“Wow, what a wine adventure we had today!  Our host in Seguret (a small Provencal village near Sablet, Arles, Avignon and St. Remy-de-Provence), Gene Ciccolo, rode with us in our Citrone mini-van and brought us to several out of the way hillside villages, centuries old, tucked away on the sides of mountains with endless views of valleys, vineyards, lavender fields and distant hills with formally rival villages.  The story is the same at each village:  rise from the valley on winding roads, just wide enough for a Citrone to pass the ever-present stream of Lance Armstrongesque bikers pumping feverishly up the steep inclines, park at the first available spot when the 20th century asphalt pavement gives way to the 11th century cobblestone and rock pathways, which by the way are just wide enough for an ancient Provencal resident and his cart to ascend, and then walk up and through the heart of the village on worn pathways (requiring the stamina of a billygoat) until our guide directs us to a hidden jewel of a coffee shop or restaurant with magnificent views of the surrounding valleys.   Disappointment would ensue if the views are not of at least 180 degrees and for at least 100 miles, fortunately we were never disappointed and the views are  always a full 360 degrees, with our small outdoor table pressed against a hand-laid stone wall, a small separation between comfort with views, and a freefall of 200 feet.  The little village was named Brantes, on the north side of Mont Ventoux in the heart of Provence.  After an espresso and photos in every direction, we loaded up into the Citrone and headed southeast to Sault, for MARKET DAY! 
 
Market Day is a phenomenon that the majority of fastfood-fed, red-blooded Americans cannot come close to comprehending.   The French do not venture into the traditional grocery store, and if by chance they do, the DO NOT venture into the “center isles”.  Gene explained the “center isles” and the French culture of shopping:  the center isles, even in a French grocery store, contain all the processed food, with the first 14 ingredients of every item being chemicals, while the perimeter contains the “fresh” meats, fish, cheese and dairy. He used the term “fresh” loosely.  They pale in comparison to the farm-fresh offerings of the daily Market.
 
Market day rotates from one Village to another throughout the week.  It is a carryover from centuries old feudal days when the Village Feudal Lord padded his coffers with the wealth realized through hosting the market within his own village limits.  Neighboring villages within just a few miles of each other would be bitter enemies over the scheduling of the weekly market, because of the money at stake.  To this day, the market rotates between Villages within close proximity of each other.  The Rennebaum/Walter plan was carefully laid out to visit the different cities and villages on their respective market day, thereby seeing the village centers in the peak of activity with streets closed to cars, lined with vendors of every sort, bustling with the cheese seller, meats, fish, olives, wines, seasonal fruits and vegetables fresh from the fields, everything needed for that day’s meal preparation. 
 
At 12 noon or shortly thereafter, the vendors begin their ritual of packing up and preparing to enjoy a 2 hour lunch, complete with a glass or two of chilled Rose wine, an appetizer or salad, main course, dessert, and of course an expresso.  The French are absolutely fanatical about their food, their wine, and of course their pace of life.  But that is another topic for what would surely be an extremely lengthy email!  Suffice it to say that we quickly learned to do as the French do, and planned on having a slow paced and relaxed lunch as the highlight of every  mid-day’s culinary adventure.  We consistently ordered the “Plate du Jour”, or “plate of the day” because, as Gene put it, “you’ll get to experience some of the finest French cooking, and you will never be disappointed”.  He was right.
 
After a day of Gene driving us through the Vaucuse mountain roads, expresso in the small Village of Brantes, market day in Sault, lunch and a nice chilled Rose wine in a sunny outdoor café, and a number of stops along the way to take photos at what seemed to be an endless opportunity to forever capture post card like views, we found ourselves being guided into a winery in Vacqueyras for an afternoon tasting and to purchase a bottle or two for the now ritualistic evening wine, cheese, fruit and baguette smorgasbord that lasts from 7 to 10 (it does not get dark until 10 pm, and the sunsets off Gene’s back porch have been magnifique!).  This particular winery, one of a countless number lining every roadway in Provence, had not only the reds, roses and champagnes, but also a dessert wine in the broad “Muscat” family of sweet wines to be served chilled at the end of a meal.  We of course had to end our tasting with a cold, “fruity but light with hints of pear-apricot-citrus and honey” sampling (we couldn’t agree on what we tasted so I listed them all.  Our disagreement and lack of consensus on every wine tasted was a recurring theme).  We enjoyed our tasting, and departed with two bottles of their finest reds in hand.  We chose not to lower ourselves to the level of purchasing a 2E bottle (2 euros at $1.30 a euro, or about $2.60 US) which by the way we couldn’t tell any difference from the most expensive offerings, but rather we chose to impress everyone in the shop and purchase a 7E selection.  We strutted out from the winery with our chests out and heads held high as the tourists and locals alike parted like the red sea, in total awe, as we passed by to make our departure.
 
