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» Russian Knights Strike France

Text and photos by Charles W. Borden

The Russian Knights of the Vine were fresh off our Russian-French Champagne Shootout, that appeared in the October issue of Passport, in which a Crimean rose brut bested five top French Champagnes in a completely blind tasting. The news had even made the British papers.

Now, two members of the Moscow chapter of Chevaliers du Cep (Knights of the Vine) were off to Montpellier for the annual get-together. I was the newcomer, but John Ortega is Commandeur Supreme of the Russian group and member since induction 25 years ago in Napa Valley.

Several months ago, John had received notices from the Grand Maitre, Alain Causse, of Montpellier that we were invited to the annual meeting, this year with a Russian theme. All of the participants in Passport’s monthly wine tasting panels are considered members of the Russian chapter of Knights of the Vine, which now, after about twenty five wine tasting events, must number about 150 people. But it’s one thing to get away for an evening in Moscow, and another to get away for a four-day trip to southern France.

Thursday Evening, October 4

The first night upon arrival in Paris, we had our first (of many) Michelin-starred dinners on trip. John’s favorite restaurant in Paris, Jacques Cagna (**) is located in the small but grand, second floor of a seventeenth century mansion on the left bank, decorated with old Flemish paintings, and held together by old, exposed, massive oak beams. Annie Logereau-Cagna, Jacques’ wife, greeted us, and somewhat later Jacque came to the table to make sure we were pleased. He is a long-time Paris master of fresh and wonderful ingredients, classically trained but not restrained by classic notions. Jacque’s son, Stephan, led the wait team to serve us some of John’s favorites.

Ordre Universel des Chevaliers du Cep
Founded 1951, the Universal Order of the Knights of the Vine bring together persons to unite Wine and Civilization, Wine and Culture, Wine and Friendship, Wine and Conviviality, those who see wine not only as a drink but as the expression of a thousand years of the genius of humankind, a true product that is a reflection a natural process of nature, developed with a deep awareness of cycles of land and nature. The group’s aim is to unite people who are passionately fond of wine in order to share their experience, their skills and their information, to organize happy events to receive of members from other national or international organisations that have the same objectives.

Friday Morning, October 5

Cotes du Rhone
So here John and I were, early morning in the Gare du Lyon station waiting for the TGV (high speed train) that would take us to Montpellier, about 850 kilometers away, in just three hours and twenty minutes. We got off to a bad start. At the station early, after paying for tickets online, we still had to pick them up at a counter. That accomplished, John went up to Le Train Bleu, a restaurant overlooking the station platform, to see if it was open for breakfast. Not open, we sat at a cafe below and I went up to take photos. “Where’s my bag?” I heard from a loud and familiar voice below. I rushed down to find John looking around for his black brief case, which had been brim full with his Mac PowerBook and a brand new Nikon SLR digital camera set, bought for Passport and this trip. Also missing was his visa invitation and Michelin France guide. At this point I recalled being distracted while waiting for John by a well-dressed, trim Frenchman, who brushed past me and turned to ask “Is this Gare du Nord?” with a confused look on his face. He had apparently drawn me away from the bags, enough for a partner to make off with John’s bag.

It was a long walk to the police station, positioned well down the platform, with a dozen or so offi cers hanging about. I did not have much time to make a report, so was told to do so in Montpellier. I had a clear memory of the face and was ready to look at mug books. You would think the police would know these professional thieves who prey on travelers in a rush to catch a train. I asked about video surveillance, and to my surprise in this post-911 world, I was told there is none. My phone rangs. “Let’s go,” John said.

Friday Afternoon, October 5

Henri Bernabe, a wine industry friend and occasional Moscow visitor, greeted us at the Montpellier station. Henri’s company, Richter, is a leading producer of grape vine clones that are sold worldwide for vineyard planting. Henri travels regularly to Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Central Europe. He lives in Montpellier, and graciously served as our host during the visit there. Henri was raised in Algeria, but his family was forced out during the 1962 troubles, to resettle in southern France. In the 1980s, he spent a number of years in Austin, Texas, working with the growing local wine industry.

After wasting some time on the police report, Henri settled us into his mother’s “bed and breakfast” – a group of luxurious vacation apartments overlooking a splendid valley, tended by his incredibly active mother from her adjacent sprawling, open home. She built the home on the site of an old chateau, and this was where we had our breakfast of fresh cheese, breads, jams, and home prepared fruit for the next two days.

We were in the Languedoc wine region; though not a premium region, many wineries have made big improvements in quality in recent years. Henri took us to one of his favorite wineries, Chateau Puech-Haut, a typically beautiful, small producer. Our next stop was Henri’s home, a large country house that his father had restored, to meet his Texas-born wife and sons. Then we were off to our second Michelin.

Le Jardin des Sens (**) is the creation of now world famous twin brothers Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, sons of a wine producer. In Montpellier, they turned an end-of-the-19th century house into a Mediterranean garden in 1988. This is the top restaurant in this region. The dinner, emphasizing local fresh seafood, with a touch of lamb, was sensational. However, we lost our way after the main course as we picked through a seemingly endless series of post dinner and dessert courses beginning with a big selection of fresh cheeses.

