On the Road with Charles Neal
by Paul Courtright
I toured France with Charles earlier this year and got some insight into his tastes and how he chooses his wines. It's useful to know that Charles started his business by importing Armagnac. While Gascony's excellent brandy might not have much direct bearing on our situation (we can't sell spirits at PMW), it does provide an entryway into the world of Charles's wines and a basic understanding of his tastes.
For a time, Charles and his wife lived above his brother-in-law's restaurant Chez Simone in Montréal du Gers (between Bordeaux and Toulouse). The restaurant has a sideboard displaying dozens of vintage Pots Gascogns (2.5 liter bottles of Armagnac). One night a few years ago, Charles sat up until 4:00 am tasting back through at least five decades until he'd tried every bottle. Now, Armagnac is powerful stuff - its cask strength is over 50% alcohol - and tasting brandies like that is not for the faint of heart. Charles is anything but faint, and it does seem that deciphering the intricacies of these distinctive spirits helped fortify Charles with a discerning palate. After he started importing Armagnac and Cognac, it seemed only obvious to import the table wines of the Gers and environs, whose growers and producers he saw every day.
Chez Simone is probably the best restaurant in Gascony, and Bernard (Charles's beaux-frère) has some strong bonds with lots of the local winemakers - and an excellent wine selection to prove it. I loved sitting at the bar of the restaurant, watching Charles and Bernard rib each other while Bernard forced glasses of wine upon us. Charles tells of learning French at this very bar by conversing with the village idiot (because he was the only person who'd talk to Charles).
For me, sitting down to a meal with local winemakers and Armagnac producers at Chez Simone offered a glimpse of Charles's entry into the world of wine - and a better understanding of what wine means to the people who make it. For all of our flowery descriptors and talk of how long a certain wine can age, the response from a winemaker who's asked about his wine is often as simple as "it's good." These are the people who spend every day with their wines, who remember every season of every vintage, and who have tasted these wines during every step of their evolution. To them their wine is not a poetic muse or a status symbol. It's not even a "way of life"; it just is life. I saw that in the farmers of Gascony, but also in Champagne, the Rhône, the Loire, Alsace - people for whom wine wasn't a great mystery, but just a simple fact.
Charles tells stories of drinking wine simply because it was the cheapest and most accessible buzz while he was writing his novel in Madrid, and that makes perfect sense to me. Most Americans didn't grow up with wine, and even as we develop an interest in the stuff, we often forget its utilitarian nature. During our trip, we ate at several fine restaurants with impressive cellars, and the wine was good, even great. But, sitting down to a meal with a winemaker and his family, having his wife serve up wild rabbit, or potatoes studded with truffles, or stewed bull was not an experience of luxury. It was a chance to spend some time with real people, eating and drinking part of their regular life. And while the meals we were offered may not have been daily fare, the presence of wine on the table was taken for granted. We weren't drinking wine because it was a special occasion; we were drinking wine because there was wine to be drunk.
That's what the wines Charles imports have in common. They're real. They're honest. They're often simple and inexpensive, but even his prestigious offerings share this earnestness. Though we at the shop might use fancy adjectives and talk about "balance" and "age-ability," some wines cut through all the BS and get to the heart of the matter - having a bottle of wine with dinner and friends and family makes life a little bit better. From simple Marcillac, to brooding Madiran, from Côtes de Gascogne to Grand Cru Chablis, Charles Neal's wines can do that, if you give them the chance.