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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Salon du Vin

One Sunday afternoon in mid-March I went to St. Paulien where the local Kiwanis Club was holding a weekend “Salon du Vin.” The Salon is a wine tasting event where several regional wine producers gather to show off their wares and try to gain loyalty for their products. In addition to the wine producers are also cheesemakers, saucisson makers, and those who can snails or foie gras or some other delectable delight that goes well with wine.

As I entered the Salon and approached the reception table, two Kiwanis volunteers in suits leaped up awkwardly to greet me. Their movement reminded me of some movie I had seen, and I had to hold my giggles. I spoke French to them, quite simple stuff like “I’d like to buy a ticket for the Salon.” They (as all the French people I’ve encountered these past eight months) were quite welcoming and pleased that I, the étranger, would speak to them in French. I payed my 3-euro entrance fee and they gave me a ticket and a wine glass for the tasting.

my friend, Pascal who has taught me much about French culture
I felt I was in familiar territory because five months earlier I went to my first Salon with Pascal, a Frenchman friend I met in Kalamazoo who now lives with his family in the Savoie area (near Geneva, Switzerland). A former salesman of wine and champagne, he knew his way around Salons. He even bought me a bottle of red wine, a wedge of delicious cheese, a saucisson (salami), and a small jar of snails. For himself, he bought several bottles of wine and cheese. The Salon was a fun visit and apparently, a very French thing to do. Voilá, I was going to try it again only on my own. I knew what to do, and it was a community event that I wanted to support.

Since I’d been through St. Paulien before (and even attended a “Salon du Chocolat” in November where they had a chocolate tasting event), I knew where I was going. However, wine is not my forte since I know little more than it is red, white, and rosé, and that it is either dry or sweet. There are many other distinctions, however, and plenty of wine producers who want to help rookies learn about wine like the website: Wine Tasting for Beginners. The purpose in wine tasting classes is tohelp you describe it better, taste it smarter, pair it with the right food, and choose better bottles from the supermarket in future,” according to a British website on le bon heure entitled Experience Days.

Monk Testing Wine by Antonio Casanova y Estorach (c.1886)
Monk Testing Wine by Antonio Casanova y Estorach (c.1886)

I knew the mechanics of wine tasting like smelling it, noting its color, swishing it around the glass to check out its legs (i.e., its adherence to the glass), taking a sip and letting it settle in my mouth. However, the more I did these things at the various wine stalls, the more conspicuous I felt that I was a fake who did know what I was doing.

Nevertheless, one young producer was very kind to me. She explained in French (until I got that blank look and she switched to English) that her vineyard was located just north of Marseille and that her rosé was the family’s specialty. It surely tasted good and I knew I liked it. She said it was “rond et sec” that is: round and dry. I could taste the dry, but I had to ask her what “rond” meant. She patiently told me that there was no sugar in the wine and that the taste was derived only from the fruit. I nodded, but just couldn’t experience how it differed from wine with sugar. I appreciated her willingness to talk with me, though, and decided that I’d buy the rosé because she spent so much time with me and because she was located near Marseille, a city I want to visit sometime this year.

I moved on to another stall but was hard-pressed to make a choice. Most of the producers were shy and didn’t look up, so it was easy to pass by them. There were a couple producers, however, who invited me to taste their wine. One let me try wine from several different bottles. They were all good, but when I asked what kind of wine it was, he said it was Cote du Rhône. We buy this wine for the Centre, so I wasn’t going to spend money on it because I wanted something different. I thanked the producer and sheepishly slipped away.

My third and last stop was with another young woman producer. This time I tried the red, the white and the rosé. Before tasting her wine, she rinsed out my glass so that I’d have a fresh taste of her wine and not a mix of someone else’s. Then she offered me a spitting pot where she expected me to take a sip, slosh it around in my mouth, and then spit it out. I could also dump the rest of the contents of my glass.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll drink the whole sample that you gave me,” thinking I didn’t want to waste good wine. After three or four samples, however, I was getting whoosy and remembered that I had to drive home. (I had been warned before I went to the Salon that the police like to hang out near these events in an attempt to catch those who have had a few too many samples.) So I stopped my wine tasting and asked the woman for a bottle of white wine mostly out of guilt that she had taken so much time with me even though I knew that that was why she was there. 

layout of the Salon du Vin
I toured the small exhibit hall to look for the cheeses. Unfortunately, there was only one stall, and the producers weren’t there. I would have gladly bought some cheese because I’ve fallen in love with French cheese of which there are 365 varieties! I tend to like bries, blues, and hard cheeses. I also know that I prefer cow cheese although I’m slowly getting to like goat and sheep cheeses. Sadly, I left the cheese stall but turned to an interesting-looking man who was dark, swarthy and wore a red neckerchief.

