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Chapoutier's Bistro

Michel Chapoutier is the kind of guy a writer loves to see heading a major trade group, as Chapoutier, who produces well-known, well-respected wines in all major Rhone appellations, does with Inter Rhone.

Chapoutier, now in his early 50’s, could easily be a stuffy suit if he wanted, or he could relax and be a dilettante.  He is neither, but instead he is an energetic thinker even after 25 vintages, and a conversation with him can send a writer away thinking new thoughts and considering different possibilities.

Last week I interviewed Chapoutier briefly before a press conference wrapping up the 8th Edition of the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhone in Avignon.  I started by asking whether the valley needed additional sources of entry-level wines.  “A good question,” he said with a smile that lit up his round, ruddy face, which is framed by a short but bushy beard and tousled hair and sometimes punctuated by rimless eyeglasses. He looks much like the laboratory researcher in one of those 19th Century period French films.  “The Rhone’s new customers are people who are young, and people who are American,” he said, explaining that he believes Rhone winemakers can no longer rely on the reputations of just their legendary wines, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.

“You know in the 1970’s, French gastronomy was dying in the U.S.,” he said, delicious, yes, but expensive, time-draining and somewhat forbidding in its attention to detail and tradition.  “It was saved by the bistro, and people like Daniel Boulud.  A young man may not want to take a girl to a formal French restaurant, and perhaps can’t afford to, but he wants to take his girl to a bistro.”  He continued, “I believe the best way to evaluate a great chef is not to order his most-expensive menu, but his menu at 49€.  Making great food inexpensively is much more work for him.  The same is true with making wine.”

Chapoutier would like to see more vineyards in areas near Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph making such entry level wines as part of the Côtes-du-Rhone system that currently is almost exclusively a southern Rhone brand.  That said, he welcomes the experimentation that comes with the non-appellation wines such as the IGP’s, Vins de Pays and the new Vins de France being made in the Rhone Valley, even though they are not part of the Inter Rhone umbrella.

Later, at the press conference attended by wine writers from around the world but heavy with French journalists, he shook things up by expressing his hope that future Découvertes media sessions would be held in English.  He also stated flatly that more producers needed to learn better English to maximize both wine tourism and optimize their dealings in international marketing.  Bordeaux knows this already, but there were not a lot of nodding approvals in the audience.

“I want to get rid of snobbery in wine,” Chapoutier said, hands gesturing. “I want to make wine playful and fun!”  Recognizing that the French drink considerably less wine per capita than before, he offered up the possibility that Rhone wine might rise to be 60 per cent export, about double the current rate.

An admiring media relations person later laughed.  “We always suggest remarks for Michel, but I don’t think he used any of our major points!”

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