First of all, I want to acknowledge the huge amount of damage to the vineyards of France and much of central Europe by the frosts of the past week, which continue as I write this. It is possible that a majority of the 2021 vintage may be lost. The damage runs from First Growth Bordeaux to Chablis, to Champagne to everyday wines. It is tragic and will be felt for a long time.
I haven’t posted on this blog in quite some time – since November 2019, in fact, during those pre-COVID halcyon days of bliss. The main reason for my absence from these pages, while not from wine, has been that since I have been living in France for 3 years or so now, my experience with wine has changed. It has become more of a relationship with a smaller number of mostly unpretentious and unspectacular wines consumed, for the most part, with meals. If anything, COVID cemented this relationship, as our restaurants are closed and the occasional “special bottle” with a restaurant meal has not been in the mix. When I last wrote about our wine experience living in Lyon (LINK), I was new to the area and just beginning to learn.
While Dorianne and I have extended our pricing for “everyday wines” from an upper limit of about 12€ to about 16€, putting a few second labels from Burgundy in range. Despite this, our average expenditure is likely under 10€ per bottle. This is because I have found a number of labels in the 7€ range that are good enough to drink just about every day. I will list and describe these wines later, but I am not sure that they can be found outside of France. Suffice to say, that for 16€ and under, you can find very drinkable wines from just about any region in France (even Burgundy!). Equivalent wines in the US, in my experience, tend to cost upward of $25.
Another change is that our social circle here is not so wine-centric as the one we left behind in California. The French, with some exceptions of course, view wine as a grocery item. One French friend who loves to drink wine and visit wineries, seldom spends more than 4€ for a bottle. There is a bit more wine talk among the English-speaking expat community here, but not all that much.
Our diets have gotten lighter here and we drink more whites and rosés, especially in spring and summer, but also in winter with fish, salads, and soups.
My purchasing habits here in Lyon are different than they were in the US. I have gradually expanded outward geographically, as each wine shop (cave) here is unique. Each shop has one or two (or more) very good French wines at lower price points; each shop has different wines from the various regions. Most larger supermarkets have some very nice wines on their shelves. Some have more international choices – I get good Spanish, Italian, and Middle Eastern varieties at an Armenian grocery store; Port wines at a Portuguese bodega near the Portuguese consulate; South African wines at a major chain grocery; and even some Penfold’s from my local wine shop.
I have begun to buy more wines online from the producers – wines from Lirac, Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Pommard, Beaune, and the northern Rhône Valley. When we can, we visit wineries and co-ops nearby in Mâcon, Pouilly-Fuissé, also in Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, and Fleurie in the Beaujolais.
Since we have not been back to the US for over a year, our cave has about 6 bottles of California wines left. But it is fully stocked with other wines, about 90% are French, many purchased at the fall wine festivals (LINK) which I hope return this year.
About half the time, we drink wines which are under 20€ and we consider “everyday wines.” I will do another post featuring those wines soon.
As promised, here are our go-to everyday wines for ten euros or less. Le Versant is a favorite. They make other wines as well, but these are the ones available near us. These are wines that I would share with anyone who visits, as they represent their regions well. They are not of premiere cru quality, but they don’t have to be. I would say that each is worth 2 to 3 times what they sell for.
Le Versant Syrah 6,99 €
Le Versant Cabernet 6,99 €
Château Junayme, Fronsac Bordeaux blend 6,35 €
Château Etang des Colombes, Corbières Red Blend 7,40 €
La Bastide St. Dominic, Côte-du-Rhône Red Blend 7,99 €
Le Versant Chardonnay 6,99 €
Le Versant Sauvignon 6,99 €
Le Versant Viognier 5,60 €
Les Orfèvres du Vin, Mâconnaise Aligoté 7,50 €
So that’s what Dorianne and I are drinking most nights with dinner. France offers a wealth of very drinkable wines at very good prices, once you learn what to look for. As we all hope that the local vignerons manage to survive these frosts, let us be grateful for the French wines that we can enjoy today.
We are currently living in Lyon and are between our second and third long-stay visitor visas (carte sejour). I say between, because our second visa expired in October and our appointment to renew (made last June) is in February. The government agency responsible for visas is swamped due to Brexit and other factors, so everything is backed-up. Our appointment notice serves as an automatic visa extension until our new one is approved.
We have also applied to enter the social security and health care systems. Once we receive our health card (Carte Vitale), we will have full access. You can qualify for the system after living here for a few months (LINK), but it took us a while before we applied. Fortunately, we have not had any health issues to speak of in the interim.
Since we were in France for more than 183 days in 2019, we will have to file a tax return for this year. We have no French income (we can’t work in France with our current visas), but we will have to file anyway, which is fine with us as we plan to stay here indefinitely. We do pay taxes on our apartment and VAT taxes already.
I am still struggling with my French and I remain at the transactional level; I can do most transactions pretty well, but I cannot have a conversation with a French speaker. I continue to listen to French lessons online and via my iPhone and attend some practice sessions such as a weekly coffee in French sponsored by the American Club of Lyon (LINK).
The American Club has become one of our social hubs, and we meet both expats and French people who may have lived or studied in the US for a time. There is a coffee in English on Tuesdays and in French on Thursdays, plus regular happy hours, special events, and holiday gatherings for Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. There are about 2-300 active members of the club.
