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The Local Vintage

Halfway through my five-week stay in the French countryside last summer, the unthinkable occurred: We ran out of wine. The grace and ease of French country life had by that time seeped into our pores. Each evening, we watched the slanting sun slide down behind the peach-colored stone walls of the 400-year-old water mill that my friend Jon and his partner Pascal are restoring in the Saumur region of the Loire Valley. It was Sunday afternoon, the stores were closed, but we all agreed that it was inconceivable we would salute the sunset without at least a glass of the local vintage. There was nothing for it but that we visit the bachelor brothers next door and ask for a bottle.

The brothers, Marcel and Jean-Luc, are in their late 40s. They have lived together all their lives on a small farm they inherited from their parents. Jean-Luc runs the village restaurant, which serves a superb luncheon buffet to truck drivers for $5 a plate. We reasoned that Jean-Luc would keep wine in the house for his business.

At first we thought to send Pascal, figuring he'd have the best chance. Jean-Luc seemed enamored of Pascal, given to dropping by when Jon was not home to offer him a fox trap or discuss gardening. On his last trip, he asked Pascal if he ever gardened naked. "I always do," Jean-Luc twinkled, twirling about in the bikini briefs he had chosen for his visit. Pascal had suggested gently that Jean-Luc go to Paris and find a gay bar. In the end, Jon and I decided to spare Pascal and fetch the wine ourselves.

Marcel was cooking Jean-Luc supper when we arrived. As lean and sallow as Jean-Luc was round and florid, Marcel was friendly but nervous, smoking furiously as he ushered us through the front door into the kitchen. The walls were crowded with hunting trophies: the heads of boar, deer and elk. Dusk was falling, and Marcel switched on a light. The lamp base was made out of a little cloven deer leg. He offered us something to drink, and Jon asked for a glass of red wine. Then he explained our problem. Yes, Jean-Luc had plenty of wine in the house, but Marcel couldn't give it to us without his brother's permission. Jean-Luc would be home soon. Would we like to see his garden while we waited? Marcel asked.

We walked down the rows of vegetables. The lettuce heads were wormy, the sorrel choked by weeds. It was the sorriest plot in all Saumur, where even the most broken-down cottage has a half-acre garden.

Marcel then led us proudly to his animals. The ducks sat dull and lumpish in a dusty cage. There was no water for them to splash in, not even a basin. Next came the dogs. They were tied up inside their cage. The brothers let them out only during the two-month autumn hunting season. I pictured the dogs springing from their lair with a ferocity nursed during long months of captivity. Then my mind shifted to the tableau of dead animal heads above the kitchen table. I asked Jon for a sip of his wine.

It was astonishing: rich, complex, with a peppery finish. The spiciness hit you just in the nose, not the throat. I regretted not having requested a glass. But dare I ask now? My family had already run afoul of French propriety. The worst offense occurred at the table of a French couple when my 11-year-old son spilled a full liter of Coke into the potatoes. "I guess Americans don't teach their children table manners until they are adults," our hostess sniffed as the meal shuddered to a close.

I decided to risk it. Marcel fetched me a glass with no visible annoyance. I was transported. I barely noticed when Jean-Luc finally pulled into the driveway. We walked down to the brook that ran through the brothers' woods. It shone a dull gold in the dying light. Jean-Luc told Jon he couldn't give us any wine. He didn't have any in the house, he insisted. Then he boasted how he had gotten the village to cut down some trees along the road he shared with Jon and Pascal. We slunk back to our car and drove away.

When we arrived home an hour late and empty-handed, Pascal was furious. He jumped in the car and screeched away. Ten minutes later, he was back with two bottles of Domigne Champigny, the very best local wine. As Pascal told it, he'd stomped into Jean-Luc's kitchen and shrieked at him for chopping down the trees. The older man apologized abjectly, but Pascal was not to be placated. During his diatribe, he reached under the deer-leg lamp and pulled out the wine bottles. Still shouting, he left without paying. The next time they met, neither the bottles nor the trees were mentioned. Pascal and Jean-Luc continue on the friendliest of terms. The wine was very, very good. But nothing ever tasted as fine as the glass I drank as the brothers' creek turned to glass in the Loire Valley.


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