Volume 5
An Online Literary Magazine
March 31, 2011


The Heart of Hospitality


Nick O’Connell


Domaine Tempier: Photo by Nick O'Connell


s this the place? The old mas, or farm house, stands at the end of a long gravel road, surrounded by pines, cypresses and the deep blue dome of the Provençal sky. Grape vines radiate in all directions, their bright green leaves unfolding in the warm spring weather. The house’s thick ochre walls, blue shutters and orange tile roof give it a feeling of stability and permanence, a world away from the noise and tumult of the A50 autoroute up the valley.


My wife Lisa and I park our rental car in the driveway and walk down a row of tall sycamore trees, cicadas singing in the background as if in a Marcel Pagnol novel. I’m looking for Domaine Tempier, a winery epitomizing the local, organic, sustainable ideal long before it became popular in the U.S. It was here that Alice Waters, who helped pioneer American organic cuisine, got her inspiration, as did countless other journalists, chefs, winemakers, friends, visitors and others who enjoyed its legendary hospitality.


But that was more than 30 years ago. Would I still find the same love of great food, wine and company that Waters described? Located among vineyards above the fishing port of Bandol, 30 miles east of Marseilles, Domaine Tempier has belonged to the Peyraud family for generations, a family called “impassioned, exuberant, dedicated to the belief that the meaning of life lies in love and friendship and that these qualities are best expressed at table,” according to Richard Olney in Lulu’s Provençal Table: The Exuberant Food and Wine from the Domaine Tempier Vineyard.


The cookbook made public what many privately knew: Lulu Peyraud was one of the finest cooks in France. A dynamo of a woman with sparkling eyes, dark hair and a warm smile, Lulu welcomed an ever expanding circle of family, friends, and visitors to her table for tapenade, brandade, guinea fowl, roast lamb and brown bread topped with sea urchin roe. The book not only celebrates her cooking, but her infectious joie de vivre.


In a food world increasingly dominated by competitive cooking programs like Top Chef, Iron Chef, and The F Word, I wonder if such hospitality can still exist. In an industry often driven by faddishness and snobbery could simple pleasures of love and friendship find expression? Can hospitality survive in the hospitality industry.


As we approach the building, I spot the Domaine Tempier sign. When I knock on the door, Annick the receptionist, a cheerful blond woman, welcomes us in. “Daniel Ravier will be with you shortly,” she says, leaving us to explore the tasting room. With its stone walls, wood-timbered ceilings and track lighting, it looks like an upscale version of the old estate.


Daniel Ravier arrives and shakes hands with us. Tall, dark-haired and jovial, he wears jeans, a pink dress shirt, and an expression of humorous bemusement. He has just finished meeting with the Peyraud family and looks as though he needs a drink. The family hired him as estate manager in 2000, after brothers François and Jean Marie Peyraud retired and the next generation declined to take over day-to-day operations. François, Jean Marie and their sisters remain actively involved in the business, likely making Ravier’s job a challenging one.


“It’s going the way I want,” Ravier says, laughing. “But they could fire me in five minutes.”


He opens a side door and leads the way to the winery. As we tour the grounds, he tells the story of the estate. The Domaine was founded in 1834 by Lulu Tempier’s family, but over the years fell into neglect. When she and Lucien Peyraud married in 1936, they sought to rebuild its reputation. In 1945, Lucien became president of the Bandol winegrowers association, working tirelessly to improve the estate and earn appellation contrôlée status for the region. While he managed the estate, Lulu raised the children, welcomed visitors and became famous for her warmth, hospitality and excellence as a cook, epitomizing the essence of the Provençal lifestyle.


Lulu choosing the choicest catch of the day.


“We believe in the terroir,” Ravier says, gesturing to the vineyards surrounding us “We are organic and partly biodynamic, but the terroir is the most important thing.” This terroir gives the wine its deep, rich complex flavor, both the rosé, which comes mostly from 20-year-old vines, and the red, which comes from 40- to 50-year old vines. Inside the winery, Ravier begins our tasting with the 2009 Domaine Tempier rosé, which he has just bottled. He pours each of us a glass, which displays a characteristic spicy nose with a whiff of sulphur.


