottles to celebrate the milestones of his life, including our shared birthday, starting this October 30th.

“I’m sorry,” Yannick explained. “I only produce 40,000 bottles a year. The 2015 is sold out.”

“That’s not a problem,” I assured him. “I loved the 2019. I’ll buy that from you and find the 2015 someplace else.”

We moved to a three-foot-long table wedged into the corner just past the oak barrels. It was cluttered, looking more like the workspace belonging to a disorganized woodworker with a modest drinking problem than a tasting table in one of the world’s premier wine villages. Yannick opened two bottles—a 2019 and a 2020–filled our glasses, and we began to chat.

I told him that I’m a wine enthusiast, but not a wine expert. He said, “Me too. I don’t know what makes wine good or bad. I only know what I like. To me, wine shouldn’t be sniffed and analyzed but rather enjoyed with friends gathered around a table.”

Yannick was clearly not blind, so I asked why his labels are in braille. He explained that his parents lost their sight late in life to glaucoma. “I can’t imagine how bad it would be not to see. If I can put braille on my labels, then why not?”

Yannick, I realized, is a kind man.

He is also a designated Cru artisan. This means that he is both the owner and works in every phase of wine production. But apparently in four generations, no one had asked for a direct sale to the United States. “I have a friend who may be able to help. Give me 5 minutes. Keep drinking.”

Five minutes later, Yannick returned and told us that his friend could help us. Then he handed me a bottle of wine and said, “I still had some 2015 in my personal cellar. Take this as a gift.”

I clutched the wine to my chest and lowered my head. When I looked up, Yannick had tears in his eyes. Tears ran down my face. Finally, when I was able to speak, I said, “Thank you. This means more to me than you will ever know.”

And yet, I believe Yannick does know.

Then Yannick’s son came into the cellar with two more bottles of 2015–also a gift. As the son packed up our wine, he told us that he’s 12, loves school, and has a dream to be a chef. He was poised, wise, and spoke perfect English. His favorite subject is mathematics. We wished him well, and he replied, “I have 18 more months of treatment, and then I’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be thinking about you,” I told him.

With the tasting done, Yannick grabbed his keys. We went out and piled into his mini-van. “It’s a mess,” he apologized. At this point, I’d be disappointed with anything else. Off we went into the village where a wine merchant was waiting.

I’ll cut to the conclusion of the transaction: We ordered two cases of Yannick’s wine and a third case of assorted left bank 2015s to ship to home to Virginia.

“Yannick could charge much more for his wine but he refuses,” the merchant said. It turns out that Yannick charges just over 13 dollars for the same bottle that cost 95 dollars at Parc in Philadelphia.

Yannick shrugged his shoulders and grinned. This was evidently not the first time that the merchant and the winemaker had had this discussion.

I’ve thought a lot about why Yannick charges less than he could. I believe it’s because outside of the large chateau owners, the region of Médoc is very poor. He doesn’t aspire to make a wine that can be consumed by the far-flung and wealthy but not by his own neighbors. His is a higher calling, to make the wine which his friends and neighbors can drink when they gather around their own tables.

At least, that’s what I chose to believe.

Outside the wine shop, we said our goodbyes. Yannick declined my offer to pay for the 2015 wines.

“We’ll be back when your son opens his restaurant,” I promised.

“Send me an email and tell me about the birthday,” he replied.

We shook hands, but that felt inadequate. I stepped forward and wrapped him into a hug. I believe he knew everything that I wanted to say.



Categories: Exploring France

Tags: , ,

30 replies

  1. Beautiful story and experience that I enjoyed immensely! ❤️ Lynn

  2. How beautifully serendipitous!

  3. Hi, Julie. I’m literally crying reading this. Thank you for sharing such a heartwarming story in your own special way.

  4. Such a wonderful story…serendipity. ♥️

  5. I was touched deeply by this story. My daughter is a survivor – 7 1/2 years and cured of cancer.
    So beautifully written and heartfelt.

  6. Oh, Julie … what a joyful experience!

  7. What a beautiful experience you had on a whim! All of life should be lived with such joy. Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. Thank you for sharing this human experience. The ability of one to travel, to collect and share one’s stories from the road, is such a gift. Now that the world is reopened to us, may we all touch and be touched by its’ marvels.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  9. Beautiful story. Tears in eyes. ♥️

  10. This story brought tears to my eyes……thank you Julie for sharing ❤️

  11. What a lovely man, and a lovely experience to treasure forever.

  12. Although I don’t comment often, I look forward to reading all your articles, especially as a francophile. I was so touched by this; what an unforgettable experience for all of you.

  13. What a wonderful story, and beautifully told

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