If I were to devise a personal definition of frustration, it might be this: being set free in Burgundy with a severely limited budget and accompanied by a wife who was three months pregnant and therefore not interested in even a moderate sampling of wine. Granted, a driving tour of France is not high on anyone's list of hardships. But for someone with an interest in wine, a visit to one of the world's great wine regions — some would say its greatest wine region — with a packet of traveller's checks notable for its thinness and a companion devoted to teatotaling can be a frustrating glimpse of what it might be like to spend a life in hell.
Burgundy — the wine, not the region — has become something of an obsession for me. To those who have fallen under its spell, it is the world's most intriguing wine.
"Something about Burgundy excites spirituality," Matt Kramer has written in his book, Making Sense of Burgundy. "Where Napa Valley restores hope that beauty has a future in the modern era and Bordeaux simply makes one want to live, so as to continue to sample its extraordinary array, Burgundy elicits a different emotion. Even the most skeptical are willing, after savoring a genuinely great Burgundy, to concede that there may well be — dare one say it? — a Presence in the universe beyond our own.
"One thing is clear: the Earth speaks in Burgundy as it does nowhere else. And the grapevine is its interpreter."
It is that notion — the Earth speaking through the wine; the wine being the absolute essence of soil and rain and sunshine and wind — that is among wine's attractions. Kramer does not refer to the estimable food writer Waverly Root, but in Kramer’s 1990 book he is talking about precisely the same thing that Root talked about in his 1958 book, The Food of France: "…food, with the exception of a very few minerals, is made up of the living things, vegetable or animal, which spring from the soil of a region, the people of which are made, in the most literal sense, of the food they eat. … The land [forms] the food. The food [is] intimately and inextricably involved with the geography and the climate and the history and the habits and the culture — in short with the entire environment — of the land."
In an era of factory farms, agribusiness, and chemical pesticides, it is a notion with no little attractiveness — food and wine as part of an ecological system, part of an absolute connection to the good earth. And in the wines of Burgundy, it seems, that connection has reached its greatest manifestation.
And so I admit that Burgundy is approaching the level of an obsession with me, or if not an obsession, an unrealizable dream. It is a dream inspired by inaccessibility. I do not mean you cannot stride into a wine shop and buy any number of bottles of excellent Burgundy. You can — if, that is, you have the approximate income of a big league outfielder. Burgundy is not only arguably the world's finest wine, it is the world's most expensive wine — to the frugal wine-lover's great disadvantage. The laws of supply and demand are nowhere applied more starkly than in Burgundy. The total production of wine is tiny compared to other wine regions, and yet Burgundy aficionados abound, passionate about the wine and willing to buy it, bad vintage or good. If you are interested enough in wine to peruse the wine columns and journals and many books that serve as a consumer's guide to the cabernets and Cote Roties, the pinot noirs and riojas, the barolos and barbarescos, then Burgundy's greatness is a fact you must constantly confront — in the frustrating abstract.
We started our tour in Dijon, an ancient, dingy city of 150,000 people, described lovingly by M.F.K. Fisher in her book "Long Ago in France." She lived there as a young woman 64 years ago, the wife of an American student, serving her apprenticeship as both a cook and an eater. Her Dijon was an inexpensive provincial town not far removed from the Medieval days when it was the seat of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy, a town with superlative restaurants and chefs, where even the ordinary residents excelled in the kitchen — a town where, it was said, it was impossible to get a bad meal.
Nor did we get a bad meal, six decades later. What we did not get, though, was a Burgundian meal. We arrived in Dijon late on a rainy, dank Sunday afternoon and, after checking into our hotel, set out on foot and under umbrellas. We found the restaurant recommended by our hotel keeper, and it looked wonderful — dark and cheerful, filled with people earnestly and happily eating their Sunday evening dinner. Alas, we next learned what we were to learn elsewhere — that in Burgundy, if not in all of France, restaurants have only one seating for dinner, and if you arrive after all tables are taken your only choice is to look elsewhere.
We did, but on a Sunday night the options were limited, and so we settled on a Moroccan restaurant where we were served excellent couscous, rich and savory with lamb and chicken. It was a quality meal, but it was less than satisfactory. We were in the gateway to Burgundy, after all, the city in which it was impossible to get a bad meal, and if I had wanted to eat North African food I would have gone to North Africa. I ate, though, and tried to hide my disappointment. Monday was another day, and lunch another meal.
Like Sunday, Monday was dreary. It rained on and off. The facades of Dijon are almost uniformly earth-toned, a palate not shown to its best advantage under sodden, leaden skies. There is hardly a pastel or primary color to be seen. Unfortunately for us the Monday noon hour in Dijon is also an off-time for restaurants. Again we settled — this time for crepes. I was hungry after a morning of museums, and the crepes were a perfectly adequate lunch. But for my second meal in a famous gastronomic city at the head of Burgundy, it was thoroughly disappointing. Where were the rabbits, the beef, the kidney and liver and sweetbreads? Where, as Fisher wrote, were "the snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy"?
