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Charles Neal is a San Francisco-based French wine and spirits importer and the author of Armagnac and the just published Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy. We sat down over a cup of coffee during my recent trip to the Bay Area.
First of all congratulations! Calvados is a not only encyclopedic in scope, discussing the apple blossoms to the finished product but beautiful in presentation-a gorgeous book.
Thanks very much for the kind comments. It certainly feels good to put ten years of research behind and feel free to work on something else.
What is calvados?
Calvados is a cider-based brandy from Normandy, which is the part of France that lies below England. The cider can be made of apples and pears and it is distilled in a copper alambic still. A clear alcohol emerges, which then goes into wooden cask where it begins to pick up color and mellow.
What made you begin this book?
I had written a book about Armagnac that was published in 1998 and shortly thereafter started a company that imported French wines and spirits into California. I had made a number of trips to Normandy where I met a couple of producers whom I began to import. And in about 2000 I decided to write a book about Calvados. Normandy interested me because it was very different than the southwest of France that I had gotten to know very well. The food was different, the accent was different, the weather was different, the mentality was different, the beverages were different. So I felt in addition to learning a hell of a lot about calvados, researching the book would also enable me to learn a great deal about another region of France.
At the beginning I got a list from the Calvados bureau that was about 25 producers long. I figured I could make a couple of trips to Normandy and see all the producers, take photos, and come up with a book that might be a couple hundred pages long. The second time I went for research purposes, I found that there was a new list that was about 60 producers long. So I realized the research was going to take longer than I had originally anticipated!
At the same time, my import company had begun to grow so I didn’t have much time to actually write after returning from my research trips to Normandy. So I would go one week a year, see about 15 producers, take notes, take pictures and then return to San Francisco where all the information went on to a shelf until my next trip there a year later.
It was probably about 2007 when I finally thought that I needed to finish this book. After all, I was telling people every year that the book was almost finished, yet deep down I knew that I was still a long way from the end. After all, Calvados can be made all over Normandy, and to drive from Mont Saint Michel to Rouen takes nearly 2 and a half hours on the autoroute with many producers along the way.
How many producers did you end up seeing?
About 200. Like I told you, Normandy is a big place and I kept finding these pockets that I hadn’t known about before, that used different varieties of apples and had different terroir. By 2005, I had probably seen all the producers that I would consider to be “important”, but I guess I had told myself that I was going to see every producer and so I just forced myself to keep going. Besides, the book had become not only about Calvados the spirit, but also Calvados the People. And even if a farmer’s product wasn’t very good and would never be exported, they might have a great story to tell about their area, or recount memories from the D-Day invasions of World War II or the occupation.
How did you contact these producers?
For the first few years, I called up and made appointments. The last four years or so, for the most part, I simply drove up to their house, told them what I was doing, and asked if I could ask them some questions about their production. A couple of times I was asked to come back after they had finished milking the cows or performed some other chore around the farm, but usually they were very hospitable and would invite me into their homes to talk and taste.
How did a kid from the island (Long) become an expert/importer of French wines and spirits?
Well, it was certainly a long path of twists and turns which led me to do what I do today. I mean, if you had told me when I was at Northport High School that one day I would speak French and import wines and spirits from France, I probably would have said you were crazy. But that’s the beauty of life, isn’t it? You never know where it is going to lead you and most of the time its fun to follow its unpredictable path!
I left New York after high school and spent four years in North Carolina. I had majored in art and theater and thought that I would like to go to film school. I needed some written things for my applications and decided to get away from everyone I knew and concentrate on writing. I decided to go to London, a city I knew somewhat because I had spent a semester abroad there. I meant to go for 6 months but ended up spending five years. I worked in restaurants, then in record stores and ended up writing my first book called Tape Delay, which documented experimental noise music between the years of 1980 to 1985.
After that book came out, I decided to move to Madrid, Spain with my girlfriend Nathalie, who was from the southwest of France but who had come to London to follow music and learn English. We actually met in the record store where I had worked. My goal in Spain was to learn Spanish and write a novel, both of which I did during the three years that we lived there.
It was in Spain that I first began drinking wine, basically because it was less expensive than beer, a beverage that I had been accustomed to drinking in Britain. After a while, I began noticing that wines from different areas of Spain tasted differently, and began reading a little literature on the subject. The interconnection between grapes, regions and countries caught my attention in a similar way that music had interested me with its relationships between groups and musical trends. Soon I began buying inexpensive bottles of wine to accompany my meal nearly every night, mostly Rioja, Valdepenas, Penedes and Riberia des Duero.
About this time, I realized that I couldn’t speak any French yet I had been with my girlfriend for a number of years. So I thought it might be a good idea to be able to communicate with her parents in their language and we decided to take a trip to her village.
