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Can Wine Save Our Fading Love Affair With France?

The France of our romantic reveries is dead—but a new France, embodied by young winemakers battling against the establishment, may help us let go of our nostalgia for good. Jon Bonné on wine as a beacon for the revival of France's culinary soul.

It was on my third night at the same restaurant in the Jura town of Arbois that I started begging for mercy. I was a few months into an extended circuit of wine-producing France, and while the wines I was tasting were thrilling and beautiful, I was getting worn out by the food, feeling downright fat and haggard, dejected after too many plates of chicken hidden in bland sauce, too many microwaved ravioli and tough steaks with food-service frites.

While I’d imagined my frequent trips as a chance to rediscover the charms of la France profonde—deep France—I was running up against dull, existentialist French cooking. Perhaps I wasn’t embracing an appropriately French frame of mind. Or perhaps my body, fresh off a vegetable-friendly Californian regime, could not stand up to being assaulted by the other three food groups. That night in Arbois, I craved something—anything—green. And I got it: four limp asparagus spears, drowned in béchamel and Comté cheese.

Perhaps, I thought, I should make a T-shirt: Quelqu’un peut me trouver une foutue salade? Can anyone find me a fucking salad?

This was all the more puzzling in contrast to the current state of French wine. A subtle revolution is clearly taking place in the country’s cellars—deep structural and philosophical changes to an industry that’s simultaneously unraveling and rebuilding itself. Its wines today represent one of the few bright spots in a country that bears little resemblance to the mythic France of a few decades ago.

That France, made legend by cooks and writers like Julia Child and Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, kindled the imaginations of a generation of Americans keen to deepen their own culture. It was a lodestone for everything authentic on the table. Thus my disappointment last year, when I visited importer Kermit Lynch, who introduced Americans to many of the French wines that defined our love affair with the country. I asked where to eat in his adopted home of Bandol, home to the Peyraud family and their Domaine Tempier—the very symbols of the Provençal good life—and he struggled to suggest a single restaurant.

To be fair, the romantic vision of France—breezing down tree-lined roads in a Citroën—was always a bit of an Anglo-Saxon fiction. France is still a strikingly pretty place; its psychic draw is powerful enough that it remains the world’s most touristed country. But the French also have their own romantic memories; no one is more obsessed with patrimoine—the country’s sense of cultural history—than they are.

And yet, at times, it feels like patrimoine is strangling them to death. Even before the terror attacks of the past year, a certain despondency was growing, and rural France was feeling especially forlorn. It would be easy to blame modernity in the form of hypermarchés or English expats and their vacation homes. But something deeper is amiss.

Like the economy, for instance, lagging throughout France and downright anemic in rural areas. Regions like Burgundy and Franche-Comté continue to trail much of Europe in per-capita GDP, and purchasing power has been shrinking for at least a decade—alarming in a country with notoriously high taxes and one of Europe’s highest percentages of public spending. Perhaps that’s why rural France is increasingly empty; more kids are moving to the cities, wanting nothing to do with la France profonde. Old farmers retire and die, and no one is coming to take their place.

That next generation, incidentally, has bigger concerns than a new chapter of patrimoine. With youth unemployment around 25 percent and their parents still sitting on most of the jobs, the lives of young people in France are defined more by kebab shops and flavored Desperados beer. It’s not that they don’t want to eat or drink well—the typical French under-30 urbanite knows a lot more than her American counterpart about wine—so much as that many can’t afford to.

That led me to my best attempt at a diagnosis for this current malaise, which is that today most French feel trapped; the old values don’t quite fit in today’s new Europe, hence why the Le Pen family’s right-wing Front National began making headway years before Brexit. As I’ve spent more time there, I’ve felt ever more deeply how modern France finds itself at odds with its past charms. The French—most of them, anyway—would like to be a part of the new Europe, yet we’re still stifling them with our sentimental memories, treating France as nothing more than a tourist stop. 

The new wave of French winemakers acknowledge something many of their countrymen can’t: the jarring gap between that old romantic France and modern reality.

