Tue May 27th, 2008 at 05:48:57 AM EST
I mentioned here an association I'm part of, that acts as a kind of cooperative between local producers and local consumers of foodstuffs. Over the weekend we held a wine-tasting. Little-finger-in-the-air wine snobs in a candle-lit cellar? Not.
That's the vigneron, Philippe Babin, on the left, explaining the contents of the last bottle we were to taste. (You're supposed to spit out when wine-tasting, but no one did. At this stage the atmosphere was becoming, er, more animated. There were twenty people in all around the tables.) The point of the exercise wasn't to guess what we were tasting, but to choose an assemblage, or mix, of single-type wines from the 2007 harvest. Philippe will put our chosen assemblage down in a cask some time in June, and it will be bottled in October. In fact, there are so many orders there'll have to be a second cask. (Bordeaux-type barriques contain about 220 litres or getting on for 300 bottles. Orders are now past 400.)
The association mostly deals with fresh veg, fruit, flour, oil, pulses, poultry, beef and lamb, cheese. This is not a wine district. Yet, since the 1990s, a handful of wine growers/makers have set up in business. Philippe is the only organic grower among them. In the hilly area where he lives, he found suitable fields (patches, rather) that had never been cultivated, and planted vines in them. The organic label on wine refers to the cultivation of the vine, not to winemaking methods, though Philippe uses neither added yeasts, nor enzymes, nor any of the multitude of substances winemakers are allowed to use to "fix" the problems a wine may be having, or to "improve" its taste. He is a fount of knowledge on traditional methods, and his practice is to apply those methods by following the evolution of his wines with passionate care. Though (as I said) this is not a wine area (no AOC, the wine is a Vin du Pays), the quality of his wines is astonishing. We tasted wines that are only eight months old, yet already pleasant to drink and above all interesting, with all the makings of wine you should put aside for the next five to ten years, except you won't because it's going to be really good before that.
Still, wine isn't an essential foodstuff, and isn't it a luxury item? You can do without it, and at €5 a bottle (a very fair price nonetheless) it's obviously on the pricier side for our association. One of the aims of Community Supported Agriculture is to help small producers by organizing stable circuits for them in a market that is heavily structured by big agri-food interests, and in which they're generally too weak to defend their interests against box-store clout. In Philippe's case, that isn't entirely necessary, as a visit to Coteaux d'Engraviès should show: the quality of the wine is becoming recognized, and there are a couple of entries there in the Guide Hachette 2008. So it's not so much that he needs us. And, because wine is non-essential, it's not so much that we need him.
What it's about is the long exchange the other evening, and other exchanges to come. It's about information, and it's about socialising. It's about consumers learning how products are made, above all how they're made properly. It's about re-culturing what advertising and the food industry have de-cultured. Food is so much more than a blank pabulum tricked out in marketing colours. Food is social, it involves real people who make it and real people who consume it, and it is possible for the twain to meet. Food is culture, it has history and traditions, and these are not futile yearnings for a romantic past, they are sources of genuinely useful knowledge and of the very elements of food production - seeds, plant types, animal breeds - that are best adapted to local conditions and best maintain diversity.
OK, so we were drinking wine to save the planet? Heh. Why not?
(By the way, we chose an assemblage made up of 50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Syrah.)