Another social hub is Internations (LINK), an international organization with groups in most cities around the world. They sponsor monthly meet-and-greets at cafes and other locations and have smaller affinity groups which vary by location. Membership consists mostly of expats and visitors, with a few locals who want to meet people from other countries.
Dorianne is playing a lot of chamber music here. One of the reasons we chose Lyon was because of the vibrant amateur chamber music community here. She plays in several orchestras, a few smaller groups, and participates in stages, or trainings, both locally and internationally. This community has become a third social hub for us.
Our building and local neighborhood have become a fourth social hub. There is an annual fête des voisins (neighbors’ party) in our building, and naturally we see our neighbors during the day as we enter and leave the building. Our street has hosted a street party where the street was closed off and the businesses provided food and drinks for everyone. And, we see the local shop owners almost daily as we make our local purchases of food, wine and such.
Our cave (storage area) in the basement of the building is growing as we make wine purchases at the local caves (wine shops) and at various wine festivals and tastings during the year. Wine is like food here, and I find that there is less conversation about wine during meals than in California. The wine is simply part of the experience and you talk about other things. Lyon has an excellent selection of French wines in restaurants and stores. International wines are a bit harder to find, and I have only found one place with good US wines – the Franklin Steakhouse(LINK), which features US beef and Napa Valley wines. The owner, Eric, is a former cooper in Napa and still features some of the wines of the winemakers he made barrels for. There are good Italian restaurants with good Italian wines, etc., but this is a city surrounded by wine regions and which specializes in French wines.
The French rarely talk about work or money; they like to talk about family, culture, and philosophy – and politics. My French, as noted above, is not good enough yet to go deeply into these topics. It takes a good knowledge of French to be part of the conversation and to be fully accepted here. So, I will keep studying.
I will say that I have not had the experience of rudeness which some American report when visiting France. I do have some thoughts on the topic. One issue is that France is not a tipping culture. French servers are professionals who receive a living wage and benefits even at the smallest cafés. This means a couple of things – the servers do not hover and check on you every five minutes; they do not try to up-sell you to raise the bill. The servers are not ignoring you; they are letting you enjoy your meal. In fine restaurants, the service will be a bit more solicitous, but again, they are not trying to raise your bill to get a larger tip. Also, the table is yours for the evening and one is expected to linger over dinner; meals are not rushed. When you want the check (l’addition) you will have to signal the server, and you may pay at the counter in many cafés and bouchons (Lyonnaise bistros). The menu price includes taxes and there is no need to tip – although we often leave a euro or two for good service.
Another way to be treated well is to at least attempt to use French when making a purchase in a store or asking for directions. Many French people speak little or no English, or they are embarrassed that their English isn’t better, so they hesitate to speak it. But when some Americans (including some expats) make no effort to speak French, and act affronted if a French person does not speak English, then it is me who gets embarrassed.
Finally, I find that while Americans tend to be like dogs – outgoing, friendly, and often boisterous, the French are often more like cats – you have to let them come to you. They shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, then the kisses begin (the number and pattern vary by region) – but you either do not touch or barely touch the other person. And no hugging. When you understand this, you will give French people the opportunity to warm up to you and you will see how warm and friendly they can be. As I said, we have experienced numerous acts of kindness and not had a single negative experience in two years of living here and in multiple trips here previously.
Assuming that all goes well with our visa renewals in February, we will be remaining here for most of the year. Our intention is to apply for either permanent residency (like a Green Card) or French citizenship (dual) when we have been here for five years (which would be July 2022. And did I mention how great the trains are?
For wine lovers, late October into November is the best time to visit Lyon, France’s 3rd largest city which is centered among some wonderful wine regions. Wine regions which include Burgundy, Beaujolais, Jura, and the Rhône Valley.
One can take day trips from Lyon to all of these wine regions (and to nearby Switzerland, if so incined). And in Lyon, there are world-class restaurants featuring amazing wine lists as well as wine caves (shops) which hold vast troves of great French wines.
But these past 3 weeks (and the next two) have been special, even for Lyon. Three very large tastings of French (and only French) wines have been held. They are: Vinomedia Salon du Vin, Terre de Vins Grand Degustiation, and the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants. I attended the last two over the past couple of weeks. (A fourth, Sous les Pavés la Vinge is scheduled for Nov 16 & 17.)
The Terre de Vins Grand Degustiation was held at La Bourse, a grand old building on La Presquille near the center of the city. 90 tasting stations offering about 300 wines, ranging from single vignerons to the large négotiants such as Louis Latour and Georges DeBoeuff. Here are some photos from that event:
The Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants was held in the huge Le Halle Tony Garnier in the 7eme Arrondissement of Lyon. This four-day event offered about 400 independent wine producers offering up to 8 wines each for tasting. Wines from every region in France are featured, the stands mixed together so that you have to walk past the Alsace and Sud-Ouest to get to the Burgogne or the Bordeaux. Regions have color-coded signs with the names of the winery and the sub-region.
