A few weeks ago, while batting around blog post ideas for a travel website to which I contribute, I told my editor I planned on writing a piece or two about Cognac. “It’s strange, isn’t it,” I remarked, “that people go to Scotland for the whisky trail, but few travelers seem to think of going to Cognac to visit Cognac houses.”
“Oh, well, people expect — and with good reason, I might add — that they won’t be especially welcome in most of the Cognac houses,” he replied. “You know, they expect to encounter quite a bit of snobbery. It’s the same reason people don’t go chateau-hopping in Bordeaux.”
I have visited much of France, and I have yet to encounter the proverbial French Snob. It’s not because I speak beautiful French — the average 18-month-old Parisian speaks better than I do. But maybe in Cognac, home of France’s most exclusive liquor, it would be different.
It came as no surprise to me that it was not. On our very first visit of a Cognac house, I was charmed by Paul Giraud, (right) whose family has been making Cognac for 200 years. Wearing an understated navy sportcoat, he showed us his atmospheric aging facility, where clumpy black mold caked the cobweb-draped rafters above sweet-smelling oak barrels. Concluding his remarks, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m just a farmer who makes Cognac.” Of course, it’s an entirely different experience visiting, say, the grand quarters of Courvoisier in Jarnac, but the friendliness and passion for the product were constants throughout the trip, wherever we went.
I met a number of French sommeliers during the trip as well, and none proved to be a wine snob. Quite the reverse, in fact. As we headed back to Bordeaux after the conference, I had a long chat with noted sommelier Dominique Laporte. He had no patience for people who claimed to know all there is to know about wine. “How can you ever really know wine?” he asked. He later argued that there were actually very few “bad” wines out there. I said something disparaging about Yellow Tail, to which he quickly responded, “That wine though, was made to appeal to people who drink soda. You know, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s sweet, it’s simple, it’s cheap. There’s nothing wrong with that.” It turned out I was more of a wine snob than Monsieur Laporte!
The sommelier at the Michelin-starred Pressoir d’Argent in Bordeaux had a great sense of humor, and a great philosophy about wine. “Anyone can put the famous Bordeaux names on a wine list, but I like to find the smaller, lesser-known chateaux which are producing something really interesting. I love being able to say, ‘Yes, you’ve never heard of this, but it’s great, and I think you’ll love it.'”
I also spoke with a young, down-to-earth sommelier from La Tour d’Argent, that bastion of classical French cuisine on the Seine in Paris. He shared this rather startling tidbit: “Yes, the French are supposed to know about wine, but you know, I think most French people don’t realize white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay, for example. It’s a myth.”
Monsieur Laporte agreed, noting that as much as Americans may feel intimidated by the French knowledge of food and wine, the French feel pressured to appear as if they know about food and wine. I found the anecdote he related quite illuminating:
If I have a table in a restaurant, and it’s one Frenchman and four Americans, even if I give the wine list to an American, it ends up in the hands of the Frenchman. I’ll see him turning the pages and turning the pages, so I’ll come over and ask, in French, if he would like a recommendation. Because they’re ordering some scallops or whatever, I’ll suggest such-and-such wine, because it’s fruity and a little acidic and it will go great with the food. Then the Frenchman will turn to the table and say, in English, ‘You know, we should have such-and-such wine, because it’s fruity and a little acidic and it will go great with the food.’
Now the secret is out. Just as many people are scared of feeling intimidated by an overly sophisticated Frenchman, the French can be just as scared of not fulfilling the “sophisticated” stereotype. So if, on the off chance, you do encounter someone acting snobby, have compassion, and say, “I understand there’s a lot of cultural pressure on you to appear sophisticated, so it makes sense you’re acting like a know-it-all, because you’re scared your ignorance will be discovered.”
Or just tell them to go to hell.