My Paris wine tasting plans disintegrated. Great luck, really.
First, I surfed the Net, then checked FourSquare, then Googled wine bars within a few kilometers walking distance of my rented AirBnb pad in the Marais district of Paris. Early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, I set off. The plan: visit three wine bars and sample three wines at each – following maps I printed, as well directions copied by hand into a back pocket notebook. Simple.
The first wine bar – found after hiking through colorful China and India town – was closed for the Christmas holiday (why do so many of these recommended bars have the number ’67’ in their street address?).
The second bar / restaurant was a further kilometer away. When I entered this highly-recommended-location according to the Internet (‘reservations recommended’) I found it stuffed with well-coiffed young American women talking about their flight schedules to return home. Not exactly a local experience. “Table just for me,” I told the hurried, harried waiter. He replied in English: “No! We are finished!” Not knowing what he meant, but realizing it sounded dire, I exited.
Next door I found a lovely, half empty modern restaurant. Perfect. But I soon found that it was Italian, with all wines from Italy. No worries, I thought. Adapt – sample Italian wines in France. But after waiting 15 minutes without service, I left.
I soon found another restaurant / bar that I had not planned to visit. It looked promising, with a hefty food and wine list. I entered at 2.50 pm (the sign said it stopped serving at 3.00 pm), but the owner said ‘ferme.’ Closed. I left the muggy, crowded restaurant without regret.
Away I walked. Forget the wine bars, I decided. Then, on the left, a guy in a doorway repaired sagging cheap Christmas lights.
“Ouvert” I asked. Open?
“Oui,” he said.
“Manger?” I asked. Eat?
“Oui. Sandwich. Fromage. Avec ou sans beurre?” Yeah, cheese sandwich – with or without butter. That was the entire menu at that time. I said ‘without’ and walked in. Chairs were stacked on tables and the place was near closed. The owner pointed me to a seat and sliced a baguette lengthwise at the bar counter and layered it with cheese and offered a glass of ‘vin rouge’ – red wine. Far from crowds or Zagat recommendations or Lonely Planet niches – I ate the simple, delicious baguette and washed it down with a glass of St. Christophe 2006 Bordeaux wine.
The owner spoke not a word of English- which was refreshing. His wife walked to the front door and smoked a cigarette and when their friend with a cap appeared from the street, the owner – Alberto – invited him in for an espresso.
Alberto told me he spoke Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian. Because my French is weak, we conversed in Spanish and Italian until he got excited and reverted to French, telling me the Bordeaux wine he poured was ‘très, très grand vin rouge!’ – or a big, meaty red. I later learned that Chateau St. Christophe is located outside St. Emilion, that the Merlot grapes are grown above clay and limestone, and are hand sorted after harvest – always a good sign of attention to quality.
Alberto admitted that he thinks Argentinian and Chilean and Australian wines are good, but that Californian wines are best – beside French, which in his opinion are – of course – ‘Number One.’ He told of the magnificence of Romanee Conti from Burgundy (a bit pricey), Petrus from Bordeaux, and Cheval Blanc. “C’est tres grande!” he repeated with a sense of triumph.
As I paid, Alberto told me he once worked near the Eiffel Tower, where he became friends with a usual customer – author Ray Bradbury. “Fahrenheit 451,” Alberto said, to which I added the title of another of his books – “Martian Chronicles.” He told of how he and Ray sometimes met four times a day as Bradbury visited the cafe, and how the writer sent him Christmas cards and came to his apartment and autographed a copy of one of his books for Alberto.
I asked Alberto for his email address.
“No tengo Internet porque no soy un hombre moderno,” he said in Spanish, explaining that he lacked Internet because he was not a modern man. I asked for a glass of Burgundy wine, but he had no open bottle and so poured me a Portuguese red instead. He insisted I would like it. Good stuff.
No crowds, no English, no tourists, no artifice, no complicated menu, no Internet.
Those well reviewed wine bars I planned to visit? No need. Ditch the guide book. Switch off the Internet. Wander to a place, a time, a moment that is unique and beautiful and will never leave you.
It’s not always about the wine.
But the wine tastes better when the best of life, times, and camaraderie unfold. You will never be able to predict where or when that will happen. Just stay ready. And don’t freak when you have to ditch plans. Consider it an adventure.
Should you visit Paris and get a hankering for a decent cheese baguette with a simple but good glass of ‘grand Bordeaux,’ remember Alberto – who will recall times spent with author Ray Bradbury while he sips espresso. Where?
Café du Théater, 17 rue René Boulanger, 70510 Porte St. Martin (metro – use Strasbourg St. Denis or République).
PS – I just found this piece in the New York Times that recalls a lunch with Bradbury in Paris. Who knows – it may have been at Alberto’s place….