A Familiar Tale

Things are a bit different here but I was ready. I had to battle through intense skepticism from my partners who would not believe the French could carry out this mission. I knew better. My contact at the Ecole Primaire, a beautiful, long legged blonde with a checkered past and a sexy accent assured me the operation would go off as scheduled, nightfall tonight, October 31. I was to leave the lights on, a signal that would not seem out of place to a casual observer.

 

As the afternoon wore on, I began to worry. Could I really trust her? I wanted to call, but knew she wouldn’t answer, not today. I tried to nap but couldn’t sleep, checked and re-checked my gear and finally got up to begin my preparations. I have a certain ritual about these things. It’s not superstition but I figure why mess with it when it works. There are a lot of faces I don’t see at the café anymore, but I’m still here.

 

Shower, shave, manly deodorant. My housekeeper, a beautiful petite brunette with Hungarian and Canadian passports and a husband for each had made sure everything was clean and neatly folded: black jeans, Giants T-shirt, Giants cap. The real stuff, traditional and black. My mitt wasn’t where it should be but I wouldn’t need it tonight.

 

I got out the Nikons and went to the locked drawer for the memory cards. I always keep them separate to prevent an accident in case I have children. It’s worked so far. Knowing I needed to be fast and agile and might have to quickly flee if things went sour, I decided on the D7000, 16-85 and SB900 with a small softbox. The softbox was a gamble but I thought I might have to cover a large area and knew it would put the odds on my side.

 

I went downstairs, turned the lights on, lit a candle to be sure and sat down to wait. It was a long night and I began to get sleepy. I knew if I fell asleep in this weather I would never wake up. I was thinking of calling it a night and watching a movie on my IPad when things started to turn around. First my partners returned from the station with a mysterious Brit and a pitcher of muscat. I was distracted for a moment by a tale of a beautiful French cellist playing Bach on the Eurostar and it almost cost me, but I was back on my game when the operation began.

 

Halloween Photo
Advance Scout ©2011 Ron Scherl

They started slowly, sending the young ones out alone and in pairs. Despite all my preparations, the SB 900 let me down. I checked and re-checked the settings but something was amiss. I was able to hold them off with bonbons, but I knew my supply would not last the night. I finally got a breather, and was able to adjust the 900. I knew it might only work for one shot and I could hear the carriages coming down the hill; if they split off and tried to outflank me I was doomed. As my batteries were recharging and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I couldn’t believe my good fortune: they had decided on a standard formation and big smiles.

 

I held my breath and pressed the button.

Halloween Photo
Happy Halloween ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

Harvest is Over

Photo of Vineyards and moon
Autumn Vineyards ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

It’s the end of baseball season, a Paul Simon song, a seasonal affliction for sure, winter coming, end of the year, plants go dormant and people die. Less daylight means that life will move indoors and artificial light does not provide the same energy.

 

Photographing the harvest and subsequent processing of the fruit, I was struck by how much production remains handwork. The grapes are primarily picked by hand; only a few relatively flat, trellised vineyards can be picked by machine and that procedure is mostly shunned by the region’s better winemakers. The selection process; weeding out fruit that is under ripe or overly dried out is done first cluster by cluster, then again, berry by berry. Equipment is disassembled, washed and reassembled every day. Fermentation tanks have to be emptied and the only way to do it, even in the most high tech of wineries, is for someone to jump in and shovel it out.

 

Photo of hands
Working Hands ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

Photo of sorting table
Selection of Berries ©2011 Ron Scherl
Photo of Tank Cleaning
Domaine du Dernier Bastion ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

Hand crafting fine wines is a very personal endeavor. Sure there is some repeatable science, the sugar content of grapes will determine the percentage of alcohol in the wine if certain procedures are followed. Many parts of this can be predicted, but the really interesting element is in human taste and philosophy and the decisions that are made as a result. Certainly winemakers test the chemistry throughout the process, but they also taste, from grapes on the vines to wine in the barrel and decisions are made as a result of both processes, decisions that will hopefully produce the wine envisioned at the beginning. It’s a gloriously human, incredibly imprecise process and that’s where the fascination lies for me. And it’s why I’ll be focusing on the people who make the wine, crafting portraits in words and photos that I hope will express the personalities of a diverse group of individuals who have chosen to make wine here in Maury.

