John Turi - Wine, Red Wine

Beaujolais Nouveau for Thanksgiving

Wine Rating: 90

Remember, remember the third Thursday of November!

For anyone who’s read any of my work or who’s followed my adventures for any length of time, you know I often find my way back to tales of when I worked at my first wine store. If you’re new to my writing, this is where it all began for me.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a famous wine store in the Naples area of Long Beach, California. The knowledge and palate I now have for wine came from my time there, working at Morry’s of Naples. I write about that place a lot, because I loved that job and because that’s where this passion I now nurture was birthed. I loved the customers who asked inquisitive questions about wine, the owners who taught me everything about owning a business, and of course, the items that filled the shelves and I don’t just mean the wine. It was the gourmet cheeses, the caviar, the decadent pastries, the European chocolates. It was Adult Willy Wonka Food & Drink Porn.

My first holiday season at Morry’s was chalk full of learning lessons, not the least of which was in ‘customer service’. On the one hand, Morry’s was a neighborhood shop, and it was the go-to for all the locals. We provided the essentials like milk, canned soup, and a deli. On the other hand, Morry’s was a ‘go to’ and for many, a destination. We carried a vast selection of wine, liquor, and microbrews from all over the world, which regularly brought in people from near and far, from around the corner and miles away. Some loved to browse the aisles while others enjoyed our ‘Special Collection’ tastings that we offered in the back wine room. October through December the store would be jam-packed with people, all shopping for something unique.

When I started working at Morry’s, I knew nothing about wine. Nothing. Well, other than the fact that my very Italian family drank a lot of it, at every single gathering, nearly every single day, my entire life and red seemed to win out over whites, 5 to 1. So yeah, nothing. In the early days, my job was to keep the floor, shelves, and glass coolers stocked. If someone bought a case of wine off the floor, I would run to the wine room and replace it with a similar varietal and price point from the same region. That sounds like an easy thing to do, but not knowing anything about wine, made it a constant learning lesson. Every time I got it wrong, someone from our staff, a veteran, a pro, would walk me over to a map hanging on the wall in the wine room. The map showed all the wine regions around the world and what varietal they produced. It was pointed out that by replacing a white burgundy with a California Chardonnay, even though it is the same grape varietal, the location was a few thousand miles off, in the other direction. “Hey Turi, is Auxerre anywhere near Napa?” Alan, the assistant manager, would say to me. I would shrug my shoulders and stare stupidly at that damn map. “Well then, I suggest you get a copy of this map and study it.” He’d say, walking away shaking his head. Alan was the kind of guy that enjoyed breaking you down and had no inclination to build you back up again, but rather to bring you the point of extreme self-doubt. It was annoying, but it pushed me to gobble up as much knowledge as I could, as quickly as I could. And Yeah. I bought that damn map.

I started working at Morry’s in August of 1989. With barely three months of experience under my belt, I was thrust into the holiday season. To say I was nervous was an understatement. I’d heard the stories from everyone who had ever worked there, past and present. Yes, I said, “past” as in ‘used to work there’. Morry’s was just one of those places. It didn’t matter how much time had passed or how long someone had been gone. Nearly everyone who had ever been even remotely associated with them during their 50 years (at that point) would come back and say hello to Harvey, the owner. Harvey had taken over the business after his father Morry died. Naples was and still is a very close-knit and affluent community. On a daily basis, Harvey would greet visitors, from past employees to customers who’d been coming in since they were kids. It was just like that. Harvey was just like that. Morry’s was just like that and people wanted to be there. If I was nearby when someone popped in to say, “Hi!”,  Harvey would introduce me to them, and like clockwork, they’d  tell me some crazy story about the year ‘they were there’ during the holiday season. They’d say, “I remember way back in 78’ just three days before Christmas, the power went out and we were without electricity for two days. So, you know what we did…?.” That’s how it was, and tales would just keep coming.

