Dear France, Sorry about that whole wine-boycott thing. We still love your grapes. Yours, Sacramento

Each year, the French celebrate harvest with a fruity, youthful wine called Beaujolais; now, Sacramentans want in on the party

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It was literally the first thing I saw when I returned home to Sacramento from France, where I’d been living for a couple of years. I exited the E Street offramp on Business 80 and spotted the now-infamous sign, which was hanging proudly in Pine Cove Bottle Shop’s window:

“No French wine.”

I wasn’t around for the Bush administration’s Iraq war propaganda campaign in late 2002 and early 2003, but had heard that TV pundit Bill O’Reilly called for a boycott of all French products. On the other side of the pond, in my temporary French home of Grenoble—a city about the size of Sacramento—the fromagerie owner around the corner from my apartment would say things like, “George Bush, No. 1!” and give a joking, sarcastic thumbs up. If he’d even known who O’Reilly was, or what was happening at the Pine Cove in Sac, he’d likely have thrown a cheese wheel at my face.

Anyway, those days are, fortunately, long gone: O’Reilly is busy feuding with Keith Olbermann, and it’s once again acceptable to kiss with tongue.

And this month, Sacramento’s Alliance Française chapter will, for the eighth year in a row, celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau, a party that commemorates the annual grape harvest by drinking the season’s inaugural wine.

Of course, it’s not just the Sacramento’s Frenchies who are in on the act; Beaujolais (pronounced “bo-zho-lay”) wines, which are released every year on the third Thursday of November, can be found at both specialty grocers and even in the traditionally fruitless aisles of your neighborhood Safeway. Basically, you can get Beaujolais and French wine pretty much anywhere in town these days. Except Pine Cove.

A fruity tradition

The French lady at the supermarket was trying to get me wasted. I swear.

I didn’t shop often at Grenoble’s Champion market, which is a smaller, Long’s-like grocery chain owned by Carrefour, a French-based corporation and the second-largest retail group in the world.

Anyway, the French woman running the free-samples table at my neighborhood Champion discovered I was American and insisted that I try all five of her Beaujolais nouveau wine offerings. And—ugly American that I’m not—I obliged, earning her good graces and a nice head change.

Yes, that’s right: They get you drunk at the supermarket in France during Beaujolais Nouveau.

This year, Beaujolais Nouveau takes place on Thursday, November 19. And, like all good festivals and holidays, industry does its best to make a pretty penny, saturating restaurants and supermarkets with Beaujolais nouveau wines good and bad. But, like all good festivals and holidays, Beaujolais Nouveau wasn’t always so commercial.

“Beaujolais nouveau was originally the first wine of the harvest to be drunk,” explains Darrell Corti, of East Sac’s Corti Brothers, as to why the French—and now the world—celebrate with Beaujolais each fall.

Corti says that during the ’60s, French Beaujolais producers, who usually drank the wine as a way to observe the end of harvest, decided to market the wine and distribute it across the country within weeks of harvesting, which in turn generated immediate cash flow. He notes that, conveniently, the wine “lends itself to being drunk young” and that Beaujolais nouveau is an index of the quality of a certain year’s wines: 1990, a good year; 1991, not so much; and so on.

Beaujolais nouveau wines are made using a unique fermentation process called carbonic maceration. “It means that the grapes are thrown into a fermenting tank, literally, so that the grapes on the bottom are crushed,” Corti describes. More grapes then are piled on, and the juice on the bottom of the sealed tank eventually makes CO2, dissolves the color of the skins and migrates to the inside of the berry. Finally, the entire grape mass is pressed and is treated like a white wine.

“The wine is going to have a very interesting, fruity perfume. That perfume is the perfume we know of as Beaujolais,” Corti says. And, as with all French wines, Beaujolais comes from the region of same name, which is northeast of Lyon and tucked between renowned winemaking provinces of Rhône and Burgundy.

Now, about 30 percent of the Beaujolais region’s wines is Beaujolais nouveau, which shows up in stores for the holidays in bottles with vibrant, multicolored, festive, occasionally tacky labels. Because at the end of the day, Beaujolais nouveau is all about good times.

The Beaujolais wine region in France, where the party starts.

Party wine

Crash! Some kid just downed the final swill of his Beaujolais nouveau straight from the bottle and chucked it into the sky, only to watch it crash down in the middle of the plaza amid a growing pile of broken glass.

Most wine parties you’ve been to likely were stuffy affairs, but the late-night Beaujolais Nouveau parties in France—where youth took to the streets, bottles in hand—got a bit rowdy. Broken glass littered the plazas. Everyone was sauced up.

But it was, nevertheless, relatively harmless. French police didn’t care; they somehow knew that everyone, in spite of their unruliness, would be safe.

Here in Sacramento, however, Alliance Française’s Beaujolais Nouveau celebration will be a more suave gathering. “It can get quite rowdy at the end of the day in France; we’ll try to keep classy,” explains Marie-Clémence Mayssonnier, who’s a member of the Alliance board and also a native French TV journalist from the Languedoc region.

There will be cheese wheels. And wine. And a lecture. Hobnobbing, for sure. Bottle chucking, though, is strictly discouraged.

Mayssonnier says that Beaujolais Nouveau is one of those very French holidays that seizes the entire day. “Everywhere you go in France, they will serve you a glass. Even if you’re working, you’ll go to lunch and the cafe will serve you Beaujolais nouveau,” she says.

The goal of the Alliance’s eighth annual Fête de Beaujolais Nouveau is to capture the French celebration’s essence and teach Americans a little something about wine culture. And to chow down on brie and drink the new season’s wines, as chosen by renowned Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch.

“There’s so many bad Beaujolais nouveaus, so we’re really making an effort to bring people the best,” says Mayssonnier.

Over at Taylor’s Market in Land Park, where Dick Ebert holds down the wine department, he too will do a little something different to celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau. “It’s fun, compulsively drinkable. It’s really come on in Sacramento, too,” he says of the spritzy, lively wine. “So, we’ll grill some sausages. Maybe make a potato gratin.”

Bill O’Reilly isn’t invited.