The Visiting Winemakers

Paul Simic is jostling with the car hire guys in the cheap black trench coats at JFK’s international arrivals building. They’re dangling signs with clients’ names and are lined two deep against fences separating them from arriving passengers. There’s no place to stand, no place for Hughes Legrand and Virginie Dupont to see him before they leave the building. He’s going to have to spot them, run around the black-coated throng, and tackle them as they go through the sliding door outside. Arriving at JFK is like being expelled from a sewer, and Simic doesn’t have a ready scheme for catching his two bits of effluent.

He was having misgivings on the airport-bound subway. For importers like him, winemaker visits always seem like a good idea: They can meet clients, do winemaker dinners, pour at trade tastings. It’s good exposure and good branding since Legrand and Dupont represent the kind of small, organic growers Simic wants to showcase. He’s worked hard to build a thoroughbred stable of French natural winemakers.

But in reality, he’s stuck minding the French bastards. If anything goes wrong, he’s on the hook. And things usually go wrong because they don’t speak much English and arrive with expectations that don’t mesh with selling wine: They want to get drunk; they want to get laid; or they want to go shopping and sightseeing. Whatever their agenda, they all want to sit down at 1 PM and eat a civilized lunch. There’s no choking down power bars on the 6 train between appointments.

He spots Legrand and Dupont in the sea of people pulling roller bags, with inflatable pillows still circling their necks. The winemakers look exhausted and older, now ensconced in a disheveled middle age. He holds his hands above him and yells and waves to attract their attention. They don’t notice him. They’re not even bothering to look around! He told them he’d pick them up! Why aren’t they looking for him? Now they’re heading straight toward the sliding doors. Shit. He starts jumping up and down and screaming their names. The hacks in the black trench coats turn around and look at him. Legrand and Dupont are now exiting through the sliding doors, and he’s got to move fast. He runs around the crowd, past the guard shepherding the passengers outside, out onto the sidewalk where people are queuing for taxis.

They’re waiting to the left of the sliding door. He bounds toward them, smiling, his arm extended. As he shakes their hands, he catches the ripe, powerful smell of people trapped in confined spaces for 48 hours.

“It was a long trip,” Legrand says, showing a jack-o’-lantern set of brown teeth.

It was a long trip. Simic agreed to buy their plane tickets provided Legrand and Dupont pay their hotel costs. So, he got online and bought the cheapest tickets possible, which inbound meant Paris-Helsinki, and then, after a six-hour layover, Helsinki-New York. At least, they’d be returning to Paris from New York via a tighter connection in Dallas.

Simic takes their roller bags in each hand and escorts them to the taxi line. Legrand and Dupont have traveled together before, but he senses they don’t have much in common. Dupont’s a Parisian corporate dropout who took her money and went native in the Languedoc. She’s known as the barefoot winemaker because she never wears shoes. She crushes grapes under the soles of her calloused, blackened feet. Meanwhile, Legrand, with his rotten teeth, potbelly, and wandering eye, is a hard-core peasant.

Their appearance gives him pause. Legrand’s been in the market before but Simic’s forgotten just how disreputable he looks. He’s wearing clogs and a loose-fitting pair of pants and a tunic of the same color. The cloth is some sort of coarse natural fiber that looks uncomfortable. Hemp? Jute? Sisal? Simic thinks he looks like a medieval village idiot or some sort of unsavory religious pilgrim. Virginie Dupont’s appearance is Cro-Magnon; she looks like she could be scratching aurochs on a cave wall. Her hair is matted and held together with yellow pencils, and the haphazard collection of earth-tone garments she wears aren’t hiding the abundant gray thatch under her arms.

So far so good. They’re in a cab heading to their cut-rate hotel on 11th Avenue. Simic’s factored in an hour for them to shower and change before he escorts them to Teófilo Crist’s place Élevage in the East Village. He’s secured a table and invited some clients to stop by to sip Legrand and Dupont wine and eat hors d’oeuvres. Élevage is the right place for the event. Crist makes yearly trips to European natural wine fairs and always spends a week in Paris checking out the newest wine bars. He’s so au courant he calls many of these natural winemakers by their nicknames. And he loves meeting new ones. He’ll swoon over their wines, promise to buy them, then pour them full glasses of his latest obsession. All his champagnes are steely Brut natures, all his still wines smell bacterial.