Which FINALLY leads us to the start of our “WOW” wine experience and our rendezvous with Jean Louis.  Jean Louis is a second generation winemaker who owns 14 different fields of grape vines.  Some old, planted by his father in the 1920’s, called simply enough “old vines”.  Some Jean Louis planted that are 40 years old, some more recent.  The age of the vine, the location in which it is planted, and of course the weather for that particular year all control the quality of the finished product.  At the end of the day, about 5pm, Gene brought us down a labyrinth of dirt roads winding between field after field of vines to an old, tan-stuccoed,  non-descript farm building that looked like every other out-building scattered within the vinefields throughout the countryside.  It looked like something out of a movie when the tan cloud of our dust trail cleared from behind our Citrone and Jean Louis walked out from inside through an open barn door to reveal a shirtless, fit, graying man in his 60’s with piercing blue eyes and a hearty “BON JOUR!”      Gene had spun quite a tale during our day-long adventure about his relationship with Jean Louis, from heated discussions on politics and literature, to helping Jean Louis pick his grapes, create different wines, and fill, cork and label each bottle by hand. 
 
The pictures attached do not do justice to what we saw and learned in Jean Louis’ work shop.  As we entered the 25’ wide by 60’ long space, we saw all manner of tanks, barrels, bottles and boxes.  We had to walk around a pallet of just-boxed cases of Cuvee du Coup de Mistral 2007 Grenache Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, past the hand-corking machine, around a 2000 liter fiberglass tank, and met at was currently the “label applying table”, soon to be wine tasting table..
 
Jean Louis had gotten a pass from his beautiful Chilean wife, Pilar, to go to his workshop and label a few hundred bottles of recently bottled reds.  The labeling process, as we saw, was a highly technical, automated process that is represented in the first picture attached. He has a roll of sticky-back labels (shown in the lower right hand corner, and one in the hand with the empty wine tasting glass in the lower left hand corner), that he peels and sticks on each bottle.  The two sawhorses with the oak board serves as the work station, and the small piece of carpet pampers each bottle while the label is hand placed with love.   Look closely to the left of the three signature bottles:  there is an olive-green, powder coated, 50-year old, belt driven electric top wrapper that spins each bottle top with the lead based top wrapper after the label is applied, and viola, a finished bottle. Gene Ciccolo is also shown in the 6th picture, with the roll of gold labels on the front of the table, and a half filled box of wine, recently labeled and topped.  Behind Gene are three fiberglass tanks were the wine clarifies and ages, and in the very back of the shop are two pallets of empty bottles for future filling.
 
Jean Louis spent over two hours with us explaining every detail of wine making.  It all starts in October when Jean Louis and his group of misfits (Gene included) who he affectionately refers to as his “Dream Team” begin the harvesting process.  Although it was never said, I get the impression that no Euros trade hands from Jean Louis to his Dream Team, and the boys work for wine.  One of the stories that leads me to this conclusion involves Jean Louis instructing his team to arrive bright and early at 6am for the next days picking, because the grapes are better picked cold, and his bunch of malcontents staggered in after 10, hung over and bleary-eyed.  You get what you pay for!
 
After picking the wine, they are all dumped into a huge concrete container in the shop where they are left to ferment and stew for about 30 days.  This is the time when the sugar in the grape juice turns to alcohol and all the magic happens.  The clear liquid is transferred to one of the fiberglass tanks, and all the left over pulp and skins are “pressed” of all their rich, dark juices.  The additional liquids from the pressing are also placed in the fiberglass container with the original juice.  The dried pulp and skins are brought to the co-op for processing.  After a couple of months of settling and clarifying, the wine is pumped off and the sediments are removed and brought to the co-op for processing.  The wine is then put back into the fiberglass tank for additional clarifying. During the whole process, the goal is to prevent air from coming into contact with the wine:  “air and oxygen is the enemy of wine”.  The fiberglass tanks have floating gaskets internally to prevent air from coming into contact with the liquid.  The next step after fermentation and clarification is the aging of the wine in oak casks.
 
