I had landed at Mr. Chagny's door in Bordeaux at the behest of his brother, for whom I was working in Beaujolais as a young lad in a work-study program. He had asked me to deliver a package, the contents of which, I was about to find out, could've landed me in jail.
I handed the package to Mr. Chagny and settled in for the night with good food, wine and conversation. Mr. and Mrs. Chagny were old-time Bordeaux folks who were into community bartering. Theirs was a self-sustaining farm and, thanks to the cooperative nature among the other farmers and their friends, a lynchpin of the community.
After dinner, Mr. Chagny took me downstairs to show me something. In a hidden room, behind a false wall, he flipped on the lights. Staring me in the face was a tidy, serious-looking brandy still! Even in my haze of bartered wine I realized that I was now in the home of a bootlegger. Apparently Mr. Chagny was bartering with his illegal hooch. He gave a loud belly laugh, his huge moustache flittering crazily above his lip
And the package from his brother, I asked? Names of customers, their payments and bottles required for the month. Unwittingly, I had passed on crucial bootlegging material to Mr. Chagny from his brother. This all made sense to me now, looking back at the Chagnys' homes. Everything in both farms were either handmade or farm-produced from the outside. Both brothers were running a network — I had no idea how large — of illegal alcohol.
It seemed that people far and wide relied on Mr. Chagny for sustainable bartering and that many of his customers could not otherwise afford excellent brandy. This system had been going on for two generations, and there seemed to be a wink-and-a-nod among local authorities — and quite likely a few bottles every month or so.
Tomorrow, he said, I would need an overnight stop between Bordeaux and Brest — my final destination, where I was joining some friends — and he wondered whether I would stop by an account on my way. Room and board would be provided. Also, would I bring back to Beaujolais his paperwork from Bordeaux after my visit to Brest? Crazily, I agreed without giving it a second thought.
Mr. Chagny produced a pear brandy, an apple brandy and a grape brandy. All shared the same flavor components: hot, vaporous on the nose, weighty on the palate and ending with a creamy, spicy oak finish. Each distillate was phenomenal, elegant, tasted intensely like the fruit from which it was made and left a silky warmth on the palate that seemed to go on till tomorrow. I was stunned by the quality of his homemade product.
I left in the morning for the coast of France. The weather began to deteriorate rapidly. Winds were rising and sprinkles were graduating to heavy raindrops. I would be riding for a while in this mess until I made it to Mr. Chagny's account, which he said was a restaurant standing alone on the coast that was easy to spot because of its large windows facing the sea.
The rain continued to come down and the sea was an angry, frothy gray. Unnervingly, I was almost the only vehicle on the coastal highway. Rain turned to sleet, the kind of sleet that sported sharp edges. The wind was pushing me hard to the side and I found that I had to tack my body to an alarming degree to keep upright. To add to the experience, the roadway was filling with settled rain water and my tires were literally furrowing along the asphalt, throwing water a half a foot back into the wind and rain.
Then, to my horror, my brakes faded, then stopped working, altogether.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part-time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see past columns on his adventures as a young wine intern in France, go to www.dailytidings.com/razzano.