I met Pierre on my second afternoon in France. We were both in a home electronics store waiting with a handful of other people to be helped, and as he was the one standing next to me, I said “hello.” Rather, I attempted to say “bonjour.” (I have since learned that Parisians are not interested in making small talk with strangers.) Pierre was a good sport, and by the time that we had both made a purchase, we carried our conversation into a nearby café, and shared a couple glasses of vin blanc. In those twenty minutes, Pierre caught on that I needed work if I was going to thrive among Parisian culture (I was still wearing flip-flops after all), and he took it upon himself to be my personal guide.
For the first month, Pierre and I met every few days. We spent half of our time navigating through little streets—he walked confidently forward as I did my best to keep up with him without breaking an ankle on the uneven cobblestones—as he offered up the full history of this or that monument, and the remainder of our rendezvous was given to food and drink; wine especially.
As Pierre began educating me about wines and training my palate, one of my French roommates quickly joined the cause. They had the same enthusiasm for wine as most of us in Seattle do for coffee, being able to detect the subtle differences in each variety.
I was taught to use most of my senses: a good wine’s robe (color) should be clear, and swirling it around your glass accentuates the bouquet (smell), allowing you to detect faults, like sulfur, which can be used as a disinfectant, and an excess causes a wine’s aroma to smell like burnt matches. I started leaving wine in my mouth for a longer duration so that I could measure all of the flavors, checking for acidity or hints of fruitiness, and noticing the taste’s evolution from the moment it touched my lips (the attack) to three seconds later, after it had made contact with all of my taste buds.
White wines are best young, while reds are better aged, and rosés should always be from Provence, and so on. And most advantageous to me, I learned how to pair wines to meals so that they best complimented each other, and to scrutinize a bottle, checking for things like a good dent in the bottom of the glass container, or making sure that it was bottled in the same area that the grapes were harvested, so that I could be confident in my selection before the first pour.
Fast-forward a few years, and I, along with most good Frenchmen, make wine my first choice every time. A survey from the United Nations’ World Health Organization shows that the bulk of American’s preferred drink, however, is still beer, which is closely followed by spirits and cocktails.
It’s not a surprise, then, that one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from American tourists that I bump into on the street is where they can find a good place for happy hour. I watch their eager smiles turn to bewilderment as I tell them that happy hour doesn’t really exist in France, and then I do my best to explain the aperitif.
The aperitif, like happy hour, is a sort of snack that takes place late in the afternoon. Sure, you can find beer, but the French are just as likely to sip on a Coca-Cola (with a slice of lemon), a shot of decaf espresso, carbonated water mixed with mint syrup or grenadine (how’s that for a cocktail?), or my favorite, kir (white wine with about a tablespoon of fruity syrup, often peach or cassis). There are no dirty martinis, no cosmopolitans, no shooters. Street cafés swap out dark barks, and instead of nachos or chicken wings, the accompaniment is usually a handful of olives or nuts. The idea is to stimulate your appetite before dinner, which is eaten late and often includes a glass or two of vino.
Even though American’s favorite tipples are beer and spirits, wine has been quietly, but steadily joining the ranks.
Eastern Washington’s dry and high latitude is an ideal terrain for vineyards, and unlike other states that are known primarily for one type, like Oregon’s Pinot noir or California’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington soil has given birth to many distinguished varieties, from Cabernets and Merlots to rosés and sparking wines.
A few of our own venues in the heart of Capitol Hill, like Bar Ferd’nand at 1531 Melrose Avenue, and Pico Wine Room on 1408 East Pine, offer some of the world’s best, as well as wine from local wineries. Next time you go out for happy hour, give it a try—swap your usual mug of beer or cocktail for a refined glass of wine made in the Pacific Northwest.