Was that the first time you had been to France?
No, I had gone a couple of times before to Paris and then around the country with a rail pass. I knew a bit about French geography and history, but not much about its cuisine or wine.
Where was your girlfriend from?
A very small village in the Armagnac region called Montreal du Gers, which is next to a town called Condom—where she was actually born! I totally lucked out in that her parents owned both the café des sports and the restaurant in the village. So it was pretty much great food and wine from the get go, at prices that couldn’t be beat! I mean I was eating foie gras every day! And at that point, I simply thought that was the way all French people ate!
We went back to Spain and about a year later we decided to move to Bordeaux. It was 2001, not a great year for the economy and we were finding it very hard to get work. For my wife this was especially difficult as she couldn’t even get a job in a hotel because, even though she spoke three languages, she didn’t have the diploma. Anyway, I started work on a second novel and began studying the wines of Bordeaux.
Fed up with the job prospects in Bordeaux, we decided to move to Rome, where we ended up spending 9 months. I worked when I could, and continued on this second novel at night. While walking around the city, I’d check out wine stores, browse through wine books and at the end of the week buy a couple of bottles and drink them on Sunday with a big meal.
Nathalie and I decided to get married, so we went back to her village and lived there for a number of months. I began learning some French at that point, at least enough to say “Oui” during our big Gascon wedding!
So when did you get in the wine business?
I realize this has taken me a long time to answer this question: after living in Austin, TX for about 9 months, my wife got a job that transferred her to NYC. I also realized that I was going to have to get a 40- hour a week job! I knew a good amount about wine and had been to a good amount of wine regions in Europe, and so I decided to get a job in a store. After a few months, I became the European wine buyer and, fortunately, had a boss that loved to eat and drink. So every day we would drink a bottle or two, eat some food, and have fun with the customers!
After a few years I realized that I didn’t want to be in NY anymore and, on the spur of the moment, decided to move to California. Go west, young man! the voices seemed to say. And so we loaded up the car and moved to…San Francisco!
Is that when you started importing wine?
Sorry, we’re not quite there yet…I first got a job at a store in the city where I worked for about a year. Then I decided that I wanted to write another book, and this time I decided that the subject would be Armagnac! My wife was pregnant with our second kid and during the last three months of her pregnancy, I decided to go of to her village and France, base myself at her parents’ house, and see every Armagnac producer in the region. During this fascinating process, my French not only improved drastically but I also learned a ton about my wife’s region and wrote my fourth book.
When I got back to the states, I didn’t really want to work at the store anymore, and I didn’t really want to work for a distributor either, so I decided to approach whom I considered to be the best Armagnac producers that were not being imported into the country and find them importers, with me acting as broker.
I hooked up with some importers and sales were good. It was great! A couple months before I had been sweating in a car whipping around the Armagnac region seeing tiny producers and suddenly I had the total attention of sommeliers at three star restaurants around the country!
Saying that, let it be know that it isn’t easy to make a living selling just high-end Armagnac. So I realized that I could invest in import licenses and begin bringing in wine as well. So in 1998 I took the commission money from my first year’s Armagnac sales and invested it in 350 cases of wine from Southwestern France.
How has France affected your work?
I greatly admire the diversity of France, not necessarily on a political level, but certainly on a gastronomic and cultural level. This could be said of all countries in Europe, and I certainly enjoy spending time all over the continent. I suppose the ability to communicate in the language, to have traveled many, many times around the country and to understand the cultural differences between the region and appreciate them all for their originality, has tremendously affected me as a person and made what I do, for the most part, that much more rewarding. Obviously finding new producers and continuing relationships with old ones is not always fun and games, but the good memories are always the ones that seem to remain.
How has France affected your life?
France has now played an important role in my life for 25% of the time I’ve walked the earth. My wife is French, my kids both speak fluent French, I am writing or speaking French every day, and I travel there between four and six times a year. My in-laws are in France and many friends are in France too. So you could say that France plays a very large role in my life.
That being said, even though I have a deep connection with France, I know that I am not French. I speak with an accent and don’t have much interest in politics (ha ha). Like a vagabond, I am there for a couple of weeks at a time and then return to California to continue my life there. What almost seems of more interest to me is the relationship that the French can have with a person from another country that fluently speaks their language: once bottles are put on the table and the food is served, I could be in France or with my friends in the US, England, Spain, Italy or France for that matter!
If you live in the Bay Area the following shops have an assortment of Charles’ favorite Calvados.
D & M on Fillmore Street
SF Wine Trading Company on Taravel Street
K & L on 4th Street
Cask on 3rd Street
Plump Jack on 24th Street
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