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A Working Holiday
Chapter 1: We Leave for France
Chapter 10: Looking for Mr. Goodstone
Chapter 11: A mission to la Clape
Chapter 12: Dinner at Château de Lignan
Chapter 13: Antiques and plunder
Chapter 14: The vintner next door
Chapter 15: The rooftops of Nézignan-l'Évêque
Chapter 2: Comes the crusade
Chapter 3: The 13 colonies
Chapter 4: Our curtains are dreadful
Chapter 5: Naked beaches
Chapter 6: A visit to Château des Estanilles
Chapter 7: A pilgrimage to Toulouse
Chapter 8: Remembering Collioure
Chapter 9: The priest and the mayor
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A Working Holiday
Chapter 11: A mission to la Clape

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Alain with a favorite French cookie: the red-eye.
Harrison Ford and I spend the night together. In the land of dreams. I advise Harrison -- hector him, really -- that focus groups can help his career. Here's a man who earns millions per picture. Focus groups! I insist, in dreamy intimacy. But he isn't buying. Dawn breaks over Valros. With his familiar cocked half-smile, he casually dismisses me. No hurt feelings. I insist a last time. Please go away, I hear him think.   Dreams are wishes, according to Freud. Maybe I'm wishing for a new career. Maybe I'm wishing I were younger, and somehow focus groups hold the answer. Harrison Ford and I are about the same age. As his billboard-sized face has coarsened and billowed over the years, so has mine.    Today Alain arrives. And with him comes my temporary new career: day laborer.   Alain's not in the house ten minutes before he solves a mystery: Why does a marble countertop, once flawless, now have a discolored pit in it?

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This 1997 guide comes complete with a fascinating topo map of the region. Oz Clarke is a fan of the Languedoc-Roussillon, "where a new breed of winemaker - maybe French, maybe English, Belgian, Australian or Dutch - is showing that the New World ideal of affordable, easy-to-understand wines has found a new heartland down by the Mediterranean. While up in the hills, the ancient vineyards are proving that tradition and innovation can make excellent bedfellows.".
"Somebody probably put a vitamin C pill there," he guesses. "It absorbed moisture and melted down into the marble." Simple chemistry. Vitamin C is acid. Marble is limestone in disguise, hardened by heat and pressure, but still alkaline. Marble exposed to acid rain will rot. Marble exposed to carelessly handled vitamin C pills also rots. The curse of renters and other destroyers.    Under Alain's watchful eye, we've haunted the second-hand stores, looking for marble-topped pieces. He loves buying expensive materials cheap. In the US, the same gorgeous slab of marble costs 10 times what it costs here in France, close to many sources. Marble quarries are common in the foothills north of Béziers; there are four in just 40 miles, dug into the slopes of the Espinouse. Above the kitchen sink is a slab the color of grape juice. In the dining room, the sideboard marble is a riot of color, like a Milky Way of fireworks. In the kitchen, the counter is dark gray, serene, grave as an imperial audience, now marred by a pill just a bit, like a moth hole in a robe.   Alain disappears. We find him out in the courtyard, smoking a cigarette. During his first marriage, he quit. He took it up again when he divorced. Now that he's married Aimée, we've hoped he'd quit again, to stay healthy for her sake. So far, no.    When we became partners in this house, Simone and I made a deal with Alain: no smoking inside. He's honored the agreement, but it's hard. Back home in Indiana, he smokes while he works. And he works all the time. Nicotine is fuel, bolstered by caffeine, delivered in the Diet Coke he drinks incessantly. For pity's sake, we're in France, the "it's cool to smoke" capital of the world. It's a bizarre ironic twist: in a country where cigarette smoking is not only acceptable, it's almost obligatory, Alain has to steal outside in the rain for his fix.   It's Friday. Simone's French cousin, Fabienne, and her husband Jean-Claude, are driving over from their home near Toulon, three hours away. They're both teachers; they're coming as soon as school's out for the day. Late in the afternoon, they tumble in, all hugs and gifts. First order of business: Which winery should we visit?    Jean-Claude is a wine connoisseur. He's attended monthly tastings for years. He also takes classes to develop his nose. He's given me a nose kit for Bordeaux: a dozen vials to sniff, each containing a different scent that can be found in that region's wines. Pine is one.   The human apparatus seems primitive: our tongues' receptors discern just four tastes; the nerve ends in our noses, just seven odors (scientists believe; the nose is a murky, boogery place). Pine is not a basic odor: it's a blend. And that's the barn door flung wide for connoisseurs: their tongues and noses are all about blends, which are all about degrees of difference, which are infinite. A real connoisseur stares infinity in the eye without blinking.