The difference here is that all of the product is for sale right at the event. Lyonnaise folks show up in droves, often bringing the whole family to this event, and they stock up. We bought two cases on our first visit, and then I went back the next day with a cart and bought three more. Here are some photos of this event:
At this time of year, there are wine festivals all over the countryside as well, in Beaujolais, Jura, the Rhône Valley, etc. Once the harvest is finished, it is time to move the previous year (or most recent vintage to be released) out to the public, and these events help that to happen. A great time to be in and around Lyon!
“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
As I prepare to travel to Portugal later this month for the MUST Fermenting Ideas Conference (LINK), where new and innovative ideas will be presented and discussed, I can’t help but look at some of the major issues in the wine industry today.
Issues like counterfeiting, fraud, and outright theft are regularly reported here in France and elsewhere. One might actually take that as a positive sign that there is something of great value which is sought after by the criminally inclined. There may well be truth in that, but that is not the kind of thing I am talking about. Even the great scandal of the past year involving the cheating at the Master Sommelier test in the United States (LINK), while closer to the heart of the matter, is not the really big issue, as important as it may be. These kinds of things only affect the upper tier of wine drinkers, not the vast majority.
For me, the big issue is the fact that the industry is pulling in so many directions that it is becoming more and more difficult for wine consumers to have a broad understanding of the world of wine and the enjoyment such awareness brings. This also adversely affects the industry as customer engagement and loyalty wane.
In the United States, the corporatization of the wine industry is having many negative effects. The buying up of labels from shuttered wineries and the conversion of these labels to bottles bulk wines; the “Gallo-ization” of everyday wines; the failure to support labeling regulation policies; and crazy shipping restrictions due to the efforts of regional distributors’ lobbying efforts all serve to break down trust from consumers. These things also make it difficult for family-run wineries to compete in a market where the deck is stacked in favor of the big producers.
Additionally, the movement toward a generic kind of wine blend for the American palate (again, thanks Gallo et all, although wine critics have a hand in this as well), which is opposite of what is happening in the beer industry, where craft beers are gaining market share to the point that they are becoming corporate targets, has also made it harder for the average consumer to explore different styles of the winemaker’s craft. More and more with New World wines and US red wines especially, everything at $12 and under, tastes the same.
The oases from all of this are the smaller wine shops and non-chain restaurants where wine lists are chosen to match the menu, not to maximize buying power. I routinely encourage younger wine drinkers to go to local shops and talk to the staff, who will give good advice about wines regardless of one’s budget. If someone find that they like wine and are interested in exploring it further, local wine shops are a great place to begin. I still rely on my wine cave in Lyon to help me sort through the myriad labels from local wine regions – their advice is worth an extra euro or two per bottle that I may pay over supermarket wines. The same is true in the US and UK.
NOTE: my wife and I have a budget for everyday wine in the 7€ to 15€ range (about $8 to $18). Our go-to Provencal rosé for this summer costs only 6€99. We find that we can get very good wines in this price range here in France – with the advice of our cavistes. We do occasionally splurge for more expensive wines, of course.
On a larger scale, the wine industry would do well to create a more welcoming invitation to wine enjoyment than the usual bifurcated choice of cheap wine laden with additives or more expensive options often marketed for snob appeal. If labeling regulations were supported by the industry, many people who choose to eat healthily would see that their organic food choices are all too often negated by chemical-laden cheap wines. Many of today’s consumers are more health-conscious and the wine industry is doing them few favors by not supporting labeling requirements.
The period of continual growth for the industry seems to be over, meaning that attracting new customers will require more than just putting wines on shelves. Making wine an everyday beverage, as it is in much of Europe, will necessitate a more welcoming and egalitarian approach and require more attention to health concerns. Seeing wine as food seems like a good place to begin.
More to come on all this, but I am interested in any comments you have. I you will be at MUST – see you there!
REFUSE TO BE INTIMIDATED. The world of wine is populated with a few, well, snobs. There are people whose income depends on you, the consumer, feeling like you don’t know enough to order a wine you will like. There are some whose income depends on getting you to buy a wine whether you like it or not. There are also few who want to make you feel uncomfortable just for their own ego gratification.
That said, there are also lots of folks who can and will help you feel more comfortable. These can include wine stewards or waiters in restaurants, employees in wine shops and at large retailers like Costco, tasting room employees, and, yes, wine bloggers like me. Take advantage of their knowledge and willingness to help. Even with the first group, you will usually find if you ask a couple of clear questions and let them know what you like and what you are willing to pay, you will get what you desire.
2. BE AN EXPLORER. Try some unfamiliar wines. Even if after doing so, you become a drinker of one kind of wine, you will at least know that you aren’t missing something better for you. Again, wine retailers and restaurant employees can be helpful. Like Malbec? Try something close, like a Barbera or a Tempranillo. Traveling? Try the local wines. (LINK to my post WHAT KIND OF WINE DRINKER ARE YOU?)
3. AVOID REALLY CHEAP WINES. The issue here is not so much about price or quality as it is about additives. Most new world (that’s everyplace but Europe) wines under $10 to $15 are laced with additives of various kinds. There are no labeling requirements, so you don’t know which ones or how much of them are in your wine. Some additives are benign, some are not. Many people who eat only organic food buy cheap wines filled with chemical additives – unknowingly, of course. (LINK to my post on ADDITIVES)
There are three main reasons that cheaper wines have more additives than more expensive wines: One, consumers of cheaper wines tend to want their wine to taste the same every time. They are not interested in seasonal variation – the kind based on weather which affect wine grapes from just about everywhere. So, additives can mask changes – and in cheap wines, the issue is not seasonal variations; most are bulk wines, made from whatever grapes or juice are available at that moment from any location. Second – additives can make a rough product taste smoother, smell better, look better. In other words, mask problems. Third – there are economic reasons to use additives in some products, and your health is not one of them.