Photo of RichardCase
Richard Case ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

For the winemaker, processing the last fruit ends the most intense period of labor and that will mean the same for me: wine resting in barrels is not a great photo op. Time to write more, study French, and prepare for several key portraits and interviews while still periodically photographing the vines through the seasons. This is the first milestone in the project. There will be more.

 

Landscape at Sunset
View from the Road to Cucugnan ©2011 Ron Scherl

Wild Boar

Wild boar is hunted all the time in this part of France; either you eat the sanglier or the pig eats your grapes.

So when Marcel Buhler of Domaine des Enfants throws a party to celebrate the end of harvest 2011, there’s boar and there’s wine.

Young people come from all over Europe to work the harvest making communication hit or miss, but wine creates a common language… up to a point. Early in the evening I was struggling through a conversation in French, trying to understand accents I couldn’t identify, when it suddenly took a turn that left me totally baffled. Now this is not unusual, especially here where the southern accent can mix in some Catalan and a bit of Occitane and will always add a syllable where you least expect it. Often I’ll hear a word I just don’t understand and in trying to figure it out, I lose the thread of the conversation, but this was different. I was totally lost, not a clue.  Finally, one of my friends turned to me and said: “That was funny, I started talking in Polish and he answered me in Czech”. Wine can only do so much.

 

The party started around 4, but the recently deceased entrée wasn’t ready until about 9, so we had about a five hour wine tasting. This is not an every day occurrence, nor should it be. You really can’t taste much after the first four hours.

The pig was a different story, spit roasted over grenache vines, absolutely delicious and quickly consumed.

The kids party easily, but the joy was in watching Marcel. He is a very intense man, whether pruning, picking or processing, but on this night with the crew paid, the pig cooked and the wine at rest, he was finally able to relax

Here are a few photos of the evening. Savor them with a nicely balanced, full bodied red wine preferably from the Roussillon.

Sunday Evening

Sundays are family days in Maury: the oldest generation usually hosting the younger ones for long lunches. Next door, Therese’s son and daughter in law come every week and Therese is out early making sure no one takes their parking space in front of the house. Up and down the street, people arrive for lunch with an armload of baguettes and children in tow.

 

No market today, the boulangerie is open in the morning, then a little after noon the town goes quiet, everyone at table. I’d expect to see large-pot stews: coq au vin, perhaps a blanquette de veau or wild boar when the hunters have been successful in protecting the vines. The vin de Maury is an aperitif and the local grenache noir will anchor the entrée.

 

Today the wind is up, blowing through the valley with a force strong enough to shake this old stone walled house. It’s autumn and life is beginning to move indoors. Harvest is almost over with very few vineyards left to pick, colors are changing, evenings are a little cooler, sweaters and jackets reappear.

 

Photo of men in front of painting
Fantasy Cafe ©2011 Ron Scherl

Families are back in their cars and heading home in the early evening as I go out for a walk. There are still a few hours of daylight and the quiet streets and fresh air are a pleasure. Although shutters are rattling and leaves blowing, it’s still warm and the air is soft. Businesses are closed and few people are out. The men have convened for their nightly photo op in front of the trompe l’oeil café, but the wind has kept the women from the olive tree salon. Occasionally the sound of a television leaks out onto the narrow streets and bounces off the close buildings.

 

Now here’s a hopeful sign posted on the window of the cafe.

Photo of sign announcing closure of cafe
Sign in the Window of the Cafe ©2011 Ron Scherl

If ever a business was in need of change it’s our café. Let’s hope for friendly proprietors, good pizza, sandwiches and local wine. Is that too much to ask?

 

This is a great time to walk up the road to Lesquerdes with camera and tripod and photograph the village and vineyards as the sun sets. It’s especially beautiful when the winds have recently blown through and cleared the air; the light seems to etch the edges of vines and mountains and picks out details not often seen. This quiet time also allows for longer and more contemplative shooting which lets me see the texture that the camera doesn’t always render but the mind can still record.

Photo of Maury and Mountains

Watching the light change on the mountains, etching the shape of a 12th century chateau, evoking the age of the land itself brings an understanding that the Maury wine revolution and societal changes that will follow are a small part of the story. Yes, there will be changes, there’s money coming in and more will follow. Tourist trade will increase, hotels will be built, but I wouldn’t worry that new, more popular wines or the influx of foreigners like myself will spoil this place because wine is made in the vineyards. The land is unspoiled, the connection of the people to the land is profound and the continuity of generations that keeps this town alive preserves the spirit and traditions that make it a wonderful place to live.