There’s a crowd milling in front of Élevage when their taxi arrives. At Élevage, it’s wall-to-wall people all the time. Simic still can’t believe the place. Surely all these people don’t share Teófilo Crist’s purist wine agenda. And surely, they don’t come for the service; Élevage bartenders often don’t return change on cash transactions. There’s little in the way of food either, the kitchen consisting of hot plates and toasters.

Still, Simic loves it here. Not only because Crist buys pretty much everything he brings, but also because he feels at home in its Francophilia, its collective consciousness about the wine world. It’s really more of a club than a proper restaurant. Here Simic can hang with the wine in-crowd, the intelligentsia, the snobs, the connoisseurs, and the sophisticates. And here no one disputes the pre-eminence of French. Show up anytime and an hour later you can leave having consumed anything from an Alsatian Edelzwicker to an aged Muscadet, often without paying. It goes on someone’s tab. Or it doesn’t. It’s so crowded and confused it’s not clear who’s paying for what, or how things get settled. Meantime Teófilo’s circulating with bottles, pouring glasses for friends, which is pretty much the entire house. So, Simic makes sure he’s circulating with his bottles because Teófilo Crist is publicity and market creation rolled into one tall, coffee-colored package from Barranquilla.

Inside, Simic scans the room. Several people look at him and nod (does he know them?) as he parts the crowd with voluble “excuse mes.” He glimpses Crist deep in the sea of people toward the rear. Virginie Dupont is behind him, pulling on his shirttail so she won’t lose him. It’s utter mayhem. Loud. People shouting at each other to be heard. Crist sees Simic and shrugs while smiling, a happy, helpless gesture. His armpits are sweat-stained. He’s holding two small-production grower champagnes in each hand above his head and sweat is trickling down his forehead from his wooly black hair.

“Come here you pauvre con!” Crist screams at Simic, pushing past clients to embrace him. He wraps Simic in a big bear hug that nearly lifts him off the floor. Simic’s pleased by the attention but unnerved by the amount of body moisture that’s being transferred to his clothes. Crist releases Simic, but still clasps his arms and warns “Papi get to your table before the crowds. I’ve had to fight them off all evening!” Crist directs them to their seats, where he bows to kiss Virginie Dupont’s hand, then bows again before Hughes Legrand. Simic marvels at how unaffected this all seems; Crist performs these sorts of greetings with unusual grace, from the bear hug to the courtly bow. He should have been head of protocol at the Elysée Palace, but his glib social skills are useful here, too. Everyone he meets feels important.

Simic’s provided a case of wine and paid $500 for the table for two hours. This means Crist supplies appetizers and runs around pouring Legrand and Dupont wine for free. Simic’s seated next to Legrand, whose French sounds like a cross between a mumble and a gargle, his words macerated and semi-digested. He’s telling Simic that he’s making a very small production wine called Cuvée X, which he pronounces Cuvee EEKS. His price puts it in a stratosphere that includes Ossetian caviar, black truffles, and rhino horn.

Simic’s eyes widen at his audacity, but all Legrand does is shrug and say, “You don’t have to buy it. I can sell it all out of my winery.” Of course, he’s going to buy it, but he’s also annoyed by how much money he’s going to have to tie up doing so.

Legrand comes from a different era, linked to a centuries-old rural peasantry. Simic was thrilled to sign him up those ten years ago. He’d found un vrai plouc! This was authenticity itself…a man who’d barely ventured from his ancestral village. A man who made simple, rustic, honest wine; a product of people with a connection to the soil, sown with the sweat and toil of generations. Simic experienced a frisson of pleasure each time he shook Legrand’s rough, calloused hands. But as they started to discuss the price of his wines, Simic grew unnerved by the ruthless, cunning intellect before him. Here was someone who intuitively knew his value in the market, who understood the image he presented. And he was prepared to shake the money tree of its last coin.

