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Francois Cordesse of Clos du Lac Cellars
by Stewart Dorman
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.2
Once in a while you sit down and take a look back on your life and say, "I wish I would’ve done something big, something totally wacky, something just plain crazy." Well, a few weeks ago I did just that: I played Putt Putt golf. Putt Putt is what we call miniature golf where I grew up, in the Midwest. I shot a round or dug-up the course or whatever you call it with Frenchman Francois Cordesse. Who knew someone named Francois knew anything about Putt Putt. How cool.

Francois is winemaker for Clos du Lac Cellars, a small winery in the scenic Sierra Foothills of Northern California. He's a wacky kind of guy, in a good way, has a great attitude about wine and life, loves to make noises during conversation -- things like RRRR, WOOOFFF and YAAHHH! -- and loves the good ol' U.S. of A! His accent is charming, a bit thick at times, but that's what makes him so, well, Fraunch. In a nutshell, Francois rocks!

His miniature golf game, on the other hand, could use some work. But then again playing against me, who'd notice. Yes, we both sucked at that silly game, with those stupid little village settings and hoaky looking waterfalls. The only thing I liked about Putt Putt, beside sharing my frustrations with Francois, was pretending I was a giant mutant humanoid in some B-rated 1960s horror flick, scaring the hell out of the people living in the windmill with my awful putting skills. (In reality the only people I really scared were those around me on the course.)

Here's how the interview went with Francois (or at least what I remember. My therapist says that memory loss is nothing to be concerned about. At least that's what I think he said).

Wine X: Hola, Francois.

Francois: Bonjour.

Wine X: Bless you. So, ready to play a mean game of Putt Putt golf?

Francois: What is this Putt Putt?

Wine X: Actually we call it Putt Putt in the Midwest. Did you know that the Midwest is not really in the middle of the West?

Francois: Why are you telling me this?

Wine X: Let's move on.

Francois: Do you need money?

Wine X: Well, now that you asked. I'm starting my own winery this year, and, well, you know how expensive things can get...

Francois: No. For this Putt Putt.

Wine X: Oh. No. It's on Wine X. We have a lot of pull around here. Okay, I have to mention Scandia Family Fun Amusement Center, located on Highway 80 in Cordila, California. Open seven days a week...

Francois: Stop it already. I pay.

Wine X: You wanna go first?

Francois: Oui.

Wine X: You want the blue or the red ball?

Francois: Blue.

Wine X: I wanted the blue one.

Francois: But I am your guest, no?

Wine X: N'okay. But I get the shiny new putter.

Francois: You know, you are very stronge.

Wine X: Thanks. I work out quite a bit.

Francois: I am sure.

Wine X: Okay, you're up.

Francois: What am I shooting for?

Wine X: That little round hole there... the one over the drawbridge to the left of the moat.

Francois: But of course.

Francois eyes the course -- nothing but 10 yards of pure green carpet hell. He strokes.

Francois: WOOOFFF. That was good, no?

Wine X: No. But you'll get the hang of it. I must warn you. I had a respectable handicap back home in Indiana.

Francois: Yes, I am sure of your handicap.

I line up my putt. Smack! OOPS. That went a little bit farther than I had planned.

Wine X: I'm gonna, ah, go find that. I'll be right back.

Francois: But of course.

After finding my ball in the parking lot across the street, I return.

Wine X: We should probably start the interview before things really get outta hand.

Francois: Maybe already too late, no?

Wine X: No, it's only five. We have plenty of time. So, how old are you, Francois?

Francois: Trente.

Wine X: In American years that would be...?

Francois: Thirty.

Wine X: Right. When did you come to California?

Francois: About two years ago.

Francois lines up his next putt. Strokes. Into the moat.

Wine X: Oh that’s a shame.

Francois: This is bad?

Wine X: Only if you’re using a blue ball. I believe it’s a seven-stroke penalty.

Francois: RRRR.

Wine X: So how old where you when you started working in a winery?

Francois: A teenager. I worked in Bordeaux. Then I went into the military. Everybody has to go into the military in my country. I was in the Navy for two years. Then I went to school. I have a master’s degree in winemaking from Montpellier. School, work work work. In the winery, work work work. It is true, yes?

Wine X: Si. I mean oui. What do think of winemaking in the U.S.?

