Of Mice, Men and Wine: France’s annual Foires aux Vins

by Tom Fiorina on October 6, 2015

of mice and men_webThe Foires aux Vins that fill French supermarkets with wine deals during the September/October grape harvesting season are underway. Since the first Foires aux Vins began several decades ago in just a few French supermarkets, these annual wine sales have attained a “rite-of-Autumn” status. Several supermarkets have now begun even holding a second “Foire” in the spring, as more than 25% of annual wine sales occur during the four-week events.

I’ve already written in this blog here and here about invitation-only Foire aux Vins parties, and the websites and special issues published each year by France’s top wine magazines advising readers on which supermarkets have the most interesting wine sales.

Normally, I have worked at a Foire aux Vins in the Gers region, just west of where we live in Toulouse. This rural area, which is one of France’s most sparsely populated regions, is also the home of many well-educated and, in comparison to much of the local population, well-off foreign retirees. But this year the Carrefour Market supermarket chain decided to put me in a store in the eastern part of Toulouse. Besides meaning that I’d have to traverse the city, I was also unhappy with the fact that I’d be in a working-class neighborhood that is well over 90% French. I can understand the reluctance of the average Frenchman or woman to accept wine-buying advice from an American. It would be like a French person explaining the finer points of baseball to me.

My contract had me working the Thursday-evening, pre-Foire event, that weekend, and the two following weekends. By and large, it was a success. Each week I would uncork five to ten wines for the customers to taste. These wines, which were selected by the store manager, were mostly Bordeaux red wines in the €5-8 range. Such Bordeaux wines, for the most part, are of average quality. I believe, and I told a good number of the people doing the tastings, that they would be better off spending that sum of money on a good Languedoc-Roussillon red, or any number of similarly-priced Loire Valley wines on offer. My advice was largely ignored; most of them have been drinking Bordeaux wine for years and an American (even one with a French oenologue degree) wasn’t going to change that. But some, particularly younger people, were open to trying some of the Languedoc-Roussillon or southwestern France wines at the Foire. Many winemakers whom I meet in those two wine regions tell me that they have better luck selling their wine outside of France because of this historic preference, among French wine drinkers, for Bordeaux or Burgundy reds. The negative attitude to wines from southern France is going to remain for at least another generation of wine drinkers.

The thing that I most enjoy about these Foires is discussing wine with the shoppers. Apart from those with an unbending preference for low-cost Bordeaux reds, many are quite knowledgeable, and I learn a lot from the wines that they choose. Wine lovers enjoy sharing their passion, and I see several people each year who come back to thank me for wine that I recommended to them in the past.

And then there are people who just stay in your mind for one reason or another. Like the serious young man who told me that his wine-knowledgeable father had invited him for dinner that evening. We spent quite some time discussing options about what he should bring. Given his limited budget of €10, I steered him away from economy Bordeaux towards an outstanding red wine from the Terrasses du Larzac region of the Languedoc-Roussillon, the Tour de Capion’s Cuvee Le Juge. As he left with his bottle, I told him to enjoy his evening and that I envied the fact that he was going to share a nice meal and a good bottle of wine with his father. He asked me why, and I explained that I only got to see my father, who lives in the U.S., every other year. He shook my hand sincerely, and told me that he would offer a toast to my father and I that night.

Then there were the two (brothers?) shoppers who looked like they had stepped out of one of my favorite books: “Of Mice and Men,” the novel by John Steinbeck about two migrant workers searching for work in California during the Great Depression. Unlike Steinbeck’s George, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie, a man of much greater stature and strength than intellect, my “Lennie” and “George” were reversed; the considerably larger of the two was obviously the brains of this duo. He spent at least one hour going around the Foire, picking up and putting down each of the bottles. His smaller sidekick was relegated to pushing the shopping cart, following patiently behind his large friend. I asked if they wanted to taste any of the wines that were open on the table for just that purpose, but they wordlessly shook their heads “No.”

The next week, at around the same time, they made another tour around the Foire. They were dressed in the same floor-length coats (this, in spite of the unusually warm Autumn weather), wool hats pulled down tightly around their heads, and several layers of sweaters. Judging from the heavy smell of perspiration, I don’t think that their wardrobes must change much, regardless of the season. I offered again to do a wine-tasting with them. This time they silently nodded “Yes.” I took a quick glance in their shopping cart, which contained several loaves of bread and one of the cannonball-shaped, plastic containers that I know contains the cheapest-possible jug wine.

