The Legend of the Grand Arnaque
In 2009, Czech-born Ardéche vigneron Andrea Calek foresaw wine speculation coming for natural wine. So he borrowed an image from an artist friend, Jakub Šimák, and decided to play a little joke.
Back in 2015, when 6ème arrondissement bistrot Café de la Nouvelle Mairie was known for its influence on natural wine and not Emily in Paris, I was sitting near the bar when I noticed an unfamiliar label displayed high on the wall among more famous empty bottles from the likes of Dard & Ribo and Yvon Métras.
It was a vintage 2008 wine bearing the name of Czech-born Ardèche vigneron Andrea Calek, but instead of his trademark, minimal, multi-colored brushstroke motif, it bore a sumptuous, slightly unnerving neo-impressionist Biblical painting.
“That’s the Grand Arnaque,” said then-owner Ben Fourty, when I asked him about it. “You don’t know the story of the Grand Arnaque?”
CALEK’S GRAND ARNAQUE
Though he would assuredly deny it if asked, or get up and leave the room, or drown the conversation in a foreign opera station, Andrea Calek has always been a savvy manipulator of the media. He has just been, on several occasions, weirdly ahead of his time. An extensive source for Alice Feiring’s early books, themselves ahead of their time, Calek lived in a picturesque trailer beside his vines before Instagram was around to document it.
“Grand Arnaque,” as Fourty explained to me that day, and as Calek later confirmed, was an extended joke on the natural wine world, and in particular, Calek’s own professional clients.
When the 2007 wine was released in 2009, Calek refused to divulge any information about the its origins or its grape varieties, explaining only that the wholesale price corresponded to his age at the time the wine was harvested. The 2007 “Grande Arnaque” thus cost a staggering 37€ ex-cellar, a price unheard-of for a wine from Ardèche. The 2008 cost 38€. For comparison, wholesale ex-cellar prices for Calek’s other wines hover between 6.50€-15€ at time of writing.
“Grande Arnaque” still found its way onto shop shelves and wine lists. The striking label surely helped: a Biblical image borrowed from a 1990 painting by Calek’s hometown friend Jakub Šimák. And professional buyers were no doubt tickled, despite themselves, by the wine’s name, which translates to “big rip-off.”
“I can do 10,000 bottles of that sort of wine. It’s easy,” Calek told me. “But it doesn’t interest me. So I stopped.”
When it came time to release the 2009 vintage, Calek decided to let the curtain drop. He renamed the wine “Pounktchek,” gave it a new label without artwork, and explained to sommelier and retail buyers that it was precisely the same wine, produced from purchased grenache and syrah from Ardèche. Only now Calek sold it for 3€ per bottle, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the two infamous vintage of “Grande Arnaque.”
Who among his clients could complain? Who could say they weren’t warned?
“There were sommeliers who were dying of laughter,” Calek recalls, “and there were sommeliers who didn’t laugh at all.”
MY GRAND ARNAQUE
When you create a Substack, the platform encourages you to allow subscribers the option of paying more than a standard subscription free to become what Substack calls “Founding Members.” Not wishing to fleece my most generous supporters outright, I decided to create a gift for Founding Members, in the form of an image to hang on a wall.
The first, produced in 2021, was an artist print of a painting of a blue chicken by the painter and sommelier and cellar-hand Denis Pesnot, brother of Loire-Atlantique vigneron Marc Pesnot, and a key comrade-in-arms of the early natural winemakers of the Beaujolais.
Seeking a second image with an interesting story, I alighted upon the label of “Grand Arnaque.” Andrea Calek and Jakub Šimák kindly gave their approval for my use of the image, but there remained the challenge of producing the artist print, since the original file was lost, and the painting itself, as far as Calek knew, was in the possession of their mutual friend Libor, who lives near Šimák in the remote Czech countryside beside the town of Pardubice.
Not to be discouraged, in January 2022 I visited Libor in Pardubice after attending the Bottled Alive salon. It was, after all, only three hours out of our way on our sleet-strewn return route to the Rheinhessen that evening. So it was that just before dusk that January evening we arrived at the home of Libor, who unearthed the painting from behind several boxes of fermenting homegrown tobacco so we could photograph it in his yard in the fading winter light.
Libor, along with Calek’s companion Stephana Nicolescou, also kindly acted as intermediary throughout my further investigations, as I tried to piece together basic information about the origins of the painting and of its creator, Jakub Šimák, who speaks little English.
ABOUT JAKUB ŠIMÀK
Born in 1971, Jakub Šimák works as a building restorer in his and Andrea Calek’s hometown of Pardubice, Czech Republic. Untrained as an artist, Šimák painted Maddie ( which would years later become the label image of “Grand Arnaque”) in 1990. Maddie was exhibited once, in 1991, at Pardubice Protestant church Husův Sbor. A later exhibition of Šimák’s secular work followed at Pardubice’s Nora Gallery in 1994.
Šimák met Calek in various taverns around Pardubice, and they became friends while hitchhiking to France together in 1990. They remain in contact, and Šimák enjoys Calek’s wines on special occasions. He says it has been a long time since he has regularly produced art.
From now until stocks run out, Founding Member subscribers to NOT DRINKING POISON will receive a limited-run (100 copies) print of Jakub Šimák’s Maddie, as immortalized on Andrea Calek’s two vintages of “Grand Arnaque.”
For more obscure tales from deep within natural wine lore, be sure to subscribe!
Disgorging pet-nat in 2021 chez Andrea Calek with Stephana Nicolescou.
Founding Member Gift #1: The Paintings of Denis Pesnot
My 2018 review of Café de la Nouvelle Mairie at Paris By Mouth. Nota bene: ownership has changed since this review was written, and from what I understand the spirit has left the building.