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How I became a very amateur wine importer (and how you can, too)

Back in the late 1980s, I met Jeff, who has since become one of my dearest friends (his wife Anne is another). At that time, Wife Number Two and I were still drinking mostly white wines from the Rhine - Piesporter Michelsberg was one of our more sophisticated choices - and we had other friends who were happily glugging white Lambrusco at about 5% alcohol.

Jeff introduced us to the wines of Provence. It was quite a leap from the light, sweetish, over-fruity whites of Germany to the dry, heavy, subtle, authoritative reds of the Vaucluse. In fact, if Jeff hadn’t started selling us these wines at quite irresistible prices - and if we hadn’t wanted to impress him with our refined tastes - we might well have stayed safely with the hocks, Moselles and Italian pops.

Jeff had a friend - I’ll call him’The Man’ - who actually had a house in one of the most prestigious wine villages in the Vaucluse. The Man knew wine. In fact, his palate was respected by people whose families had been growing grapes and making wine in the Vaucluse for generations. He bought wine en vrac - which turned out to mean that he bought it in anything made of polythene with an airtight stopper - and bottled it back home in the Midlands. He did this for himself - and for certain special friends.

This last bit was whispered furtively. The British licensing laws, based on our bizarrely puritannical attitude to alcohol and successive governments’ opportunistic and punitive taxing of anything enjoyable, are scary. Selling just a few bottles of booze without a licence - well, even in days when heroin and crack cocaine are peddled on city street-corners, it all seemed pretty wild.

Anyway, The Man bottled the stuff and sold it to discreet acquaintances. Jeff was one such, and he was happy to buy it on behalf of a select few who would appreciate the wine and keep their mouths shut about where it came from.

In fact, as we became trusted friends, it emerged that Jeff himself brought wine home en vrac. The difference was one of scale. Despite frequent trips (in fact, virtually the whole of every school holiday) Jeff found it difficult to keep pace with his and Anne’s own consumption, so there was very rarely any surplus.

So it was that the names of Cairanne, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Gigondas - magical enough after seeing some of Jeff’s and Anne’s holiday snaps - became associated in our minds with wines of great depth and authority. Out went the Liebfraumilch and the Lambrusco. Suddenly, we were real wine drinkers.

We were also solvent wine drinkers, because - thanks to The Man - this stuff actually cost us less than the pop we’d been drinking before.

The next landmark was my first actual visit to the Vaucluse. Wife Number Two and I had finally given up on the gale-torn, rain-drenched summers of North-West Scot land and, for the first time in both our lives, gone abroad. Never one to do things by halves, and with donkeys’ years of lost time to make up, I’d planned (in minutest detail) a month-long multi-centre extravaganza taking in Paris, Alsace, Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, the French Alps, Arles and the Camargue, the Vaucluse, Chartres, Paris again and finally Bruges. The Big Holiday is recounted in detail elsewhere.

I vividly remember sitting over our second magnificent dinner in the 16th century chapel which was the restaurant of the Hôtel Mas de la Chapelle outside Arles (room reserved by a letter in careful French on the basis of a strong recommendation in Fodor’s 1990 guide to France) when a cordless telephone was brought to the table. Trying to look as if this sort of thing happened to us all the time in posh restaurants, I took a call from Jeff and wrote down the directions to their new house in the little village of Caromb on a napkin. Then we went back to our Carpaccio de saumon et cocquilles St-Jacques - an exotic and elegant construction of raw salmon cured only by marinating in lemon juice (like the Norwegian gravadlax) and raw scallops. Wife Number Two could be reduced to instant nausea by a piece of fish whose texture merely hinted that it was undercooked. She also habitually dismissed smoked salmon as tasting ’like raw bacon’. Yet here she was, eating this dish of virtually raw fish and totally raw shellfish for the second time in two days (I had been too ill with heat-exhaustion and dehydration the night before). The salmon was wonderful and the scallops had a taste that teetered perilously between unutterably delicious and slightly corrupt. The whole effect, with Beethoven wafting softly round the vaulting of this ancient chapel after a day of heat the like of which we had never experienced before, was truly exotic and totally sensational.

