It’s a little piece of good fortune to have Carvins as my neighborhood wine shop. I step out after every visit with not only an excellent bottle of wine, but also an anecdote or bit of knowledge that enriches the whole experience of choosing and drinking it. And if you have a penchant for metaphor, wine merchant Philippe Caron’s observations on all things grape contain sound counsel for life in the larger sense: question conventional wisdom, don’t underestimate the power of the aging process, be curious, take risks. In the full flush of harvest season in wine-loving France, I spoke with Philippe in the back room of his Paris shop on the rue des Pyrénées.
The Attentive Body: You’re an artisan-wine merchant. Why “artisan”?
Philippe Caron: To differentiate myself from the big chains, whose logic is completely different from mine. They usually negotiate their prices with winegrowers, dealers, or cooperative wineries. I choose my own wines, I taste them, I test them, I know them all, I visit the vineyard, I see how it’s made. What interests me above all is the quality; if the quality is there, I’ll try to find the best price for what I’ve set as a standard.
Another thing is that these buyers, given the number of shops they have to supply, can only deal with a certain type of wine producer — one who’s able to supply them with a minimum of 30, 40, 50 thousand bottles. Because of this, they exclude a lot of the small winegrowers that interest me – I assume that the best products are found in this category. These small winegrowers cultivate closer, more human relationships. It’s not just about numbers, quantities, and prices.
TAB: Was this always your profession?
PC: [laughs] No, I worked for 10 years in the Paris stock exchange and 16 years in real estate, and I said to myself, “I’m old, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I might as well do something I like.” Wine has always been a passion, so I said, “That’s what I’ll do.” And voilà.
TAB: And when you’re “old and ugly,” how do you learn the trade?
PC: There are schools. I spent a long time looking for a comprehensive training program. Most of the time they emphasize tasting techniques: I recognize a wine, and it smells like violets, it smells like this, it smells like that. But wine is complex. You start with its history, because it’s interesting to know how we got where we are. The first traces of wine date back to 6000 BC in Georgia, so people have been drinking wine for 8,000 years.
Then you study the vine – it’s a creeper, not a tree – to understand how it’s planted, how it’s handled, its characteristics, how much water and sun it needs. Then there’s the whole winemaking process. It’s good to know, for example, how rosé wine is made, because a novice might say that rosé is a mixture of white wine and red wine, when it’s certainly not! Learning all this helps you avoid saying a bunch of stupid things.
So I found a training program in the south – the Montpellier Wine School [l’École du Vin de Montpellier] – run by a brilliant guy, an agricultural engineer and oenologist with a lot of experience. He’s been passionate about wine for 25 years and he’s still at it.
TAB: Did you come across anything particularly surprising during your studies?
PC: What struck me was the number of assumptions people have about wine; the misconceptions are surprising. Champagne, for example. Some people will obstinately insist that putting a spoon in an open bottle of champagne will keep the bubbles in the bottle longer. The Inter-Professional Committee of Champagne Wines was tired of hearing this urban legend (and not only urban, in fact), so they did a lab test: one bottle without a spoon, one bottle with. The results were clear and indisputable: there is no difference with or without a spoon.
Another thing: red wine with cheese. It’s part of French culture: the Camembert, the bottle of red, and the beret. Often you’ll even see winemakers say on their bottles that their red wine, which is tannic, goes well with cheese. But 85% of sommeliers – who exist, after all, to promote the art of harmonizing food and wine – say that white wine goes best with cheese. A sentiment I share, incidentally, having tested it myself.
TAB: Well, I’m surprised. So where do these fallacies come from?
PC: History. We’re used to Papa eating his Camembert with red wine because his father did the same and his grandfather did the same; if you see that when you’re young, you perpetuate it. Whereas initially, it was simply a question of economics. Before the development of the railway in France, people drank much more regional wine. There were many “local” vines, even in Paris. It was common. So people drank the cheap wine that was made here, which wasn’t very good, but there were so many transportation problems that it was easier, economically. And what worked best was red wine.
TAB: Some of these “neighborhood vines” still exist. Is the wine drinkable?
PC: No. (laughs) With global warming, in 10 or 15 years, maybe. But we’re in a region that, for right now, isn’t suitable for it. It’s quaint, it’s amusing, but that’s it.
TAB: As you know, in my profession I work with the body. What role does the body play in your work?