Many of the cheaper production wines that can be purchased today are not aged in oak.  They are young wines that are bottled after fermentation and clarification.  One of the wines that we tasted in Jean Louis’ shop was a 2009 that came right out of the fiberglass clarification tank.  The fourth picture above is Jean Louis taking a taste for us directly from the tank, right into the wine glass.  It really made us feel special to have the winemaker spend so much time with us, and see the glasses filled from the 2000 liter tank, right before our eyes.  In case you’re wondering, it was wonderful!
 
The oak barrels age the wine and give it very different flavors.  Jean Louis spent twenty minutes describing the differences in oak, where it is grown, the different types of oak trees, what part of the tree, it was fascinating.  There are actually regions of the world where the oak for a barrel will cost hundreds of dollars, while other less desirable oak woods cost just a fraction of the price.  A “virgin” barrel that is first used can impart a very strong taste, while the second time it is used (a one year old barrel) is much smoother and aged.  A wine that is aged for one year in a one year old barrel has a big distinct flavor, while a wine that is aged for three years in a two year old barrel may be much smaller, mostly because of the mellowing of the oak with each year that passes.  Jean Louis has to decide what barrels to buy, not only with regard to the oak, but also with regard to the age.  A barrel that is one year old is much more expensive than a two or three year old barrel.  The story of the oak barrels goes on and on, and I have forgotten more than I can remember.  Suffice it to say that understanding the nuances of the oak aging process is a skill passed down from generation to generation, for which Jean Louis was very passionate.  The second and third pictures above show his barrels, with JL pulling samples for our tasting.  Note in the back of the third picture the writing on the barrel with the date of the wine and when he wants to bottle (2006 and 2010).
 
The fifth picture is the old cast iron filling siphon.  The wine is fed into the cast iron trough from the tank or the barrel and the bottles are placed under each of the three fill siphons.  It is an ingenious little contraption that is over 100 years old.  It automatically fills the bottle and shuts off when full, the bottle is removed and a new one inserted, and the siphon automatically continues.  The eighth picture is Gene sitting on the corking machine.  A bottle is placed on the machine, a cork is placed in the top, and the huge slot-machine type arm is pulled to compress the cork and push it into the neck of the bottle in one smooth stroke.  It was soooo cool.  I begged JL to let me take an empty bottle and a cork and try it out.  I was like a kid in a candy store (ok, I was like a drunk kid in a candy store, because by this time we had tasted a 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009).  JL let us cork a bottle, and then he cranked up the old bottle topper and we spun on the foil wrapper top.  Viola!  Complete!
 
The sixth photo is the front door of Gene’s house, and the front door of Jean Louis’ house and store just past it.  Jean Louis has a small store on the first floor, just inside the door, and his house is in the back of the store, and on a floor above and below the store.  It doesn’t appear as though he JL would get much traffic on the cobblestone street, but tourists are walking past all day long, exploring the village and all the little shops and restaurants tucked away in every corner.  JL and his wife Pilar mind the store every day, selling small, hand painted figures (like you would see in a Christmas manger scene) and of course, his wine.  He does not ship his wine, but he does deliver hundreds of bottles to his loyal customers all across Europe.  He does not trust the shippers after a few bad experiences, so he loads up the cases in his car, grabs Gene from next door, and they head out to wreak havoc and create memories across the country.
 
The last picture is of Gene and his 23 year old son, Alex, with our travel mates Lindsey and Collene Walter, sitting on the back deck of our rental house (Gene’s home), overlooking the valley of vineyards and mountains.  The sun does not go down until past 9, and it is light until past 10.  Every night was wine, cheese, sausages, melon, olives, fresh bread and grapes to wind down the day and tell stories of adventures to come the following morning.   Gene’s house fronted on a cobblestone path, Circa 12th Century, and backed onto incredible views from the side of the mountain on which it was perched.  We found Gene on VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) and would recommend him highly!  He traveled with us a couple days, cooked for us one night and shared the meal with Jean Louis and Pilar, and generally was responsible for turning a normal “touristy” trip to Provence into a memorable experience of a lifetime!” 

The End

Copyright 2010 by Rob Rennebaum