The following day we picked our way to Nîmes and then - via what was my first and almost my last mistake with France’s barely visible traffic lights under the ancient walls of Avignon - to Caromb. Jeff’s and Anne’s new house was just that - a modern pink-washed bungalow with a red-clay tiled roof blending inconspicuously into the sunbaked landscape. But Caromb was the archetypal Provençal village, built on a little hill - a small island in an ocean of vineyards - with its mediaeval church and belfry on the summit. This has since become a familiar view - and the subject of far too many photographs - because in summer you can sit on their terrace after dinner and watch the orange sun sink slowly right behind the silhouette of the village.

We were only there for a couple of days. Because the water and drains had not yet been connected, Jeff and Anne were sleeping in their caravan at the campsite in the nearby village of Aubignan and working on the house during the day. We stayed in a rather eccentric Logis de France hotel called after the old belfry across the alley - Le Beffroi.

The high spot of this first visit for me was my second experience of dégustation et vente - that wonderful facility offered by all the local wine-growers, who welcome you into the cool of their caves de dégustation and are happy to spend an hour with you, dispensing dangerously generous tastes of their many wines and discussing their respective qualities to the limits of your French, for the sake of selling you half a dozen modestly-priced bottles. (The first experience had been in Alsace three weeks before, under the tutelage of my dear old friend Philippe, who was the reason for our visit to the French Rhine.)

I had seen the curiously English-looking name of Roger Combe on numerous labels back in Derbyshire. Now, in the gloom of his cave at the Domaine la Fourmone, I met the man himself: ’Roger’ pronounced in the French manner and ’Combe’ pronounced ’comm-b’, with the’b’ strongly voiced.

With a single candle burning to show the rich colour of his red Vacqueyras, we sampled many different bottles before emerging, blinking, into the impossible glare and heat of the afternoon to pack a dozen or so into the car boot.

On then to the Domaine la Soumade at Rasteau, where the cave de dégustation was more like a little bar, to meet Monsieur and Madame Roméro, who produce vins doux naturelles - rich dessert wines, sweet yet with their sugar perfectly balanced by acid and tannin to complement puddings and the unctuous delights of foie gras. Monsieur Roméro must have been close to 80, but he still brimmed with enthusiasm. When I told him, in my slowly-reviving A-level French (failed, 1961), that my father and I used to make ’wine’ from canned, concentrated grape-juice, he insisted on taking me backstage to see where the wines were made and matured - an incongruous mix of ancient oak and gleaming new stainless steel. He told me about his son’s weird experiments with ’le Cabernet Sauvignon’, a foreign grape from faraway Bordeaux, sucking air noisily through closed teeth in the international expression of scepticism and uncertainty.

I was hooked. The whole experience was so civilised. These proud, courteous people lived the kind of life I could only dream of, their roots deep in the sun-baked, stony soil that grew these magnificent grapes, their routines perfectly in tune with the seasons and the capricious Provençal weather, their values handed down through the generations to provide a stability and security that is a million miles from the stresses of state education in the East Midlands. Yet, in the midst of all this continuity and tradition, modern technology integrates seamlessly: Mme Combe had taken my Visa card to the Minitel terminal in the corner of the cave and used France Télécom’s friendly online information system to debit my account in a few seconds.

That was the beginning. Now a trip to France - or at least any trip across the invisible boundary that separates beer and cider country from wine territory - isn’t complete unless I bring back at least a hundred litres of young wine. And when there aren’t at least fifty bottles in my cellar I begin to panic: heaven forbid that I should actually have to start paying UK prices for inferior wines or totally over-the-top ones for good stuff. Jeff and I went down specially as soon as our early retirements came through and brought back almost 250 litres in my Citröen ZX estate. We even stopped off for some Beaujolais Villages en vrac near Mâcon on the way back from a skiing holiday in January. And I couldn’t resist picking up a couple of ten-litre bag-in-box packs from a selected grower near Bergerac when Wife Number Two and I visited the Dordogne a couple of years ago (mind you, we then did a huge detour via the Drôme Provençale to buy eighty-odd litres from the Domaine du Rieu Frais, in the foothills of the Alps, on the way to Chamonix!).

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.