Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Drappier...the Champagne of Presidents...French Presidents

We search for the great Champagne house whose product is not yet known to the everyday Rap artist, not Crystal, or Dom, or even Grande Dame....for as fine as they are, they are also, in their own superattenuated public conciousness way, a bit common, run of the mill...I mean, anyone can order a bottle of Dom or Crystal....but we are in search of something more, the great Champagne whose greatness is known to the collector, the connessuer, the sommelier of a Michellen 3 star,...the discerning , the discriminating....the search for that which is both great and distinctive and out of the ordinary.
So we arrive in the lovely little village of Urville, tucked away in the rolling hills, and the cellers of Champagne Drappier, the favorite champagne of French Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Jacque Chirac. In fact De Gaulle kept a country residence very near here. Champagne Drappier is a distinguished, exceptional champagne house making a wide variety of specialty champagnes, incuding a 100% chardonnay with no dosage (added sugar), vintage releases when merited, and a commemorative Charles de Gaulle release. This is the epitomy of what we are in search of...a grand champagne house with distinctive wines in a class by themselves, recognized and highly praised in France, and largely unknown in America.
We tour their cellers and meet the owner of the estate. We actually watch the disgorgement process (where the years of yeast and sediment is removed from the bottle after months of careful sifting and turning, until the bottles are upside down, then dipped in liquid nitrogen, uncorked - where the frozen neck disgorges the sediment in a release of gas - dosage is added - a level of sugar so it can mature to the intended taste - and the final cork and wire wrapping is added before being crated to be stored and shipped). It is an amazing and now largely automated process. Impressive indeed...and quite fascinating. The Devil Dog never truly knew what went into a bottle of champagne, how meticulous and involved it was, how varied the cuvee according to the blend of Pinot and Chardonnay grape, how a 100% Pinot and a 100% chardonay champagne differed, and what made the difference between a great blend and a great winemaker. We retire to the tasting room and proceed to indulge in each of their differnet varietals and vintage releases. As we drive off through the countryside to the little village of Les Ricey to spend the night we are buzzing with more than excitement, having had a taste of the kind of champagne that has been unmistakably worthy of French Presidents......and us.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

memoir de la Paul Newman

Paul Newman died today. Now it isn't really a shock (how we could not have helped noticing from the drumbeat of the tabloids), but it is the passing of an era. There are few people left that we can truly call Movie Stars and he was one of them. A career that spanned more than 50 years, with achingly brilliant work within each decade, blistering work that stands up today - Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler (with Gleason....oh my god, Gleason and Newman in their prime), Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, and The Sting (spawning Redford, in their peak, together, the two most beautiful men alive, on screen), and Winning (from 1968, one of his few with wife Joanne Woodward and the film credited with turning him on to addictive high speed racing)...well you can see his carreer retrospective endlessly in the next 6 days...its not that.

He was like a great memory that lives from its initial instant with you to this day, effectively entering your conciousness....the first time I walked down Ave. Montagne in Paris.... the blinding snowstorm in Japan the first winter there as a child of 7 and how it blanketed the Camp Zama Golf Course and the woods with several feet of snow....waking up in the turret of Chateau de Bagnols outside Lyon....soaking in the pools of Esalin Institute suspended in the Mickey Muenig designed bath house embedded into the vertical stone cliffside hundreds of feet above the Pacific Oceon....watching the sun go down over the cote d'azur from the balcony of the Hotel Du Cap. Now past, we have that memory preserved in our mind with the ferver and intensity that inspired it. Now passed, we have the memory of Paul Newman the actor enshrined in classic films that define a cinematic epoch, and Paul Newman the man who defined humble self reliance and a greater heart for his fellow man thru his quiet activism and powerhouse philanthropic efforts, and an apparently extremely decent fellow who lived an extraordinary life and touched us all along the way...in measures both brilliant and emotionally resonant.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

...this meddlesome priest

It's a time of uncertainty, economic crisis, of war, and unrest in the middle east. One figure stood at the crossroads between east and west, one had the moral authority to summon kings and advise the troubles of the day. No...not Bono, and its not our current earthly woes....its the 12th century in the far reaches of Burgundy and a monk named Bernard (the Abbot of Clairvaux) was to rise and leave his mark on the world while leaving behind the Abbey of Fontenay, a truly worthy world historical site that remains intact from the glory days of the unlikely Cisterian domination of the religious agenda of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.

