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Wine opinion, stories can teach in intriguing manner

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
A Sport and a Pastime' by James Salter
'M.F.K. Fisher: Musings on Wine and Other Libations'
wine bottle for column 030613

C ountless books about wine and food continually flood the market. Most cover well-trodden turf with regional atlases, producer profiles, travel tips and advice on food and wine pairings.

While gaining new information never wastes time, firing the imagination for truly enjoying food and wine requires more. Such inspiration only strikes when the author has a refreshing, authentic voice.

Two books — James Salter's fictional “A Sport and a Pastime” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $13) and the essay collection “M.F.K. Fisher: Musings on Wine and Other Libations” (Sterling Epicure, $18.95) — hit the mark. Neither represents a conventional wine book, but both evoke indelible, compelling experiences — especially of Burgundy's rich wine and food traditions.

Salter's story introduces a writer spending an extended off season in Autun, an ancient Roman road town in the heart of rural Burgundy. Sequestered in provincial solitude, the novel's protagonist describes —and perhaps invents — his friendship with a young American expatriate, Phillip Dean. He chronicles Dean's blossoming passionate relationship with Anne-Marie, a young French woman.

The vivid tale unfolds, in part, over many a languorous meal in bistros, brasseries and restaurants. Salter captures the essence of a quiet French bistro off-season meal in prose.

He writes: “Long unhurried hours of evening, the car parked outside where light from the entrance falls on it, people pausing to look, the winter coming on. Plates being silently removed, the taste of food lingering. The immortal procession of a French meal. We've finished the wine.”

Later, Dean and Anne-Marie travel to Troyes, another provincial town:

“They have dinner in the Brasserie Lorraine. An old dachshund, his paws turned white, sits by the bar. Sometimes he wanders among the tables or goes to the door and barks to go out. A waiter opens it for him. When he comes in again, he lies down with moans. Hesitations. At the end, a sigh. One can hear him breathing.

“In every respect a wonderful dinner. She is talkative and happy. The food seems spread around her like vegetables to a roast. She is simply the living portion of the meal, and she smiles at his appetite which embraces her with glances. Outside the night is hung with the thinnest of rains. They sit in silence, waiting for the check. Finally it arrives, the last obstacle removed.”

Modern American health inspectors would object to a dog in a restaurant, but the nuanced passage artfully captures the timeless romantic spirit and emotions of young love intertwined with the simple, yet compelling, act of sharing food and wine.

As a young writer, M.F.K. Fisher's Burgundy dining experiences led to the charming story, “Long Ago in France.” Her first taste of classic Burgundy cuisine and wine occurred at Racouchot's Les Trois Faisans — The Three Pheasants — a bygone Dijon restaurant.

Knowing little about French cuisine, she and her husband commit themselves for guidance from the waiter, Charles, “a small bright-eyed man with his thinning hair waxed into a rococo curlicue on his forehead.” Instead of overwhelming the couple with the voluminous wine list, Charles recommends simple carafes of wines that complemented the large meal perfectly.

She writes: “Everything that was brought to the table was so new, so wonderfully cooked. … I don't know now what we ate, but it was the sort of rich winy spiced cuisine that is typical of Burgundy with many dark sauces and gamey meats … we ate slowly and happily, watched over by little Charles, and the wine kept things from being gross and heavy inside us. When we finally went home, to unlock the little door for the first time … to our own rooms, we wove a bit perhaps. But we felt as if we had seen the far shores of another world.”

Experiencing such feelings over food and wine creates vivid memories of well-lived moments. Asking for more misses the point.

When reading these beautiful works, enjoy the 2009 Marie-Pierre Germain Bourgogne Rouge, France (Luxury 36284; $22.99), a delicious red Burgundy perfect with stews such as Coq au Vin and Bœuf Bourguignon .

Using a blend of handpicked, de-classified grapes from Chambolle-Musigny, Nuits-Saint-Georges and Pommard, the wine's pure red and black fruits balance elegantly with subtle earthiness, lovely acidity and refined tannins. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total media. He can be reached at ddesimone@tribweb.com.

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