PARIS -- Dressed for a chilly day in his native New England, David Witter answers the door of his apartment in the Marais district here. The youthful 62-year-old expatriate American is settled into his adopted city and, some might say, has a dream job. He teaches Parisians about wine -- in English.
You would think that would raise some eyebrows. But it doesn't seem to. "It's not really an issue," says Witter, waving his hand in the air. "Plus, I'm not really very threatening. Once people want to know more about wine, it doesn't make a difference who's teaching it."
"The idea is a little bizarre," says one of Witter's first students, Florence Delile, a Parisian translator.
"I lived for 20 years in the US, but it's true that it's a bit weird in Paris." She happens to admire the teacher. Otherwise, she says, "If it wasn't David, I wouldn't do it."
Born in Hartford and raised in Newington, Conn., Witter went to Clark University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He spent 12 years living in Washington, D.C., working in mass transportation for the government, when he began learning about wine and collecting bottles. "I still have a 1966 Margaux from that first cellar," he recalls.
"At 35, I decided half of my statistical life was over and wanted to do something new," he says. "I bought a house in Maine, then called my government job [in Washington] and said I was leaving."
He landed in Blue Hill and began devoting himself to wine full-time.
"I enjoyed tasting wine, but also like learning more about it," he says. "It's an open-ended sport to find interesting wines." In Maine, Witter and his partner, Bill Petry, opened a wine shop in an old barn. "We called it 'The Blue Hill Tea and Tobacco Shop,' because we thought the name gave it a certain cache. Then in 1998, we changed the name to 'The Blue Hill Wine Shop' and sales doubled."
Witter also began offering wine dinners at the Blue Hill Inn, using well-known chefs and pairing wines with the courses. Since the first one 14 years ago, he estimates that he has organized about 75 dinners. On occasional trips back to Maine, he continues to organize the wine dinners.
Witter and Petry sold their stakes in their shop in April 2002 and Witter moved to Paris. The wine classes started as an offshoot of a French-English language group before they became regular events. His courses have found a market that Parisian wine experts have yet to tap. "He's not too formal or theoretical like French enologists would be," says Delile. "He doesn't go too deep into theory, which is good for me, yet I still get a deeper appreciation for what wine is." Still, Witter has the occasional winemaker come to class.
When students arrive at Witter's apartment, he presents each one with a folder containing a list of the night's offerings -- around half a dozen -- along with a description of each, including his own take on pronunciations.
There's also an evaluation sheet and vocabulary lists that include "David's Beginning Wine Tasting Vocabulary." Individual classes cost 35 euros ($45 to $50).
The whole operation has a somewhat naive approach, as if Witter decided to live life to the fullest and did the thing he knew best. But it's working. On a list by the door, which includes reminders such as "Don't forget your keys," a quote from Jonathan Swift tops the sheet: "May you live all the days of your life."
Witter is doing his best to live by the adage.
For more information on David Witter's wine classes, go to www.davidinparis.com.