The Abbey of Fontenay leaves you breathless when you walk into it from the parking lot. Tucked away at the end of a valley, it is an imposing sight in its archetectural perfection, and more astonishing as a private home, whose owners restored it to its former glory and live in a lovely 18th century family redoubt at the center of the property.

The Cisterians were ascetic....eschewing comforts, vowing poverty, collectively living a life of silence and meditation, building great orders across Europe by insisting on the rigid and humble interpretation of monastic life exemplified and preached by St. Benedict. The future St. Bernard could not help, as he rose in fame and influence within the order, but become involved in the earthly political disputes of his day, advising Henry II in the ramifications of his relationship with Eleanor of Aquitane at a time when the principalities of Burgandy, or Aquitane, or Normandy were more powerful than the "King" of France, who barely ruled Paris, and were frequently at odds with each other in shifting alliances. Into this millieu St Bernard became the natural concilliator and unbiased mediator of opinion, except in the biases of the Lord of course, and was frequently consulted by the powers of his day.

The Abbey he left behind grew fat and rich, pompous and redundant, fell into dissipation, was seized by the French Revolution, and ultimately sold over 100 years ago into private ownership to a family who became voluntary stewards of what they recognized as an important national heritage. To wander into the great cathedral is to step back 800 years. The dormitary, a large arched stone expanse like a horse arena, was in its day filled with monks who slept on beds of straw and little else, in summer and winter. Sparten, yes... but influential and a terrific organizer of skills and talent, agriculturally or in textiles and production. The wealth of the Abbey is clear in its elaborate construction, but its importance as a crossroad in history is revealed in the impact of its messenger, what the buildings convey to us today. The arches in the commons quadrangle is a masterpiece of stonework. The grounds transcribe a majesty and a sensibility as is seldem found at sites like these. The family that lives there still couldn't be nicer. St Bernard would be very pleased.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Take me to the river

It was one of those moments, we are walking thru a tiny French village in the southern regions of the Champagne provence, a town with only two stores....a sweep of ancient homes and glistening fields...and we are wandering down a pebbled path to a stream .....no, more a river...... on a crystal clear morning in dappled sunlight, glistening off the flowing water as we crossed a footbridge to walk along the banks in the meadow beyond. But this is no ordinary village or waterside scenario, this is the village of Esoyes (pronounced eeswah), where Renoir settled in his advancing years, and painted many scenes now captured on canvas in great museums across the world....and today we are here in the village, by the riverside....in his garden......in his studio...in his very studio....and at his graveside, where much of his family is buried. Today we have the meadow by the river....and the captured glory of simple impressions of French country life in the little village of Esoyes.

We had spent the night before in Les Ricey, furthur south on the edge of the champagne region, a steller even tinier village, by a gently rolling brook, with only one store (a boulangerie), and the fine Hotel Le Marius, a delightful surprise with fabulous rooms in half timbered homes and a lovely restaurant in the brick cavern underneath serving hearty regional food. But Les Ricey is also famous for its tiny Champagne houses, and makes a pinot noir from the champagne grape (with no bubbles) that is as refreshing as it is regionally unique. We wander thru the town at dawn, the Devil Dog and his effervescent wingman, Francois deLay du Pompideau, along the drifting stream and down pristine streets of a tiny village dating from the 15th century, past farming equipment for the vineyards and boutique champagne estates. These are the dreams we have of the French countryside.....it is one of those moments ..... a stream of them .....among the sleeping vineyards and hideaway villages of Champagne.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reims (it rhymes with France)

