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Fresh off the plane in 1968 France: An offer not to be refused

It was in 1968 that I set off on an adventure to learn the wine business firsthand in Europe. When I arrived at the Orly airport, the place was in chaos — transportation workers had staged a strike, and nary a cab was to be found. In a stroke of outrageous good fortune, a young French army officer sitting next to me offered me a ride with his father — a well-known importer of French wine.

When his father drove up in a shiny new Citroen, Andre and I snaked our way between seemingly endless cars, some with horns blaring, until we got to the car. Andre stuck his head in the window, said I was his "American friend," and we tossed our bags in the trunk. Andre's father, Jean Paul, greeted me very warmly.

They took care of family business while I looked out the window at the gridlock. Jean Paul began to apologize for the chaos but shrugged and told me that these things simply "had to happen" from time to time in France, if, for nothing else, to "clear the air and get on with living."

I told him of the winery work program I had joined. He seemed fascinated that a young American would come to work in France rather than stay in the exciting new world of California wine. I told him I wanted to explore the historical roots of the wine industry first. He nodded and smiled. He agreed that France, because of its cultural significance in the wine world, would be a very important place for me to begin.

France was much different than the New World in one very conspicuous way, he said: Each region is bound by law to grow only specific varieties of grapes. In the United States, any grape can be grown anywhere in the country.

Jean Paul said he had just returned from California a few weeks earlier and the subject had come up in a somewhat heated manner at a seminar at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. How, he argued, could a winery plant cabernet sauvignon next to pinot noir next to gewurztraminer? These were different varietals requiring different soils and climates. How, he implored me, was there ever to be good wine made in California if such "craziness" were to continue?

Being a young sprout, and out of respect and total ignorance, I sat in the back seat and agreed wholeheartedly. Besides, Jean Paul was getting me out of the Orly mess and the words "filet mignon" had been exchanged between Andre and his father at the beginning of the ride.

To my surprise, we were headed directly to a pre-arranged dinner and wine-tasting event. I was told by Jean Paul that I was going to be his "special guest" and he would not take "no" for an answer.

That I had just traveled from San Francisco to Paris, circled the airport for an hour, not slept a wink, and wore old Levis and cowboy boots, did not faze him at all. Because of the strike turmoil, he said, all of Paris would be "exciting, on edge and wonderful."

"Clothes," he said, "are the least of the issue."

Jean Paul laughed heartily and gunned the Citroen through an impossibly small gap in the traffic and on we rocketed to the outskirts of Paris.

We parked in a circular drive in front of a very beautifully manicured garden at the foot of a manor. Two things struck me at once: I was getting very hungry and I had no idea who these folks were.

As we walked to the door well behind Jean Paul, Andre told me that the person who owned this home also owned a small chateau in Bordeaux and every month hosted a special wine event for people in the business. Andre had no idea what was going to be tasted, but he was sure there was going to be "superb cuisine" and lively wine talk. He thought it was very funny that we had met at the airport and that I was starting out in the wine business and here I was at a "very impressive" wine event.

I thanked him warmly and he said, "Well, don't thank me until the dinner is over." I looked at him and wondered what the heck he was talking about.

To be continued ...

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.