This book is an idiosyncratic journal about how a Malaysian eking out an existential life cannot resist a calling to a one-year wine marketing course at the Bordeaux International Wine Institute or BIWI. “And so this book is about wine, about travel, about France and its culture, its language and its people. Above all, it is about me. A self confessed wino (or ‘lush’, as my friends call me),” the author confesses.
It is light-hearted and irreverent read about how YeenLi is captivated by the romance of French wines and sets out on an adventure to the heartland. You will learn about the travails of a Malaysian attempting to fit into the quirks of French lifestyles and her entanglements with their infamous bureaucracy. Some nuggets from her book:
“None of these grabs our attention for the moment. For we are intently looking for the taxi queue, or a sign for the taxi queue, or any sign which we can understand. Nada. Zilch. Groups of youngsters are standing around us, but for the moment we are tongue-tied, our heads filled with questions such as ‘Will they understand English?’, ‘French people are notorious for being rude to tourists, especially those who don’t speak any French’, and ‘I read about this American lady asking a man for directions in Paris, and the man replies- Do I look like a map to you?’
“In Singapore, when you sign up for broadband and/or cable TV, you are given a decoder on the spot, which you can go home, plug in and immediately start using. In France, when you sign up for a similar service, you need to wait for the all-important Orange Customer Service to send you your decoder. The guy at the Orange Boutique asks me for my address. ‘Left or right apartment?’ he asks. ‘Left or right from which point of view?’ I am confused. ‘Facing the street or facing from the street? We establish that it is the former, and he puts this information down – ‘Premier étage, gauche. Customer Service will, I am informed, process this information and activate my service in a few working days. However, delivery of my hardware, i.e. the decoder, is only scheduled for three weeks later!”
Interposed with the travel narrative are contrastingly sober sections of a guide to the wine industry and a display of MBA knowledge on the array of fine wines from the various French provincialities.
“By this time, it is 2pm and I am famished, not having had anything to except for a pain au chocolat at the airport. I head out to explore the surrounding neighbourhood, known as Chartrons, historically the area where the British and Irish second sons, sent abroad to establish trading businesses, set up shop as négociants. These are wine merchants whose role is to establish and maintain efficient distribution of wines, leaving the producers (i.e. the wineries or châteaux as they are known in Bordeaux) to focus on making wines. In the old days, even winemaking was not high on the priorities of the châteaux. They merely maintained and harvested the vines. The fermenting grapes, called ‘grape must’, were then transported to the négociants, who take over the other stages of production and distribution. In other words, the châteaux were mere farmers and it was the négociants who controlled and shaped the Bordeaux wine industry.”
Which brings us to the most important part – the inebriation. It’s a bit mixed with a more serious tone reflecting the quest for knowledge.
“The wine bar carries a decent assortment of non-Rhône wines by the glass, such as Chorey-Les-Beaune, Fleurie, Madiran, even sweet Monbazillac and Pineau des Charentes. I stay loyal to the region though, having myself an Ardèche Viognier followed by my last Saint Joseph red for the weekend (I promise!). I simply love the black pepperiness of the northern Rhône Syrah, savoury yet managing to avoid the cloying unctuousness of some New World Syrahs. Relatively high-alcohol though they may be, they are nevertheless balanced by sufficient acidity, which is a concept still new to me and one which, joyfully, requires lots of tastings for fuller comprehension.”
And interposed with the playfulness and forgetfulness of a wine expert that over-focused on their subject matter.
“I can’t get hold of Wang Xu, so I randomly select a bar and enter. All that eating and drinking in the afternoon has made me ravenous, and I ask for some wine and a plate of prosciutto melon. An old man plonks himself at my table and starts up a conversation. Wang Xu, when she eventually tracks me down, is surprised to see me in serious dialogue with a total stranger, and in French! ‘Don’t you know…’ I tell her with a hiccup, ‘…that your French improves tremendously after a few drinks? Here, you try!’ And I pour her some wine. Further checks of my phone reveal some photos that bring back repressed memories of the night. Of the young Moroccan-looking waiter grinning to the camera from behind the bar. Of the chef doing his cooking thing in the kitchen. Based on the angle, I would say I took this picture from behind the bar. What was I doing there?! The chef doesn’t seem to mind my intrusion into his territory and continues to churn out stews and salads, by the looks of things in the ensuing shots. More embarrassing and inexplicable pictures. Of the young waiter dancing. Of said young waiter stripping!
The book is a fascinating journey to find the meaning of life in French wines and there may be no better way to celebrate it. Enough said. As the French and the author is fond of saying…c’est parti and read the book!