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A non-wine drinker in France

Part-time France inhabitant Mike Zampa doesn’t like wine – and admits that Orangina simply doesn’t cut the mustard…

I need a drink. To clarify: I need a drink in France. That’s a much bigger problem.

We spend a lot of time in France – 4-to-6 months annually. It involves a fair amount of socializing. This activity falls into three categories:

  • Get-togethers (light hors d’ouvres)
  • Aperos (four hours of light hors d’oeuvres without a main course)
  • Dinner parties (a main course, but no shorts or sandals)

There’s a common denominator running through all of these gatherings: social drinking. The social part is easy enough. The drinking? Not so much.

I don’t drink a lot. That’s not a boast. It’s an admission. Can’t stand the taste. A cocktail is usually followed by a scrunched-up face and lip smacking. Think of puppy’s first lemon.

There are, to be certain, one or two cocktails that don’t taste like scurvy. But this is France. Order a sloe gin fizz here and they’ll deport you. I need a drink that doesn’t make me look as though I swallowed a gecko.

The choices are few. There’s Lillet, an aromatized wine that sounds like it was aged in underwear. There’s also an Aperol Spritz, the 21st century Harvey Wallbanger.

Then there’s pastis. This is the drink that separates Frenchmen from the civilized world. Pastis is clear, harmless-looking liquid. Much like nitroglycerine. It’s diluted with water. The result is the cloudy mixture you see in Frankstein’s test tube.

Pastis is defined as anise-flavored spirit. That’s French for licorice sticks. Want to know what it tastes like? Simple. Walk into a field. Look for wild fennel. Now lick it. You’ve just had pastis. That’ll be 7 euros. Pay at the caisse on the way out.

If this were London, I’d be OK. I tolerate gin and tonic. But even that’s become fraught. They’ve now got designer gin. It’s infused with rosemary, and thyme. Like sipping a Simon and Garfunkel CD.

Problem is, we’re not in London. It’s France. Which means I’ve got two choices: 1) limonade (Sprite without the stigma); or 2) Orangina (wonderful pulpy soda in bulbous bottles). Our favorite restaurant in Belves serves me Orangina without asking. They roll their eyes and hide it in brown paper bags. Don’t want to frighten the customers.

As if this weren’t bad enough, here’s a more grievous admission: I don’t like wine, either. Our house borders the world’s premier wine-producing region in Southwest France. But I can’t drink the vintages.

Everything about France’s most glamorous industry is wondrous. The St. Emilion vineyards are exquisite – especially when they blaze with autumn hues. The chateaux where grapes are fermented conjure fairytales. But one sip of wine and I pucker like a goldfish.

Which makes cultural assimilation difficult. No wine banter during parties. No clue when the waiter brings the wine list. No tasting at the Bordeaux wine museum.

We have a good friend, Steve. He knows wine. He knows that I don’t. He once watched as I attempted to open a bottle of red that guests brought. “Stop, don’t do that,” he snapped. “Why?” I asked in astonishment. “Because that wine costs $70 a bottle,” he said. “It’s too good for you.” He was right. I gave it back.

I’m not proud of the missing wine gene. It’s a French character flaw. And I want so much to be liked here. I even agree to watch rugby.

The good news is that there’s not a lot of wine snootiness. Our favorite vendor sells crisp whites for 5 euros on market day. We buy them for guests. They drink it graciously. But they never ask us to bring wine to their parties.

There’s something amiable, sociable, about sitting at a French café, glass in-hand. But the picture falls apart when the glass is frothing over with chocolate milk. That’s why I need a drink. Not right now, but generally.

There are only two requirements. It can’t taste like antifreeze. And it’s got to look good in the hand. Because I can hold my liquor with the best of them. I just can’t drink it.

Mike Zampa is a communications consultant and retired newspaper editor and columnist splitting time, along with his wife, between Southwest France and the San Francisco Bay Area

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