At an earlier time in my life I worked in the wine and spirits industry. Over the span of 25 years, there was little in that business I did not do. I worked retail, in restaurants, directed the wine program for a wine and spirits distributor and taught wine classes for adults. About the only aspect of the business I had not done when I retired in 2003 was grow and make the stuff, although I make homemade wine with a group of friends known as “The Pagan Brothers.”
About four years ago, my former employer, now operating an alcoholic beverage logistics company, asked me if I would work for her part time as a broker and consultant. That is how I came to find myself a few weeks back at Bordeaux’s bi-annual wine fair VinExpo. This huge trade show draws thousands of visitors from around the world over the course of its five-day run. The massive exhibition hall is packed with display booths of wine producers from every part of the globe. Naturally, there were representatives from high profile regions such as France, Italy, Germany, Spain and California There also were on hand exhibitors from recently emerged wine producing countries such as Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Needless to say there were delegations from regions hoping to be the next Chile or Australia such as Uruguay, Georgia (the country, not the state) and China.
We spent the first three days of our visit attending the fair picking our way through scores of exhibitors and meeting with winery owner and exporters who ship wine to our U. S. clients. There was a lot of walking. My iPhone pedometer reported I walked nearly 15 miles while attending the fair.
With the fair taking priority, there was almost no time for bird watching, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I was easily distracted by any avian activity, limited as it was, keen on taking in a whole new world of birds. Better opportunities would come when we left the City of Bordeaux and headed out into the surrounding countryside.
I found that the birds I viewed could be divided roughly into three groups. There were those that were identical to species at home such as European starlings, house sparrows and feral pigeons. Then there were those birds that I had never seen before. Finally, there were birds I had never seen, but, gosh, they seemed familiar. Case in point is Europe's common blackbird (family turdidae). This species is a thrush and not related to our blackbirds (family ictiridae) either red-winged or rusty. It is uniformly sooty-colored and has a yellow beak. In all other respects, however, it is very much like our American robin. Its coloring aside, if you saw its body shape and mannerisms, you’d think, “robin!”
On Wednesday, one of our hosts took us on the “obligatory” drive up through the Medoc wine producing region home to many of Bordeaux’s elite properties; Ch. Lafite-Rothschild, Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, Ch. Latour and Ch. Margaux. As an area given over to the monoculture of wine production, the variety of birds to be seen was consequently limited. Some interesting birds were seen just the same. There was a flock of about two-dozen white storks probing a pasture’s tall grass with their long bills. Also seen on separate occasions were kestrels hovering over an open field as they searched for prey.
Over in the Loire River Valley, the terrain was more varied, as were its uses. Grain crops and livestock competed for acreage with the grapevines. Traveling along the Loire River, wading birds (cattle or little egrets?) could be seen on its sand bars. Occasionally a black-headed gull would fly alongside the river’s banks or circle it adjacent to a town. One of the most frequently observed birds was the common swift, not surprising given that many of the towns we visited were comprised of centuries old buildings with chimneys or towers, the kind of nesting site swifts favor. These swifts were slightly larger than our local chimney swifts, but in all other qualities they were the same; small flocks, noisily chattering as they circled and swooped overhead.
In the end, this particular birding experience was a classic example of an “incidental” birding outing, one that clearly was limited by my primary reason for my being there. Just the same, it afforded a tantalizing glimpse of what could be, given more time and opportunity. Consolation? The food and wine certainly was enjoyable.
Photo: The author at the iconic Loire estate Chateau de Chenonceau. Sell wine, see the world.