IT WAS RAINING in Paris in mid-December and I had been walking in it for six hours. It was 2:30 on a drizzly afternoon and I was tired. Suddenly, near Notre Dame, the divining rod that is my nose began to lead me in its favorite direction, toward good French wine. I crossed the stone bridge onto the Ile St. Louis behind the cathedral and headed down the "main street." "Won't be long now," I half thought and half salivated.
Turning the corner at the rue des Deux Ponts, my nose tingled and I quickened my pace. Smack on the Quai de Bourbon I found it, Au Franc Pinot, a wine bar, and walked in thirsty. The Bar is right off the door. I grabbed a stool and ordered 9 different glasses of wine and a rillette sandwich, but all I needed was that first aromatic sniff: pure, typical, unmolested Sauvignon blanc from the low rolling hills of Sancerre. I had spent the previous 10 days visiting the vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux, capital of vinous France to many and pretty high in my book as well. But rien de special, compared to this.
Exaggeration? Not a whit. For those who love French wine and have enjoyed them in that country, the bottles that pass before us in Washington, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, et al., are often mere shadows of what they started out to be. Think about it: The wines at Au Franc Pinot are drunk nearly at the source--Sancerre is a short drive from Paris. They are fresh, and they do not have to deal with long ocean voyages, the dainty treatment the longshoremen give them on our docks and the vagaries of a hot-and-cold retail ambience much less the special treatment that French wines destined for export are often subject to at the winery.
You want to drink fresh, authentic, nearly virginal French wine at a price you can afford? Visit a Parisian wine bar.
One definite advantage wine bars have over regular restaurant selections is that the proprietor of one usually chooses his own wines based upon his personal contact with the producers. "I've tasted them, I know them," says Timothy Johnston, of The Blue Fox. He runs this smallish split-level bar near the Madeleine, adjoining a full-fledged restaurant run by an American, Charles Scumham. Johnston, a heavyset Englishman, serves about a dozen wines by the glass.
"I never heard of this man's Meursault" I told him. "I did" he replied in that tone that tells you he's got an inside line to quality, Usually, he's right. If you like Rhone wines, which many consider the finest values La Belle France has to offer, Tim normally offers 1 or 2. In fact, he lived and worked near the Rhone Valley for years before setting up shop in Paris. (Incidentally, for first-timers to France or for the timid, English is almost the lingua franca at The Blue Fox as well as at Willy's near the Opera and Le Bistrot a Vin, just across the Seine in the western suburb of Courbevoie).
This familiarity separates the wine bars from regular restaurants. At the latter, the rule is to sell well-advertised, high-profile wines basically because the staff is not familiar with, nor has the time to describe the little-known, hard-to-find gems found in many wine bars. To the wine nut in Paris, even the 60 seconds of background on the wine in your glass dispensed by the knowledgeable proprietor is worth twice its price. "This Chinon rouge is made by a ruddy-faced, wrinkled old guy of 75 years who still does all his own manuring, bottling and such. Trouble is, he has no kids who want to keep the vineyard and caves going. So, drink up. It's probably one of his last vintages."
The other obvious advantage of wine bars is the possibility of tasting the most wines with the least damage to the wallet. At Le Rallye, in the 14th for instance, gregarious and savvy Bernard Peret offers two dozen wines--Beaujolais and charming Loires being his specialty--at prices ranging from 80 cents to $2 a glass (He also has a largish English-speaking clientele).
For those who prefer to steep themselves in the ways of the average Jacques, where English is definitely not common but where a feeling for basic Parisian life can be found, try La Tartine, in the Marais, near the east end of the rue de Rivoli. Here, Jean Bouscarel offers fully three dozen wines by the glass at very affordable prices across a zinc bar in the shadow of memorabilia galore, Good Loires and lesser-known Burgundies are a specialty.
Or visit Au Sauvignon, off St. Germain des Pres. Henri and Alice Vergne are tres francais (from Auvergne, incidentally) and attract a similar crowd, although you will find a good mix of folks, from Bohemians to bankers. The sometimes irascible Vergnes offer about a dozen wines by the glass and some great country sandwiches.
The availability of a light meal--rillettes and other charcuterie, cheese plates and the like--to complement the wine selection is another reason, if you really need one by now, to visit the wine bars. And it may not seem very French, but quick, light, stand-up-at-the-bar lunches are here to stay. Americans are used to rushing around like ants in pursuit of food and drink (or most anything else for that matter); but I had always expected the French to enjoy their meals leisurely (they still do in the country, fortunately).
That illusion was shattered when, about 12 years ago, I came across Le Rubis, near the Tuileries and at that time owned by Leon Gouin. Presently, Yves Pense presides over a mix of people, including businessmen from nearby corporations, such as Scandale, IBM (and it's also a sort of half-way house for those who want to ease into the culture of La Tartine and the others, being neither too French nor too Anglo in attitude and language). For just a few dollars and quick service, the men and women can take a couple of glasses of wine, a nourishing sandwich or some cheese and an espresso. Light, quick and pleasurable. Plus, there's gossip to be had and new wines to taste regularly. What a life!
Before you jump in blindly, though, understand some basics. When I arrived at Au Franc Pinot (which also has a regular restaurant in the basement), it was mid-afternoon and the place was almost empty, perfect for solitary experimentation. But at noontime and until about 2, most good wine bars are crowded, which to some--but not all--is a plus. Also, these are not formal places, by and large, although the English-oriented ones tend to attract those who wish to appear trendy. Thirdly, many wine bars stay open till 10 p.m. or later, but many don't; so call ahead. And lastly, try that little red Saumur, or that crisp Sancerre rose and that hard to find Montagny.
But remember that three to six glasses equals one bottle, an amount that will thoroughly pickle all but the dreadnaughts. So pace yourself (I draw from deep experience on that issue, having overestimated my limit many times).
And what does the true wine lover turn to when he is sated by wines? Why, beer, of course! That's when one goes off to the seedy, little, college-age crowd of a bar called Au Trappist, near the Louvre. Over 100 bottles of international beers are offered including one from America: Schlitz! Sante!