Of course, warning bells are always pealing about a crisis in French culture—in particular, the deep culture of eating and drinking that so defines the country. Nearly 20 years ago, Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, considered a crisis in French cuisine, citing reasons that feel eerily familiar: economic torpor driving customers away from fancy three-star cooking, plus a rigidity and sameness to the cooking—a fixation on technique over inspiration. “The style has become formulaic,” he wrote of most dishes, “a disk of meat, a disk of complement, a sauce on top.” He saw nouvelle cuisine, originally meant to reject the fussiness of Escoffier and Carême, slipping into “a revived orthodoxy.”

But since then, the culinary balance of power has dramatically tilted against France. In the 1990s, the Michelin star system by which French chefs lived or died, sometimes literally, retained a grudging admiration. And back in 1997, when Gopnik sounded the alarm, Spain’s revolutionary El Bulli had just gotten its third Michelin star. London’s groundbreaking The Fat Duck and St. John had been open just a couple of years. The Nordic invasion was still years away.

Today, diners have largely abandoned that fusty old Michelin view, weary of failed expectations at old warhorses like L’Arpège. Instead, the contemporary culinary benchmark, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, includes just three in France. Politically, the 50 Best is a hot mess, but its rankings betray France’s fallen stature. Of course, in typical French fashion, the response was not to invite self-reflection but rather for the Foreign Ministry to create the ridiculous 1,000-strong La Liste, meant to impose French taste back on the rest of the world.

And for the most part, the rest of the world no longer wants French standards imposed upon them. That’s certainly the case in America, where a sui generis generation of American cooks, winemakers and sommeliers has emerged today not just in San Francisco or New York but also Nashville and Houston, even in remote corners like Washington’s Lummi Island. We no longer view French cuisine as the shining city on a hill. And we’re not alone. The British—the British—are often outpacing their old adversaries, at least in the kitchen. Conscientious diners today often choose the banks of the Thames over the Seine.

All the more reason why I’ve been so impressed with the new wave of French winemakers, and how they acknowledge something many of their countrymen can’t: the jarring gap between that old romantic France and modern reality. It’s not that they don’t respect tradition. But they also see where tradition has failed them, which is why the lazy old ways in classic places like Champagne and Burgundy and Muscadet are increasingly vanishing, giving way to a new obsession with artisanship and diligent farming. They understand that those things, not the blunt instrument of appellation laws, are what will save the timeless culture of French wine.

Similarly, there’s France’s natural-wine movement, unbound by tradition and born out of discontent with narrow-minded views about winemaking. The naturalists have taken it upon themselves to explore (not always successfully) the boundaries of flavor: orange wines, amphorae, fizzy wines from disreputed varieties. Their vision has been rewarded by that world of post-Michelin restaurants, from Copenhagen’s Noma to Los Angeles’ Night + Market to Tokyo’s Bunon. The best new French wines are allied to the strong, decisive flavors that define modern cooking pretty much everywhere except France—sourness, fermentation, bitterness, spice.

You can, if you try, find parallels in French cooking. Over the past 15 years, the néobistro movement has come to dominate the Paris dining scene, where young chefs are willfully rejecting the outmoded ideas of French dining, cheered on by Le Fooding, their sort of anti-Michelin. Today, Paris is enjoying a second or perhaps third wave of these restaurants; groundbreakers like Le Chateaubriand or Yves Camdeborde’s Le Comptoir du Relais are now considered Parisian staples.

But that spirit hasn’t radiated to further points on the hexagon. I passed a week in the Provençal idyll of Saint-Rémy and another in the Rhône city of Vienne, home to Fernand Point’s legendary La Pyramide, without finding anything in either spot that enticed me to book a reservation. In Roanne, I had a completely acceptable but uninspiring dinner at Le Central, the bistro from the famed Troisgros family—satisfying for a Tuesday night in New York, but not enough to lure me back.

