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Jacques Melac's Grape Harvest

photo, picnickers, melac wine resto

Despite cool weather, hundreds took part in
Jacques Melac's grape harvest.

All Welcome At Street Picnic

Paris, September 1999:– It is the season of the 'vendanges' – of the grape harvest in France. This is of vital interest to everybody. Everybody, that is, except confirmed milk and cola drinkers and members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

So half the population is interested in the new grape; is it is a good grape, and if there is a lot of it? If it is good and plentiful, it is something to look forward to – and it is possible to have optimism about the price of it.

The thing is, for ordinary drinkers of wine, most of them remember it making them feel good. A good chicken may make one feel good, but never quite as good as the wine that went with it. Food and wine go together and people remember both and look forward to having it at least as good again.

The 1999–model wine is rumored to be not only very good, but there is supposed to be a lot ofphoto, band from martinique it. Since it is mid–month and everybody has lived through the past two week's of angst caused by the 'rentrée – the return to school – now is the time to pick the bounty; and in anticipation, have a party at the same time.

The hot band from Martinique gets ready to play warm music.

Before transport became efficient, Paris' entire supply of ordinary wine was produced near the city. Industrialization and the rails pushed out most of the vineyards. But now, various fans of wine are tending their plots around Paris.

In past years, I have reported about the 'fête des vendanges' on Montmartre, where there is a sizeable vineyard. Montmartre's 'fête' is well–known there and outside of France, and results in a considerable weekend party.

Less well–known is wine–restaurant operator Jacques Melac's annual fête de vendange. The grapes are grown on the sunny side of his restaurant in the 11th arrondissement. Every year when they are harvested, there is a block–party to go with it.

To check it out this year, I went there ten days ago to get details. However, between the wall–to–wall lunchtime crowd and the zisching cause by my teeth 'under construction' it was impossible to gather any facts – other than I could not get a glass of orange juice there. Nor water; the only water at Jacques Melac's is dishwater or soup.

About the time when I was first in Paris, some clever English fellows saw a need for English–style wine bars. These flourished for a time and some are still running, but they are completely different from Parisian wine bars.

Usually an English wine bar is characterized by having a fair amount of space. Their bars are roomy and when seatedphoto, melac's grapes, vines at a table, you do not have your neighbor's elbow in your plate of olives. The waiters can tell you all about a wine's pedigree and even help you make a choice. It is all very genteel – but, I will say, without watercress sandwiches.

I better clear something up first. All Parisian restaurants, cafés and bars have wine for sale. The vast majority have only no–name ordinary wines, while only the better sort of restaurants have quality wines.

Real grapes, on the vines on the front of the wine–restaurant.

In comparison, Parisian wine bar–restaurants are usually tiny and the emphasis is on wine – and the food, while good and copious, is usually not fancy. If you want to be full and happy you can get this way in a Parisian wine–restaurant without landing on poverty's doorstep.

These three sources of satisfaction have had me wondering for a long time why all Parisian restaurants are not this way.

My guess it has something to do with the wine–restaurant owners finding their own wine supplies and being honest and simple with the food – rather than dreaming of starting a chain or getting into franchising.

Nor do they attempt to use the table for a second sitting during the crucial lunch period. The customers come in expecting to take their time, all jammed in together – and if a second bottle doesn't get ordered, than a 'digestif' – a cognac will. Or both, plus a cigar.

Mr. Young Manager may have no time for this. I think this is why all the other restaurants are the way they are. It is only a minority of people who are not in a big hurry. The others think, I believe, they can make it up on weekends and holidays – but this must be harder to do now that August isn't everybody's holiday month anymore.

Jacques Melac's place is sort of a club and his customers are members of it. By the 'digestif' time of lunch, they may be throwing spoons at the waiters, who adroitly dodge them. At Maxim's you wouldn't even think of doing this.

When I was a good wine–restaurant customer, I wouldn't have thought of doing it either. More likely was skipping the 'digestif' and the cigar, and ordering a third bottle instead.

One evening, in a very tiny place, the owner 'fined' me a bottle because I hadn't contributed to the general conversation. By 'fine,' I mean I was hustled into buying a bottle for all at the bar. Lurking wasn't allowed.

It not only wrecked my slender finances, it ruined my plan of going home to eat dinner. After the bottle was finished, the next fellow bought one too. After it was finished, the owner put another two bottles on the bar, 'on the house' – possibly because I was babbling by then.

When I finally got close to the door to leave, the 'patron' gave me a fresh bottle to tide me over on my tedious voyage to the suburbs. Wine bars can be a bit unpredictable.

Like today for example. The 'vendanges' were supposed to start at 13:00, but when I arrive I seephoto, dumping the grapes empty plates and ends of bread at some places on the trestle tables set up in the street – meaning that the fête got under way – when? – right after breakfast?

Grapes go into vat as wine goes into people.

I am surprised the street hasn't been closed too. There are cars edging their way through it while kids run between them. The grapes are appearing from – nowhere – at a stand across from the restaurant; from which they are hauled back across the street in open crates and dumped into tubs on the back of a flat–deck truck.

A Korean TV–news crew is up on the deck and their big video camera is nearly in the vat as the grapes go in. I guess its zoom is broken. A father holds up his three–year old son to a fence, so the vacant lot behind it can be used as a toilet. The band from Martinique, up on another flat–deck, apologizes for not bringing their sun with them, just before they pump up the rhythm and the volume.

Most of the diners seem to have finished eating, yet others are still lining up inside the restaurant, getting their plates of pâte, hard sausage, mountain ham and slab of country bread. Every third person has a still or video camera and flashes go off all the time.

An oasis is the ordinary bar across from the wine–restaurant. There is another old bar – one that sells firewood and heating oil – 20 metres up the street, with nobody in it. A restaurant further along in the same block is empty too. Various cars keep wandering through.

The vines overhanging the wine–restaurant's front do actuallyphoto, big table of picnickers have grapes on them. A ladder is standing by – for their turn? Crates of grapes are still being carried across the street and dumped into vats on the truck.

Pickickers line both sides of the street, and around corner.

Somebody announces over the band's sound system that we should not forget to stay around for the giant tombola – four hours off. The sun is peeping in and out, but most people are wearing coats suitable for fall.

It is a fine thing, this wine harvest at Jacques Melac's. The prime minister said during the week he can't do anything about the world's financial markets and nobody sitting at these trestle tables, sipping, eating and talking all at once, seems to give a damn.

Well it is France and this is Paris, and this is the way it really is. Even if I can't get an orange juice here, I don't care.

A block away, in the market part of the Rue de Charonne, it is a closed–up–tight Saturday afternoon. It will open up for the afternoon shift later on, but it is pretty sleepy all the way down, nearly to Bastille.

This feature first appeared in Metropole in September of 1999.

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