Francois: I pree-fer it. I pree-fer the California way. It is more relaxed. It is totally different here. In France we are more formal. It is more stressful -- like in a Felini movie RRRRRRR! I cannot say more.

Wine X: Okay. What do you think of having to be 21 years old to drink here in The States?

Francois: A shame! It is a paradox, eh, a paradox. In my country, the city I lived in was a college town with one hundred thousand students. The students who were drunk were always the American ones. Because when they arrive in France and can drink at age 18 they drink to get drunk. In one way they do not have fun because they blaahhh and go splat, they get drunk. In France, wine is always at the table from the time you are a small child, so you drink it to enjoy.

Wine X: Might wanna roll your pants up a little higher, there.

Francois wades into the moat. Studies his shot. Swings. WHOOSHH!

Wine X: (as I towel myself dry) Nice out.

Francois: Sank you.

Wine X: Towel?

Francois: Towels are for sissy boys.

Wine X: Uh-huh. In France the title of winemaker is a highly respected position, right?

Francois: It is a respected one; it is like any other one. When you are in the winery during the harvest and you see the fruit coming in, you feel proud, and that is part of your wage. In the United States you are a God if you are a winemaker. Everyone thinks that you are Dionysus or Bacchus. It is so very different here. You know, wine used to be thought of as voodoo in ancient times. It made the people feel different, spiritual.

Wine X: Wine transforms you?

Francois: Yes. When you drink wine, you go from the rational to the spiritual. But if you drink too much, you go back to the animal. Wine is like fire -- when you play with fire, you need to have a balance between the spirit and the animal. When you turn into the animal, that is when the fire burns you.

Wine X: What do we have in the United States?

Francois: A lot of animal. When you smell and taste the wine, that is sensual. When you drink too much, that is sexual, and that is animal. Animal is not too bad sometimes, yes?

Wine X: Yes, I mean oui.

Francois: Very well said, Mister Wine X.

I line up my three-footer (don’t ask how I got this close. Francois didn’t). Stroke. IN THE HOLE!

Francois: Tres bon.

Francois lines up his putt. Strokes. IN!

Wine X: Tres bone.

Francois: Merci.

Wine X: What kind of music do you listen to in France?

Francois: As a kid, at parties, we listened to The Village People, Steve Miller, Doobie Brothers, Led Zeppelin of course, of course. We had good food, good wines, good parties, and we enjoyed life. We are full of want -- we want new Mercedes, we want more money. Life is too short. We need to embrace each moment. Life is to be enjoyed each day.

Wine X: Do you watch a lot of American television?

Francois: All I can get is infomercials and the religious channels. The Spanish channel I get. It is a little racy with the women... but I like that. The first show I saw in the United States was Oprah. The title of the show was "My brother is too fat to be a drag queen." After that I was not so interested in American TV.

Wine X: Understandable. Well, this is the hole that separates the men from the boys.

Francois: I hear this about thing in California.

Wine X: No, that’s just a... a saying. Never mind. I was referring to the windmill hole.

Francois: Of course.

Francois studies the situation. Times his putt. It makes it through. YAAHHH!

Wine X: Nicely done.

I line up my putt. Wait. Wait. Now. Stroke. Shit!

Francois: That is too bad.

Wine X: I appreciate your compassion. Anyway, what do you find most interesting about California?

Francois: In California everyone is pretty open-minded. There are no hillbillies in California.

Wine X: You ever been to Sonoma County?

Francois: Pardon?

Wine X: Nothing. What about food. Good food here?

Francois: Oui. The food is excellent. But Americans do not take time to enjoy their food. They take time to watch the pretty women, and then it is back to work. Americans need to slow down and enjoy the food, enjoy the wine and enjoy life.

Wine X: What is your dream?

Francois: My job. To make great wine and to live a good life. Right now I spend time with a kid that got into drugs. I want to show him there is more to life than that. I want him to see that there is more to life than just getting high. It is good to help others.

Wine X: That's certainly admirable, Francois. Do you want to stay in the States?

Francois: I want to stay in California. My family is in France, but I like it here. I make wine in the Sierra Foothills, and it is beautiful. It is quiet up there, and the wine is wonderful. I love San Francisco. I have some friends there, and it is good to get away to visit them. It is a lot like Europe -- the cafes and the lifestyle. San Francisco is great.

