I just got back from a week in Paris, which is something I don’t get to say or write nearly often enough. While there I was struck by many things regarding the place of wine in the French culture. The five I’ve listed below are all things that American diners, restaurants, and wine producers should give more serious thought to.
1. Wine as part of a meal. I cannot recall sitting down to a lunch or dinner during our time there and seeing a restaurant or café table that did not have wine on it. Little carafes, big carafes, half bottles, big bottles – everybody drank wine with their meal. I know statistics say wine drinking in France has declined in recent years and I have no reason to doubt those reports. That being said, there is also no evidence that the French have lost their love of the grape. Personally, I was just glad to do my part to boost their wine sales.
2. Wine service. My wife and I ordered wine with every lunch and dinner, and only once did we not share a bottle, instead ordering then by the glass. In each case the wine was delivered at correct or slightly cooler than cellar temperature, presented and opened professionally, and then left for us to manage on our own. What a refreshing change from American restaurants, where waiters grab the bottle every time they walk by and top off your glass. Clearly the French figure that if I’m old enough to handle ordering from a wine list, I’m old enough to manage how and when I want to drink the wine in front of me. American restaurants, please make special note of this.
3. Glassware. I enjoy the big Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses I use at home, but quickly got used to not having them when we sat for meals in Paris. Out of twelve restaurants we visited, not counting afternoon Champagne sessions at sidewalk cafés, I think we had stemware similar to the home set maybe once or twice. Most tables we were seated at came with four stems set on a line in the middle of the table; two for water, two for wine. All small, durable stemmed glasses, with four or five ounce capacities. Sure, we had a few decent Burgundies that might have behaved differently in larger, finer glassware, but that didn’t seem to be a concern for our French hosts. Finer stemware takes up more space, breaks more often, and doesn’t stand up to the handling and washing that so much service creates. In the end, it didn’t really matter. We drank good wine that went well with our meals, and we didn’t spend a lot of time exercising our wine-fetish muscles. The wine assumed its proper place in the order of the meal. Oh, one more thing: we didn’t get a single dirty or soap-stained glass all week. The biggest problem, if you want to call it that, was the occasional glass with lint from the towel or napkin staff members used to dry and polish the glass. Another nice change from the too-often slipshod efforts found at home.
4. Low alcohol. I’m going to have to do a little legwork on this, but I’m relatively confident that not a single bottle we consumed had an alcohol level over 13%, maybe 13.5% on one or two. Everything else was 12.5 % or lower. What’s the big deal some folks will say. Others will push back with the argument that it doesn’t matter as long as the alcohol is well-integrated with the wine’s other properties – acids, fruit, tannins—but that’s not what’s at issue here. With these low alcohol levels, we were able to split a bottle at both lunch and dinner and not spend our afternoons and evenings in a somnolent fog. We didn’t wake up with hangovers. We retained clarity and energy throughout the day, which is often not possible with bigger wines boasting ABVs of 14.5, 15.5, and higher. An entirely different wine experience is possible when alcohol levels are kept in moderation. (Maybe walking 8-10 miles a day contributed to our energy and clarity, but the low alcohol levels played a significant role in the success of our vacation).
5. Wine lists. Most of the wine lists we encountered in the bistros and brasseries where we ate fit onto a single page. Selections included one or two wines from various regions and prices were moderate – nothing too low-end, nothing in the nose-bleed section. We happily ate at a couple of nice restaurants where the lists were slightly more elaborate, but the formula remained of similar fashion, if only expanded for additional selections and price points. We always saw Bordeaux, but sometimes more Beaujolais than Burgundy. And we rarely saw anything that we might at home consider a “geeky” wine. An aligote we enjoyed at lunch one afternoon was the closest we came to something out of the mainstream. Oh, I guess the Alsatian pinot noir at lunch one day might be considered by some as a bit quirky. Again, like the simple offerings in glassware, this proved, in the end, to be of little importance. At every restaurant there was good wine at good prices. Again, American restaurants, please take note.
Next, I’ll post for the curious a list of the wines we enjoyed in Paris, unadorned by anything that might be confused with a formal tasting note. For better or worse, I chose not to take any while there.