Discouraged, I skipped wine at lunch.
That afternoon we drove into the heart of Burgundy, wending our way slowly through the Cote D'Or — the Golden Slope — as one might nibble at the charcuterie served before a meal to sharpen and preserve one's appetite for what followed. We cruised through the towns whose names on the direction signs, as Waverly Root put it, let you feel like a tiny insect crawling across a magnified wine card: Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Aloxe-Corton, Nuits-Saint-Georges. This was where my frustrations as a perspective Burgundy-drinker would at last be satisfied, I hoped.
To travel north-south along the Cote D'Or, you can drive the superhighway that has been strung along the base of the slope — which is perfect, say, for hastening to Pommard or Volnay if you have no interest in Vougeot — or drive the ancient hillside road past the vineyards and along the narrow village streets, noting the famous names here and there on the winegrowers' headquarters. It has been said that winegrowing country is generally not beautiful landscape, but this northern half of the 30-mile Cote d'Or — the Cote de Nuit — was pleasant countryside, even under gray skies.
We stopped in two villages — Aloxe-Corton and Savigny-les-Beaune — and rejected hotels in each as too expensive. We tracked down several houses with rooms to rent, but they were filled. Finally we proceeded to Beaune, the ancient town that is the capital of Burgundy and the halfway point on the route down the Cote D'Or.
As we drove I was thinking both of Waverly Root and A.J. Liebling, who was a better writer than Root but who admired Root's first-rate book, "The Food of France," almost without reservation. Both lived in Paris as young men during the 1920s, the years of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation — though neither, apparently, found membership in that generation. (Root's amusing memoir of those years, "The Paris Edition," has a chapter called "I Never Knew Hemingway.") Both were too busy — Liebling as a nominal student at the Sorbonne who in reality was learning the gastronomic arts thanks to his father's unknowing largesse, and Root as a reporter and copy editor on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune and a kind of independent gustatory researcher whose studies peaked with the bi-weekly arrival of his paycheck.
I was thinking in particular of an incident that Liebling relates in his own memoir, "Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris." Liebling toured Burgundy as he was leaving France for America, via the Mediterranean port of Marseille. It is hard to think of a more perfect locale for him to pass a week in the country, unless perhaps it is Bordeaux, or maybe Provence, or perhaps the Emiglia-Romana region of Italy. He was a prodigious eater and drinker who considered wisdom at the table and the stamina to put it to good use to be qualities of the highest order. He joked about Proust in his book and how the memory of a madeleine inspired "Remembrance of Things Past": "In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece." (It is gratifyingly obvious that Liebling, who lived part of his adult years on the eastern end of Long Island, was partial to the good regional food of places other than France.)
While in the Cote d'Or he ate and drank on a scale that I can only call Liebling-esque, separating his repasts with long walks that allowed the effect of one huge meal to wear off while rekindling his appetite for the next. The young writer made friends with an inn-keeper, who, although French, was not from Burgundy. The inn-keeper saw in Liebling a chance to gain access to the best cellars of his town, Gevrey-Chambertin. Introducing Liebling as a rich American bootlegger, the inn-keeper led him from one vineyard to the next, sampling all the greatest bottles. "In that way," Liebling wrote, "I got to drink more good wine than most men are able to pay for in their lives. … At night I would stagger home to eat the jambon-persillé — parsley-flavored ham with mustard and pickles — that every meal began with, followed by hare or beef or fowl in a sauce of better wine than you could buy in other regions in labelled bottles. All the good wine I could drink came with the meals, but [the inn-keeper] had invented the bootlegger story to get at the superlative wine of the vineyardists. He was a Lorrainer, from Nancy or Metz, and so an outsider, possessing no vineyards of his own." In Burgundy, it seems, even some residents must conspire to get their hands on the good stuff.
Liebling was aware of what an awesome treat he was being given — even then Burgundy was twice as expensive as excellent wines from Bordeaux.
"Burgundy is a lovely thing," he concluded, "when you can get anybody to buy it for you."
I had no hope or expectation of getting anybody to buy it for me. The question was whether I would summon up the cash and the nerve — it takes some courage, I submit, to drink a $50 bottle with dinner — to buy it for myself.
The hotel we stayed at in Beaune was ancient and, from the outside, beautiful. The reception area was a stone cellar with vaulted-ceilinged chambers that you stepped down into from the narrow cobbled street and it was lined with bottles of wine, which could be bought from the hotel keeper. But the rooms were ugly and dark, and noisy, and the price, although moderate, was too steep for ugly, dark, and noisy. The hotelkeeper did, however, recommend a restaurant in town that looked excellent. We hurried to it through the rain, slogging along the streets that wind in a maze within the walls of the old city, walking past wine shops and shops that sold wine accessories. But when we entered the restaurant, the proprietor dismissed us with a wave of the hand — no room, all the tables were taken. Likewise we were turned away from two other establishments, until finally finding one, on the outskirts of town, that had two seats for us. We had a decent if not spectacular Burgundian meal and I, drinking alone and so restricted by temperance and fear-of-hangover to the list of half-bottles, chose a Haute Cote de Beaune. It was a drinkable bottle of pinot noir, young and fresh — a burgundy, true, but not the burgundy I had been envisioning and hoping for, the old, muscular wine with the gout de terroir, the taste of the land, that burgundy lovers cherish.
