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Toast of the Town

France's Beaujolais Nouveau Arrives With Fanfare and Special Events


The third Thursday of November is already history in France. And the folks in the town of Beaujolais no doubt are still recovering.

Annually, on this day, the French government allows wine producers in the town north of Lyon to release their Beaujolais Nouveau, the first wine of the 1996 harvest. Moments after midnight each year, the celebration begins and revelers drink up the gamay grape beverage with great exuberance.

As they sip, airplanes packed with cases of the Beaujolais head from France to the United States where, beginning on the third Thursday in November in the United States--half a day later, thanks to the time-zone difference--Americans celebrate the wine's release.

Many cases of the 1996 vintage already have landed in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where restaurants and wine sellers will celebrate the debut over the next couple of weeks, with gourmet dinners and other promotions.

"My guests are very, very excited. They're really going to make it a night out," said Florence Bonnet, co-owner of Cafe Provencal in Thousand Oaks. The restaurant will host a special Beaujolais Nouveau dinner Monday.

"I think there's a lot of people living in this area who have traveled all over the world, especially in France," Bonnet said, "and they share that love for food and wine and warmth."

Unlike most wines, the ruby-colored Beaujolais Nouveau is not aged in barrels and does not age gracefully in the bottle.

Rather it is a quickly manufactured and consumed wine, fermented, bottled and placed on the market between mid-October and mid-November. The relatively simple wine is at its best only for about three months after its release.

The wine's low-overhead production method keeps it affordable for the public and the fruity, light non-bitter taste is generally appealing. It also is best suited to stodgy comfort foods rather than gourmet cuisine.

Jean-Claude Guerin, food and beverage director of Capistrano's restaurant in Oxnard, lights up at the mere mention of Beaujolais Nouveau. Having grown up in Burgundy, France, near Beaujolais, the release has always been a special event.

"In Burgundy, it is the day you invite family and friends and you may get drunk a little bit," Guerin said. "You have good food, not fancy food, but traditional food. In a way, it marks a little bit the beginning of the holiday season. When you hit Beaujolais Nouveau, you know Christmas isn't that far behind."

Capistrano's will celebrate the 1996 crop Friday with a multi-course dinner featuring the Beaujolais of two major winemakers--leading producer Georges Duboeuf and Henry Fessy.

Guerin said Beaujolais Nouveau, which used to be released annually Dec. 15, dates to about the turn of the century, when it was a blue-collar wine. Its popularity soared in Britain and France after World War II.

"They started to race to see which would be the first cafe in France or the first pub in London to have Beaujolais Nouveau. For the pubs, they used to put five cases in a taxi and race from Burgundy to London, crossing the channel on a ship," Guerin said. "In France, in the cafes, it was just a crazy thing, which built up the reputation of the Beaujolais Nouveau."

In the United States, Guerin said, new Beaujolais attracted attention in the 1960s and 1970s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the yuppies picked up on it, Guerin said, and within the last 10 years the wine has continued to gain fans.

Restaurants in this country followed the trend.

"November is traditionally kind of a slow month for restaurants," Guerin said. "The French restaurants in this country have jumped on it."

Le Rendez-Vous Restaurant in Newbury Park will honor the new vintage by catering a private party this evening for the Santa Barbara-Ojai-Ventura chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs. About 40 local members of the national food and wine society, a mix of wine enthusiasts and members of the food and beverage industry, are expected to attend.

"It's a much-anticipated event for friends to get together," said Ventura's Neil Conway, an officer of the local chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs and an account executive with Southern Wine and Spirits, a Cerritos-based wholesale distributor.

"Winemaking and life are so tangled together in France and now in California," Conway said. "It's a celebration of good living, of life and of the new harvest."

Francois Zanni, owner of Le Rendez-Vous, said he will offer three brands of Beaujolais Nouveau--Georges Duboeuf, Henry Fessy and Barton and Guestier--to the wine and food group and to the general clientele.

"It's good for teaching people about red wine," Zanni said. "It is very easy to drink, kind of like wine with grape juice. If you lived in France and had a special occasion, you would drink a Burgundy or a Bordeaux. If you wanted to drink something every day, you would drink something like this."

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