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Paris Wine Museum
By Vivian Thomas


Walking down the steep stairway that descends from the Passy Métro station toward the Seine, I understand why this area was once called Chaillot Hill. At the bottom, almost directly under the Bir-Hakeim Bridge, I turn right into the quiet Rue des Eaux.
The waters of the street’s name once made the village of Passy famous. Iron-rich mineral springs discovered here in 1719 became renowned for curing sterility in women, turning the quiet village into a fashionable health spa that flourished until about 1800.
But I haven’t come for the water I’ve come for the wine. And I find it at the Musée du Vin, just off the Rue des Eaux in the Square Charles-Dickens. The building, with its heavy wooden door and lanterns surmounted by wrought-iron grapevines, is dwarfed by the towering immeubles that surround it. But once I push open the door and walk inside, I leave the 20th century behind.
The interior comes as a complete surprise. Dark and cool, it’s a labyrinth of vaulted stone passages literally carved out of the hill I just walked down. Bypassing an attractive wine bar and restaurant, I head for the gift shop, where the museum begins. Here, I begin to understand the history of this intriguing place.
Although the museum opened in 1984, this area was producing wine as early as the 15th century. These caves once belonged to a monastery whose monks cultivated vineyards on the slopes of Chaillot Hill and whose terraced gardens and orchards swept down to the river. Rue des Vignes and Rue Vineuse are reminders of that era. Louis XIII was a fan of their vin clairet he liked to stop here for refreshment on his return from wolf hunting in the Bois de Boulogne.
Besides the caves where the monks stored their wine, other tunnels remain from quarries where limestone was extracted for building material. When the Revolution destroyed the abbey and the quarries closed, the site was abandoned until the 1950s, when it became a wine cellar for the restaurants of the Eiffel Tower, just across the river. The museum was opened by the Conseil des Echansons de France, a group dedicated to promoting France’s best wines.
Wandering through the winding passage-ways, I learn quite a bit about the history of French wine, its principal terroirs and the winemaking process. The artifacts are especially interesting. Beautifully detailed tin weathervanes illustrating wine-related industries were once used as advertising by the artisans. A 19th-century halberd (a wrought-iron lance on a stout oak handle) was carried by Alsatian garde-vignes who protected the ripe grapes from thieves.
Tools for tilling, pruning and harvesting are here, along with pressoirs and bottling implements. Waxwork figures represent such diverse characters as a tonnelier (barrel maker) at work, Pasteur researching bacteria harmful to wine and Napoléon I seated in his tent, a glass of his favorite Chambertin before him. Glancing into one gated archway, I am startled to see the figure of Balzac in his monk’s robe creeping down the stone steps to escape creditors waiting at his home on nearby Rue Raynouard.
Several interesting exhibits concern wine lore and legends: one displays sheet music for songs about wine, and another lists 23 saints on whom winemakers relied for heavenly help, from the Vierge aux Raisins to Saint Vincent, patron saint of vignerons.
The visit ends with a dégustation. Seated in the bar à vin, I am offered a glass of red, white or rosé from vineyards in Gaillac owned by the museum society. The wine bar, open the same hours as the museum, offers an impressive list of wines by the bottle or glass, and the restaurant, open for lunch only, serves traditional French cuisine. What better place to enjoy boeuf au chinon or filet de perche au muscadet than in the historic vaulted caves of the Musée du Vin? 
Musée du Vin: 5 Square Charles-Dickens, 16th. 
Open daily 10am-6pm. 
Tel: (1) 45 25 63 26. 
Entrance: 35F. 

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