PARIS — It was a Wednesday night following a long flight in from California. The taxi pulled up to the front door of the iconic Willi's Wine Bar and I jumped out, eager for an evening of decompression at one of my favorite haunts.
As I peered inside, I noticed something very strange. The bar was empty, save for the man behind the bar, Mark Williamson, aka Willi. At first I thought Willi's was closed, but that was unlikely at 9 p.m. on a weeknight. Then I heard a din coming from the dining room.
I ventured in and greeted Mark, no doubt with a perplexed expression on my face. In the 20 years or so I've been making Willi's a regular stop when I visit Paris, I have never encountered an empty bar. The attraction of Willi's, for me at least, has always been the vibe at the bar. Complete strangers from the all over the world are chatting away as they drink great wines by the glass and chow down on solid bistro cuisine.
Then it dawned on me: This was my first visit since the Paris terrorist attacks last November.
"Tourism is down," Williamson said. "We certainly feel it."
This time, I chose to dine in the dining room rather than the eerily silent bar. When I emerged from the dining room two hours later, the quiet scene had barely changed. One gent sat at the end of the bar nursing a glass of wine.
Williamson was philosophical about the change: "New York came back after 9/11," he said. "Paris will come back, too."
Besides Willi's in Paris, another memorable French wine establishment lies in the small village of Saint-Emilion, located in the Bordeaux viticulture region. The Jackson-Banke family, working with Pierre and Monique Seillan, run Chateau Lassegue, a small estate of modest stature amidst many of the most important chateaux in the region. Indeed, Chateau Pavie's impressive palatial new winery is just down the street. And the legendary Chateau Ausone is another neighbor, as is the highly regarded Chateau la Gaffeliere.
Chateau Lassegue is little known, but this is a condition that vigneron Pierre Seillan fervently believes will change someday. His heart is firmly planted in the 60 acres of sloping vineyards of cabernet franc, merlot and a tiny swath of cabernet sauvigon, which are located at the top of the Lassegue estate to get maximum exposure to the sun.
Seillan also makes wine in California, such as the acclaimed Verite for Jackson Family Wines, and in Tuscany, where he oversees production of Jackson Family's Villa Arceno. He fell in love with the vineyards of Lassegue and purchased the property in partnership with Jackson Family Wines in 2003. The vines at Lasseague range in age from 40- to 70-years old.
The chateau was in disrepair, however, and the reputation of its wines greatly diminished when he, his wife Monique and Jess and Barbara Jackson bought the property. Since the purchase, the cellar has been renovated, and the rows of gleaming new stainless steel fermentation tanks signal the beginning of a new era for Lassegue. The wines of Lassegue were once rated Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe, but lost that prestigious designation some time ago.
Pierre is optimistic that Lassegue will regain Grand Cru Classe status, but he must wait until he has 10 good vintages under his belt to submit for the classification review, which occurs but once every 10 years.
Lassegue has produced two wines from the estate. The first wine under the Chateau Lassegue label, the Chateau Lassegue cabernet franc, came from the vines higher on the property where the sun exposure is best and the well-drained soils impart a touch of minerality.
"Chateau Lassegue is the expression of the hillside," says Pierre. "In the wine, you can smell the calcaire (limestone) from the hillside."
Lassegue was the first wine I tasted during the Bordeaux primeurs, the annual introduction of the latest vintage (2015) to the Bordeaux wine trade. The 2015 vintage is very promising for Lassegue, showing plump juicy fruit with firm but silky tannins and moderate levels of alcohol.
It should be a wine that can be enjoyed young, but also has the structure and fruit to age. It is a wine for the U.S. market to watch, for in a world of prohibitively expensive Bordeaux wines, Lassegue is priced well below most of its more famous neighbors at $80 suggested retail price, and it is widely distributed because of its connection to the Jackson Family Wines distribution network.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.