PARIS — "I'll take a kir, please."
"A kir? Oh, mon pauvre monsieur, where do you buy your wine? Kirs should only be made with bad white wine. You ruin a good white by dumping cassis into it. And I, Jacques Melac, have no bad wines, white or red."
Monsieur Melac stands behind his bar, grinning from one handlebar to the other of his fabulous mustache. He is right, kirs should only be made with overly acidic white wines. And he's also right that he has no bad wines. Of course not; he was awarded the Meilleur Pot in 1981.
The Meilleur Pot is a yearly award given to a Parisian bistrotier who goes above and beyond the call of duty to serve his customers honest wines. Most are country wines, not grand Bordeaux or Burgundies.
They are tracked down personally by the bistrotier and bought directly from the producer. They are then sold in the bistro by glass or bottle, priced low enough to satisfy the thriftiest Frenchman or to astound the visiting wine aficionado.
This revered award, officially titled the "Coupe Marcel Grancher du Meilleur Pot," was first given in 1957. It is presented by the Academie Rabelais, a gourmet group that takes its inspiration from the 16th-Century writer and gourmand, Francois Rabelais. Not only was he a writer of bizarre fiction, witness his "Gargantua and Pantagruel," but quite a creative cook. Too bad most of his cookbook legacy begins with directions such as "saute six fresh sharks."
Jean Herbert presides over the Academie Rabelais. Each and every fall he looses 10 judges onto the streets of Paris. Anonymously, they visit several hundred bistros and cafes. In December or early January they announce the Meilleur Pot winner. And the winner throws a huge party.
What exactly are the 10 looking for? According to Herbert, "The main idea behind the award is to encourage the bistrotiers to maintain the Parisian tradition of selling fine wines over their counters, so fine wines are what we look for. But we also look for an atmosphere or environment where friends can meet. Where they can enrich their lives and prolong its blooming."
Back at Melac's Bistrot a Vins, it's approaching 8 o'clock on a Thursday evening. Things are indeed beginning to bloom. The neighborhood has dropped by to prende un pot or two of wine. Melac directs the scene from behind the bar. Orders are called in by customers who gain his attention with "Eh, frere Jacques. "
A Friendly Frenchman
We sit on a bench at a side table. Two 8-franc glasses of Sancerre are in front of us, along with a plate of chevre and a basket of rough peasant bread. We share the table with a friendly Frenchman who first questions us about how two foreigners came to this place and then provides us with a complete travelogue of the French wine country.
"Frere Jacques, come here. Two foreigners have made the arduous voyage across river and forest to make you famous in their benighted land." The bar titters with laughter, we blush, and Melac comes over.
"Good morning, I am Jacques Melac, proprietor of this damnable establishment. Tell me, would you like to buy it?" There is more laughter, and the crowd pushes around our table with Melac.
After a further exchange of wry pleasantries, I ask him how exactly he got into this business. "Oh, monsieur, I'm an Auvergnat. Isn't everyone in Paris who hails from Auvergne a bistrotier? "
Why is that?
"Don't you know that years ago we all sold wood from our shops?" Melac explains. "We gave our wood customers a glass of wine while we filled their orders. But then the wood business went to hell. We ran out of wood in Auvergne, so in order to live, we just increased the wine and forgot about the wood."
Love of the Bottle
"Bof," a customer cries. "That's a fine crock of a tale, Frere Jacques. You forgot the bit about the Auvergnese love of the bottle, bottle after bottle." More laughter.
By this time our table holds a dozen empty glasses. Melac calls for a bottle of 1983 Chinon Rouge for his "new friends" and an Auvergnese charcuterie plate with it.
"You'll like this wine. It's not as acidic as the other Chinons sold in this overgrown village," he assures us. "So here I am. I work 12 hours a day and must tolerate the harassment of these drunkards. It makes me very sad and tired."
"Yes, it also makes you crazy," a bystander adds. "All you really do is spend the day reading Figaro or chasing that pretty concierge down the way." The laughter shakes the windows.
Mood Is More Serious