Photo by Martin Gray, Flickr CC
In French films, if the screenplay calls for a jerk in a sports car, you can be assured that the license plate will have the number 33 on it, indicating the car is from the Bordeaux area. There is heavy pressure to fit in and toe the line, and those from different social milieux mingle rarely.
I can remember being on a trip with some fellow winemakers and châteaux owners to the beautiful oak forests of Jupille, near the city of Blois, with the great wine barrel cooper Jean-Louis Bossuet. We walked through damp forests of 200-year-old oak trees planted closely together, soaring almost branchless to canopies as high as 100 feet.
What makes the Bordealais so uptight, so proper, so bothersome? I know what some of you are saying: "They're French, what do you expect?"
The owner of Canon La Gafflière -- the Count Niepperg, wearing an immaculate riding coat draped over his shoulders, a cashmere v-neck sweater, and an ascot with beautiful Wellington boots -- pulled out a small leather case made to hold three cigars and lit one up. I tried to strike up a conversation about cigars, as I have always enjoyed their aroma when others smoke them. I have never smoked cigars myself -- as an unfortunate five-year-old, I stole one of my grandfather's, puffing it on his boat dock in Castine, Maine. The green tint of my face would have been visible in the moonlight as I tasted one of my grandmother's freshly caught lobster from that night's dinner return whence it came from my mouth to the sea.
The count's response to my cigar small talk cigar was, "I only have three, so I don't think I can give you one." It was as if he was saying, "You are not worthy to be in this forest with me, so bugger off, cretin."
Even worse is when people from the outside who find themselves working in the area try to play the Bordeaux game. They buy new suits and get the right ascots. They get the proper amount of subtle old-school bling, such as an older English sports car or horses for their country estate. They even go as far as to add a "de" to their name to make it sound aristocratic. (This would never work for me: my ancestors, known for their prowess as sheep thieves, passed on the noble name of Pott, which with "de" sounds like someone from New Jersey in desperate need of a toilet.)
What makes the Bordealais so uptight, so proper, so bothersome? Why must they look great, be related to Richard the Lionheart, and have a fantastic house at the beach with a yacht? I know what some of you are saying: "They're French, what do you expect?" Having lived in Burgundy, I can assure you that the Burgundians are not like this. Even in the wonderful subregion of Bordeaux, Entre Deux Mers, people are very down-to-earth.
In the first year I was in Bordeaux, my employers at Château Troplong Mondot were embarrassed to see that my jeans and underwear were not ironed, and procured for me a maid. She had worked previously for another count who was a château owner in the area. One of her duties in the morning was to talc the master of the house's undies and hold them out with her head turned to the side as he gingerly stepped into them.
I think all of this may go back to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in 1152. Their union brought the region of Bordeaux under English rule until the French seized it back in 1453 at the Battle of Castillion.
My English wife will never forgive me for saying so, but the French got too much of a dose of the old English. I'm not talking about the Cool Britannia of today but the England of Evelyn Waugh books: fox hunting, bowler hats, and "dear boy" and "old chap." The Bordealais were Anglified, and they will spend the rest of time trying to live it down.