 

Chasing Marie

Let me set the scene for you: about 7:30 AM, overcast sky, autumn chill in the air, steep hillside vineyard of old vine grenache noir between Maury and St. Paul.

Vineyard photo
Thunevin-Calvet: Harvest 2011 ©2011 Ron Scherl

Last night at dinner I had a lovely bottle of the 2007 Thunevin-Calvet “Les Dentelles”; this morning I’m photographing the 2011 harvest. Or, to be more precise, I’m chasing after Marie Calvet, trying to photograph her as she manages the crew, picks grapes, drives the truck and throws sticks for her dog, Boolah.

 

Photo of Marie Calvet
Marie Calvet ©2011 Ron Scherl

Marie and her husband, Jean-Roger run Thunevin-Calvet winery in partnership with Jean-Luc Thunevin. And Marie runs the harvest, really runs the harvest.

She has more energy than an oil company and no time to wait for the perfect photo. She’s a dynamo and it’s hard to photograph someone moving that fast in early morning light. Trudging up and sliding down the hill, bedecked with cameras and a bit of a hangover, I’m trying to keep up with her.

Photo of Marie Calvet
Marie Calvet ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

She has no mercy. I get to a vine and she’s finished. I focus and she ducks down for the low hanging fruit. I try to anticipate where she’ll go next and she’s off in a different direction. I turn to photograph another scene and she’s finished the row and moved down the hill. I’m getting better photos of the dog.

Finally, there’s a little rest for refreshment and I ask Marie to pose. She hates this and she can’t stand still, I get two shots and the break ends.

 

Photo of Marie Calvet
Marie Calvet ©2011 Ron Scherl

So we’re back at it and the sun and heat finally break through, sweatshirts come off, pants get rolled up but nothing slows down Marie. I’m starting to think I should photograph the rest of the crew and throw some sticks for the dog, but I really want something good of Marie at the harvest. I plan to follow the Calvets through the year, but the harvest is a special time and I really don’t have what I want yet. Keep pushing, if she can do it so can I. I’m encouraged when she walks past me, sighs and says “je suis fatigué”. Who knew?

Photo of Marie Calvet
Marie Calvet ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

Photo of Marie Calvet
Marie Calvet ©2011 Ron Scherl

Noon means lunch. I’m still not sure I have what I need but I know I’m done for the day. Marie tells me that they’ll be picking a beautiful vineyard up near Queribus next week and she’ll call and tell me when. I’ll be there.

I plan to invite Marie and Jean-Roger to dinner, but I’ll wait until after the harvest.

Thunder

Thunder rolling all around the valley tonight and every time it rolls the starlings who hang out in the olive tree across the street, lose their voice and take flight.

Lots of noise, but not much rain yet.

 

Photo of threatening skies
Saturday Night Sky ©2011 Ron Scherl

Maury is in fact quite a bit noisier these days. There are two large home renovation projects on our street that keep the volume up from 8:30 – 5:00 except for the sacred two-hour lunch. Then at night, when the town is normally quiet, the Spanish harvest workers keep things lively with guitar music and what sound like furious arguments that always seem to end peacefully.

 

Harvest makes Maury feel like the center of the action, with everyone busy, intense and focused on wine. The weather becomes vital and is closely followed. Last night at the café Manu was advising some visitors to go to the beach Saturday because the winds will arrive Monday. People just know this stuff. This morning at the market, I mentioned to Thierry, the produce man that it was very quiet and asked him if it was normal for a Saturday. For a Saturday during harvest, he said. Everyone is in the vineyards. Went on to the fish truck to talk to Monica about grilling on a wood fire. She really has beautiful fresh fish including great oysters from Leucate and terrific mussels, not cheap but fair. She steered me to the salmon for grilling and how could I argue, buying two pieces, which was exactly twice as much as I needed.

 

There was a bit of rain but it seems to have passed, the guitars have come out and the chorus of starlings has returned.

 

Time for dinner.

