An Outsider at The Source Part Eight: From Phoenix and the Savoie

December 28, 2018

On my third day I woke to find Ted and Andrea quietly pecking at their laptops in the living room, having already gone for a run down along the quays. I made myself some eggs and pod coffee, ate the last of our bread and not to be outdone, banged out a quick workout with my TRX in my room; like my hosts, I tried to maintain an exercise regimen throughout the trip. Then, as if an alarm had gone off, we packed up as quick as we could and ran out to go visit one of Ted’s most colorful producers.

We drove an hour south to Lyon and then another east into the French Alps toward the Savoie, a wine region set amid mountain lakes and lush forests. As we entered the foothills, the slopes showed diagonally striated tiers, with trees growing in slanted lines like soldiers marching up ramps from left to right. Ted said that these geological structures were formed when limestone created by the deposit of countless tiny seashells fell in layers over millions of years, and then were pushed upward at these angles when the African plate hit the Eurasian plate over millions more. Sculptural sedimentary formations that look like ocean waves coming into shore known as Cuestas as well as sedimentary (sandstone) rocks also occur in the Savoie. All these shapes in the area remind him a little of parts of Arizona, where he lived for a time in his early twenties.

Ted grew up in Montana, and was especially close with his brother Jim, who showed early signs of artistic talent, studied French, and in a characteristically eccentric move, took on a French name (Serge). He was good at so many things that it was always hard for him to apply himself in one direction; everyone thought he was too smart for his own good. But his Francophilia had an inevitable and indelible effect on Ted, who also became a student of the culture and fell in love with the country from afar. This eventually inspired Ted to leave Montana and go to Arizona after Jim left, the first step on a circuitous route that would eventually send him on the first of countless visits to Europe.

Then, when Ted was living in Phoenix, he had a roommate named James Harrison, who showed the kid from Montana what it was to be worldly. Yet another Francophile, James had lived in Paris for a year when he was twenty-three, until he got caught working illegally and was kicked out. He was forced to leave a French wife behind, though they stayed in touch.

Ted was in awe of James’s inexhaustible passion, creativity and charisma. Every morning James woke up and took a hit of weed and a shot of scotch. He played violin, harmonica, flute and piano, and would practice some or all of these, then work on a painting and/or write poetry each day before going in for a shift at the restaurant where they both worked. After he punched out he would often play his harmonica with the house jazz band. Ted said that it in those sessions, it seemed like he was unloading his soul.

All the girls wanted James and the guys wanted to be him, and everything always seemed to go his way. Ted picked up an interest in cooking from him and they shared a passion for wine. The friendship had a profound effect on the path Ted would take into the future; James was like Dean Moriarty in On The Road, the erratic, magnetic mentor. Then, at some point, James moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, where a gallery in town put up installations of his paintings. They eventually lost touch, and about a year later Ted got the news that, like so many of his rarified kind, he had killed himself.

Ted finished this story and we drove for a while in silence. He finally added that those were the years when he became obsessed with wine, which ultimately opened up countless other aspects of the world to him. Once he’s interested in something, he’s all in; when he was a small child he began collecting rocks, which was the start of his fascination with geology. He moved on to comic books and amassed a huge collection of early editions. Now his wine cellars are very well-stocked with many cases of the best vintages.

We came upon the little town of Chambéry, the capital of Savoie, where we stopped for lunch. After parking in a big modern lot in the middle of a town square, we walked into a cute little village of old cobblestone streets that cut off at sharp angles between four-story buildings with refreshingly colorful paint jobs and green shutters. Pale reds, greens and yellows lined up between very few of the more familiar beige and gray structures seen everywhere else.

Going on a hunch instead of the internet, we went into Café de la Place, a charming little joint with a zinc bar, about ten tables inside (the six outside were full on this beautiful day) and a chalkboard menu. The serveuse was friendly and efficient and smiled the whole time we were there. She exchanged jokes with the bearded man behind the bar and almost all of the customers who stopped by for a standing espresso pick-me-up.

I ordered a Cervalas Lyonnais, a lightly cured sausage endemic to Lyon, with lentils, fingerling potatoes and a small salad on the side. It was presented simply in three little piles, like a home-cooked meal and came out surprisingly fast. The sausage was lean and like the potatoes, perfectly cooked to tenderness and not overly salted as similar dishes often are. I washed everything down with a blonde beer and was as satisfied as a hungry traveler can be.

After making it quick, we jumped back into the car and started for the nearby commune and appellation of Apremont, known for a particularly dramatic and relatively recent geological event that laid down its very borders, nine hundred years ago. Ted immediately grew even more animated as he started telling the story—of course he was excited, he was talking about rocks.

Next: Masson and the Mountain