There's certainly no shortage of trendy wine bars and chic venues in Bordeaux, but these places aren't really exciting except maybe for people easily impressed by big brands, luxury and prestige. Here is the absolute opposite, a complete anachronism in today's sleek Bordeaux where the downtown area seems to have been remodeled to look hip and spotless like a project drawing in a glossy real-estate magazine.
Like often in major French towns you have to leave the very heart of the town to find areas not yet euthanized by urban planners forcing their dreams of grandeur with their stash of taxpayers' money. We're here in Talence, it's still Bordeaux with its low-rise échoppes that have usually a sunny garden in the back. Talence is the university hub of Bordeaux with also a lot of engineer schools and technical institutes. In the place of Talence centuries ago there were thick forests mixed with agricultural land, and rich Bordeaux merchants would come here to hunt wild boars, that's why the black silhouette on Talence's coat of arms.
I found this wine venue through the friend at whose place I was staying, this was a good surprise, a real place with a soul where local people would stop for a glass and for the conversation of its irreplaceable owner, Georgette, a rebel and at the same time a guardian of tradition, who is basically open every day except sunday (I've read that she used to be open even on sundays in the past) and where you can sip a glass of Bordeaux for just 1 €...
Georgette who is 80 has been managing this bar for years, but let's rewind a few more years back before she landed here :
On january 31 1910, a wine merchant named J. Dibasson & Cie opened this wine shop on 71 Cours du Maréchal Gallieni (the street was named Chemin de Pessac back then). Later in the 1930s' the venue changed hands and was purchased by mr & mrs Labat who were owning restaurants and bars in Bordeaux. Later on, Mr & Mrs Garnier managed this wine shop & bar from 1940 to 1971, when Georgette's husband Daniel Pailler bought the place. After he passed away years ago Georgette remained alone at the wheel, keeping alive the ageless conviviality of the venue.
When you walk in you notice immediately that you're not in a conventional bar, it has something of a literary café where you speak and chat more than you drink, Georgette sitting with the patrons who are of course often regulars. The walls are stacked with bottles of course but also with all sort of things that Georgette collects or were given to her as gifts by fans of the place. When I thought about this curious place it reminded me of certain local bars in Japan that are almost like a second home for the regulars and where you may feel intimidated on your first try (even when you're Japanese), for example it makes me think to this nice place to eat and drink in Uguisudani, Onkel Curry which shared many similarities with this place (I wrote about it on this story, scroll down to 11th picture). Both venues are similarly small and stacked with a mix of bottles and odd objects you wondered if they were decorative or a tribute for someone or something.
Here we are, all the place was like that, with carefully-selected mottles of wines mixed with strange puppets and pictures, it looked like an altar and a visual poem. I hadn't come here for the wines, to be frank, just to have a glass with my friend and enjoy the place, but who knows, she selects the wines herself and there may be unexpected gems in the lot, and it's always wise to remember that the experience of sharing makes a big part in the experience of wine, a particular wine that tastes bland when swallowed alone might almost be checked as excellent if you're in a good company.
If you're a Pastis lover, there's in here a unique collection of Pastis bottles, limited edition designs and so on. Call it a trick, the French spirits company regularly releases different bottle designs that stand out from their traditional label, and when you're a regular consumer of Pastis (which I am not) you're certainly encouraged to buy a few more bottles to show off. Anyway, at Georgette's place I'm ready to become a Pastis drinker and enjoy this southern apéritif in a frienfly ambiance...
Now about the wines, as said above I didn't come here for the wines per se, I think all these wines are certainly conventional wines made in very-average family wineries, but who cares, Georgette is doing such a great job having people living around come and spend time together, that's the most important thing. And remember her prices, you get here a full glass of wine from 1 €, just try to find that in downtown Bordeaux, you'll have to look hard, and whatever you'll find at 5 times the price has a good chance to be very mainstream too, and I'm not sure the surrounding and atmosphere will be as casual and forgiving...