Saturday Morning, October 6

Henri picked us up to drive out to the Montpellier exhibition center, a huge complex already teeming with people, present for other events and outings. The Chevaliers du Cep meeting took place in just one of many buildings in the complex. Small groups of Chevaliers wandered in from various areas of France, each wearing the bright colored dress and caps of their local chapter. There we met a St. Petersburg businessman, Fedor Kozlov, also a wine lover and interested in promoting the organization back home. He had arranged for a number of Russiarelated events, including a lively performance by a St. Petersburg dance ensemble called Barynya. Greetings and introductions completed, induction ceremonies were held, with John and I awarded certificates.

Saturday Evening, October 6

In the early evening, Alain Causse, Grand Maitre, took us, Henri, and his wife to a lovely seafood restaurant by the shore, Le Saint Clair. This was an open restaurant, with large glass windows overlooking a palm lined park on a long, narrow Mediterranean spit, lagoon on one side, sea on the other. We were served endless portions of lobster, prawns, mussels, oysters, snails. No Michelins this time, but the food was magnificent.

Paul Bocuse
Our Table at Paul Bocuse

Chevalier Du Cep member from St Petersburg Fedor Kozlov with John Ortega
Seafood at Le Saint Clair
With Alain Causse, head of Chevalier Du Cep
Gathering of the Knights of the Vine

Sunday Morning, October 7

We planned to take the TGV to Lyon where Henri had made us dinner reservations at the legendary three-star Paul Bocuse. From there, I had booked a rental car for a one-way drive through Beaujolais and Burgundy to Paris. At the last minute I decided to pick the car up in Montpellier, a fortunate decision because we were upgraded to a Mercedes.

Sunday Evening, October 7

Paul Bocuse (***) is one of those restaurants where you practically have to provide your bank requisites to get a reservation. Now in his 80s, Paul Bocuse is one of France’s greatest chefs. His signature restaurant is located in a spectacular, if not gaudily decorated, building on the outskirts of Lyon, along the Saone river.

The appointment at Bocuse was at 8:30 and we couldn’t be late. We just managed to find a reasonable room at a nearby Ibis, and arrived just in time. Awed by the building exterior and entrance, we walked through the huge brass doors. And there he was, the man himself, in white starched uniform and tall hat. Paul Bocuse was shaking our hand, welcoming us to his establishment.

We were shown to our table and greeted by the attending staff, so many I lost track of who was who. The menu had three prix fixe menus, starting at prices ranging from 125 euros for the Bourgeois to the Classique at 175 euros, a bargain by Moscow standards. I spotted one of the Champagnes from Passport’s recent wine tasting, a Billecart-Salmon Brut NV Rose, priced at 125 euros. This wine cost more than 200 euros in a Moscow shop, which means at least triple that price on a Moscow restaurant wine list. The dinner and service at Bocuse were well beyond expectations.

Cotes du Rhone
The Paul Bocuse Pipe Organ at the Abbeye

Monday, October 8

The next day we went back to Paul Bocuse to take some photos, and who should show up just as we arrived but Paul, driving himself in a black Mercedes SUV. We were invited in. Though now closed, the entire crew was back already, now casually dressed, preparing for the evening. Paul invited us to sit, and anticipating coffee, we were served a morning glass of white wine.

We got a tour of the entire establishment and were then invited a few hundred meters down-river to L’Abbaye de Collonges, a large banquet establishment in an old abbey that features a huge, wide and tall pipe organ along one entire wall. The head waiter from the night before greeted us – a banquet was being prepared for 140. He fi red up the pipe organ, with its centerpiece statue of Paul leading the music.

Then it was a quick drive to Paris, too quick because we drove straight through the Burgundy region. We did stop in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy where the annual wine auctions take place. We sat for lunch at Le Benaton (*), a small, restaurant on a charming downtown street.

The final leg was dinner at a Paris fixture off the Champs-Elysees since 1842, Pavillon Ledoyen (***). Located in a small park, this grand mansion is filled with classic decoration. John’s business guests were already at the table on the second fl oor. I am sure the food was magnificent, and the building was spectacular, but after four days of eating and drinking our way through France, even John said he was tiring of it. Nevertheless, we added three more stars, for a total of eleven.

Tuesday, October 9

The next day I was off the United States while John figured out how he was going to get another visa invitation and replace his Mac. Still no word from the French gendarmes.

Jacques Cagna **
Prix fixe 100 ?
14, rue des Grands Augustins (6th Arrondissement)
Paris
+33 1 43 26 49 39
www.jacquescagna.com
Le Jardin des Sens **
Prix fixe 110 ?
11 avenue Saint-Lazare
Montpellier
+33 4 99 58 38 38
www.jardin-des-sens.com
Le Saint Clair
Prix fixe menu - 29?, 39? or 55 ?
2 Bis Plan du Port
Balaruc les bains
+33 4 67 48 48 91
Paul Bocuse ***
Prix fixe menu - 125?, 165? or 55 ?
40 Quai de la Plage, Collonges au Mont d’Or
+33 4 72 42 9090
www.bocuse.fr
Le Benaton *
Prix fixe menu - 23?, 45? or 58 ?
25 Faubourg Bretonniere
Beaune
+33 3 80 22 00 26
Pavillon Ledoyen ***
Carre Champs-Elysees, 1 Avenue Dutuit
+33 1 53 05 10 01
www.ledoyen.com



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