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A Bordeaux Whine

What could go wrong with a riding tour of France's greatest vineyards? Not much—just endless rain, hot-sheet hotels and a horse with a death wish.

I've ridden horses since I was nine; I've even owned a few. And I started drinking wine about 10 years later; some of my favorites, then and now, have been the wines of Bordeaux. So when a friend told me about a tour company that offered weeklong rides through the vineyards of Bordeaux, it certainly sounded like a dream come true.

I pictured myself astride a great Arab stallion, trotting through the vineyards of legendary châteaus—Lafite-Rothschild, Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone—stopping perhaps for a tasting or two. I'd see Bordeaux not as a tourist, but the way that its vignerons did: from the ground up. I signed on for the trip that took place in October, a beautiful though meteorologically dicey month in Bordeaux (i.e., it rains a lot).

It was raining when I arrived in St-Emilion Sunday morning—20 minutes and $100 in cabfare from the airport. (Why couldn't the horses have met us at the gate?) Although St-Emilion, a stunning walled town dating back to the eighth century, is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most beautiful wine towns, it's less commonly credited as being ground zero for great macaroon shopping. A walk down its streets revealed St-Emilion's wine buyers to be nearly outnumbered by its cookie connoisseurs.

My fellow riders didn't show up until much later in the day, long after all the cookie and wine shops were closed. Three men and four women (all American save one) were attired in sensible, and surprisingly fashionable, rain gear. As we looked one another over, I found myself wishing I'd worn something with more panache than a blue plastic poncho. They had all remembered what I had not: In France, one's appearance always matters, even on horseback in the rain and the mud.

More importantly, though, I'd forgotten to brush up on my French. Five years in the back of French class in high school and college were too long ago to have prepared me for Claude, our ride director. A dead-ringer for the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterly's Lover, the short, mustachioed Claude spoke only French and didn't seem to care for those who did not. Actually only a few of the Americans spoke French at all, although one did carry his French dictionary everywhere, hoping to be asked for a translation. He was, however, no competition for the one American who spoke French quite fluently. Married to a Frenchman, she considered herself an honorary native and as such decided she should serve as our translator. As I watched her cozy herself up to Claude, I wondered if she'd read Lady Chatterly too.

As it turned out, my problems with Claude had less to do with the limitations of language and a lot more to do with his ignorance of wine (not that it stopped him from trying to order it at every meal). Our first (and only) stop at a château in St-Emilion was made strictly so that Claude could buy some cheap bottles. Instructed to wait outside while Claude negotiated his purchase, I took a look at the sign of a neighboring vineyard: Château Ausone. Although a premier grand cru, one of the world's most sought-after wines, lay 50 yards away, Claude had gone shopping at Château Next Door.

So it was hardly surprising that Claude treated the vineyards more like a series of obstacle courses than sources of great scenery. The mud flew (yes, it kept raining) as we galloped along, much as, I imagined, the French Army must have long ago when they were fighting the British for control of Bordeaux. We passed rapidly through St-Emilion, and subsequently Pomerol, pausing only when Claude got lost (something that happened surprisingly often). We rode up to six hours a day, stopping only for lunch, which was served from the back of Claude's horse trailer.

Lunch and dinner revealed Claude's feelings about food to be pretty much on a par with his appreciation of wine (an outlook that extended to his taste in hotels, but I'll get to that later). Lunch generally consisted of cold pasta salad and hunks of cold bread, washed down with cheap red and white wines, often as not $5 bottlings from nearby Bergerac. (While I knew that Bordeaux turns out a lot of ordinary wine in addition to its sought-after crus, I had no idea that so much bad pasta salad could be found there as well.) Needless to say, these weren't the meals that had been mentioned in the tour brochure. Dinners tended to be conducted in curiously deserted restaurants; Claude seemed to favor the places the locals did not. Was this, I wondered, because the villagers were so averse to Americans? Or were they just wise to the quality of the food?