I poured each a small quantity of the first wine to taste. There was no sipping or spitting. Each downed the wine in one gulp, and, as I began to explain its nose and taste, in my best oenologic way, they both thrust out their glasses for the next wine. We continued that way through the five wines being tasted that day, and, as I sent them on their way, I hoped that the shopping cart would be the only thing that they were driving. Not that the supermarket would have had to be concerned about any liability issue; given the small quantities involved in the tasting, even the smaller of the two would have passed any alcohol test without any problem.

The following week, I was speaking to someone in the area of the store cordoned off for the Foire when I received—whack, a strong smack in the back. I turned to see who it was, and there were my two, new-found friends. It was the larger of the two who had tapped me affectionately. I sneaked a look at their shopping cart, and there was the bread and wine, but this time the wine was in a bottle. I recognized it as being an inexpensive wine from a World Cup Rugby display in the front of the store. Maybe the week’s previous tasting had had an effect on their wine-selection habits. Inexpensive Bordeaux wine drinkers might be immune to my efforts to expand their wine horizons, but I had obviously reduced, at least temporarily, jug wine sales here.

And my very favorite Foire aux Vins customer this year had to be the elderly gentleman with a cane who wandered by during one of the weekends I was working. He was smartly dressed, ramrod straight, and he had a cloth sac slung over his shoulder to do his weekly shopping. We tasted a few wines together, and he asked me to guess his age. I guessed that he was in his mid-to-late-80s. I was astonished when he told me that he was 99 years old.

“Amazing,” I thought to myself, as he mentioned that he drank a half-glass of wine each day with his lunch; what a wonderful demonstration of the health benefits of wine. He left me, saying that he had a bottle of 32-year-old white wine that he had received as a retirement gift that he planned on drinking next year for his 100th birthday. Pessimist that I sometimes am, I thought to myself that I hope the cork was still good. Optimist that he obviously is, he told me that he would return to next year’s Foire aux Vins to tell me how that wine was.

I hope that I’m there to find out.

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Sue October 7, 2015 at 10:40

Hi Tom,

I thoroughly enjoyed your article and posted it on my Facebook page. It’s a well written piece and just the kind of tranche de vie, slice of life, I enjoy.


Tom Fiorina October 8, 2015 at 09:55

Thanks, Sue, your comment made up for the “unsubscribe” message that I also received yesterday morning. Some are evidently looking for more than a “slice of life”; they want, I believe, the entire pie. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article.

Heath November 12, 2015 at 03:52

Hard to fathom that ‘unsubscribe’ message Tom. An excellent article , and I’m so glad to find your blog. I have to tell you I chuckled at your dismay regarding those unwilling to stray away from inexpensive Bordeaux…here in north Houston Texas(Woodlands , Spring) I’d do a break dance if people would buy inexpensive Bordeaux. Here most people rarely stray away from inexpensive cabernets or red blends that personally I find much less interesting than anything from Bordeaux. So I guess it could be worse!

Sante ,

Heath Richardson

Tom Fiorina November 13, 2015 at 16:40

A friend of mine named Benôit is doing a PhD in the microbiology of wine in Texas. He was the top student in our oenology program here in Toulouse, so I guess that Texas wine has good potential. I’ll hope to see some at a future Foire aux Vins here. Thanks for your comment, Heath.

Pierre January 27, 2016 at 22:25

Salut !
don’t ask me how I found your blog, I can’t remember. I am French, from the Toulouse area but moved away, north… My parents have no idea about wine so they buy… cheap Bordeaux.
The thing with buying cheap Bordeaux is typical from middle-aged people from the South-West with no real idea about wine. It’s not true in the whole France. In other parts of the country people would buy something else.

(but wine lovers dont buy much at the Foires aux Vin 😉

Nice story here, nice blog !
Enjoy your time in France !

Tom Fiorina January 28, 2016 at 12:30

Salut, Pierre. Whew, “Pierre Sauvage” is a great name. You wouldn’t need to change it if you chose an acting career.
I’m glad that you found my blog. I agree with everything that you said about middle-aged French from this part of France. Your comment about Foire aux Vins is also well-taken.

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