What binds you to a wine and makes it part of your life? Is it that sip of something wonderful on your first trip abroad? Or a picnic bottle during an unforgettable erotic fling?
I ask the question because my mother and father flew to France this morning for their annual month-long house exchange. They’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, in part to visit a man named Jean-Paul, who in my mind is inextricably linked with the bright, rough-edged wines of Gigondas. If you don’t know these wines, seek them out: They come from the southern Rhône and get compared to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but as a sort of barefoot cousin, not quite fit for company. I think of them as the Chianti of French reds: immediately accessible and yet with an old-world specificity and particularity that can be hard to find in today’s wine market.
I know Jean-Paul because long before I was born, when my mother was in her 20s, her best friend, Pam, met Jean-Paul in France, fell in love with him, and married him. They had a great thing, those two—Pam was a tall, bright, hilarious American redhead from San Francisco, and Jean-Paul was a very handsome, not-so-tall, blond Frenchman who seemed dazzled by Pam in exactly the way a lover ought to be dazzled. They lived in Paris, near Place d’Italie; he worked for the airport authority—one of those classic French civil service jobs, well paid and comfortable—and they eventually adopted two children from overseas. About 10 years ago, Pam died of cancer, and rather than drifting apart from Jean-Paul, my parents became closer to him than ever. Especially my father, who found a better friend in Jean-Paul than he’d ever expected.
A year or two after Pam’s death, I’m in Paris with L on our honeymoon. Jean-Paul is still destroyed by grief—he loved Pam intensely—but he insists upon meeting my bride and taking us out for a night on the town: his town. He’s a gallant man. The first drink happens at one of those big Montparnasse cafés—not at all an out-of-the-way, insider’s place—but the drink itself is Gigondas, and I feel that Jean-Paul is introducing me to something personal, a Frenchman’s taste in something quintessentially French. Jean-Paul is so exquisitely gracious over that wine, and so emotionally generous in his commitment to celebrating my new marriage despite the recent death of his own wife, that the memory of my first taste of Gigondas is perfectly bound up with a kind of poignant exhilaration. Jean-Paul takes us out to dinner, too, parking his car in the middle of a busy Paris street (literally, in the turning lane) and leaving it there throughout the meal without any hassles—bureaucratic privilege, apparently. On the way home, clearly three sheets to the wind, he parks again, on the busy boulevard that flanks the Seine—right by the curb, in the flow of traffic. Just stops the car and gets out so we can walk together onto the bridge at the Place de la Concorde, in the glittering blackness of night.