From the Beaujolais province I had headed southwest at the behest of Mr. Chagny, the owner of the tiny winery where I was interning in 1968, who needed me to drop off some paperwork for a brother in Bordeaux.
Riding through charming, tucked-away villages, the throttle of my borrowed BMW motorcycle twisted almost to the max, I headed to the Medoc and found myself in the heart of the great Bordeaux wine country.
Bordeaux is far different way than where I had been working in Beaujolais, which is part of the Burgundy wine-growing region. In Burgundy with a few exceptions, the wineries are not flashy or chateaux-like, with large turrets or stately mansions, but are well-kept farmhouses. In the Bordeaux region, one can see beautifully kept mansions, many circled by high gates and circular driveways. Even culturally, Bordeaux is very cool and refined and Burgundy is more relaxed.
Burgundy's wine production is about half of Bordeaux's and consists mostly of pinot noir, chardonnay and gamay in Beaujolais. Bordeaux produces cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and malbec for the reds and semillon and sauvignon blanc for the whites. Both regions produce some spectacular wines of historic importance.
I was on my way to join some friends in Brest on the coast while running errands for Mr. Chagny along the way. When I found his brother's farm in Medoc, a very kind-looking, smaller man opened the door to a well-kept wooden outbuilding and put out his hand in hospitality.
The second Mr. Chagny was as bald as an onion and sported a 3-pound walrus moustache with which he constantly fidgeted. His English was almost-accent free. He told me he had been an interpreter during World War II and "knew all of the high-ranking generals, personally."
The idea of this sweet, diminutive man being acquainted with generals sounded a bit of a stretch, but I listened courteously. I was looking forward to a really good dinner, a good wine and if I was lucky, a warm bed. I had become accustomed to this kind of graciousness from the French, especially from the farm and winery people, and once again I was not disappointed.
These were different times. A young American was more than a curiosity to many of the French, and with wine and hearty cuisine came almost endless questions about America. Also, these people had no television but got their news through the radio, a passing neighbor and the newspaper. Looking around the farmhouse, I could count on one hand any products with a manufacturer's label. When I brought this up to Mr. Chagny and his wife, they immediately launched into the benefits of "barter."
They had rarely purchased a thing which they needed to live on. Between the gardens, the chickens and sheep and their bartering for most other essential needs, they were self-sufficient in almost every way.
Mr. Chagny said, quite vigorously, bartering was the way to keep the "damned tax man" away from the door of "honest people." He went on about Paris, taxes, corrupt officials and a whole host of government-related ills. The Chagnys had a well-loved group of neighbors and friends who looked after each other.
After a wonderfully filling dinner and seemingly endless, nonlabeled wines, Mr. Chagny gave me a very hard and long look. He said he was about to let me into a "big secret" because he needed my help and I had come "finely recommended" by his brother.
I shrugged and followed him down the stairs into a very narrow hallway where a door led to the right. He pulled on his moustache and motioned to the left where there was no door. Pushing lightly into the wood of the wall, he turned back and looked up at me with sparkling blue eyes as a small part of the wall, the size of a door, gave way.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part-time. Reach him at email@example.com. To see past columns on his adventures as a young wine intern in France, go to www.dailytidings.com/razzano.