"I'll take a kir, please."
"A kir? Oh mon pauvre monsieur, where do you buy your wine? Kirs should only be made with bad white wine. You ruin a good white by dumping cassis into it. And I, Jacques Melac, have no bad wines, white or red."
Melac stands behind his bar on a quiet Paris side street, grinning from one handlebar to the other of his fabulous mustache. He is right: Kirs should be made only with overly acidic white wines. He's also right when he says he has no bad wines. Certainly not: He was awarded the Meilleur Pot in 1981.
The Meilleur Pot is a yearly award given to a Parisian bistrotier who goes above and beyond the call of duty to serve his customers "honest" wines. Most of these are country wines, not grand bordeaux or burgundies. They are tracked down personally by the bistrotier and bought directly from the producer. They are then sold in the bistro, or pub, by glass or bottle, priced low enough to satisfy the most price-sensitive Frenchmen and astound the visitor used to American mark-ups.
The coveted award, officially titled La Coupe Marcel Grancher du Meilleur Pot, was first given in 1957. It is presented by the Academie Rabelais, a gourmet group that takes its inspiration from the 16th-century satirist -- and gourmand -- Franc ois Rabelais.
Every fall Jean Herbert, who currently presides over the Academie, looses 10 judges onto the streets of Paris. Anonymously, they visit several hundred bistros and cafe's. In December or early January they announce the Meilleur Pot winner. The winner then throws a huge party.
What exactly are the judges looking for? According to Herbert, "The main idea behind the award is to encourage the bistrotiers to maintain the Parisian tradition of selling fine wines over their counters. So fine wines are what we look for. But we also look for an atmosphere or environment where friends can meet. Where they can enrich their lives and prolong its blooming."
Back at Melac's Bistrot a` Vins, things are indeed beginning to bloom. It is the perfect neighborhood bar, worth seeking out for its amiable atmosphere as well as its wines.
It seems the entire neighborhood has dropped by on this spring evening to "prende un pot" or two of wine. Melac directs the scene from behind the bar. Orders are called out by customers who gain his attention with an "Eh, fre`re Jacques."
My wife and I sit on a bench at a side table. Two glasses of sancerre are in front of us, along with a plate of che`vre and a basket of rough peasant bread. We share the table with a friendly Frenchman, who first questions us about how two foreigners came to this place, and then provides us with a complete travelogue of the French wine country.
"Fre`re Jacques, come here," he calls. "Two foreigners have made the arduous voyage across the great sea to make you famous in their benighted land." The bar titters with laughter, we blush and Melac comes over.
"Good evening, I am Jacques Melac, proprietor of this damnable establishment. Tell me, would you like to buy it?" There is more laughter and the crowd pushes around our table.
I ask him how exactly he got into the bistro business. "Oh, monsieur, I'm an Auvergnat. Isn't everyone in Paris who hails from Auvergne a bistrotier?"
And why is that?
"Don't you know that years ago, we all sold wood from our shops," Melac explains. "We gave our wood customers a glass of wine while we filled their orders. But then the wood business went to hell. We ran out of wood in Auvergne, and then with gas and electricity coming to Paris, you know ... So in order to live, we just increased the wine and forgot about the wood."
"Bof," a customer cries. "That's a fine crock of a tale, fre`re Jacques. You forgot the bit about the Auvergnese love of the bottle -- bottle after bottle." More laughter.
By this time, our table holds a dozen empty glasses. Melac calls for a bottle of 1983 chinon rouge for his "new friends," and an Auvergnese charcuterie plate with it.
"You'll like this wine. It's not as acidic as the other chinons sold in this overgrown village," he assures us, and continues. "So here I am. I work 12 hours a day and must tolerate the harassment of these drunkards. It makes me very sad and tired."
"Yes, it also makes you crazy," a bystander adds. "All you really do is spend the day reading Liberation or chasing that pretty concierge down the way." The laughter shakes the windows.
Across town at Au Sauvignon, on the busy Rue des Sts.-Pe`res in Paris' 6th arrondissement, the crowd is just as large, but the mood is different. It tends toward serious. Maybe this is because of the bistro's international clientele -- and the fact that more women are present, which inhibits the free-form repartee you hear at Melac's.
Au Sauvignon is well-known in wine circles. It still maintains the quality for which it was given its Meilleur Pot back in 1961. The owners, the Henri Vergne family, see to that. M. Vergne works the bar and Madame waits the tables. They never are far from the bistro; their apartment is directly over it.
When Mme. Vergne comes to our table we ask her about her beaujolais. "Oh, I'm sorry to admit that all we have at this time is some nouveau, and I must say it's beginning to tire," she warns.
What, then, does she recommend?
"Well, you know, there is a reason behind our name, Au Sauvignon. Our best wines are those that are made from this grape."
Her advice proves sound. The bistro's sancerre and quincy are very fine. They also serve a fascinating sancerre rose' with a toasty pinot noir nose, and enormous body for a rose'. It's a dandy match with their ham, which is from Auvergne, but of course.
If you mount the stairs leading to the upstairs washrooms and look down, you see a wedge of Parisian bistro life in microcosm. It could be a holographic image from Zola's "L'Assommoir."
However, on leaving the washroom I see the Vergne children watching TV through the open apartment door. They're watching "Dynasty" in French.
In this manner the evenings pass at Au Sauvignon. Traffic is always brisk. Businessmen argue politics. M. Vergne tells a witty story every now and then. Young couples make honeymoon eyes.
Behind the bar there is a sign: "L'argent liquide est fait pour etre bu" -- liquid money is made to be drunk. This is likely the true spirit of the Meilleur Pot.
Jeff Frees is a free-lance writer with a special interest in food and wine.