We're burning daylight. Jean-Claude flogs through Fodor's Wines and Vineyards of Character and Charm in France, a remarkable performance since the book's in English, a language I didn't know he read. He points to Château Mire-l'Étang. "E-yes?" he asks me. Jean-Claude teaches me more about wine on every visit. "Oui, oui," I encourage him. He makes a quick phonecall to Madame Chamayrac, the owner. She will remain open, even though it's near sunset. But hurry. We bolt from the house, seven of us, two cars full, on a flying mission. We have 45 minutes.

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The flying la Clape crew, home for dinner in Valros: (l-r) Fab, Linda, Simone, Jean-Claude, Tom, Alain. Photo by David Smalley.
It's rush hour in Béziers. Road construction, too. I watch Jean-Claude make a turn so sharp around someone's bumper, I swear his car bends in the middle. I follow along meekly. We pass the landmark you see entering and leaving Béziers, a huge black wooden silhouette in the shape of a bull, complete with dangling inseminator, standing atop a hill. I think it's an ad for a steak house. But it could be for the bullfights: Bézier has a municipal arena that gets a heavy workout.    At Coursan we cross the river Aude, which looks undistinguished here. But it rises beneath the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees, in high glacial valleys; and once was a killer, bringing savage, unpredictable floods, October rains as bad as spring spates, until hydroelectric dams controlled it.   The light is fading. Jean-Claude is twisting down narrow back streets, toward the village of Vinassan, where he gets better directions in an apothecary, pushing on in the gathering gloom toward the water, toward la Clape, "one of the lesser-known beauty spots in Languedoc," says Michelin. The La Clape massif is an honorary mountain, a rugged white limestone extrusion, and the tallest feature on the Narbonnais coast. On the way, we pass two estates owned by famous families: Château Céleyran (Toulouse-Lautrec); and opposite, Château Pech-Céleyran (St-Exupéry).    We turn onto the D168, twelve kilometers of twisting road and beautiful landscape, pine woods alternating with vineyards. Jean-Claude gets into a duel with a driver trying to pass. Around a series of tight turns they race, bumpers almost touching. On the straightaway, Jean-Claude relents and the other car jets away into the almost darkness. The sky is no longer blue. Lights are on in the few dwellings. We pass reed beds; we're almost at the Mediterranean. Suddenly there's a sign for Château Mire-l'Étang. We turn through a gate, into a driveway. We can see a man and woman making dinner in the kitchen. We stop, with our lights running. The woman comes out and directs us out back, to the winery. It's twilight. She arrives in a few minutes with a flashlight and a young girl.

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Jacqueline Chamayrac unlocks the tasting room and begins with the second best award-winner. Everyone has a little taste. We nod. Yes. Then there's more excitement: she opens their top-prize winner. Ah! Between seven people we buy three wooden cases. Madame then brings out something very special they only make a little of, a sweet wine, like a port. Sublimely delicious. We buy some of that, too. Her son limps in; he was hurt in a machinery accident, so it's been a harder harvest than usual. We thank her and depart. And she goes back to her supper, sale concluded.   We drive back in total darkness and miss the ho-hum resort of Narbonne-Plage. In the other direction, we also miss Gruissan and the barrier beaches, which bar Narbonne from the sea. Narbo was once a major Roman town, and later a Visigoth capital, after they sacked Rome (and some years before they and the soon-to-be-defunct imperial Romans, now allies, "saved the West" by defeating Attila up north, in 451, in the Champagne region). When her harbor silted up, Narbonne declined.    The barrier beaches of the Languedoc are an amazing geomorphological (earth-forming) phenomenon.   They are not homegrown. They are silt deposits from the Rhône River, 60 miles away. The Rhône's flow is the largest in France. Its spew has smoothed the Languedoc coast, a great arc that looks on a map as if it were drawn with a compass, its indentations now closed by lidos, its rough edges smoothed. One upside to the Rhône's implacable silting: the formation of shallow lagoons like the Bassin de Thau where Bouzigues oysters aplenty grow in farms and pink flamingoes flock.
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