In the city of of Reims (pronounced Rance), the former Roman capital of ancient Gaul, we are enthralled by a vibrant town steeped in history. No place is more emblematic of this than the Reims Cathedral, where every French King since Charlemagne was crowned, most notably the Dauphin who was crowned Louis VI in the presence of Joan of Arc. Like so many cathedrals of Europe it is draped in scaffolding in one part....the constant refurbishing and cleaning that is as perpetual as the orbit of the Earth around the sun. But its impact is immeasurable...and as I am fond of saying, if we are so impressed with it, imagine what the peasant of the 14th century thought. Imagine indeed. Inside, in addition to a knave dedicated to St Joan, there is a prominent Marc Chagall stained glass window even more impressive than the one in Vence. Though this massive cathedral was relegated to being used as a barn by the French Revolution (which had a distain for the church due to their revolutionary and jaundiced view of the aristocracy), decimated during World War I, rebuilt by funds from the Rcokefeller, Carnegie and Ford Foundations, occupied during WWII and now a vestige for the ages, Reims Cathedral is awe inspiring for the knowledge of all that has transpired in its vaulted ceilings through the centuries.

We stayed at the Hotel de la Paix in the center of town, perfectly located off the main square. A comfortable hotel with a pool and steam room (which was well utilized by certain guests with a flair for the dramatic) it was a fine jumping off point for our adventures through the champagne region. Dinner one night was at the eclectic Le Cafe du Palais, across from the Palace of Justice and the architecturally imposing concert hall. A family affair since 1930, Cafe du Palais specializes in hearty peasant fare, regional dishes and an authentic local bistro feel you can't fake, and local chesses you can't resist.

While in Reims we visited the cellers of Vueve Cliquot (literally the Widow Cliquot, a reference to the Grand Dame of the business who inherited it as a young woman when her husband died in the late 1790s). As remarkable as the champagne (known worldwide and immortalized in the film Casablanca - Inspector Rennault: "I'll have a bottle of Vueve Cliquot 1927." (and then turning to Major Strasser) "Its a good French wine!") are the cellars, into which we descend 150 feet into the ground to explore these amazing caverns carved out of pure chalk by the Romans over 2000 years ago. There are 11 miles of them under Vueve Cliquot alone....11 miles, with hundreds of thousands of cases of champagne aging in them for 3 to 9 years, and a fleet of speeding forklifts plying an underground highway to move them around. It is astonishing, ghostly and beautiful. The Devil Dog was moved at the sight of all that champagne, and the realization that these had also served as bomb shelters during two world wars. Ascending up the exit stairs and emerging through a hidden chamber into the tasting room, we ruminated on the regal history of the Widow Cliquot (and all that she has wrought through two centuries) over several vintage bottles of her namesake, capped off with a glass of her premier Grand Dame release.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Would You Like some Moutard with That

The city of Dijon is known mostly for its mustard (moutard), but in our precious few days there the Devil Dog found a fascinating outpost of culinary joy, a lovely capital of the Burgandy region where the Ducal Palace is an imposing reminder of Burgandy's former glory as a province with greater power than the King of France, and a cool university town with a lively night life, for the wandering wayfarer who is so inclined.

Our day began in a drizzle at a small cafe where we met American expatriot Alex Miles, an accomplished chef and cooking instructor who has made Dijon his personal crockpot. We spent a marvelous morning at the extremely large covered market, a cornucopia of local food and produce that gives new meaning to the term farmers market. Stalls with every conceivable form of vegetable, fish, yogurt, meat, poultry or fromage (cheese) stood brimming with the days fresh wonders, as we moved from one end of the pavillion to the other gathering the ingrediants for a feast of celebration. Fresh onions, celery root, basil as dark as the inner forest, jars of fresh runny yogurt, a particular type of potato, a wide selection of local cheeses, and a fine cut of whole rabbit. Alex Miles is more than a chef, he is a presence, being constantly interupted with greetings by stall owners and local friends in the culinary community. It was like following the pope thru the Vatican market (if there were one), an attentive group in tow, elderly stall keepers greeting him with ebullient smiles.

