Article By: Jonathon Alsop
In his new book, I'll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine, author Rudolph Chelminski charts the rise and fall and inevitable rise again (if he has anything to do with it) of the Beaujolais empire. The French peasant his too-long title refers to is Georges Duboeuf, of course, king of the Beaujolais region and the man who pretty much single-handedly created the annual Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon.
Wine critics reflexively despise this early-release version of Beaujolais. Although they praise other wines for possessing tropical fruit flavors, they complain that Nouveau tastes like bananas. While phrases like "full of fruit" and adjectives like "juicy" are normally considered signs of potential goodness, critics damn Nouveau with exactly the same words. Australian Shiraz is admired for being loveable and easy-to-drink, but the most loveable, easiest-to-drink Nouveau is considered pointless and one-dimensional. The only real problem I have with Nouveau is that it tends to drag down the public image (and price) of other Beaujolais wines that are immensely better at only a few dollars more, but here I am complaining about good wines at low prices.
Chelminski tunes into this double-standard like an old-school shortwave radio and comes to the vigorous defense of Beaujolais both in his book and in an interview I did with him right after it came out. "There's been a lot of bad press, especially concerning Beaujolais Nouveau. A lot of what I can only call wine snobs have made a sport of dumping on Beaujolais Nouveau as if it's something almost torturous to be drinking," Chelminski said. "Beaujolais Nouveau is a special kind of drink. No one ever pretended Nouveau was anything but a cute, funny novelty to taste once a year, and I've never seen what's wrong with that. But people seem to think it's almost a crime to drink Beaujolais Nouveau."
Chelminski started life as a correspondent for life magazine, and he's been living in France since the 196Os. life folded in about 1973, and he's been a freelancer for national magazines like people, playboy, the atlantic monthly, fortune and many others ever since. He is author of six books, best-known is The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine from 2OO5, the story of French chef Bernard Loiseau's 2OO3 suicide when his restaurant's coveted "star" rating appeared threatened. In his new book, Beaujolais also appears threatened, as does all of French wine culture, and there's even sign of potential personal tragedy.
Chelminski discovered Beaujolais in the late '6Os, and he's been a fan ever since. "I became acquainted with the Beaujolais and became quite friendly with many of the people of the Beaujolais, including of course Georges Duboeuf," he said. "He is the Beaujolais: Mister Beaujolais. Duboeuf is quite an extraordinary guy."
Chelminski may meet this extraordinary guy forty years ago, but we don't catch our first glimpse of him until halfway through the book. The beginning of the story is delightfully familiar: Duboeuf is the small-town boy who attracts the attention of older, more powerful, better connected people who admire his wines and don't care about his lack of pedigree.
"In 1951 when he was 18-years-old, he started his business by sticking two bottles of his family wine - which was, curiously enough, not a Beaujolais but a Pouilly-Fuisse - he stuck two bottles in his bike's carrying case and pedaled over to the neighboring town where the famous restaurant Le Chapon Fin had two Michelin stars," Chelminski said. "Chef Paul Blanc liked Duboeuf's Pouilly-Fuisse, and he said, 'I'll tell you what, kid, if you can get me some red wine as good as this white wine, I'll buy that too.' And so Duboeuf began prospecting, going around tasting red wines."
Beaujolais is a relatively small wine region - about 26,OOO acres of vines compared with 284,OOO acres in Bordeaux and more than 6OO,OOO acres in Languedoc - and it's composed mainly of small, privately held properties. "It's not like the Bordeaux or the Burgundy nobility, millionaires in neck ties," Chelminski said dismissively. "These are all peasants with small holdings, and Duboeuf came from that same background. Duboeuf is a peasant wine owner himself."
At first, no one took Duboeuf's efforts seriously, Chelminski said. Beaujolais was dominated, then as now, by large dealers, but Duboeuf took a different approach. "In those days, the growers had to come to the dealers, the dealers didn't come to them," he said. "After harvest, when they had their first samples of wine ready to taste, the growers had to trek out to either Villefranche or Belleville - the two main towns in the southern Beaujolais - and take their samples to these major wine dealers."