Claude, on the other hand, seemed determined that we should mingle with the locals when it came to his choice in hotels. Locals, that is, who were a little down on their luck: Our rooms averaged about $24 a night. In St-Emilion, my tiny hotel room featured carpet so wet it squelched underfoot—not to mention a fist-size hole in the bathroom ceiling. The hotel in Libourne faced a busy rail station and was favored by chain-smoking roadworkers (who quite helpfully advised us about local road conditions at breakfast). The Libourne hotel's proprietor seemed happier hosting roadworkers than riders; she called me very early the next morning to scream that my shower was causing water to cascade down on her desk. When I tried to explain, in inexpert French, that I'd been sleeping, not showering, she only shouted louder. Our next hotel, in downtown Bourg, was at least quieter, although it appeared to cater to an even more transient clientele. I'm sure we were the only guests who didn't check in and out on the same day. (I slept in my coat in that room.)

Bourg was also the place where three of us finally confronted Claude. I'd become rather friendly with two other riders, Jim and Renée. Jim was a well-to-do bachelor in his forties who'd flown first class from his farm in Ohio only to end up in Claude-chosen flophouses. Renée was a paralegal from Florida on an extended tour through France. Renée spent most nights trying to call home with a faulty France Télécom phone card (and even got trapped in a phone booth trying to do so). Jim, meanwhile, kept wondering when he'd get the chance to buy some wine. This, he said, was one of the main reasons he'd taken the trip. Both Jim and Renée had been on riding tours before, and they insisted our experience with Claude was far from the norm. But when we tried explaining to Claude that we were tired of pasta salad, empty restaurants and cheap wine, he affected incomprehension at our attempt to speak French. (The Frenchman's Wife made herself mysteriously scarce at this time.) We even tried calling the American tour operator, but he insisted that the three of us just didn't "understand France."

But where, you might ask, in all of this, were the horses? Well, in that regard, at least, I got my wish. I did ride an Arabian, although not a stallion. My first horse was a homely bay mare whose only bad habit was biting. (She was also one of the horses that Claude warned us would "fall over backwards" if we pulled the reins too tightly.) The second day Claude decided I should ride the Arabian, a beautiful but apparently suicidal gray horse, whose death wish manifested itself whenever we galloped. He would take off, running as fast as he could, aiming himself at any hazard—tree, ditch or highway—that he could find.

By the fourth day of this, I had begun to despair. We were now riding through the warm, sunny (yes, finally) vineyards of Bourg (where the landscape is lovely but the wines mediocre) en route to Blaye (ditto). Claude signaled for a gallop.

The Arab had apparently decided this was the day he'd die. He gathered himself up and was off—aiming at the highway, which Claude was conveniently heading us toward. As the Arab took flight I could hear, far behind, Claude screaming something at me in French. I shouted in reply, finding myself fluent for the first time (although they weren't phrases fit for polite conversation).

I took my survival that day as a sign that I should say goodbye to Claude and the Arab. When I announced my intention, Claude merely shrugged. My friend Jim, on the other hand, begged me to stay, saying, "If you go, we'll have to drink the wines that Claude chooses." Touched as I was by this tribute, my mind was made up. I left Bourg early the next morning on another $100 cab ride, just as my fellow riders were taking a ferry across the Gironde, the river that separates Bordeaux's Right Bank from its Left.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself wondering if I had done the right thing. Maybe the trip took a turn for the better once the group reached the Médoc. Maybe Jim managed to find a few wines that cost more than $5. Maybe Renée finally spoke to her mother. Maybe the sun stayed out for good. I had to know how it had all turned out. So I called Jim.

It continued to rain, Jim reported, and at one point, they'd even had to pull Claude's trailer out of the mud. They drank lots more cheap wine and stayed in falling-down châteaus and a seedy motel. Jim had succeeded in buying a few bottles, although it was wine made by the man who ran the motel. And they did get to visit Mouton-Rothschild, although all they got was a glimpse of the art gallery and a slide show. On the day that everyone was scheduled to leave, Air France went on strike, canceling all flights from Bordeaux indefinitely.

What is the lesson to be learned, the moral of my story? Well, aside from the value of friendships forged in adversity, I guess it's that sometimes it's safer to leave dreams unfulfilled. At least when it comes to horses and wine.

Published March 2001
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