I was told that Halloween would be busy, but not mind-numbingly crazy. Costumed people ready to party would come in, mostly for kegs of beer, which weighed 161.5 pounds. I’ll never forget that weight. Those bastards were heavy and awkward to maneuver. Try delivering one to a house in Naples where they’re having a party on their sundeck and oh… it’s on the third freaking floor. Something you should know, I only weighed about 130 pounds. I hated keg deliveries! The first rule of keg handling? Avoid slamming one on your toe. The owner’s son Kenny did just that, and it was not a pretty sight to witness. Imagine an elephant stepping on a plum.

Besides beer and Solo cups, everyone wanted ice. So much damn ice. Morry’s had a large icehouse outside the store, that sold 2-pound, 10-pound, 50-pound bags and the dreaded blocks. The blocks came in 100-pound slab form. We had to ice pick them apart into 25-pound blocks with a freaking ice pick. I felt like a dock worker from the 1930’s. I still have a scar on my forearm where the damn pick slipped off the ice block and dug right into me. I looked up at the customer who looked alarmed and Alan, who was holding the icehouse door open, just shook his head said, “stay here” and leisurely walked back into the store. He returned in what seemed like hours with a piece of duct tape in hand. He walked over to me standing right where he left me and with the pick still in my arm, just looked at me and with a hint of glee, pulled out the pick, slapped the duct tape on the hole in my arm and told me to carry the block of ice to the customer’s car. The customer tipped me a few extra bucks for my effort. That was least he could do.

As October fades into November and the ghosts get locked away, the real season begins. During the last 2 months of the year, that’s when the real exercise begins. Stocking the beer cooler, pulling cases of wine from the back and bringing them to the front. Harvey’s wife Sherry would make gift baskets with a team of women she’s hired for the holiday’s. The baskets were loaded up with wine, beer, liquor, cheese, chocolates, crackers, gourmet meats. The list of items varied as did the price range. I was tasked with carrying hundreds of finished custom gift baskets from upstairs to downstairs and would load up Morry’s delivery van, for the unlucky chap who would have to make the ‘once a day’ deliveries all over the place, from Long Beach to Costa Mesa. They, not I, were tasked with schlepping them into corporate high rises and confusing condominium buildings, not to mention, deal with parking. Ugh. That’s the worst. Then you add in the fact that gift basket deliveries typically did not warrant a tip. Just an “Oh WOW! What’s this?” “How nice!” and “Who’s it from?” Yep. I’m just glad that wasn’t part of my job.

Thanksgiving rolled up quickly, and that was a wine-buying season at Morry’s for sure. If you worked the floor, you had to know your shit. All day, you’d hear the craziest questions.

 “Excuse me. I had wine at dinner last week. It was a white wine, and there was a frog on the label. I want to bring a bottle to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. Do you have that wine?

A frog? Hmm? I’d ponder. Hell if I knew. “Hey, Alan do we have a white wine with a frog on the label?” Alan, per usual would shake his head, walk right past me and escort the customer to the California section and show them the wines from the Frog’s Leap Winery. Yeah. I pretty much spent my first holiday season at Morry’s stocking shelves.

I did notice that on a particular Thursday, the Thursday before Thanksgiving actually, that all crew had to work. That’s right. We were ALL on the schedule. Every one of us. The more seasoned employees, the ones who had been through this many times before, had to work from ‘open to close’. That wasn’t my shift and yet I was still looking at a 10-hour day. “What’s the big deal about this day?” I asked Alan. “What’s up with next Thursday?” and he began to explained to me that we were one of the only retailers who carried a certain wine that’s both very limited and also only comes out once a year. He said that people come from far and wide to get there hands on it. “What is it?” I asked.

This is what I learned. Since 1985 the third Thursday of November is the release and celebration of that year’s wine from the Beaujolais region of France. This event is known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day for their ‘new’ wine. Between 1931 and 1950, the celebration of the new harvest was not allowed until after December 15th. After World War II the date was changed to November 15th, and it stayed that way until 1985, when the French realized they could market a large part of the wine buying world, that being the American market, by moving it to the week before Thanksgiving. Brilliant.

