What took you to France?
I was tagging along with Seastar wine director Erik Liedholm, his college buddy Chef Jeffrey Rose, and fellow Seastar sommelier Jameson Grus. Seastar has its own line of John Howie-brand wines in partnership with winemakers like Mark Ryan in Washington. Our team went to Champagne, France, to connect with Nomine Renard’s winemaker Simon Renard and witness the disgorgement of the Champagne that was blended two years prior. P.S. That Champagne is now available at Seastar in Bellevue.
How long was your trip, and what places did you visit?
We were gone for 10 days, which amounted to seven nights in France. In early March, flights into Paris were a great deal, at just around $500 roundtrip on Delta. We spent the first two nights in Paris, staying in a large flat in the Marais district. On the third day, we took a train to Reims, located in Champagne, staying three nights in a rental house named The Gorgeous. From there, we drove to Beaune in the Burgundy region for a couple of nights to attend a friend’s 40th birthday party extravaganza, then took a train back to Paris, where we stayed the last two nights.
What was it like traveling to a wine destination like France with food and wine professionals?
Delicious! And expensive! We drank Champagne every day, and I was introduced to so many other amazing wines from places like Chablis and Burgundy. Erik’s industry connections allowed us to experience private winemaker tastings at wineries not usually open to the public. (Unlike the U.S., many French wineries do not have public tasting rooms.) Wine highlights included tasting at Pierre Peters in the Champagne region — located in an idyllic village set in a sea of Champagne grape vines, a private barrel sample tour at Comte de Vogue in Burgundy, and as many iterations of Raveneau Chablis as we could get our hands on. During a birthday celebration in Burgundy, the birthday boy was treated to a few bottles of the 1979 vintage in honor of his birth year (since it is also my birth year, it was extra special). Other beverage highlights include cocktails at Bar Hemingway located at The Ritz in Paris and sipping rosé at outdoor cafes.
We took our food consumption to Olympic-level glory, and by the end of the trip we were all desperate for some greens. Many of our meals were at Michelin-starred restaurants that stretched through hours, numerous courses, and hundreds of Euros apiece. My favorite was l’Astrance (downgraded from three to a mere two Michelin stars due to less-than-swanky bathrooms), where we celebrated our last night in France with a dozen impeccable courses served with grace and style. Other culinary highlights in Paris were Frenchie, Le Gabriel, incredible charcuterie at Arnaud Nicolas, and the best croissant of my life at Boulangerie du Nil.
Tell us more. We are getting hungry.
In Beaune, we were invited to a little roasted chicken shindig at the office of Remoissenet Père et Fils with Pierre Rovani (former critic at Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and current president of Remoissenet). We strolled through the streets of Beaune, casually dressed for a backyard chicken-and-mashed-potatoes dinner, and knocked on the courtyard door of the winery “office” only to be stunned into silence as we were led through a former dungeon into the castle fortress in which the office resides. A team of chefs was preparing dinner in the kitchen. The massive dining room table was set for two dozen people, adorned with heavy candlesticks. There was an entire table laden with the evening’s wines, including the aforementioned bottle of 1979 Burgundy. While dinner was being prepared, Rovani took us on a tour of the cellar, where dusty unlabeled bottles were stacked according to vintage — some dating back to as early as 1952. Like wine caves throughout France, these were caked in magical mold and carved from the bedrock (or chalk, in the case of the Nominé Renard caves in Champagne). And yes, the chicken and mashed potatoes were almost as good as the stories Rovani told — like the time he was waterboarded by East German police who incorrectly suspected him of espionage while he was a student in Berlin.
What surprised you?
Other than the office/castle dinner?
» The vineyards in Champagne and Burgundy are planted in relatively flat landscapes with some gentle rolling hills — not steep hillsides at high elevations.
» The Eiffel Tower sparkles at night! Every hour for about five minutes, the lights twinkle like fairy glitter. Who knew? I mean, besides practically everyone except me.
» There is such a thing as too much foie gras, truffles, butter, cheese, and pate. I’ve never craved a salad so much in my whole life as Day 10 of that trip. But there’s never too much Champagne.
» I loved Paris! Yep, that surprised me. I didn’t know if it would live up to the hype. It does.
» The grocery store had an entire section dedicated to butter. And French butter is magnifique.
» I’ve tasted many barrel samples of wine over the years — if you don’t finish the whole sample, generally you just dump it in the drain on the floor. But, when you’re tasting barrel samples of grand cru Burgundy that sells for upwards of $1,000 per bottle, they make you pour any leftover drops back into the barrel. My backwash has never been so valuable.
» Twenty-five French kings were crowned at the Reims Cathedral (Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims) in Champagne, and artist Marc Chagall created three stained-glass windows for the axial chapel that submerge the space in dreamy blues and greens.
Would you like to add anything?
Insider wine tip — Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris has excellent French wines at great prices. Insider dining tip — Ask for more bread so you can eat more butter. Then ask for more butter so you can eat more bread. Repeat cycle until you’ve consumed ALL the bread and ALL the butter in France. Insider foodie gift tip — Librairie Gourmande is cookbook heaven.