4. NEW TO WINE? TRY A STARTER CASE. I blogged about this a while back. If you are new to wine or have someone, like in my case, my daughter, who is new to wine, consider a starter case. This is a mixed case of wines for them to try to learn about. Then, when returning to the wine retailer, you or they can say what you liked and would like to get more of, or maybe explore a bit with something like what you enjoyed previously, but different. (LINK to my post on STARTER CASE)
5. LEARN HOW TO SHOP FOR WINE. I often go into wine shops without intending to make a purchase – just to look around, familiarize myself with the kinds of wines available, the labels, the price points. I may engage someone in the shop in a conversation about a specific wine, or a wine region that they feature. And, truth be told, much more often than not, I walk out with a bottle or three.
Many reputable wine writers and bloggers will tell you to ask questions when shopping for wine. Wine shop employees will generally enjoy helping you (with the possible exception of the Holiday rush). For example, you might ask for a wine in the $20 range to go with a lamb roast, or something to take as a special gift to a lover of Argentinian Malbec. (LINK to my post on SHOPPING FOR WINE)
6. LEARN HOW RESTAURANT WINE WORKS. There are a few things to be aware of when ordering wine in a restaurant. One is the pricing structure. The norm is to mark up a bottle two to two-and-a-half times retail cost. Many restaurants are offering wines at a lower mark-up (in Europe it is often the same as in a wine shop). Wine is a significant part of the profit structure at many restaurants. For others, it is an afterthought; the wines may not even go with the food offered.
There are myths about ordering wine in restaurants. Most are false or only partly true. The reality is that if wine is a serious consideration in a restaurant, the wine list will have been chosen with care based on what is important to that restaurant’s management. It might be by region – focusing on Italian wines in an Italian restaurant; or by type of food served – an emphasis on white and rosé wines in a seafood restaurant; or it may be wines selected for the specific items on the menu. Some say that the best buy is the 2nd cheapest wine on the list. This is almost never true. If it is good value you are seeking, a good choice is to order a bottle of one of the wines they are selling by the glass. These wines are usually a good value and they are sold by the glass because they are well-received.
Again, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter, wine steward, or sommelier for guidance – and DON’T forget to give him or her your budget! I have never had a negative experience with wine in a restaurant when I have been given guidance (I don’t always ask for it). (LINK to my post on ORDERING WINE IN A RESTAURANT)
7. REMEMBER CORKAGE. In many places, you can bring your own wine to a restaurant. Normally, a corkage fee will be charged, to cover the cost of using the glasses and having the wine open and served by the restaurant staff. This is a good option if you have a special bottle to share with family or friends that will go well with the restaurant meal. Some etiquette – if you don’t know, check in advance on the corkage policy of the restaurant; don’t bring a wine the restaurant has on its wine list; don’t pay $20 corkage on an $8 bottle of Yellow Tail to save money. And, if the wine is corked or otherwise bad, don’t try to send it back for another bottle! (LINK to my post about corkage)
8. LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO DRINK BAD WINE. I know you have a budget, which, like mine, is limited. And maybe you don’t have an educated palate to justify really expensive wine. However, as I noted above, just about all of the really cheap wines are filled with additives and are bad for you. So, think about how much wine you drink and what it would take to get the average cost per bottle up to $15 or more. At that price point, generally speaking you are drinking wine, not just a mixture of random grapes made in bulk. You will notice qualities like minerality, or terroir – the effect of the soil on the wine. You will begin to tell varietals apart ($7 Cabernet Sauvignon tastes surprisingly like $7 Merlot). And you will be drinking a more healthful beverage.
Also, if you buy a decent bottle and it’s bad (corked or chemical tasting for example), don’t drink it! Pour it down the sink, or if it’s not too bad, save it for cooking. If you get a bad bottle (meaning there is a flaw of some kind) at a restaurant, let the staff know. They should replace it. If they disagree with you, let them know that you may not be an expert, but you find the wine undrinkable. They should replace it with another bottle. If the first one was bad, you will taste the difference in the new bottle. It is bad form to ask for a different wine in this situation. Maybe you will get lucky and that will have been their last bottle of that kind in stock! (LINK to my post on EXPENSIVE WINES)
9. WINE ENJOYMENT IS SUBJECTIVE. No matter what the experts tell you, for 95% of wine consumers – the ones who haven’t trained their palates for years and taken rigorous certification classes – wine enjoyment is subjective. You either like a wine, have a “meh” reaction, or don’t like it at all. Robert Parker can’t tell you if you will like a wine. I try to look at tasting notes only after I have tasted a wine, to see if they got it right for me. There are things to know about specific wines, but, let’s be realistic, most who drink wine will never invest the time and energy to learn more than a few of them.
Wes Hagen, currently of Central California’s J. Wilkes Wines (LINK), shares his way to taste wine for most consumers:
Swirl the wine in the glass and look at the color; put your nose to the glass and sniff the bouquet; if it smells like something you want to put into your mouth, take a sip; if it tastes like something you want to swallow, swallow it; notice the finish.
