Tuesday, June 8, 2010

knights of the beer pong table

When I come into the kitchen at 9am, there are four computer print-outs lying on the stainless steel countertop across from the sink (my sink, where I spend the morning washing breakfast dishes): the petit déjeuner list, where I keep track of which room has come to the table and which has not, the minibar checklists, morning and evening, and the rooming list, which lists that night’s coming clients, their assigned rooms, nationality, how much they are paying, and any special notes (generally this means allergies, extra pillow requests, or a special relation to Hugo Merliers). The rooming list is meant to notify the housekeeping staff of which rooms to make up that morning, but for me, it serves as a preview for the night’s events, particularly if it a weekend.

On last Friday’s rooming list, six of our ten rooms were to be single-person occupancy, reserved under the name of “Giraffe”. Their special commentary: Chapitre des Fleurs sur la Vigne, or the Chapter of the Flowering Vine. This seemed like an uncharacteristically poetic way for Madame Schmidt to describe what was going on with our surroundings (two clients arrived yesterday complaining that they hadn’t seen any vineyards on the drive. This is crazy, because the chateau is encompassed by vines, vines, vines as far as the eye can see, which are now indeed beginning to flower.). Maybe this was a group of wine journalists, or some sort of sex cult. You get all sorts in a 300 year old French chateau.

Inès shuffled into the kitchen as I was studying the rooming list.

“So who’s this special person coming today?” I asked. “This herd of giraffes? And why are you doing that?”

She was scraping bits of eggshell off of someone’s dirty breakfast plate into a plastic baggie. “It’s good for my roses,” she explained. “Mr. Giraffe, nice man.” She walked out of the kitchen.

“Okay.” I added eggshells to my mental list of all the items Inès saves from their dumpster-bound destinies: banana peels, coffee grounds, old slippers (for her dogs to chew on), bits of ham (for Teddy. But as she tells him in her best baby-doggie voice as she peels the fattiest strings off of the dish and drops them on a scrap of tin foil, it is Laura who will feed you later, not Inès, sorry, mama’s got things to do.).

I later ascertained from Joey that Mr. Giraffe was not a celebrity pseudonym as I’d assumed, but your run-of-the-mill British shipping insurance billionaire with a cartoon character’s surname. And it turned out that he and his five bachelor buddies were all members of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin: literally, the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Tasting Cup, whose internationally far-flung members are invited periodically throughout the year to meet at their “spiritual home”, the Chateau du Clos de l’Argot (another castle formerly owned by Cistercian monks, just a few kilometers from my own though much larger) for the invocation of knights-to-be and what is meant to be good spirited knightiness. These meetings are known as “Chapters”, and are given these half medievalish, half occult names, like the Chapter of the Flowering Vine, or better, the Chapitre of the Equinoxe in September and the Chapitre des Sarments et de l’Aventure (Vine Shoots and Adventure!) in July. Naturally, the official goings-on of the meetings are top secret, but what follows is always a Saturday night black-tie ball.

What is required of a person to receive invocation into the Knighthood? Well, as Thérèse responded, money, naturally, and an international reputation in wine making or wine buying or, it seems, wine drinking.

The Giraffe boys pulled up the Chateau in a mini bus in the early evening. Madame Schmidt pranced out to greet them. I stood by the front entrance as they all clambered out and began to unload their baggage.

I immediately recognized the Giraffe in the pack, for he was not only the one who had made the reservation, but unquestionably the alpha of the all-male group. While the others seemed to have only recently hit middle age, Mr. Giraffe appeared to be in his mid sixties, with long white hair and a steely knowing in his eyes. He assigned each man to one of six rooms, took the nicest for himself, and announced cocktails on the terrace at 6:30.

I was never entirely sure of the relationship between these men – some were American, some Canadian, one was Australian. I suppose the fast-wheeling wine world is a fairly elite fraternity. Surely, that must be why something as insane as the Knights of the Tasting Cup exists. But I began to imagine that the never-married Mr. Giraffe was seeking an heir to his vast fortune, and had selected these five candidates at a past Chapitre. Perhaps they had each received a wax-sealed envelope containing a plane ticket and few instructions. Dear Wine Enthusiast, Get to Dijon. Mini-bus and potential riches await you.

Cocktail hour turned out to be a magnum bottle of Grand Cru Champagne, which the men guzzled down in about 25 minutes. They then boarded the bus and were off by seven for dinner in Morey Saint Denis.

When turn-down time rolled around that night, Joey and I were pleased to find the six Giraffe rooms to be in virtually untouched condition: nary a pillow rumpled, nor one shower taken. Perhaps there was really something to this knighthood for lushes, I thought. These Chevaliers really are more respectful than the average hotel guest (if not necessarily hygienic).

I felt less sure of their chivalry the next morning, when I came upon the detritus of a bachelor party on the terrace: six enormous goblets tinted with a burgundy film, two empty magnums, three watery cocktail glasses, two ashtrays full of cigar cinders, and a candelabra shellacked in melted wax. This had to have taken place after I left work at 10pm, which surely meant that Joey had stayed well past his 3-11pm shift serving these fools. My heart ached for him and his newborn at home as I scooped a few of the glasses and headed to the kitchen.

So maybe these so-called knights weren’t in any kind of competition, other than some expensive variation of beer pong.

After most of them refused breakfast upon learning of its additional cost, the Giraffe boys set off early for a day of wine-tastings in Beaune. They returned that evening to prepare themselves for the ball, first with another round of magnum drinks, and then to zip into their tuxes, slick back their hair, and slip on their Tastevin medallions, which were literally gigantic sterling silver wine-tasting cups fixed to a ribbon. The badge of their knighthood. Downstairs, Madame Schmidt straightened their bowties and took pictures. The mini-bus purred in the driveway.

“How handsome they look!” Madame Schmidt cooed.

“Good evening, Laura,” Mr. Giraffe said, as he took my hand to kiss it. His breath reeked.

“This is just like prom!” another one of them remarked, without irony. Yes, it was. Except that they were already drunk.

The same knight then turned to me and asked if I wanted to be his prom date. “No, Cinderella can’t go the ball,” I said. “I have to stay and scrub the toilets.” Which was the truth, of course.

“Prince Charming will come and get you one day!” he called, staggering into the bus.

The sliding door slammed shut. I saluted these middle-aged men in tuxedos as they rolled off to their party.

The next morning found the same debris on the terrace, times two. Madame Schmidt told me they had returned with “outsiders” and kept her up until three in the morning. She mentioned something about a striptease.

And they had refused breakfast again. “We have enough croissants to feed a nation!” Inès grumbled in the kitchen. “What a waste!”

She proceeded to squirrel away the extra pastries in her handbag. Maybe not a waste after all.

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