“The tradition of the mâchon comes directly from the canuts who shared traditional meals in Lyon at dawn after hours of work. The mâchon is simple and friendly.” – Le Wiki
SO, IF YOU’VE READ THIS FAR, you might wonder what gives with the title of my recent string of posts.
When he first clued me into the wine called Traboules, during a trip I took to France in early 2018, the conversation with Tim Johnston about this unique French red veered off in an unexpected direction. If my old friend had me at “Rhône Valley gamay,” he further captured my attention explaining where the name came from for the Coteaux du Lyonnais made by his friends at Domaine Clusel-Roch.
After a stopover in Paris, I was headed down to Lyon by TGV, then a bit further south to the very old wine hub of Ampuis. There, I would spend a long weekend at the annual Marché aux Vins, meeting winegrowers and attempting to drink my weight in their Condrieu, St. Joseph, and Côte-Rôtie. Before the trip, I’d never been to Ampuis, nor France’s gastronomic capital of Lyon. I was beyond excited.
Over a jetlag-curing lunch at Juveniles, Tim’s 1st arrondissement wine bar, he told me to be on the lookout during the Marché for a red wine called Traboules, which the Clusels might be pouring at their table. (I’ll note here that I would walk over hot coals to get my hands on their “Grandes Places” Côte-Rôtie; it never came to that during the event in Ampuis, but it’s a wine that certainly pulls in an enthusiastic crowd.) Then, playing remote tour guide for a moment, Tim connected the dots between the Clusels’ Traboules gamay and the name, which comes from Lyon’s ancient traboules: the semi-concealed public passageways that wind through some of the city’s oldest quarters. They sounded exotic and a bit weird. Right up my alley, so to speak.
FROM THE PANDEMIC THAT BROUGHT you virtual tastings comes another new addition to the wine lexicon: curbside pick-up.
And it’s quite new—for wine, anyway. As recently as February, “curbside” still implied a transaction likely involving a Chick-fil-A or a Big Mac. Just three or four weeks later, in-person shopping for wine—the quaint, familiar concept of browsing shelves and case stacks, picking up bottles to read their labels, maybe sampling at a tasting bar—had been pandemically turned on its head. A more appropriate metaphor might be kicked to the curb.
Or maybe not.
“It’s almost impossible to emphasize how different this landscape is right now,” my friend Dan Polsby wrote to me in an email in March about Vintage Berkeley, the College Avenue shop he manages and buys for, and now was tasked with converting to a 100% curbside pick-up business. “Some distributors and importers have already stopped shipping. Some are experiencing crazy delays. And for us? Basically every day right now is as busy as what’s usually our busiest day of the year—but at quarter staff, for 12-13 hours—despite letting no customers into the store. Can you imagine?”
Could anyone have imagined such a scenario? Besides that cohort of doctors, scientists, and other infectious disease experts (surely some wine enthusiasts among them) who’d been sounding the alarm to the White House about Covid-19 since January, I mean.
IT WAS MID-MARCH, EARLY DAYS for shelter-in-place. No tumbleweeds were blowing across College Avenue yet, but Elmwood was a ghost town.
Stuck at home in Napa and rather desperate for some French gamay that wasn’t the Duboeuf Beaujolais stocked on our (and every) local supermarket shelf, I drove down to this normally bustling pocket of Berkeley to pick up a wine called Traboules, a delicious and unusual bottle of gamay from the Rhône Valley’s Coteaux du Lyonnais that I tracked down last year.
The trip was shockingly quick: fifty-five minutes door-to-door from Napa. Only at 6:00 AM on a Sunday—or, I suppose, during a pandemic. The novel coronavirus had brought the novelty of zero Thursday morning traffic to the usual I-80 parking lot.
Granted, an excursion away from Napa Valley to find wine might sound like leaving Darjeeling to go tea shopping. But if you’re looking for good French wine, you head to Berkeley. And if something unique like Traboules is on your list, you make a beeline for Vintage Berkeley.
IF THIS HAD BEEN AN ARTICLE about, say, San Francisco bartenders in the 1970s and 80s, chances are pretty good that a couple of Irishmen would have made an appearance by now. But two Scottish winemakers in the same story on Sonoma County syrah? Not bloody likely, you might think. Yet it happens, anyway: Steve Law, who was mentored by zinfandel specialist Michael Talty and inspired by a pair of Rhône vignerons, found another important career influencer when he introduced himself to Edinburgh native Andy Smith, the winemaker and proprietor of DuMol Winery in Windsor.
“I met Andy in ’08 down on the Central Coast at one of the Hospices du Rhone events,” Steve told me last year. “I was initially drawn to him because of his accent. It was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I found out he was actually the winemaker at DuMol, and the friendship has grown between the two of us.” He described Smith, 48, as a brilliant advisor, especially when it comes to analyzing different microclimates of Sonoma County for their syrah potential.
Andy Smith has made wine at his Windsor facility since 1999 and started producing DuMol’s Russian River Valley syrah a year later. I called him there recently to chat about the MacLaren wines. He echoed his friend’s comments about his own winemaking mindset, telling me that Steve “knows what he likes, and that’s his target. That’s his vision.”
“HAVE YOU HEARD THE JOKE?” the wine retailer standing at our table asked with a stupid grin. He was trying to laugh it up with my winemaker boss and me. “What’s the difference between a case of syphilis and a case of syrah…?”
“The case of syrah is harder to get rid of! Get it?!”
My winemaker boss happens to make syrah—cases of it, in fact—so only one person was laughing. He looked stone-faced, saying nothing as his eyes narrowed. I’d seen that look before. The guy turned to me, but I just shook my head. “That’s hysterical, man,” I said flatly. He moved on to find a friendlier audience.
This little episode took place several years ago at a trade tasting in San Francisco. The boss and I were pouring his Mendocino County syrah for Bay Area restaurateurs and retailers. Venereal jokes aside, California syrah had free-fallen into the damn-near-impossible-to-sell wine category, thanks in no small part to an industry trope that put this noble wine grape variety in the same containership-sized box as a purplish, fermented grape beverage commodity from Australia called Yellow Tail Shiraz. The reason? Back in the 1950s, a Sicilian winemaking couple, Filippo and Maria Casella, immigrated to New South Wales. A few decades later, Casella and his sons launched an export shiraz brand. They named it after Australia’s cute Yellow Tail wallaby, adorned the bottle with a quasi-Aboriginal art label and a $6.99 price tag, and unleashed upon the world the phenomenon of “critter wine.” The family duly made a fortune. Here in the U.S., the imaginations of Costco members from coast to coast were forever captured, and shoppers doing wine arithmetic in supermarket aisles summed up that premium domestic syrah was equal to, but not necessarily greater than, cheap-ass Aussie critter shiraz. California syrah went into a marsupial death dive.