If you begin from there and add some knowledge as you go, you will never get to a point where Wes’s advice doesn’t hold true.
10. HAVE FUN WITH WINE. Wine is both a beverage and, for some, a lifestyle. I love sharing a good bottle with friends and family, and almost never have an expensive (say over $30) bottle when alone. Dorianne and I used to have wine dinners, where we would ask our guests to bring a special bottle, like the one they’ve been saving for a special occasion for ten years, and a dish to accompany it. At the dinner, each guest will tell the story of their wine as everyone shares it. Or bring a bottle from a trip and share the story of the trip.
Go wine tasting when you travel near wine country – there are hundreds of “wine countries” these days. We have tasted in Mexico, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, England, and in Michigan, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Texas, to name a few outside of the normal wine destinations. You will meet some great people in the local wine industry, and fellow tasters are often interesting as well.
I am sure that there are other guidelines for enjoying wine. These are my top ten and I hope you find them of value!
“When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel.”
~ Gloria Steinem
If you read the first post (LINK) in this series, written in September 2017, when we had been in Lyon, France for a bit over two months, you know about the process of securing a long-stay visa and finding an apartment, and a few other things. This post will bring you up to date on the next steps we have taken, and some lessons learned along the way.
Here is where we are as of this writing:
We have purchased an apartment in the 6th Arrondissementof Lyon. Long-term rentals are nearly impossible to find, as landlords usually demand French co-signers for leases (see the first post for more about this). We signed the papers where our offer was accepted, and now are in a 3-month period where notaires, sort of specialized real estate attorneys, do some due diligence on the title, etc. There is an 8% fee for this service, which includes an effective sales tax for the property. We expect to take possession of the apartment in late June or early July. I am now on my way to the US to meet the shipping company representatives who will begin the move of our remaining possessions from California to Lyon.
We had a bit of a scare about shipping Dorianne’s 1923 Steinway piano because of the prohibitions (in the US and the EU) of exporting or importing ivory But we found out that when the piano was rebuilt, plastic keys were installed, so no problem there (just a rather large packing and shipping fee). Also, Dorianne is playing violin is a couple of amateur orchestras in Lyon.
We are in our third short-term furnished rental and about to move into our fourth. By law, short-term rentals in France cannot exceed 90 days unless the residence is declared as the non-primary residence of the owners. And, apparently, AirBnB rentals are limited to 90 days. Plus, French cities are restricting AirBnb operations, cracking down due to many complaints. We found a great rental manager who does both AirBnB and non-AirBnb rentals and have been very happy with rentals in different parts of the city. We have been paying between 1800 and 2500€ per month for nice furnished apartments – one to three bedrooms. It has worked out well for us, but we are glad to be moving to a “home base.”
We are about to renew our long-stay visa, including a change of department (like a state) from Bourgogne (Mâcon) to Rhône-Alpes (Lyon). We go to the local prefecture, police station & department offices, to renew. Our appointment is set for June 28th, and the paperwork is essentially the same as the original visa application (see LINK to prior post). We will still not be able to work in France. Dorianne is considering seeking a self-employment visa but will explore that later. After five years, we will be eligible to apply for permanent residency and/or French citizenship (which takes about 2 years to process currently).
Learning French is coming more slowly that we expected, but we continue to study – Dorianne more diligently than me to be honest. Mais c’est la vie. Also, we have met several expats through org (they have a wine-tasting and hiking group) and other sources, and we are too temped to speak English when with them. We are also traveling out of France quite a bit – something that should be reduced over the next year. Dorianne has a tutor, who offers immersion weeks at her home in Burgundy – that is something we may take advantage of over the summer.
Meanwhile, we are loving the lifestyle inLyon. I have blogged about the everyday wine experience (LINK)here. Every neighborhood has a selection of great restaurants and shops, including wine caves, featuring regional wines. Our current local cave is Cave Chromatique, on Rue de la Charité in the Ainay neighborhood. It has a nice selection of wines and spirits and the owner has carefully selected the wines he sells – some nice wines, including great values from Burgundy and the Rhône Valley.
We go out for lunch or dinner once or twice a week, and there are many wonderful places to eat at all price ranges. The markets offer fresh foods daily, as do the local shops – baguettes, cheese, meats, fish, fruit and vegetables, chocolates & pastries – everything we need. The railroad system is excellent (although on a series of rolling strikes at the moment), and Lyon Airport is convenient and has flights to most of Europe.
I have been bringing wines from my California wine locker back, a few bottles at a time. My French friends love the good American wines – the rare US wines stocked here tend to be, well, mediocre at best (unlike in the UK). I think that is intentional, as the French are very sensitive and proprietary about their wine, and, indeed, we are drinking French wines almost exclusively and loving them.
I think that’s about it for this post. As always, your comments are welcome – I’d love to hear about your expat experience or your questions about moving to France.
Since moving to Lyon, France this past summer (LINK to Post About Moving to France), much of our time has been spent attempting to learn French (definitely a work in progress), finding our way around town (easy as Lyon is a very walkable city with great public transportation), and traveling back and forth to the US (which will become increasingly less frequent).