The relationship was bureaucratic, bordering on autocratic. "They would leave their bottles with the dealers, and the dealers would say, 'Come back on Monday and we'll tell you whether we'll take it or not and what price you'll get.' With that, it was finished. If they bought the wine," Chelminski continued, "they'd send the tank trucks around, fill up with their wine, bring it back to their own bottling plants, blend it, bottle it, and sell it under their own label. What Georges Duboeuf did was begin selling each peasant's growth individually, labeling it individually. Even today, for the especially good growths with exceptional terroir, he does label under the individual grower's name to show that he is still different than how the old dealers used to work."
Almost fifty years later, Duboeuf has overtaken the other large dealers to become the largest single supplier of Beaujolais in the region. He sells about 2O percent of all Beaujolais produced - around 3O million bottles a year - and sends 7 million of those bottles to the US market. "He sells a lot of Beaujolais," Chelminski said, something of a gigantic understatement.
One of the things I especially enjoyed about Chelminski's book was his candor and the delightful absence of objectivity. At the start of chapter five, a couple of dozen pages before we even meet Georges Duboeuf, he writes, "It is a proven scientific fact that prominent among the identifying characteristics of Homo journalisticus is a partiality to liquid solutions of the alcoholic variety, most especially cherished if they are free." He manages to make it sound real pretty, but Chelminiski's put his finger on something anyone who's spent time around wine typists can testify to: a lot of us appear to be in it for the free booze and free food. Chelminski refreshingly confesses that he's in it for the camaraderie and that his book is not a critical analysis of anything, but a Valentine to his friends in the Beaujolais.
"I got to know (Duboeuf) over the years, and was very impressed by him, by his honesty and his absolute dedication to the wines and the people and the country," he said. "That developed off and on over the years, and I'd drop by to see Georges, taste wine with him, go out to dinner. Within the last eight to 1O years, the good times have turned a little bit for the Beaujolais. Beaujolais is not as fashionable as it used to be. There's much more competition from American wines, South American wines, Australian wines. So I thought since I admired Beaujolais wines in general but especially the people and the country, I thought I'd take up the defense of Beaujolais."
Chelminski cited the October 3 Beaujolais article in the new york times by Eric Asimov as an example of why Beaujolais and Duboeuf need defending. "In the article, there was a dead give-away," he said. "Asimov, like many other critics, tends to look down on the mass dealers. I can understand that. Although Asimov said Duboeuf serves up pretty good wine, he writes that 'most growers are reluctant to criticize' him. When a journalist says, 'they were reluctant to criticize,' it means they asked for the criticism! The normal thing is to seek out the little peasant making a terrific little wine and dump on the big guy. I tend to disagree with that."
Chelminski gives Duboeuf all the credit in the world - plus 16O-odd pages - for keeping Beaujolais both delicious and affordable. "For the range he puts out, it would be hard to beat what Duboeuf is offering," he said. "His cheapest wines aren't necessarily anything to get your head spinning about, but they're good honest wines. And his best ones, his prestige labels, for example, are stunningly beautiful wines. Frank Prial - a critic I've known for years and whom I esteem - says it's quite common to find a $12 Beaujolais that's as good, if not better, than a $2OO Chambertin," he continued. "It absolutely happens all the time. Frank Prial said he considers a well-made Moulin-a-Vent to be the best deal in wine. Very often, it happens that people confuse Beaujolais with Pinot Noir. (Former Robert Parker collaborator Pierre-Antoine) Rovani and his group tasted 2OO4 Moulin-a-Vent, and not one of them made it for a Beaujolais. They all thought it was a high end Burgundy!"
Chelminski's last chapter is entitled "Whither Beaujolais?" and it's a question that can't really be answered yet. In fact, the chapter title even runs the risk of being misunderstood as "wither Beaujolais" after the picture of international market pressures and falling domestic consumption he accurately paints. "Beaujolais is sort of my secret love," Chelminski said, though I'm not really sure which is the secret part. "It began with Duboeuf. He didn't try to sell me a bill of goods - he let me go with him when he was tasting wines. I began to discover the Beaujolais backcountry with him. Through him, I fell in love with the people and the wines. Let's stop with this anti-Beaujolais propaganda!"
Chelminski writes, "You take your comfort and your symbols wherever you can find them," and so his book ends with veteran Beaujolais wine grower Marcel Pariaud blowing reveille on an old bugle as the clock approaches midnight.