If there was ever a month to dry out your liver, it was January 2021. Les Anonymes was cancelled. Les Pénitentes was cancelled. The 22nd La Dive Bouteille was cancelled, and just like that the three biggest
drinking tasting commitments in the French natural wine calendar were no more than a memory — exceptional in itself considering the correlation between alcohol and memory loss.
If you’ve never been, maybe you’re wondering how three natural wine salons that normally take place beginning of February might get in the way of detoxing in January. If you have, then you know the real problem is not that you will kill yourself trying to be at three different locations all at the same time (all of which are on overlapping days and two of which are 60km away from the third), but that one is obligated not to give up drinking in the run up in order to maintain a sufficient tolerance to alcohol to stay alive.
This year, in order to keep other people alive, the salons have been postponed but for Les Pénitentes. Officially. Unofficially the shared wisdom seems to be that believing in the future is for suckers, that ‘postponed until March’ may as well mean cancelled, and that come rain or shine people are hellbent on living like they will die — but only after Monday 31st, which marks the fin of an extended weekend of back-to-back tastings. All the same, it would be prudent to keep drinking right through February on the chance the official fairs do go ahead.
No daylight and unlimited wine means plans go to hell.
So you have another month to prepare. If you’re like me, an extension on a deadline isn’t really an extension because you won’t have started anyway. Don’t be like me. Here is my advice on how to prepare and stay on the right side of life at La Dive:
1. The places you expect everyone to be (so, the Jura corner), will be the places where everyone is. Don’t wait for a ‘quiet moment’. It is only quiet when the wine’s gone.
2. Don’t dress too warm. A damp Loire cave in the cold of winter is warmer than you think.
3. Further notes on dress code: know that it is only people who don’t make wine who wear those cattle rancher Chelsea boots. Ditto pristine Patagonia fleece. If you were a steward of the earth, would you pay 100-plus euros for ready to wear micro plastic?
4. Have a plan! And wear a watch. Like casinos, there is no daylight in caves. And no daylight and unlimited wine means plans go to hell.
Your approach depends on what you go for. Are you a professional with an actual portfolio of wines you represent? Then you go to who you know first. Are you pro at being on the scene rather than an actual pro? Better stick to the people you don’t know than get stuck in conversation with those you know too well. First timer? Go to where there’s space to taste.
5. On tasting: I’m not a good taster, but I suspect even those who are would agree la Dive is not a great place to taste. Loud, dim and only four-ish months after fermentations have started let alone finished, with half a centimetre of liquid with which to divine what the wine might taste like in real life without people pushing empty glasses over your shoulder: a lot is left to the imagination. Having said that, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to get such an all-star turn out to show up in one place (or answer their emails); so tasting aside, it’s a pretty spectacular event.
There will be parties. They will be every night.
6. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but know that Jean Pierre Robinot poses with everyone.
7. Don’t forget to eat! Round about the time you remember, everyone else will have too. And no, the oysters don’t do much to line your stomach.
8. There will be parties. They will be every night. It’s a good idea to (try to) have a night off.
9. Spending two days in seven kilometres of underground labyrinth might feel other worldly but remember real-world rules apply! Eye contact, empathy, appreciation, conversation, politeness and patience remain virtues even on Pleasure Island.
10. Keep an open mind. My highlight of 2017 was actually a vinegar. La Guinelle is doing great things.
This is a survival guide, but I don’t mean to be blasé. La Dive is a privilege not to be taken for granted. It’s a privilege to meet with friends from around the world, and people you know too intimately from the internet. It’s a privilege that so many incredible winemakers take the time and pay the money so you can taste your way through the who’s-who of the natural wine world practically for free. Think of the organisation. The spit-bucket emptiers, barrel-rollers and clean up teams. Think of the work that goes into the wine you’re too drunk, tired, or just too ‘can’t be bothered’ to taste.
I’m grateful this will be my sixth year of going to the dive, even if I still think Les Anonymes is best.
Note: all the wine fairs mentioned above are for professionals who work in the wine trade only.