I will do another post as a sequel to the one about moving to France soon. For now, let’s talk wine.
Lyon is located in the Rhône-Alps Department (there are 100 departments, or states in France), in the upper part of southeastern France. We are just north of the Rhône Valley at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône Rivers. A few kilometers to the north, Burgundy begins with the Mâcon region; to the west, Beaujolais is a few kilometers outside the city; to the east, the underappreciated Jura region is a short drive away. Wines from all these regions and more pour into Lyon, a city of about 500K with 2.2 million in the metropolitan area.
There are only two large supermarkets in the city limits, both at malls. Big box stores are restricted to outlying areas, meaning that mom & pop businesses thrive. Every neighborhood has multiple small boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, green grocers, and wine caves. Small grocery stores have wine departments featuring representative wines from the surrounding regions, mostly from larger producers. The caves (wine shops) have more wines from smaller producers and a few higher-end bottles, but almost all the wines are reasonably priced and would qualify as “everyday wines.” (LINK to @EricAsimov column on Everyday Wines from the NYTimes). We are drinking these wines for the most part with our lunches and dinners at home – spending an average of 10 to 12€ per bottle (top shelf at these stores) – sometimes much less – and enjoying most of them very much. This is why I have not been blogging and Tweeting as much about the wines I am drinking – they are, for the most part, not stand-out wines, but they are good!
My admittedly limited personal research thus far has revealed an interesting fact: THE FRENCH DON’T LIKE TO SPEND A LOT OF MONEY ON WINE.
I don’t know why this surprised me – but I just have not encountered the kind of wine conversations that I had with friends in California. It is more likely to encounter a boxed wine at a dinner party than a higher-end Burgundy or Châteauneuf du Pape. And, by the way, I have had some very drinkable boxed wines here. But I was a bit surprised that the Mecca of fine wine is largely populated with folks who prefer to spend under 10€ a bottle (and 3€ can get you a very nice rosè from Provence). Even when higher-end wines are served at dinner, the conversation is not about the wine. Perhaps a quick recognition of whoever provided it (usually the host), but that’s about it.
Dorianne and I eat at restaurants once or twice a week. Lyon is a gastronomique capital – many of the great Parisian (and New York) chefs train in the many cooking schools here. Lyon has more Michelin Star restaurants per capita than any other city, so food is a big thing here. And this extends downward from the Michelin restaurants all the way to the Bouchons (think bistro but serving Lyonnaise cuisine) and comptoirs. It is difficult to find a bad meal here, and some very nondescript looking places are working magic in their tiny kitchens. And as for wine, once you get out of the Michelin range, the wine lists tend to be fairly modest, featuring value-priced bottles and vins de la maison, usually from a tap or box. The wine list prices are usually at regular retail or just a bit above.
So, my everyday wine experience here in Lyon has been mostly with everyday wines from the wine regions surrounding the city. I will say that French wine producers seem to understand that the French don’t like to pay a lot for wine. The 13€ Burgundy Pinot Noir I get at the local wine cave tastes equivalent to a $30 or $40 bottle of Burgundy purchased in the US. We are enjoying very good wines for very reasonable prices – and feeling very grateful in the process!
I recently spent a couple of days in the Santa Rita Hills (LINK to Prior Posts), located north of the city of Santa Barbara and west of the cities of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County. The unique geography and geology of the Santa Rita Hills AVA (the mountains and valleys run west to east allowing cooling Pacific winds and moisture to come further inland), make this an excellent location for Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is also a decent amount of Syrah grown here, along with a few other varietals in smaller lots.
Over two days, we visited five wineries and stopped at a sixth just to buy some wine. I am going to feature four, Ampelos, Foley, Hilliard-Bruce, and Pence Ranch.
Pence Ranch Vineyard & Winery (LINK): I visited here last year, when they were relatively new as a tasting room operation (LINK). At that time, I was told that their plan was to open the tasting room for regular hours in the future. When we stopped without an appointment, I was told that they were back to the appointment system, but there was availability. Jake, took us via a large golf cart to a part of the property where an outdoor tasting room area had been created. We had a very nice experience tasting the Pence wines, and then got a tour of the vineyard portion of the property. The Pence Ranch is relatively narrow and runs nearly two miles deep off Route 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. The front of the property is where the vineyards and wine tasting rooms are, the back is an equestrian center and a working cattle ranch. The winery is in Lompoc.
At Pence, you taste the Pinot Noirs before the Chardonnays, the former being elegant in style, the latter being more pronounced, if not the traditional butter-bomb California Chardonnay. Their wines are uniformly well-crafted and made to enjoy with food. This year, we also tasted a Gamay wine, which is young and crisp but very complex. I plan to take a bottle back to France to share with my friends used to drinking Beaujolais. So, make an appointment to visit, or order their wines from their website – you are not likely to find Pence Ranch Wines at your retailer.
Foley Estates Vineyard (LINK): Foley has been making great wine in the Santa Rita Hills for decades. Their tasting room is nicely appointed, next to the huge “barrel room” where special events can be held. Like all the SRH wineries with some history, Foley makes very good Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. They also make a very good Syrah. Their blended Chardonnays, Pinots, and the single vineyard versions of these varietals each have their own characteristics. We particularly liked the 2015 “T-Ranch” Chardonnay and the 2015 “T-Ranch Pinot Noir (there are also 2013 and 2014 Pinots available currently), but all were good. Foley is worth a visit when you are in Santa Barbara County. You can also order wines from their website.
