Competition – Cynthia Coutu


Cynthia Coutu writes: 'I am Cynthia, a 50-something Canadian. I have been living in Paris for more than 25 years. I have 3 passions: people, wine and travel. I try to combine all 3 whenever possible. Learning about wine has opened so many doors and windows for me – onto new people, different cultures and fascinating places. When I was a teenager my mom used to joke that my friends were from embassy row to skid row. Not much has changed since then. I have drunk homemade rice wine with the very scantily-dressed chief of a headhunting tribe in Borneo. Perched up high in his longhouse, he shared his top 10 list of things to do on the island with me. I also savoured a couple of bottles of delicious red wine with a slightly more dressed (he was wearing a bathrobe) Governor General of Canada during his official visit to France. During our lovely tête-à-tête in a 5-star hotel he shared his passion about collecting tomato seeds from around the world, and the wine that Jacques Chirac had delivered to his room. I have also shared chang (Tibetan beer) with a bunch of Tibetan monks who invited me to celebrate the Tibetan New Year with them in a monastery in Nepal. I have sipped red, white, still, sparkling, and fortified wine from so many countries, with so many interesting people, from so many different walks of life. Everybody had an interesting story to share.

'About 6 months ago I created, a Champagne Networking Club for Women, to give women the opportunity to share their stories and knowledge with other women while sipping sparkling wine. Delectabulles supports women in the male-dominated wine industry by:

  • promoting sparkling wines made by women and telling their stories
  • giving more women the tools and confidence they need to buy sparkling wines from around the world.'

This is her (unedited) entry into our seminal wine competition.

I left Canada over 25 years ago to study art history in Paris. All I had in my pocket was my degree in photography, my camera, a small grant from the French government, a big student loan, a Curious George soft toy, and a Canadian boyfriend who was passionate about philosophy and fly-fishing.


We found a small flat in the very residential 14th arrondissement. Thanks to my “charming” Québécois accent, I was able to quickly befriend the local merchants. My cheese monger loved maple syrup. I would bring him two cans of the real stuff, and he would give me two grocery bags full of every type of cheese in the shop. Was a sweet deal! We exchanged recipes and he taught me so much about cheese during my first year in Paris. My caviste was a 2-minute walk from the flat. He was such a lovely little old man and his shop was like Ali Baba’s cavern. He was so eager to get me to try a new appellation from a new region of France every time I went to see him. During my weekly visits we would discuss my impressions of the last bottle before he would give me a new bottle. He was so generous with his time and knowledge. I am eternally indebted to him.

I didn’t actually get much academic studying done that first winter. My time was mostly spent exploring Paris, eating cheese, drinking wine and… tying flies. I knew we would be going back to Canada late Spring for our annual fly-fishing trip. Tying our own flies during the winter was our way of building up the anticipation for the trip in a kind of Zen and artsy-fartsy way.

A few weeks before the fishing trip I went to see my caviste and told him that I had an idea. “Monsieur, I want to marry the best of both worlds – Canadian nature and French wine. Please help me find ZE right bottle!”. I explained that I would be fly-fishing about 5 hours north of Quebec City, in a very remote area, only accessible after 3 hours on the autoroute, 1 hour on a dirt road, then 3 portages on the river Metabetchouane. Our final destination was a beautiful and secluded log cabin built at the beginning of the century for rich Americans. I was willing to hand over all of my savings – 400 FF (about 60 euros!) – to buy the best possible bottle to take on the trip. My caviste was very excited by the idea. He rubbed his hands with glee, locked the door, and said follow me. He opened a secret trap in the floor and explained that is where he kept his good stuff, and that it wasn’t usually for sale. His wife was an avid bridge player, and when her fellow lady bridge players became widows, they often sold their personal wine cellars before moving to the South of France. Guess who was there to make them an offer? My little old caviste. I didn’t know very much about wine at the time, but I knew enough to recognise some big names in his secret stash. We spent at least 30 minutes down there and came up with two bottles: a Cheval Blanc, and a Haut-Brion. The latter was from 1982, but I can’t remember the year of the former. I couldn’t decide which bottle to buy. Neither could my caviste. He said it was impossible to choose. The hero of the day gave me the two bottles for 400FF! And a long list of instructions on how to take care of them during the journey. He made me promise to report back to him.

So off I went with my liquid gold. The bottles survived the long plane ride and bumpy road trip. I carried them like babies in the canoe, then let them rest for a few days in the beautiful log cabin overlooking the river. We got up early every morning to fly-fish for speckled trout. They were more like fresh water salmon than trout. The males were blue and purple and the females were red and orange. And they were big, not like scrawny little French trout. They were also very clever fish that had to be outsmarted. We had to observe nature and deduce what they were eating, and where, in order to choose the right fly to lure them. Some days we fished on the river, but most days we hiked to nearby lakes. On our fourth day we had glorious weather so fished longer than usual. We got back to camp late, tired and hungry, but satisfied with our catch. While gutting the fish we discussed how we would cook them. We agreed we would wrap them in bacon and fry them up. We also agreed that the wine bottles had probably rested enough and that tonight was the night we would open one of them. I decided it would be the 1982 Haut-Brion.

We wanted to eat outside even if it was pitch black. It is humbling to see so many stars on a clear night. Just as we sat down to eat, the sky lit up with the most beautiful blue and green dancing Northern Lights. We were awestruck. We didn’t speak. We took a slow sip of the Haut-Brion. Then we just looked at each other, then at the sky, then at our glasses. We kept drinking in complete silence and enjoyed the beauty of the wine and the sky. Felt like I had died and went to heaven. That is when I understood what all the fuss about wine was about.

I couldn’t wait to tell my caviste the story upon my return to Paris. Needless to say, he loved it, and I continued learning about wine with him until I moved to a new quartier about 5 years later. I now have a WSET 3 in my pocket but I am not sure it would have enabled me to appreciate that Haut-Brion against the backdrop of the Aurora Borealis any more than I did. I could have probably broken it down technically, but that would be missing the point, and the beauty. You just have to let it in.