Marcel

It’s a pretty common fantasy, from wage slaves in cubicles to CEO’s in corner offices, the dream of chucking it all to buy a vineyard and make wine is pervasive and sometimes persuasive. Few can do it, but if you have enough money and are willing to risk it, you can probably find a farmer willing to take a nice profit on a piece of land. Check out the lawyers and dotcom millionaires in the Napa Valley and look up a former Swiss banker in the Agly Valley by the name of Marcel Buhler.

There may be other dreamers in the banking houses of Zurich, but Marcel actually did it. He took off the tie, left the office, and is making wine the way he wants. Good move. Good wine.

I first met Marcel in January of this year when he was pruning vines and I was looking for a story. He taught me about pruning, I made some photos.

Marcel Buhler pruning the vines in his vineyard in Maury
Marcel Buhler pruning the vines in his vineyard in Maury ©2011 Ron Scherl

Now it’s the beginning of September and the picking has begun, white wine first, grenache blanc, grenache gris, maccabeu and a bit of carignane blanc. Marcel and a crew of seven or eight, including his wife Carrie Sumner, are working a small hilly vineyard between Maury and St. Paul.

Carrie Harvesting
Carrie Harvesting ©2011 Ron Scherl

Picking is done in the morning, starting around 7 AM and usually finishing by lunch although Marcel has been known to push ahead, skipping lunch when he can finish a vineyard by early afternoon. He is intensely focused, listening to music and blocking out as many distractions as possible. A crew that works with minimal direction and zero friction is essential and seemed to be a reality on the days I went out with them. The workers come from around Europe – Spain, Italy, Czech Republic – and the miracle of communication through the mélange of languages and accents is very impressive. They are, as you’d expect, mostly young, pursuing the romance, sleeping in cars, living free on the road. I can remember.

Marco Harvesting
Marco Harvesting ©2011 Ron Scherl

The method calls for cutting away the dried out berries that retain too much sugar for the blend. Doing this in the vineyard means the picking will take a little longer, but there’s no place in the production line to make this happen. It also means he needs pickers who are experienced and careful and since these workers are transient, every year is a new ballgame.

The grapes are collected in bins known as cagettes, which are trucked to the winery. This bit is important because of what comes next.

Crushing Grapes Under Foot
Crushing Grapes Under Foot ©2011 Ron Scherl

Yep, they do it with their feet. I’m thinking isn’t this sweet and pure and terribly romantic until Marcel explained the reasons for it. In his white wines, he wants to retain some of the flavor from the stems, but not too much. Putting the whole batch in a crusher would extract more from the stems than he wants in the wine. Crushing this way does not damage the stems, thereby limiting the contribution to the final wine.

Now I know exactly what you’re thinking, what does that feel like? Well, that’s exactly why I had to try it.

Photo of Ron pressing grapes
Large Pale Man Crushing Maccabeu ©2011 Carrie Sumner

First off the grapes are warm, they’ve just come in from a very hot vineyard, and they’re tough. Those little maccabeu guys are meaty and slippery and it takes a while to get them crushed, big feet are a definite advantage in this business. Unlike dancing, it’s OK to look at your feet while doing this and it’s a good idea because as the juice increases, the berries become more mobile and harder to trap. Finally, there’s a lot of sugar in there, so it gets a bit sticky. This is definitely not the sensual experience of a lifetime and the main attraction for the workers just may be getting to take your shoes off and wash your feet after a morning in the vineyards.

From the feet to the press where the juice that flows free is pumped over the must several times before being pumped into a chilled plastic storage tank where it is left to rest and for the impurities to settle out. Temperature is kept below the point where fermentation can occur. Once the impurities have settled to the bottom, the juice is racked out to barrels for fermentation. Natural yeast, no filtering or fining.

Domaine des Enfants: Pressing and Tasting the Juice
Marcel Tasting the Juice ©2011 Ron Scherl

It’s important to remember that this is an outline of Marcel’s methods; along the way he will make decisions based on testing, tasting and the kind of wine he wants to make. Others will do it differently, with different goals in mind, different resources, or simply because that’s the way they learned to make wine. I’ll look at a couple of different approaches in this blog and we’ll check back in with Marcel at different stages of the process.