Voulez-vous une goûter?” he asked, trying to engage me to approach his table. He had small bits of bread and a number of jars full of something. He spread the stuff on the piece of bread and offered it to me.

Bien sûr,” I responded to him, quickly getting the message that I was about to taste foie gras (duck’s liver). I abhor liver of any kind, and I don’t like the fact that they force feed the animals so that their liver enlarges and then they are killed for it. But, I had to admit that this foie gras tasted good. I wondered if I had transformed my taste for liver just being in France where everything tastes good.

“Here, try another,” he said. By this time, he knew I was an English speaker and once again, my quest to speak French to natives was foiled by their ability to speak my language. It’s intriguing that it usually only takes a word or two before the French know I am an English speaker.

“Are you from England?” he asked. This is a typical question indicating that maybe there are more British travelers to France than Americans.

Non, je suis Américaine,” I answered trying to remain in French language, proudly putting up my hand in the form of the Michigan mitten and pointing out Detroit where I was born, and Kalamazoo, where I live. “Il est à mi-chemin entre Detroit and Chicago.”

“I am from Basque country,” he said in near-perfect English while I was thinking how unfair it is that so many people all over the world have learned English while I’m still trying to learn French!

He offered me four samples, but I determined that I liked the second one best. So I bought it even though he tried to offer me a couple more samples. I didn’t want to press my luck with foie gras.

“You are the first Basque I’ve ever met,” I blurted out to him. He seemed unimpressed or maybe he was just concentrating on working the charge card machine.

“You will like that foie gras,” he said in his all-business-like way.

Actually, I hadn’t intended to buy anything at the Salon, but ended up buying two bottles of wine for 15 euros and a jar of foie gras for 16 euros. But the feeling of being a fake combined with my fear of drinking too wine told me it was time to go home. I could have spent more time at the Salon and tried to learn more about wine, but I couldn’t sustain buying another bottle of wine in order to allay my guilty feelings.

Then I had to approach my next challenge: the parking lot. This is always a particular trial in France and today would be no different. I followed the same narrow road I had taken when I entered the Salon, but was puzzled that I couldn’t find the way out since there was an interdit sign (a red circle crossed out, which means no entry) on the road that connected to the complex of buildings where the Salon took place. In fact, there were two other events going on: a soccer match and an indoor-outdoor flee market.

I drove on an adjoining road and discovered I’d encountered the soccer field where the match was about to begin. So I re-traced my path back to the road that led to the Salon du Vin. Maybe there was a way out of the complex in that direction that I had missed. Wrong move! While I was able to get into the parking lot through this narrow road that led to it, there was not enough space for two cars going in opposite directions. Then a number of cars lined up wanting to go out. At one point, I encountered a man who drove a battered, dull-green car. I signaled with my hands that I didn’t know where to go since there were cars behind me. He signaled back the same hand motion and then edged up nose to nose to me as if to say that I had to yield to him. In what seemed like a forever stalemate, the cars behind me suddenly started backing up. I followed them as the man in the battered, dull-green car kept creeping closer and closer to me as though he were afraid someone would cut in front of him. Finally, I reached the end of the road that gave him enough room to slip past me, but not without scraping my right fender a bit. This poor man was obviously in a hurry! I, in turn, breathed a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over and that I could finally leave.

The day had been a bit edgy in that I felt I was out in French society left to my own devices, but I made it through just fine. After all, I had had another French cultural experience—as well as the opportunity to drive in the beautiful French countryside. I doubt it gets any better than this!


  1. Thanks for sharing your wine tasting experience, Olga. I could so clearly envision it having driven short distances from LePuy and having seen the beautiful countryside.

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