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards (LINK): A smaller, boutique producer, Hilliard Bruce Vineyards occupies 101 acres (21 under cultivation) to the west of storied Clos Pepe Vineyard along Route 246. This was my first visit to Hilliard Bruce and you have to be impressed with the beautiful grounds, architecturally striking winery/tasting room building, and the vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The wines do not disappoint. Four 2014 Pinots from their Earth, Sun, Moon, and Sky vineyards, each have nuances that separate them from the others, yet all are clearly in the same family. Spicy, peppery, soft and velvety Pinots will go well with food.
The Chardonnay is also made to go with food, as the bottle we bought to have with our picnic lunch showed. Well-structured, with a hint of buttery mouthfeel, the 2014 Chardonnay is classic Santa Rita Hills in style and should drink well for several years. We did meet John Hilliard during our visit – he was most cordial and, like almost everyone in the wine industry, liked to talk about his wines and his property. Hilliard Bruce is open by appointment; their wines are available via their website.
Ampelos Cellars (LINK): Full disclosure – my wife has known Peter and Rebecca Work for a few decades, having worked with them years ago when they were all with Price-Waterhouse. But Dorianne was not with me on this visit, and Peter and Rebecca, sadly, were not at the tasting room in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto when some friends and I visited recently. I have enjoyed their wines for years.
Ampelos uses biodynamic and organic farming practices (LINK) and produces a range of wines, some of which are atypical for the Santa Rita Hills AVA. These include their Viognier and Grenache (bottled as a single varietal and blended with Syrah for their Syrache red blend). Viognier and Rose of Syrah constitute the lighter end of their offerings; two Pinot Noirs in the mid-range; and Grenache, Syrah, and Syrache at the heavier end. Of course, none of these wines are really big wines like you would find in Napa Valley or Paso Robles these days. Ampelos focuses on balance and elegance, putting them well within the Santa Rita Hills style in this regard. The vineyard is down the 246 a way; the winery is also in Lompoc. Wines are available for order at the website, and you will find them at better wine shops here and there.
I also stopped at Ken Brown Wines in Buellton to buy some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on our way out of the area. Brown is one of the pioneers of the AVA and produces some amazing wines in the Burgundian style. I frequently tell my friends in France about the Santa Rita Hills with their east-west mountains and valleys and their Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Now I will have a few to take back and share with them.
Dorianne and I did our annual visit to California’s Central Coast Wine Regions this past week. In this post, I will cover the three wineries we visited in the Paso Robles area (LINK TO PRIOR POSTS ON PASO). In another post, I will cover two days in the Santa Rita Hills/Lompoc area.
As we always do, we joined two other couples at the Kon Tiki Inn in Pismo Beach (LINK), a beautifully preserved gem from the 1960’s (no online reservations). This gives us a based to roam from Paso Robles in the North to the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez in the south. We usually cover three wineries per day, have wine and cheese at the Kon Tiki, then go to dinner in one of Pismo Beach’s good restaurants.
Ancient Peaks (LINK): Our drive up toward Paso Robles led us first to Ancient Peaks Winery Tasting Room in Santa Margarita. Ancient Peaks has the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles Eastern AVA, and the tasting room is just off the 101 Freeway. None of us had been there before; in fact, all three winery visits were firsts for just about all of us (two people had been to Sextant Winery before).
Ancient Peaks has a nicely arranged tasting room with plenty of space and areas to relax with a glass or two of their wines. There is even a café. We arrived just at the 11:00 am opening time. We tasted five wines – all were nicely crafted and well balanced. These are good wines. We tasted five of the ten wines listed for sale on the Ancient Peaks website. Dorianne and I purchased the 2015 White Label Chardonnay, the 2015 Zinfandel, and the 2014 Oyster Ridge Red Blend. I would say that Ancient Peaks represents what we have found in Paso Robles wines for the last three years – consistently well-crafted wines which are true to their fruit and terroirorigins. The staff was professional, friendly, and generally well-informed. One kindly recommended that we visit Clos Solène (and called for the appointment) since we are now living in France – more about them in a bit.
Sextant Winery (LINK): Sextant is located between Templeton and Paso Robles on the west side of the 101 Freeway that divides the area. The vineyards are on rolling hills and the tasting room is elevated on one of these hills. Beautifully appointed, with the nautical theme that runs through all of Sextant’s products, the tasting room and member’s lounge are worth your time to visit. And, happily, the wines (LINK) are very good as well. We were able to taste from their regular and member’s tasting lists during our visit.
The wines are nicely balanced, made to go with food, and easy to drink. I did not have a negative comment about any of them. Of particular note was the 2015 Kamal Cabernet Sauvignon, a beautifully crafted wine with notes of dark fruit, green pepper, and a rich minerality. Definitely a hit. Sextant is worth a visit if you are in Paso Robles, and you can order their wines online.