Wine X: What wines are you currently making at Clos du Lac?

Francois: I make sauvignon blanc, muscat, white zinfandel, a "Summer" zinfandel and a Cabernet franc.

Wine X: And what's your favorite?

Francois: Zinfandel. When I think of California, I think of zinfandel. It is like fire. It is unpredictable. I love working with it, with all the spice and flavor. It is hard not to love this wine. Amador County produces this beautiful style of zinfandel that just brings you to your knees.

Wine X: Man to man, how do you stay so thin, with all the winemaker dinners and such?

Francois: Are you sure you are not...

Wine X: Positive.

Francois: MMMMM. In the evening, after a good meal, I drink a little Cognac. Cognac has the alcohol that attacks the fat and burns it up. I drink only a little, just a small snifter. That is all she takes to keep the system working. It is important not to drink too much. If you do, you defeat the purpose

Wine X: Who’s your hero?

Francois: My grandfather. He fought in the great war with General Patton. He took me to the places where he fought. He told me how it would have been if it were not for the Americans. One must remember the past to go into the future.

Francois levels over his ball. Strokes. Damn, er, I mean yea! In the hole.

I’ve still got the windmill arms to deal with. Wait. wait. Now. Damn!

Wine X: So where else have you worked?

Francois: It is true what they say. You have no logic to your questions.

Wine X: Spontaneity is my game.

Francois: This explains your Putt Putt.

Wine X: Thirteen is a very respectable score on this hole.

Francois: Yes. I worked four crushes in Bordeaux at Chateau Cadillac, one crush in Australia at Moet et Chandon and now two crushes in California at Clos du Lac Cellars. I also did a little wine marketing and was a freelance journalist for a short while in Paris.

Wine X: Ah. Paris.

Francois: You have been to Paris, no?

Wine X: No. But it sounds nice. Hey, I heard you won the Grand Prix D’Excellence.

Francois: Oui.

Wine X: Very impressive What is it?

Francois: It is becoming recognized as being a master in winemaking for a certain varietal and a classification for a level of wine such as Vin De Pays.

Wine X: Sounds serious.

Francois: It is a very serious award, oui. I won it in the Vin De Pays category in 1995 for sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and vermentino, which is an Italian varietal.

Wine X: So, whad’ya win? Money? Trophy?

Francois: Corkscrew.

Wine X: That’s it?

Francois: It is a very serious award.

Wine X: Very serious.

Francois: When you win this award you get the honor of putting a sticker on your wine bottle promoting the award. A very serious award.

Wine X: Well, congratulations. By the way, in Putt Putt, it's the highest score that wins.

Francois: Then you are winning, no?

Wine X: Let's just wait ‘til the fat lady sings.

Francois: Who is this fat lady?

I explained the metaphor to Francois, and we moved on. Needless to say, by the end of the match, I had given Wine X a perfect “0 for 6” record in winery challenges.

We sat down with a bottle of wine and continued our talk.

Francois: Do you think we should take you photographer to the hospital? That last ball you hit smacked him in the eye pretty hard. WOOOFFF!

Wine X: We'll ask him when he comes to. In America, hitting someone in the eye with a golf ball is a sign of affection.

Francois: Ah. Maybe I should bring my next date here, no?

Wine X: N’sure. You where telling me about glycerol in wine.

Francois: I was?

Wine X: No. But we can edit the interview to make it look like you were.

Francois: Ah. Very good. Glycerol is in wine, and it gives a small amount of sweetness. I like to work with the natural sweetness of glycerol and use it to add complexity and roundness to the wine. By using this method, I don't have to count on residual sugar in the wine to add all the sweetness I am looking for. This is a way of having a wine that has balance and a unique quality. Glycerol is my secret to making great wine.

Wine X: Well, I think we've done all the damage we can get away with here. Thanks so much for the interview, Francois. I had a great time.

Francois: It was my pleasure, Mr. Wine X.

Wine X: My name is Stewart.

Francois: Oh, I am sorry. It was my pleasure, Mr. Stewart Wine X.

Wine X: Close enough. Olive-wahr, Francois.

Francois: Olive...wahr? RRRRRRR, Americans.

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