Saturday in the Vineyard with Georges

As you would expect, one contact leads to another, and so to Georges.
Photo of Georges Feuerstein
Georges Feuerstein ©2011 Ron Scherl

The first phone call was a masterpiece of miscommunication, speaking French is harder for me on the phone and Georges, who has spent all of his 79 years in Rasiguères, has that southern accent that seems to mix in a bit of Catalan and a dash of Occitan. It was a struggle, but we managed to agree on Saturday morning at 9:00 in front of the Mairie in Rasiguères.

 

The first thing Georges did was take me over to the coop to taste some of the local wines and, as always happens, when I taste I buy. He did, however, secure a 20% discount for me, which he was very happy to point out. Business accomplished, we went out to a small syrah vineyard where Georges introduced me to his son, grandson, granddaughter and the rest of the pickers. Turned out the grandson was on the Domaine Pertuisane crew I had photographed and he wanted to know if I had any good photos of his girlfriend who was also there.

 

In this method of harvesting, the pickers drop the grapes in buckets which are the dumped into la hotte, the plastic bin carried by one of the workers. When full, he dumps the load into a truck, which is unloaded directly into the crusher at the coop.

 

When the picking was finished for the day, Georges invited me back to his house for something to drink. He seemed pleased when I accepted a glass of sweet wine and we made our way as best we could through a conversation in which he explained how the wine had been stored in oak, giving it a characteristic brown color. When I told him I liked it very much, Georges went out to the garage, drew a bottle from the barrel and sent me on my way with a bonne journée.

Click the thumbnail to see a larger image.

 

 

Visa Pour L’Image

Here’s the Place Republique in Perpignan most days:

Market in Perpignan
Market in the Place Republique, Perpignan ©2009 Ron Scherl

Like many great cities, Perpignan provides a lovely public space that serves as meeting place, living room, market and cafe for many people. The market is there most mornings and the square is surrounded by good food shops and cafes. Think of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid or the Piazza San Marco in Venice, now scale it down in size, number of tourists and architectural ambition and you have the Republique in Perpignan, a place appropriate to its setting.

Now take a look at the place in the evening during Visa Pour L’Image:

Photo of Visa crowd
Overflow crowd at Visa Pour L'Image ©2011 Ron Scherl

This is one night in a week of presentations and this is the overflow audience, those who couldn’t get in to the program at the Campo Santo. They’ve filled the plaza to watch the video broadcast of the presentation of the year’s best photojournalism. It’s astonishing to see a crowd like this paying attention to the images and paying homage to those journalists who risk everything to tell a story. I’m in awe of them and very fond of this city that welcomes and honors them.

Incredible Images, great storytelling, courage, a commitment to telling the truth, as we democratize the news and encourage citizen reporting, it’s important to remember the value of professionalism.

Quiet Period

I haven’t written recently but I have been busy. I managed to open a bank account although I’m not allowed to have checks because I don’t have a salary. I can, however have a debit card so that should suffice. I bought a car – 1997 Renault Twingo – insured it and even, in a clear victory over the forces of bureaucracy, managed to register it.

So now it’s time to get to work, starting with evening walks in the vineyards. I wanted to revisit sites I had photographed in January just to set the scene and because I think the land and a connection to it is a key element of this story.

This is Marcel Buhler’s vineyard in January, looking like an open-air witches’ graveyard:

Vines in winter
Grenache Vines in Winter: ©2011 Ron Scherl

And this is the same vineyard today:

vineyard in August
Grenache on the Vine ©2011 Ron Scherl

Sorry, took a short break there to get a glass of wine.

These are Marcel’s vineyards and he is one of the people who represents the changes going on here, in wine and, as a result, in the society as a whole. He is Swiss and came here to make wine. Why are people coming here to make wine and what results from that? Why here and now? There’s a glut of wine, who needs more? What happens to the economy of a rural village? How does it affect the society beyond those involved in wine? And what creates the passion? Because this is backbreaking work and the rewards are uncertain.

Here’s Marcel pruning in January:

Marcel Buhler pruning the vines in his vineyard in Maury
Marcel Buhler pruning vines: ©2011 Ron Scherl

OK, I’m going to try to answer these questions by talking to Marcel and others, some new to the area, some who have always been here. I’m going to try to capture portraits of the people and the village in photos and words, but keep an eye on the land. It’s old and tough and difficult to work. It’s beauty is hard, not seductive like a Caribbean beach or a Hawaiian sunset, but it’s always part of the picture.