BUT then.....we took those bags of carefully selected ingrediants and retired to a beautiful apartment behind the Ducal Palce and prepared a rabbit in mustard sauce with three side dishes and a freshly layered desert washed down with a seemingly endless supply of perfectly acceptable white and red wine. Alex is a breath of multi cultural fresh air, a fabulous chef, and a force of nature for Dijon and the culinary arts, particularly with his 4/14 Festival scheduled for next July (09) bringing together great chefs, eclectic music and a feast for the ages in a celebration of all that is creatively culinary in Dijon....pass the moutard.

The night before we had set the Devil Dog loose on the streets of Dijon, with harmonicas in pocket, in search of a legendary blues and soul club somewhere near Plaza de la Republic. I'm not sure how I found it, because in the process I got turned around, but there it was. Appropriately, one of the songs I wailed on was "Further on Up the road". Thanks to Bobby Johnson and the band for letting the Devil Dog sit in. It was surrounded by a cluster of other clubs nearby servicing the local college crowd (it was, after all, Friday night in Dijon).... and in the end it was a cozy wander home about 2:30 in the morning....but I got lost again, and was veering by instinct before a group of reveling college students steered me down the next street, and there was the hotel, the historic La Cloche (a Sofitel), looming large by the park and the gateway arch at the center of town, 200 yards ahead on the corner.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Give the Dog a Beaune

In Beaune on our recent trip to France we stayed at a true treasure of a hotel, Le Cep, a stunning 5 star accalimed beauty whose building dates from the 14th century. My 3rd floor room was like an attic loft, huge thick beamed ceilings, with views of the courtyard and the city beyond. Its lobby and sitting rooms are like a fine country home, and the brick walled celler that serves as the breakfast room is lovely. Next door is the acclaimed restaurant of Bernard Loiseau (whose namesake is, unfortunately famous for having taken his life some years ago when he feared he would lose his 3rd Michelin star - tragically - his restaurant in Saulieu retains its three stars to this day). His wife and family have carried on, transforming the restaurant space at Le Cep into a revelation of fine dining with exqusite food and phenomenal wines (an astonishing asortment by the glass as well, a relative rarity in much of France).

Our last night in Beaune we have a farewell dinner at the beautifully furnished L'Ermitage de Corton, where new owner Nicolas Chambon has taken the reins with style and panache to create a boutique version of an Ian Shrager hotel. The Devil Dog loves a great meal as much as the next man, but the venison at dinner was as beautiful a piece of meat as I have ever put in my mouth. We shared a magnum of a white Grand Cru fr0m 2001 and a magnum of a red Grand Cru from 1994, and left the restaurant swirling with excitement at the luxury of brilliant food paired with impeccable wine.

Grand Cru Cut

Its hard to discern the vagaries of wine, but we'll try. But first another glass. Ah....very fine.

On a sojourn through the hallowed vineyards of Burgundy we are wrapped in myth and surrounded by a veil of mystery, so a few crucial ruminations.

