I'm in Beaune, France, in the heart of Burgundy for the Grands Jours week of tasting. Every one of Burgundy's 4,327,119 vintners (I'm making up that number, but it feels that way) has set up an empty barrel in a basement somewhere with six 2008 wine samples on it.
Wine buyers and journalists from around the world come to sip, make particularly ostentatious aeration noises (one guy with a handlebar mustache sounded like he was blowing his nose with a hair dryer) and try to push their way to a communal spittoon before it's too late.
This is my first time here, and it's overwhelming. Today alone there were four main events in one giant convention center: the Macon, the northern part of the Cote de Beaune, the area immediately around Beaune, and the sparkling Cremants. There were hundreds of vintners, thousands of wines, and two free facial massage therapists (yes, I got one).
And yet, the three American journalists here, including myself, blew off this tasting until late in the afternoon to attend one of the many smaller private tastings. I went to something called DIVA, a collection of high end wineries, where I tasted amazing wines and figured I'd get a story idea later. Hopefully that's going to happen.
The lunch at DIVA -- beef bourgogne and mashed potatoes with black truffles -- was so delicious that I watched a Japanese broker eat four whole plates of it, while my guide Jean asked me about sumo. The Japanese guy, who was plump but not enormous, may have gone for five plates, but I couldn't watch any more.
Tonight we're going to another massive tasting with meals prepared by 10 leading French chefs. Tomorrow there's another huge tasting, this time in Marsannay, but it competes with another day of DIVA, a tasting of wines made by women, and a tasting of organic wineries. I was also invited to private tastings by a couple of big exporters, and there's another big wine dinner at night.
No matter how much you like wine, and how many you can taste, there's no way to keep up here. I feel like I was thrown into an Olympic-sized pool of top-notch Chardonnay, and I'm constantly wavering between drinking and drowning. Or getting out to throw myself into the neighboring Pinot Noir pool.
I will hopefully write more coherent wine stories when I finish the tasting overload and get a little perspective. But here are a few observations in the meantime:
* It's still too early to tell if 2009 was as great a year in Burgundy as it has been touted in the rest of France. The weather here was sunny and easy on grape growers, but there's a fear that the wines will be too big and atypical. Unlike Bordeaux, which will have its en premier tastings next week (talk about wine overload), very few Burgundy vintners are pouring 2009 samples yet.
* Longtime visitors to this event have commented on how many Chinese buyers are here this year. Meanwhile, American buyers I've talked to mention that they're cutting back on selling more expensive wines. These two events are connected.
* You would think that wine buyers in Burgundy would leave their perfume at home, but you would be wrong.
* The large number of young vintners at top domaines is striking at first but makes sense when I think about it for a moment. So many vineyards are inherited here that it makes sense for the age distribution of the people in charge to be flatter than in the US, where winery owners are usually older, successful business people and winemakers at well-known wineries tend to have held two or three jobs before.
* There are more women winemakers than I expected, particularly as I have already heard from three different people that some believe, and don't kill the messenger here, that a woman walking into a winery will spoil the wine. I think they were joking, but what's most surprising is that this "joke" was also told to the two female journalists with me. I'd love to see this statement tried out at a public tasting in San Francisco, but I also love watching strong language and violence.
* French people don't seem to need water when they taste. I'm not sure why. They also rarely use crackers or bread or cheese to cleanse the palate -- though in Chablis every winery provided parsley-infused ham and cheese.
* Also, chairs are apparently for the weak. There's a fine lunch buffet provided at most of these tastings -- I have a new appreciation for aspic after tasting a shrimp/egg/orange aspic in Chablis on Monday. But so far most of them have been standing, jostling lunches. Perhaps that's meant to keep us from lingering with the food and get back in there to taste 200 more wines.
* Jean told me he listened to a lengthy debate on French radio about Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," about whether it was authentic and its level of artistry, etc. I haven't seen it, so my immediate response was to tell him what I know about it from US media: it was number one at the box office its opening weekend. Talk about different cultures.
* Speaking of which, Jean read back through my blog for months because he wanted to know who he'd be saddled with. He told me that I get angry fairly often. Dammit, Jean, what the hell are you talking about? As long as we get this cheese course every day, I'll be happy.