“Beaujolais Nouveau? What the hell is that?” Alan walked me over to the map and was yet again, shaking his head the whole time. He pointed to France, then the Burgundy area, then the province of Beaujolais. “This area,” he said tapping his finger on the map, “is filled with big Gamay producers. They celebrate the new harvest by bottling the young fermented wine.” I asked him, “how does it taste?” “It’s young. It’s tart. It’s damn popular. For the past few years, a few really smart producers of Beaujolais have been marketing the hell out of their wine, to American buyers and well, it caught on. So, every Thanksgiving for the past few years, there’s a mad rush, and everyone wanted a bottle or two. Personally, I can’t stand it. It’s harsh, and the wine has only been fermenting for about two months. You can’t store it because it won’t age any further. You must drink it, right then and there, but for the French, it’s not about ‘what it will be’ or ‘could be’. It’s a celebration of the new harvest. It’s also very low priced, and we’ll sell the hell out of it.”

I found the whole thing interesting, and I was looking forward to giving it a try. Considering I had only tasted a few wines and at that point, I knew even less, I felt like I was in for something special. I liked the idea of this new harvest being cause for celebration. I was intrigued. For the next few days, I made it my mission to tell every customer who had never heard of Beaujolais Nouveau Day, what it was. I emphasized that it was very limited and would sell out quickly because Morry’s was only allocated a few cases. One of the major Beaujolais producers, George Duboeuf, sent us posters and pamphlets to display and have as handouts, right in the front of the store, so people would see it right when they walked in. When someone would ask me about it, I would repeat everything Alan had told me and would say, “Be sure to get here early next Thursday. They’ll go quickly.”

Beaujolais Nouveau Day. The big day had arrived. We were allocated twelve cases, from three different producers. Before the store opened, Alan, Harvey and I, tried all three wines to determine which one was the best. Not having experienced many types of wines before this and despite Alan’s lack of fondness for them, I actually found them quite nice. Alan winced and spat it in a bucket. Harvey just shrugged. Alan told me to try and find the notes in the wine. “Dig into the nose and tell me what you smell.” I knew if I said that I smell grapes he would punch me, so I dug into the wine like he told me to. I put my nose so far in the glass that I snorted a bit of it into my nostrils, and that would not be last time I would do that. Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything, in fact, I didn’t really know what I was looking for and I told him that. Then I sipped, swished and spat the wine into a bucket. At once, my mouth felt like it had been coated in salt and lime. He explained that it was the minerals from the soil it had grown in, that the vines pull up the essence into the grapes. He asked me what I thought about the finish? Hmmm? I had the faintest thought, a sense that I might actually be getting this. “It has a fruity taste. I’m finding berry notes. Strawberry?” Looking right at me, Alan did not shake his head this time. “You’re getting it.” he said. With our ‘2 bottles per customer’ limit, we sold all twelve cases by 6pm.

In 2017, nearly 30 years later, the third Thursday of November does not have the mad rush it once did. I’m assuming people have found other varietals, new trends and maybe new traditions to follow. Production of the Beaujolais Nouveau is also much higher than it used to be. Every big box wine store has cases and cases on hand and to be honest, I kind of miss how special it was.

When I walk into a Bevmo, Total Wine or some corporate beverage store, and I’m standing there looking at the displays, seeing the Beaujolais Nouveau, I wish someone would come up to me and ask me if I’m familiar with them, ask me if know about the tradition of the young Gamay wines from France. It’s nostalgic. I love that. Even it if wasn’t, it’s worthy of the celebration. So every Thanksgiving, I look forward to the new harvest and I buy several bottles, some I drink, and some I give. Yes. They are slightly undeveloped. Yes. They are a bit biting, but for me, some things never go out of style.

This review is based on the 2016 George Duborf Beaujolais wine.

George Duboeuf
Beaujolais Nouveau, 2016

Winery: George Duboeuf
Label: Beaujolais Nouveau
City: Romanèche-Thorins
Vintage: 2016
Region: Beaujolais
Location: France
Varietal: Gamay

Appearance (Color): Subtle red
Aroma (Complexity): Strawberry, sea air
Body (Texture and Weight): Light/medium
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Peppercorn, tart strawberry, ginger
Finish (What lingers): A hint of banana, plum
Price: $13

Food Pairing: Thanksgiving meal
Serving Temperature: 55°
Drink: Now