Of all the wine from France, Burgundy is the most cherished, the most expensive and accounts for only 5% of all the output in France. Of that 5% only a fraction is Grand Cru, the most acclaimed, the most exquisite, and of that Grand Cru one single parcel may have a dozen shared owners or more, each making their own version of Corton Charlemagne or Puligny Montrachet. It makes it all incredibly complicated, a delightful puzzle that may cost you thousands of dollars to adequetly explore.
With this as a base of knowledge lets discuss topography. The wines of Burgundy are essentially a ribbon of joy about a mile wide and 55 miles long, from Nuits St. George in the north through the marketing capital of Beune in the center to Chassagne Montrachet in the south. Within this ribbon are ONLY 33 Grand Cru parcels of land, 24 in Cote de Nuits, 8 in Cote de Beaune, (and 1 in Chablis). Most are red wines, Pinot Noir, 7 are the golden Chardonnay, deliverer of translucent glory. Grand Cru is 1.5% of Burgundy production, the elixer of dreams, the lost treaure of the French Andes (to coin a phrase), and while Premier Cru can be fabulous, and frequently is, with 5072 plots designated Premier Cru, the truth in math is that Grand Cru is dwarfed in numbers and volume and therefore wrapped in myth....frequently deservably and desirably so.Confused...I hope so. So then get on a bicycle and pedal your way through the vineyards outside of Beaune (thanks to the incredibly knowledgable Sarah and bike tour operator Detours in France) through the notable village of Mersault (with its epic City Hall) to Puligny Montrachet and the legendary outpost of his serene highness, winemaker Olivier LaFlavre. This genial master of oeneology is 73 years old, an accomplished guitar player, fan of Eric Clapton, and good friend of Pink Floyd's Richard Wright and the Rolling Stone Bill Wyman...oh, and by the way, a master winemaker whose family antecedents go back unbroken to the 1630's.
We dine in the courtyard of his Maison (a beautiful hotel) and delight in a range of his wines, from "village" (common wine from the flatlands) to Premier Cru. He makes a number of Grand Crus, all white (chardonnay), including a notable Corton Charlemagne. It is a delightful afternoon in the company of the master, and a chance to put a face on the ancient tradition of Frances most renowned wines, before peddling off through the golden vineyards in the afternoon sun with a full stomach and a mind full of joy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Bubbly and the Beaune

The Devil Dog recently returned from France where he spent a mad week in Champagne and Burgundy in search of all that is holy and true in a a bottle of bubbly, pinot and chard. It is no mean accomplishment to begin to plumb the depths of what goes into making a bottle of Champagne or which rows of vineyards are the peak exhaltation of the Grand Cru. Lets just say that you start with a few preconceptions, have them blown away, and then realize your little bit of dangerous knowledge leads you further into the chasm of great wines and greater winemakers.

We began in Reims (pronounced Rance), explored the cuvees of Vueve Cliquot (literally the widow Cliquot), exhalted at the tables of Chateau Les Crayers ( have you had a bottle of Champagne Ruffin Rose....Oh My God) one of the worlds finest hotels, followed the half timbered streets of Troyes (pronounced Twah) , lingered at the remote Chateau Bligny over a multi coursed lunch of exqusite house champagne, drowned our sorrows at Drapier, Charles de Gaulles favorite champagne house, moved on to the tiny village of Les Ricey and Renoirs hideaway in Essoyes, blinded ourselves with the magnificance of the Abbey of Fontenay before rooting out the meaning of moutard in Dijon with star chef Alex Miles, moved on to the beauty of Beaune, the very heart of burgandy, where we lived like kings at Le Cep, one of the truly great hotels, and then biked thru the vineyards to Puligny Montrachet, all along learning the difference between Grand Cru and Premier Cru, which 33 parcels of land between Nuits St George and Chassange Mantrachet are truly worthy of worship, glistened in the presence of Olivier le Flavre and dined on venison at the ragingly cool new hotel L'Ermitage de Corton while swilling magnums of grand cru from 2001 and 1994.

Dizzy yet...oh no...theres no time for dizzy. This is just scratching the surface. We will explore each separate piece of joy in more length along the way, but suffice it to say that the good people of Maison de la France are an invaluable asset to the roving Francophile (THANKS KATHERINE).

Devil Dog was awestruck with the journey, more than sublime with the result, and in thrall of his fellow compatriats and companions. Vive la France.

The Devil Dog Barks

Welcome to Devil Dog Travel, your sentient anxiety renovator and travel destination experience for the less than bland who seek the great beyond where life is real and the visuals entice.

We are committed to finery and tomfoolery, excitement and designer living, your design that is.

If its cool, we'll try to get there...if it rages we'll be in the middle of it...if theres a crowd we'll be on the fringe...and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Robert Johnson had his hellhound ...we are your devil dog, your steady companion in travel to the far corners of the hinterland, even when that may lie in the heart of the great cities of America or the far corners of the Pacific, the slopes of Colorado or the pools of Oheo.

Travel is the essence of joy...seeking that which lies beyond so we may drink of its sweet wine and lap up all it has to offer with sumptuous enthusiasm.

For wherever you may go....the Devil Dog is on your trail!