The city’s priestly caste of sommeliers had declared Legrand a genius last time he’d visited. These buyers took his yearly price increases in stride. The problem was that Legrand’s success had attracted the attention of Simic’s competition. Which is why their first visitor is Avery Marsh, another wine importer.

Simic’s indignant.

How the fuck did he know about this event? Social media probably, that playground for the under-occupied!

Marsh looks like he’s dressed for a fox hunt in a heathery brown tweed suit. He’s got broad shoulders, a square jaw, and form-fitting clothing. Plus, he’s got nice, even tan, white teeth, and chestnut hair that doesn’t frizz in humidity. Simic hates him. Fop! Rich-boy phony! He doesn’t know who’s funding Marsh’s wardrobe…he’s got the Paul Stuart kept-man look…but he figures it’s Mummy and Poppy. They’re probably the ones who ate at all the fancy restaurants, made friends with the owners, introducing their glib and well-educated son to them.

Simic looks down at his one pair of shoes, blue canvas topsiders with holes in them, a challenge on slushy streets. A man in his mid-40s, he often contemplates their differences.

I’m self-made, he’s not. I’m Brooklyn, he’s Manhattan. I’m cutting-edge, he’s more mainstream. I make less money, he makes more.

“Hello hello!” Avery Marsh booms, a wide smile on his handsome face. Simic stands and clasps his hand in both of his, a display of mock warmth he hopes looks convincing. “We just got started here. We’re hoping some customers will show up.

“I’m sure they will Paul, you’ve got some heavy-hitters tonight!”

“Avery, this is Hughes Legrand and Virginie Dupont.” The French shake his hand.

“Very pleased to meet the both of you. I’ve always admired your wines; Paul has such an excellent palate.”

“Avery is also a French wine importer. We sometimes do in-store tastings together.” Simic’s run out of things to say about Marsh and isn’t going to strain himself to say anything complimentary.

“Well, I’d love a glass of your wines if you don’t mind.”

Now the fucking guy’s seated with them at their table! This is really bad form. Is he waiting to see which clients show up so he can introduce himself? Or, even worse, is he trying to woo my winemakers?

Marsh sits himself next to Legrand and starts speaking French. Despite himself, Simic’s impressed by his fluency, but his accent grates, a tin-ear, parlay-voo honk he’s struggling to ignore over the din.

Crist brings out a salumi platter with soppressata and prosciutto interspersed with black olives, slices of Reggiano, and milky disks of fresh mozzarella. The French are ravenous and take fistfuls of cheese and cured meats, piling them up on napkins in front of them.

Someone’s tapping on Simic’s shoulder, and he turns around to see Arne Gomes. He suppresses an eye roll. Last week Arne sent back three cases of Dupont claiming the wine had “gone off.” Buyers like Gomes annoy Simic.

They want funky, natural wine, shit harvested by the lunar cycle and tended by oddballs like Virginie Dupont. They’re in love with the idea of this woman plowing in the blazing Languedoc sun. But then they chicken out and claim the wine has gone off. But they can’t have it both ways. You can’t order funky shit and then complain when it’s funky!

Simic gives Gomes an appraising look: Nose piercing, lots of tats, beard fashioned into a point. Gomes is one of those agreeable, enthusiastic young provincials who says “sweet” a lot but looks like Satan. He works at The Wycherley, a New American restaurant that puts “The” in front of an Anglo-Saxon name and overcharges for the innovation.

“Bet you didn’t think you’d see me here!” he’s smiling in a friendly, no-hard-feelings kind of way.

“Not after you sent back those cases of Dupont, no.”

Gomes looks down, mumbling, “Well, I’m here to meet Hughes Legrand. I missed him on his last visit.”

“Hughes is sitting over there,” Simic says, motioning to where the winemaker and Avery Marsh are talking.

Simic watches Avery Marsh embrace Gomes. It looks like genuine affection. Then he observes Marsh introducing Gomes to Hughes Legrand.

And, not for the first time, Simic feels like he’s dislodged a boulder. He’s spent his life chasing after these falling rocks, pursuing them with a single-mindedness that’s blinded him to much else. And so, he can’t foresee that Hughes Legrand will soon be standing in front of him, slurping a cherry Coke, and announce he’s quitting him for Avery Marsh.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels


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