I can’t quite reconcile this dissonance between the boldness of the vignerons and the sense of ennui that seems to plague so many chefs. One easy explanation is that a lot of rural France just doesn’t want anything beyond relatively cheap comfort food—the usual parade of terrines and stews—and isn’t perturbed by uninspired cooking. But curiously, even many natural-wine bars, like Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes—places ruled by a liberal view of flavor in the glass— wind up offering very conservative choices on the plate.

This isn’t to say that no one’s trying. I have certainly eaten well in Lyon, where the Vietnamese-inspired beef salad with peanut sauce I had at La Bijouterie was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve encountered in France this decade. Same in the quiet gem of a city that is Nantes, where young, tech-focused urbanites support the thriving bistronomie scene. And I’ve found occasional points of light farther out, like a perfectly fragrant dhal served at Le Pot de Lapin in Saumur, on the banks of the Loire River, or in the Auvergne village of Chassignolles (population 72), where a Bristol native named Peter Taylor runs a natural-wine fair and small auberge that attracts talent from très Brooklyn restaurants like Paris’ Le Mary Celeste.

Yet those moments revealed to me that much of the potential energy in French cuisine comes from exploring the wider world, hence why a lot of the exciting Paris cooking in recent years is being done by young Americans, Australians, Japanese and Brits, along with Frenchmen and women like Septime’s Bertrand Grebaut and the Levha sisters at Le Servan, who comprehend where global tastes have gone.

But this global view also clashes with an innate French resistance against the unfamiliar, or perhaps more against their obsession with a sense of belonging. I was reminded of this one day at the Sunday market in Givors, a stronghold of Muslim immigrants between Lyon and Saint-Étienne, where hungry shoppers clamored for North African brik, couscous and mahjouba. Millions of French residents today are emigrés from Algeria, Morocco and across the Arab world, a boomerang of the country’s colonial history. But even if France was thriving, many would still be outsiders. Americans aren’t the only ones who hold onto a sentimentality about France; many French would also prefer to dwell in the past, disregarding their country’s complicated and diverse reality.

This reinforces my belief that the rest of us need to put aside our old romantic notions of late-midcentury France, the one immortalized in all those cookbooks and travelogues. We’re wistful for a culture that’s no longer quite there, if it ever was. At the same time, I see a different story emerging from within the country’s wine cellars, where a new generation of vignerons is looking to calibrate that charmed past with a wide-open future—and to avoid the mistakes of the 1990s, when France chose to imitate the rest of the world with overly flashy wines.

That’s why today’s new French wines are often what you might call brut—literally meaning raw, unrefined. They are willful rejections of the bullshit of the past. And when I taste them, it makes me all the more puzzled as to why so many French kitchens haven’t made a similar leap, to embrace a philosophy of, at the very least, less artifice. Why haven’t more chefs cast off the old ways—kitchens full of stagiaires churning out fussy compositions? Why hasn’t the néobistro found a place throughout the country?

The wines give me hope that the rest of French culture can find a modern footing. On every trip, I find other hopeful signs—artisans who still show up at all those local markets, selling perfect pots of honey and exquisite beers from organic grain for a relative pittance. Even as Big Dairy encroaches, dedicated cheesemakers still create farmhouse Saint-Nectaire and biodynamic Munster, some of the greatest flavors in the western world. They realize what so many Frenchmen—chefs and otherwise—seem to have forgotten: They may be France’s guardians of taste, but their mandate isn’t just to preserve tradition. If they don’t push the culture forward, the patrimoine truly will wither and die. French wine or cheese, like so many other essential parts of the country’s culture, will pass into the hands of cynical newcomers and large companies.

And what can the rest of us do? For one thing, we can serve by example. Five decades ago, Americans borrowed the French obsession with freshness and locality and gave birth to what has become the Chez Panisse philosophy, anchored by wines like the ones Lynch discovered in the 1970s. That approach pushed American cooking and drinking beyond the old Francophile clichés. Now, perhaps, it’s time to return those values to their rightful owners.

But beyond that, I think we have a responsibility to pack away the nostalgia, and let that old Citroën glide down a country lane for the last time. That version of France has been dead for a while. It’s time to see the modern one with clear eyes.

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