The next morning we packed up early and left the hotel. We visited the famous Hospice de Beaune, an ancient hospital that raises its operating funds by doubling as a wine merchant and auctioneer. We also stopped at a nearby cellar where a middle-aged man showed us around briefly, uncorked a keg and, using a long glass tool that resembled a turkey baster, drew out a tube full of red wine with which he filled a glass. The wine was delicious. But the man, under the misconception that he could speak coherent English, immediately began regaling us with a tale that I think had something to do with Thomas Jefferson, although I'm not certain. In our haste to escape this speed-talker, who used English words with a complete omission of syntax, making his monologue vaguely familiar but incomprehensible, I forgot the name of the cellar and the wine.
Our next stop was across the street, at the Marché aux Vins — the Wine Market. I knew this would be my chance to taste Burgundy, not just from one town or vintage but from many. At the Marché we were given a tastevin, a wide, shallow metal cup traditionally used for tasting wines in Burgundy. We descended into the catacombs. The long, low, vaulted passageways were lighted by dim bare bulbs and candles, and paved with gravel. Wine racks and bottles leaned against the walls. Every 10 feet or so was an upended keg on top of which sat a candle and an open bottle of wine — 19 kinds of wine in all: white burgundies, beaujolais, and lower-end red burgundies. Back upstairs, in the nave of an old church, was the real thing — 18 top-flight red burgundies.
If not exactly heaven, what lay before could at least have been considered a version of paradise.
And yet it was 11 in the morning. And these wines were for tasting, not — in these circumstances, anyway — for lingering over: vino de meditazioni, wine to meditate over, as the Italians say.
When I had emerged, an hour or so later, into the surprisingly bright daylight of that overcast morning, I had sampled 15 of the 37 wines. White and red, young and old — an '85 Chassagne-Montrachet, an '88 Vosne-Romanée, an '89 Monthelie, an '83 Aloxe-Corton, a '77 Mussigny, a '78 Charmes-Chambertin. It was a wonderful experience. The old wines in particular were something completely different, transformed into a drink that was beyond my previous experience with wine.
But it was also a tease. It was not possible for me to justify buying any of those bottles, priced at $50 or $60 and higher (even though that was half or one-third what they would sell for in the United States). Wine is made to accompany food — "Food is the meaning of wine," as Matt Kramer put it — but I was tasting in a vacuum. What my $40 admission to the Marché aux Vins got me was an intriguing and seductive taste of Burgundy, but only a taste.
With lunch that day I drank a small pitcher of Passe-Tout-Grain, a wine produced of gamay and pinot noir grapes \. It was fresh and fruity, and I enjoyed it enough to have the waitress jot down its name for me — but it was not Burgundy. That afternoon we left the Cote d'Or and drove south through a downpour to the Beaujolais region, where the wine is priced far more accessibly than Burgundy. I had andouillette for dinner, accompanied by a half-bottle of Moulin-a-Vent, fresh and delicious, the way Beaujolais is supposed to be. But it was not Burgundy.
All of which is not to say that we did not have wonderful meals and wine in France. There was a memorable roasted quail and a hare stew with a bottle of Tavel in Provence. In Lyons, at the exciting, crowded, noisy little restaurants called les boucherons, there was a superlative veal liver, and the sweetest mussels I've ever eaten, and a carp cooked in red wine that tasted like the essence of a fresh-water lake on a plate, all accompanied by a pitcher of the Beaujolais village that serves as the house wine in bistros throughout France. Also in Lyons, there were baguettes and coffee for breakfast at the giant food market — Halle de Lyon, a fantastic place where the beauty and bounty of the displays of Roquefort, brie, blood oranges, grapes, leeks, haricots vert, Charolais beef, patés, blue-footed Bresse chickens, pheasants, brioche, turbot, and clams make up for the shopping-mall decor — followed in mid-morning by a couple dozen fresh oysters and two glasses glasses of muscadet.
We'll return to Burgundy someday. I'm already in training, working out on the cote de Rhones, the Australian sirahs, the South American cabernets that are affordable and drinkable — although I realize that moving on to Burgundy will be like preparing to face Tom Seaver by playing slow-pitch softball. And I will admit to having three or four bottles of the most inexpensive Burgundies stored away. I'll drink them sometime and try to capture some hint of what the real stuff, the good stuff, must be like.
Until then I'm resigned to echoing A.J. Liebling: Burgundy is a lovely thing, when you can get anybody to buy it for you.