Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Robert Camuto at the Tour de France

As hinted at and hoped for in my last post, today’s story takes us right back to Le Tour de France; this time, though, we get to experience it through the eyes of someone who is actually there.

Robert Camuto and I first made the cycling connection after I reviewed his book, Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country. When I saw Robert’s photos (on Facebook) of his day spent with friends watching Stage Two of the Tour, I had to ask him if he’d be interested in writing about the experience here at MFWT.

Robert is a frequent freelance contributor to Wine Spectator and many other print publications. You can follow his regular adventures at Needless to say, I’m excited to welcome him here as guest blogger today. So please read on and enjoy!

It’s Not About the Bikes: The Tour de France Passes Chez Nous

By Robert Camuto

I always wondered why it is so many wine lovers enjoy watching professional cycling. And I finally figured it out: It’s one sport you can drink wine with and really feel like you’re part of the event. (The vinous equivalent of the relationship between weak, gassy beer and the NFL).

What it took for me to grasp the obvious was the Tour de France running right by my house—I mean on the street right outside last Sunday. In other words, the road that we use every day to go to the bakery or the post office or to carpool was transformed into the pitch for the world’s third most viewed sporting event (after the Olympics and the Soccer World Cup). And the sidewalks that day were turned into one 100-mile tailgate party.

The Tour de France is, of course, much more than a sporting event. MUCH much more: It’s a three-week national (actually international as it crosses France’s borders) street party. Most people in France couldn’t name more than one or two cyclists in the race or explain the teams and point system. But that’s not the point. The point is all about ambience, which, not surprisingly, is a French word. From a public point of view there is more effort put into the pre- and post- race festivities than the actual race which whizzes by in a few seconds.

A big part of ambience is the gorgeous vistas, the villages and France’s terroirs. Yes terroirs. It would be one thing for me to sit here and write about the steep contours of the Pyrenées or the Luberon mountains, or to even show you pictures. It’s quite another thing to see cyclists straining to crawl up those rocks in the summer heat as the asphalt practically melts.

The whole ambience and terroir thing not only complements the wines—it makes them taste even better! I can assure you that for the grueling mountain finale up Mont Ventoux on July 25, I will be raising a glass of some modest Côtes du Ventoux which on that day will taste more profound than Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

When race day arrived we had only an approximate idea how many friends and neighbors would be showing up for our race-watching party and barbecue. (It turned out to be about 20. I still haven’t made a final count.) Because the actual road was closed off from 11 a.m.—about three hours before the pack of cyclists came though —everyone had to arrive at least part of the way on foot.

Picking the wines for the occasion was not too difficult. It was hot. It’s summer in Provence, and on this day the tour left Monaco for Brignoles—right in the heart of rosé country.

The overall quality of Provence rosés has increased so dramatically in recent years it has made lists of star producers obsolete. If the wine is to be served on a cool evening I’ll go for a complex, darker Bandol or Coteaux d’Aix. For an afternoon rosé, I like to keep it simple: paler smooth-drinking wines made without headache-inducing chemicals priced between 5 and 10 Euros the bottle from appellations like Cotes-de-Provence, Coteaux Varois, Palette, Corsica and (the hilltop AOC in Nice) Bellet.

For the tour, we skipped bottles altogether and went B.I.B. (less waste, cost) with 5-liter packages of two Grenache-Cinsault-Syrah blends from the Var not far from the Tour’s stopping point that day: a delicious rose-petal colored wine from (organic producer) Domaine de La Grande Pallière followed by a salmon-pink wine from Domaine Thuerry.

We began gathering on the sidewalk around noon. That morning we’d installed the LANCE OUI CAN! sign on our front wall, and on our fence we posed a baguette marked with “Just Do It” in yellow (official Livestrong) chalk. About an hour before the cyclists comes the arrival of the caravane—the parade of wildly decorated publicity vehicles that tosses out free caps, bottles of water, saucisson and candy.

The neighborhoods of our village emptied to gather along the route, and we talked to neighbors we’d never met, shared rosé with a television crew that had stopped to film us, cheered for products, banks and companies that we don’t even know or like without any thought, and called out bravo! to the French riot cops on motorcycle.

Then–after their caravan passed—there was this deep, strange silence as we waited for the Tour to arrive. When the cyclists did arrive, the crowds exploded in cheers. There were four cyclists out front and then a few seconds behind, the peloton – the pack of unimaginably close riders pedaling workmanlike.

“Did you see him?” friends ask. Well yeah, sort of. I mean I could never tell you which particular part of that multi-colored blur that flew past us was Lance Armstrong.

While the cyclists continued their work for another two hours, we fired up the barbecue and ate and drank—summer salads accompanied by delicious grilled Merguez (lamb) and Chipolatas (veal) from an Arab- Hallal butcher in Grasse. (These butchers make some of the best artisanal sausage in France now.)

For the second round of barbecue, we brought out bottles of the red wine I made in my garage with friend and wine collaborator Ken McNeill. Our 2008 cuvée of 2 Gars Rouge (Two Guys- Red) is made from Carignan (also picked in the Var) from the vineyards of our friends at Domaine Borrely-Martin. It was young and fruity and good and nobody was making tasting notes.

The Tour de France isn’t—to paraphrase Lance—about the bikes. Just like wine isn’t really about the notes or about how many flavors you can identify in a glass, or about making a lifestyle statement. It’s all about sharing nourishment, this miracle of fermentation, and some moments together.

* * *
Buy Robert's book.
And like Cory said, not a used copy.
Like the baguette says, just do it!


Anonymous said...

I feel like I was there...I wish I had been...

Of course it helps to have experienced the energy of a few stages of the Vuelta and World Championships to reignite that feeling of exhilaration when the pelaton passes.

David McDuff said...

Likewise, anon. Robert seems to have experienced that feeling as well, and expressed how special it was to have one of the world's greatest sporting events pass right through his own front yard.

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