JOKE: What do French wines and French train strikes have in common?

PUNCH LINE: They both cost you a lot of money!

Okay, that wasn’t funny. But that’s how rock-bottom my sense of humor is right now. You thought this post was going to be about the oldest and biggest charity wine auction in the world! NOT!!! This post is about the French Grève (the strike) and how it practically ruined five peoples long awaited vacations.

No, just kidding, it’s a little bit of both.

My friends and family came to visit from various parts of the world so that we could gather in Paris and head off en mass to Beaune, the famous city in the heart of Burgundy, for pinot noir and chardonnay tasting. We’ve been attending the wine festival for the last three years. It’s become a family tradition.

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We don’t go to the auction itself. I’m sure I could weasel some press passes, but if you don’t have big money, it’s boring. Just a lot of tall hat texans, cold Russian mafia, and riotous rich Scotsmen in kilts with the odd Frenchman thrown in and a ton of media. My posse is not interested in paying 15,000 euros for a barrel of wine. Even if it does go to charity and even if we do get our names put on the Hospice de Beaune labels. It still is just a wee bit out of our league. We like to smush our faces up against the windows of the auction hall and watch the numbers go flying up along with the prices per barrel. Much more satisfying.

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So just how did we get to the Beaune festival this year? My brother-in-law, “Clyde” Wittman, lassoed a private plane down to the ground while his sass talkin’ girlfriend “Bonnie” held up the pilot with a snickers bar in her pocket. The rest of us climbed in while Bonnie and Clyde blackmailed the crew. No, that’s not it. We just got there. Not all at the same time and not all on the same day – merci SNCF for costing us extra money and vacation time!

One activity we do like to participate in when we’re not hijacking airplanes is the wine tasting at Patriarche Pere et Fils located in the town proper. They open up their extensive underground wine caves to the public once a year and share newly released wine along with several special vintage bottles. Patriarch Pere et Fils are wine brokers that have been in business since the 18th century! They buy the cream of the crop from the surrounding areas (Meursault, Chassagne, Pommard, Chambolle Musigny, Gevrey Chambertain, etc.) and bottle it privately under the famous Hospice de Beaune label.

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Buying wine at Patriarche Pere et Fils is fun. We normally begin with the programed public tasting of 15 wines that meanders through the cool stone caves and then end with a private tasting.

The part I like about the private tasting is how our salesperson cages us in one of the smaller caves while she pulls out more good stuff for us to taste. There’s no escaping! All and all it’s around 30 wines to sniff, swish, gargle, and spit (or swallow). This normally annoys the rest of the public that doesn’t get to come along but is allowed to watch us taste special wines through a locked iron gate. Peasants – let them drink 2001 Musigny! If you want to buy wine they will do the same for you. Just ask for a salesperson when you get to the last public tasting and they will customize the rest of your tasting according your interests.

My favorites from Patriarche Pere and Fils this year were the sexy Vosne-Romanée 1980 (pinot noir), The feminine Musigny Grand Cru 1960 (pinot noir), and an stunning 1957 Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru. The last one, a chardonnay was one of the most memorable wines I have ever had. I could have put a straw in that magnum and sucked down the whole thing. Talk about gold clover honey with a clean acidic citrus-y finish. I couldn’t believe it. Most old whites loose that fresh acidity and turn to vinegar.

Of the newer vintages, all the 2005′s I tasted both in the Pinot noir and in the Chardonnay varietal were outstanding. Drinkable now but structured enough to last for a decade or more. The Perrier Corton and Chassagne were my fav’s.

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We didn’t just come to wine taste ourselves silly. We also came to eat. You’ve got to eat well if you’re going to drink well! The city turns into a festival of food and crafts for the weekend complete with corking competitions and marching bands. Traditionally we start the morning out with a breakfast of champions: foie gras, baguette, comté, chevre, jambon, croissants, pain aux chocolate, and coffee. Then we leave our hotel room stuffed and head straight for the town hall for oysters and escargot. They shuck the oysters for you right from the crates and they are 4:00 A.M. ocean fresh.

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This year we included a winery tour outside of the town with Susan Boxell who began the original tours or the area (in English) with her company Burgundy On A Plate. She has access to many private wineries and long standing relationships with the wine makers so the experience is special. One of the hits of this tour was getting to meet and talk with Monsieur LeFlaive of legendary chardonnay and pinot noir greatness. He’s a third generation wine maker in Burgundy and quite an upbeat character. His wines are in restaurants across the world and he spent two hours just with our small hung-over group taking us through his cellars and explaining his traditional methods of wine making.

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Our last tasting of the weekend, at a small wine shop in town that promised vintage tastings, was a let down. It was so bad. I tasted a wine that smelled exactly like bong water and another that tasted like Crackerbarrel cheddar cheese. And you know what? My whole family agreed that they smelled and tasted exactly that same way. (Parker’s got nothin’ on me baby.) This only goes to show you that not all wines, even from the most prestigious areas like Pommard and Gevrey Chambertain, are good. Before you go and buy a case of something you think is going to be outstanding, taste it. Even if it claims to be a Grand Cru. Each winery has their own style and the differences even between hectares of the same varietal and same classification can be extreme.

We weren’t quite as rowdy as we were last year. I think the Scotts and Texans out-did our partying this time around. Mainly because somewhere along the weekend half our group was food poisoned. Must have been the escargot. We had a long ride back to Paris with the strike and our queasy stomaches. And I won’t even mention how we left two 1980 Vosne-Romenée magnums on the train. Oh wait, I just did. But we’ll be back next year gluttons for punishment and fantastic wine. I think next time we’ll ship all the wine home.

When to go: The second weekend of every November
Where to Stay: Hotel Cep
Wine Tours: Burgundy On A Plate, Susan Boxell
Where to Eat: Ma Cuisine for bistro fare, Bernard Loiseau for Michelin cuisine, Town Hall for oysters and escargot
How to get there: lasso a plane and hijack the crew or take a train from Paris to Beaune
Fun Bars: The Pickwick (this is where all the Scotts go to for dancing on the tables in their kilts), La Parte Des Anges for wine tasting and local clientele.
Wine Tasting in Beaune: Patriarche Pere et Fils

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