PC: Wine is a wonderful product that can quickly turn dangerous. So, since I do a lot of driving to go do my tastings, the first thing I have to pay attention to is to not overdo it. Some days I might taste between 50 and 80 different wines. Of course I don’t drink a drop, I spit it all out; but in spite of that, you ingest some anyway, because an exchange takes place inside your mouth and you absorb a small quantity of alcohol. Multiplied by 80 glasses, at the end of the day you feel a bit worn out! So that’s the first thing: you have to know how to limit yourself, how to pay attention. It’s important to manage your body in this way.
TAB: And your senses? Which one is the most essential?
PC: The most important is our strongest sense: seeing. Wine is looked at. Also, the label and the shape of the bottle have a determining influence on the client. Some people choose a bottle because they like the label; others refuse a terrific wine because the label is ugly. So seeing is important. There’s something sensual about a bottle that’s a little round, a little corpulent, a little fleshy – or the opposite, the attraction of very thin bottles, especially some bottles from Alsace, which are very elegant. All of that happens through seeing.
TAB: One of the first things I do when I meet a client is look at their feet. I do a foot analysis, to see what’s happening in the body as a whole. I can touch and move the foot, but the first contact is by looking. And it’s true, you can see a lot of things: color, lines, grooves, and everything they imply…
PC: Exactly. In wine terms, there’s also the color. You have very dark, thick wines, others that are very light and transparent, or white wines that are deep yellow or very light yellow, and it’s very important. When you know your subject, you can see if a red wine is an old wine or a younger one, if the grapes that were used were teinturiers or not. [Editor’s note: teinturier grapes are red-fleshed and red-skinned, as opposed to grapes with red skins but white flesh. Most red wine gets its red color from white juice soaking with red skins during fermentation.] This gives us a lot of information about what we’ll be drinking.
After that, of course, you have taste and smell – which are closely linked, because your tongue only analyzes salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. But when wine warms up in your mouth, you will sense, through retro-olfaction, aromas you might not have smelled directly through your nose, because the nose tires quickly. After five or six inhalations of wine vapors, your olfactory captors are kaput.
Touch can allow you to sense whether or not your wine is the right temperature…. As for hearing, some people say they can listen to champagne bubbles. But I think they’re joking.
TAB: Not long ago you were telling me about about old vines…
PC: When a bottle bears the mention vieilles vignes [old vines], it may not mean much to the average consumer. Winegrowers mention it because it always indicates a better-quality wine. If it has heat and water, a grapevine will grow and grow, because all living things, animals and plants alike, have that one goal: to reproduce and perpetuate the species. So a young, healthy vine may produce 50 bunches of grapes. But its energy will be divided — it will have to send its sap to those 50 bunches, which, in the end, will not be quality clusters. The hand of the winemaker will calm the ardor of the young vine and cut 90 or 95 out of 100 bunches, so that the young vine will concentrate everything on the few that remain. They’ve discovered that cutting back stimulates vine growth.
Now the old vine – the vine that’s 90, 100, 110 years old – may make only two bunches. But it will put everything it’s got into those two bunches. All its energy, which is not apparent, will be concentrated there. So naturally there will be a great concentration of quality.
TAB: For people like me who like wine, but aren’t experts: is there something particular we should pay attention to when choosing wine?
PC: Be curious. That’s all. If you’re leaning towards a wine you’ve never tried before, there’s necessarily a risk. Take the risk. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it – it’s not a big deal. At least you’ll have tasted it, and you’ll know. To review a book, it’s best to have read it. It’s the same with wine. Be daring. Like white wine with cheese. Try. Dare. Roquefort with sauternes might seem completely absurd, but give it a try.
TAB: Anything you’d like to add?
PC: Indulge yourself. Remember that the best wine in the world is the one that you like. You don’t have to care about it being a fabulous bottle or appellation, or very expensive – none of that matters. What’s important is to find the wine that’s right for you; the rest is fancy talk. Paying 600 or 1000 Euros for a bottle of wine is absolute nonsense. Even if the wine is good, it’s not worth spending 1200 Euros on a bottle. You can enjoy yourself a hundred times over for 10 Euros. What’s important is to try: try to understand why you like a wine; try wine from different regions and countries. Be curious.
Carvins, 379 rue des Pyrénées, 75020 Paris.
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