“Do you add sulphur at bottling?” I ask.


“Yes, we do,” he says. “It keeps the wine from going off.” This step had been omitted in the past, leaving the wine vulnerable to spoilage, especially if shipped overseas. Ravier seems to have brought things up to the present without sacrificing the spirit of the estate.


Swirling the wine in the glass, I appreciate its lovely salmon color, weight (more substantial than most rosés) and the exotic, spicy flavor, expressing the exuberant personality of the estate.


“It’s mostly Mourvèdre and Grenache,” Ravier says, “with some Cinsault and Carignan.” He sniffs it, tastes it, nods approvingly, and spits it into the bucket. Then he leads the way downstairs to the cellar, a large, cavernous room containing rows of immense wood foudres, ideal for aging Bandol reds. These 50-hectoliter casks impart little oak flavor, ensuring that the resulting wines will express their true character.


“We don’t like woody wines,” he says. “We use big vats for aging, not the smaller oak barrels.”


This is the spirit of the Domaine Tempier of old, delightfully distinct from the modern international style of wine that relies on oak barrels to produce a pleasant but monotonous taste. Ravier opens a valve on the huge oak casks and extracts a sample. “We’ll start with the Cuvée classique,” he says. “It contains mostly Mourvèdre with some Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan.”


The wine is deep ruby in color, with deep, powerful fresh fruit flavors, plenty of tannins and little trace of the oak taste that predominates in so many New World wines.


“It’s easy to do the assemblage,” he says. “You look for the tears of the wine in the glass. If they go down too fast, it means you have too much alcohol. You try for balance.”


He tastes the wine and then spits a long stream into the tasting bucket. Next we move to the components of the red blend, which are sometimes bottled individually: La Tourtine, mostly Mourvèdre ; La Migoua half Mourvèdre , with a mixture of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah; Cabassaou, mostly Mourvèdre , with an average age of 40 years. Each component displays a strong personality, worthy of being bottled on its own.


Then we taste the same wines from 2007. Dark cherry fruits emerge from behind the tannins. The wines are softer, more approachable, but still make my mouth pucker. “The wines can age from two to 20 years, depending on what you like,” he says. “Usually 6 to 15 years is ideal, depending on the vintage. For example, the 1982 vintage is still very powerful and full of life.”


After the tour, he leads us back up to the reception. We thank him and he excuses himself to return to his office. We linger in the reception room, not wanting the tour to end. As much as I’ve enjoyed it, I feel a little disappointed. What about the legendary Domaine Tempier hospitality? I know I can’t expect the extended table underneath a canopy of vines with sea urchin roe spread on a cracker by Lulu, but everything I’d read about the place created such expectations.


“The Peyraud’s family’s example has been helping us find our balance at Chez Panisse for years,” says Alice Waters in the foreword to Lulu’s Provençal Table. “Like them, we try to live close to the earth and treat it with respect; always look first to the garden and the vineyard for inspiration; rejoice in our families and friends; and let the food and wine speak for themselves at the table.”


During the tour, I’ve caught glimpses of the Domaine Tempier of old, especially in the winemaking, but still I crave something more. I decide to buy three bottles of wine as keepsakes. The credit card machine is slow to process payment, on strike like so many things in France.


An old wooden door creaks open. Out steps 93-year-old Lulu Peyraud wearing a floral print dress. I try not to stare; I didn’t realize she was still alive. Her hair has gone gray, she walks with a cane, but she smiles warmly.


“I’ve enjoyed your recipes,” I tell her in French.


Merci.” Her blues eyes sparkle in welcome. “Bienvenue and bonne dégustation.” After wishing us a good tasting, she returns to the family’s quarters behind the façade of the modern reception room. The spirit of Domaine Tempier still lives!


I stumble out the door into the bright Provençal sunshine, grateful to have caught a glimpse of Lulu and the legendary Domaine Tempier hospitality. I carefully clutch the three bottles of precious Domaine Tempier wine, inspiration for a big summer party I’m already planning back home in the U.S.


Nicholas O'Connell is the publisher of The Writer's Workshop Review. He travels to France frequently, often as part of his Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class. (www.thewritersworkshop.net/travel)


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