November 17, 2011
I remember the first time I ever had a Beaujolais Nouveau. I had finished my studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder and was working in the super hip, wine driven supper club called Trios in downtown Boulder. Those of us who were there at that time helped create this incredible vibe. We were all so passionate about what we were doing, we were learning so much and having so much fun doing it. The restaurant consulted with three different Master Sommeliers to build the wine list and we were always tasting wine, usually really good wine. Thursday Night after service in Mid November 1996, Tom Smith the director of the wine program cracked some bottles of Burgundy. We all knew they were burgundies, just by the shape of the bottles. One of the first things we learned was to be able to figure out what was in the bottle, just by the shape. With the amount of blind tastings we were put through, and floor shifts determined by how well we did; any advantage was seized greedily. Even when they hid the bottles in paper bags, we could tell if it was pinot or cabernet, just by the shape. But this was weird; we never tasted wine after service. That was when we drank ridiculously strong pints of Margaritas. Wine tasting was always very serious and very controlled. It was about education and connoisseurship. But here was Tom, coming up the stairs to the restaurant after stumbling back from the Boulder Wine Merchant already drunk; laughing and joking around, pulling corks on burgundy at ten o’clock at night. I still remember Tom’s wine stained teeth as he kept saying over and over “this is no ordinary burgundy” as he poured each of us a huge glass of this bright red burgundy. Our excitement peaked when we each were handed a full Riedel stem of this new wine, not some little tasting pour but a big, grown up portion. I had no idea what was going on, all of us waitstaff were acting like fools, except Dave Daitch, the one waiter who had lived in Paris and knew his wine. He was the man that taught me to appreciate Pommard and the Rhone Valley over the huge fruit bombs of California. I remember so vividly sticking my nose in the glass expecting the raspberries, brambles and cat piss of a young burgundy and instead was greeted with the most bizarre mixture of bananas and froot loops. It was like a child’s sugared cereal. It had no structure. It was like kool-aid with booze in it. What the hell was going on?? This wine was horrible, it had no redeeming value whatsoever. I felt like someone was playing a trick on me. I watched Tom and Dave, they were crushing this wine in huge gulps. I was so confused, Dave and Tom had etched in my formative brain what wine was all about: how to taste, how to discern French or Amercian oak, how to figure out the vintage just by sight, how to discern the country of origin just by taste and here they were chugging, literally slamming glasses of this garbage.
Then they let me in on the secret. The wine was Beaujolais Nouveau. A wine produced in Burgundy, but not by the noble Pinot Noir, but rather its lowly cousin, Gamay. It is made unlike almost any other wine in the world, by a process called carbonic maceration. The grapes are not crushed, but fermented whole, so no tannins are brought into the wine and then released only about 6 to 8 weeks after harvest on the third Thursday of November. The mad rush to get the wines to market reminds one of an old Keystone Cops silent movie. Some 58 million liters of Nouveau were produced last year, almost half of the total production of Burgundy. Almost all of it drank on one night, one Thursday night in November to be exact. Besides being a great party, there is a serious side to Nouveau. There are huge variations between vintages and Nouveau is eagerly awaited as the first indicator of quality of the year’s Burgundy harvest.
The French do not, as a rule, drink to get drunk. It is almost like drunkenness is a foreseen, yet unintended consequence of wine consumption, something of a bother more than a destination. All this changes on the third Thursday in November, and that is what Tom was introducing to us back in 1996. It is just a fun night, drinking ultra-simplistic wine (under the noble guise of checking to see what the vintage will be like) and getting drunk, yes drunk. And drunk did we become that night in 1996, each and everyone of us, completely snockered. What fun.
I have tried to celebrate Nouveau at The Bistro a number of times over the years and completely failed. My staff looked at me like I was mad, the few tables that trusted me enough to buy a bottle for $12 or $14 bucks thought I was playing a trick on them. One table in particular, I know has never returned. So I stopped trying, but every year I celebrate it in my own little way. This year, without even planning I found myself in Nice, France on the third Thursday in November. As I walked home from my day working at Charcuterie Chibaudo, I went by the little wine shop near Jean-Francois flat. The owner had layed out a spread of cheese, sausages and bread and multiple bottles of Nouveau were open for tasting. Everyone had a glass in hand, people flooding out onto the street. The owner looked at me and asked which bottle I would like to try, I replied “the best one”. He laughed, slapped me on the back and said “they are all the best” and handed me a glass of Drouhin. I drank it down and tried the other two and then bought a bottle to take home. I stumbled across the street and bought a baguette at this amazing bakery and got to finally feel the joy of walking home with a baguette under one arm, a bottle of Nouveau under the other and knowing there was a homemade wildboar terrine waiting for me in the flat. Cross that one off the bucket list.