This bar has not such old roots but the good thing is that when Georgette's husband bought the place in the 1970s' he got also some documents that had been attached to the wine shop since the early 20th century, like this letter dated 31 january 1910 (oddly that's exactly the day and yeat Mr Dibasson bought the wine shop) where the owner Dibasson is writing to Bergon Ainé, a nécociant in Montblanc that he has potential buyers for 9 % and 10 % wine and he'd like to hear about his conditions and prices. Wine was delivered directly in barrels back then and the wine shops would fill bottles for the customers. A 9 % to 10 % alcohol wine was obviously a thirst wine for every day needs, and I'd have liked to know how this tasted. The letter continues and says that even if the négociant already sells to a distributor here "there should be some room for two or even three sellers". They finish by asking for a few samples (échantillons) as well as price and conditions. The mystery is why was this letter found in the bar in the first place if it was supposed to have been sent to the négociant.
I found this document on this blog page.
Real places are sometimes visited by local politicians who want to be felt as connected to the working class and the tradition, and the mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé who is a former prime minister and also a likely presidential contender in the 2017 elections dropped here one day in 1995 as immortalized by this newspaper clip. He visited the bar later too and on his last visit, from Georgette's own account, the center-right politician was not welcome, as he had (or at least his city administration) some time before ordered her to remove a couple of advertising panels which she had on her side wall on the street. These wall space rentals would make her a bit of money to supplement her meager retirement revenues but this argument doesn't count. The mayor [who is also the initiator of the costly tramway-toy and city "renovation"] was thus shown the door and gently asked to go somewhere else.
On the blog page I linked to above you learn that if the city administration loves the sleek tramway and the anti-parking posts, it dislikes disorderly-looking real bars, and for example Georgette who had kept for years a couple of chairs and a table outside on the sidewalk was ordered to take them in (I'm almost sure the bureaucrats hid their motives behind a fuzzy health- or security issue because of the traffic...). Asked by the blog writer [this was a good question] what she thought about the city's recent transformation, she said she didn't care (Je m'en fous). For me it's now a sure thing : Georgette is a real rebel who isn't convinced by the sleek real-estate narrative of Bordeaux's urban renovation which has lobotomized so many people into accepting that their city be somehow sanitized and pasteurized.
The wine shop has even retained the old French ways of selling wine directly in bulk : Let's remind that, say until the 1950s', everywhere you'd have a wine shop in France you'd have the possibility to buy your wine in bulk, that is, bring a few empty glass bottles or other containers and fill them from the barrel in the shop. This was not a fancy, hype thing then, it was the norm because glass bottles were expensive and you'd have the same bottles which you'd have filled time and again at your corner wine shop. We all know this great picture by Henry Cartier-Bresson of a boy proudly bringing back two bottles of wine home, his father or mother probably told him to run to the wine shop and have these two bottles filled, and the street photographer who passed by shot the iconic picture. In Paris there's still an old wine shop/bar that has kept the thing alive, it's the Baron Rouge where you can have your bottles or containers filled and pay by the volume.
Georgette's cubiténaires (bag-in-boxes) are not as sexy as barrels but the spirit is the same, allow her customers to buy cheap wine by the bulk, a real service for neighborhood people. In this interview you learn that some 10 years ago she'd stil have barrels from which she'd sell wine to her customers but she (reluctantly, I understand) switched to the ba-in-box, she had two of them when we visited, a red and a rosé. I forgot to ask abouit the wine and the price but a couple years ago it was something like 1,8 € a liter (according to the linked article).
Another great tradition she's keeping : at harvest time she's selling bourru by the bulk, this sweet juice-turning-into-wine treat which goes under the name of vin nouveau or bernache in other regions. She really sells it by the bulk, she says in the article that she had a patron who'd buy 8 liters of it per week. I don't understand why bars and wine shop don't reinstate this tradition, they'd get new customers like me, that's sure.
I takes something for me not to laud a venue regardless of the wines it sells but Georgette's bar has already so many qualities that I won't say anything about the wines, I just took a couple of glasses with my friend and we had a good time, which is what sharing wine is about. You won't ruin yourself at the Bar Cave Arthur : the list is short and simple : one rosé, one red at 1 € a glass; dry white : 1,5 €; sweet white : 1,6 €; Kronembourg beer : 2,20 €; 1664 beer : 2,50 €; Porto : 2,50 €; whisky : 3 €.
Edit : I am sad to learn on february 2017 that Georgette passed away about a month after I wrote this story. I think many people are affected by this news, we all have thoughts for her and her family.