Clos Solène Winery (LINK): A gem of a small winery, Clos Solène is also on Paso Robles’ West Side, nestled among low hills. Guillaume and Solène Fabre (LINK) are a French couple who grow grapes and make wine here – in the French style. Guillaume stopped by during our tasting for a chat. Production is under 2000 cases total, so these are all limited production (and expensive) wines. We tasted on the outdoor patio (a rare rainfall had just stopped) from their tasting menu (LINK).
The entire list consists of excellent wines. Of particular note is the 2016 Homage Blanc blend of 75%Roussanne and 25% Viognier; the 2015 Harmonie red blend of 56%Grenache, 30% Mouvedre, and 14% Syrah; and the 2015 Homage a nos Pairs red blend of 95%Syrah, 3% Grenache, and 2%Viognier. As the French would say, these wines are Tres Cher (very costly), but they are beautiful wines – as good as anything I have tasted in Paso Robles. Clos Solène Winery is open by appointment.
Paso Robles never fails to please those in search of new and unique wine experiences – and, increasingly, those in search of excellent wines!
This has been a very unique year for me in terms of wine exploration and enjoyment. After traveling full time between North America and Europe for 2 ½ years, Dorianne and I have settled in Lyon, France. Although we continue to travel for various reasons (I’m writing this in Southern California), we have been exploring the local wine scene in and around Lyon since July – and have discovered that there is a lot to learn, and even more to enjoy.
The year began with our annual few days in Pismo Beach, CA with our friends to explore wineries from Paso Robles, the Edna Valley, Santa Maria, and the Santa Rita Hills AVAs. The highlights of that trip were Sculptera Vineyards in Paso Robles (we all joined the wine club and bought two cases), Presqu’ile Vineyards in Santa Maria, and Pence Winery in the Santa Rita Hills. (LINK to Post about the last two)
The cases from Sculptera (mixed cases) were sent to Roam Miami (LINK), where Dorianne and I stayed last winter. A co-living/co-working space, Roam offered a haven of tropical peace and calm right next to downtown Miami and the Brickell area. We were surrounded mostly by Millennial digital nomads, and we conducted a few wine tastings and seminars to help educate them about wine enjoyment. (LINK to Post about Millennials and Wine).
In late March, we headed back to southern Oregon, Medford and Ashland, to see friends and explore more of the Rogue Valley wine scene. A month there took us to several wonderful wineries (LINK to Post) and some great restaurants.
The next highlight was two weeks in New York, staying in my daughter’s Harlem apartment, where we got to explore the burgeoning Harlem French wine and restaurant scene (LINK to Post about Harlem). Lots of good experiences there.
In June I traveled solo to Kelowna, British Columbia, the heart of the rich Okanagan Wine Region in western Canada(Link to Post about the Okanagan). Here I explored a variety of wineries and wines, as global warming has opened the region to growing red grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon, to Tempranillo, to Syrah. Kelowna is a boomtown for vacation homes and recreation on its 90-mile-long glacial lake. The wine scene is growing more sophisticated with over 200 wineries in the area. Dirty Laundry Winery showcases much of what is fun in the Okanagan (LINK to Post).
Lyon has been a revelation in terms of wine. Centered between Burgundy to the north, the Rhône Valley to the south, Beaujolais to the west, and Jura to the east, there is an embarrassment of riches. And some surprises.
The French don’t like to spend a lot of money on wine. I’m sure that there are exceptions, but you rarely see a bottle above 20€ in a grocery store or over 40€ in the local wine cave (shop). Restaurants generally sell wine bottles at or just above retail. And winemakers sell wines for half to 2/3’s what they would cost in the US. A “pot” is a 460ML bottle – a bit more than a half-bottle – of house wine which will cost 8 to 12€ in a Bouchon (Lyonnaise for bistro). There are also demi-pots and rare 500ML bottles.
Box wines are better quality than I expected. For about 25€ you can get a 5-liter box of a very drinkable Luberon Valley red wine; 18€ for the rosé.
Rosé wines are very good at 4€ per bottle, excellent at 7 to 10€. We drank rosés almost exclusively during the hot summer months.
Maconnais Chardonnays are wonderful wines. Just north of Lyon, the vineyards of Macon produce some wonderfully approachable wines which sell for ½ or 1/3 of what their Burgundian cousins to the north fetch. Another nice surprise was Aligoté, the other Burgundy white – crisp, with a mineral/floral nose, it is a great value choice from the same winemakers who make the expensive stuff.
In France, Cabernet Sauvignon is just Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc is just Sauvignon. Cases in France are 6 bottles. Just FYI.
As I noted in the Moving to France Post (LINK), we tend to shop every day for fresh items at the open-air marchés and the mom-and-pop bakeries, butchers, etc. This may also include a stop at the wine cave to pick up a bottle or two and have a conversation with the proprietor about what is new and interesting.
We have not yet begun to explore the wineries and vineyards in the area – our focus has been on learning French, getting to know the city, and finding a flat to purchase – however, we expect to do a lot of that in 2018.
We are winding up 2017 in Southern California with friends and family. Our New Year’s Eve dinner with friends will feature a cold lobster appetizer that I am making and a Ken Brown Chardonnay to accompany it; then roast leg of lamb with a 2005 Opus One and a 1994 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to see the year out with something wonderful.
Next week, we return to Pismo Beach to explore the Central Coast some more, then . . .
Thanks for being a part of this year on the blog.
As always, your comments and suggestions are welcomed!