Being Organic

Spent the day cleaning the house and studying French until about 3:30 when I had to get out for a walk. Took one of my favorite routes through the village, passing five wineries, then out the road to Cucugnan, which takes me past several vineyards and a farm housing a few donkeys. Take a left at the municipal swimming pool to a small road through more vineyards.

Photo of road
Near the Swimming Pool ©2011 Ron Scherl

 

I walked up to a vineyard owned by Marcel Buhler that I have been photographing periodically since I got here. It’s a beautiful place, alive, organic.

 

Vineyard Photo
Maury Vineyard ©2011 Ron Scherl

After shooting for a while, I walked on. The next plot was clearly not being farmed organically and the difference was striking: everything looked dead. The vines, of course are alive, just entering the dormant winter months, but there’s nothing else. The insecticides and herbicides used to prevent vine diseases have destroyed everything else.

Comparing 2 vineyards

Look at the vineyard on the left, all the vegetation is thriving; there are multiple kinds of grasses, weeds and moss. The place is teeming with insects, flying around and biting my neck. The vineyard is farmed organically adhering to many biodynamic principles and is certified organic by Ecocert.  Biodynamism holds that the vineyard is a complete environment and the insects, animals, weeds, grasses, soil, rocks and vines are all part of the environment and necessary for its health. It is a philosophy based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner and is much more in use in Europe than the United States.

 

There is a clear connection here to “terroir” a concept that goes beyond the soil to encompass the entire environment of the vineyard and includes the effects of the intervention of human animals as well. Today’s Holy Grail of winemaking is a wine that expresses the terroir or has a sense of place. Here in the Roussillon it is often expressed in minerality that should come from the extreme rockiness of the soil. David Darlington in his book: An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection quotes winemaker Randall Grahm “To put it simply, if your soils are alive, you get minerals from them.”

 

It‘s difficult to come to any conclusion other than those farmers not using organic methods are poisoning the soil they depend on for their livelihood. This is where the influx of new winemakers like Marcel can make a difference; a healthy interchange of ideas, learning from each other is exactly what Charles Chivilo, the mayor of Maury spoke about as one of the benefits of foreign investments in the vineyards. So the old residents can learn organic farming methods and perhaps teach the newcomers to hunt wild boar. Because for everyone, it always comes back to the land.

 

Photo of Woman Mending Fences
Mending Fences ©2011 Ron Scherl

A Conversation with the Mayor

Charles Chivilo has been mayor of Maury for ten years. I’ve been coming here for six of those years and I’ve been trying to photograph him since the beginning but somehow it’s never worked. He was out of town or I was on my way back to San Francisco. He tried to call me back but my phone had no voice mail. One of us was sick. But those were two-week visits and this time I’m here for a while. So as part of the celebration of the Festival of Saint Brice, I went to Mass and waited for him at the only exit. He was happy to agree to a portrait and interview, gave me his cell phone number and even called to confirm. My guess is that he knew I’ve already photographed nearly the whole town and wondered what took me so long.

Photo of Charles Chivilo
Charles Chivilo, Mayor of Maury ©2011 Ron Scherl

At 5:30 last Thursday we sat down in his office for a chat. He readily agreed to let me record the conversation so I could translate his answers later and consult my French teacher if necessary. It was. Chivilo is casual and friendly; he is a potter as well as a politician and in speaking about Maury he sounds more like an artist shaping a new work in the context of an ancient tradition than a politician trying to win votes.

 

Photo of Charles Chivilo
Charles Chivilo, Mayor of Maury ©2011 Ron Scherl

Looking at one of my photos of the village, he pointed to an area near the coop and said that’s where the new houses would be built. New houses, news to me. The village plans to build seventy new houses to accommodate expected population growth as the commute distance to Perpignan expands to encompass Maury. Now this is far from environmentally sound planning and the idea of Maury becoming a bedroom community is horrifying, but there is a need to renew the aging population of the village to ensure the continuation of commercial and social services. And Chivilo is very clear on priorities: “I want above all to ensure that Maury remains a village. It is passionate, the relationship I have with Maury.”

 

At the Mass last Sunday, Chivilo warned the parishioners of the threat from the extreme right. His voice was soft but carried an unmistakable urgency; again, he didn’t sound like a politician, more like a cleric. In previous times of economic distress Europe has allowed the rise of fascism, which pushed people toward hatred and violence. He pleaded with people to remember the lessons of the past and not to succumb to the trap of blaming others for economic problems.

 

Photo of Charles Chivilo
Charles Chivilo, Mayor of Maury ©2011 Ron Scherl

Chivilo was born in Chambéry in the French Alps. He came to Maury in 1983 because: “I fell in love with a Catalan woman and she could not live in the cold mountains. She had to have the rosemary, thyme and the garrigue of the Fenouilledes.”

 

He smiles as he speaks of her in that same soft voice and he is equally convincing talking of his love for his wife and his passion for Maury.

The Festival of Saint Brice

This weekend marked the festival of Saint Brice, the patron saint of Maury. Brice was born in 370 and raised by St. Martin in Marmoutiers, near Strasbourg in Alsace.

According to the Catholic.org web site, he was a “vain, overly ambitious cleric”, who “neglected his duties, was several times accused of lackness and immorality.” He was exiled from his See and after seven years in Rome, “he returned and ruled with such humility, holiness and ability, he was venerated as a saint by the time of his death.”

He died in 444. It is unclear how he became the patron saint of Maury, but I like a town that will give a guy a second chance.

The form of the festival changes each year with the makeup of the organizing committee. A couple of years ago there was a Mexican theme, complete with a parade and mariachis marching up to the town square. This year we had a schedule of events that would not be out of place in any small town in America.

There was a mini carnival with bumper cars, a merry-go-round, a booth where you try to snag a prize from a bin, and cotton candy.

Carnival photo
Carnival ©2011 Ron Scherl

There was a dance last night with a band named Système sans Interdit, which roughly translates to a system without prohibitions, or total freedom, which is why, I suppose they chose to play in their underwear. Looking at their web site, it seems they do this quite often and it works with their self description: “French and Kitsch Music.” The crowd was mixed: older women who left early, young families with little girls dancing and little boys running in circles, and teenaged girls ignoring teenaged boys. It never quite reached the critical mass necessary for ignition but that didn’t seem to bother the band who played without a break for longer than I could take.

Photo of Rock Concert
Systeme sans Interdit ©2011 Ron Scherl

There was music at the mass too, a special event for St. Brice’s feast day. Cobla Nova Germanor is a Catalan band from Perpignan whose motto is “Long live the Sardana”. I was thinking of the guitar playing folk singers now an integral part of contemporary Jewish services, but this was different, here they provided some quiet background music to the procession, communion and collection. The mass began with an almost orderly procession of children to the altar and included readings by four of the more prominent women in town. It concluded with a short and warmly received speech by the mayor.

Photo of Mass
Before the Mass ©2011 Ron Scherl
Photo of mass
The Mass ©2011 Ron Scherl

After the mass everyone went over to the Mairie for an aperitif and potato chips. The mayor poured wine, the band had a little more freedom and several women found just enough room to dance a Sardana while the men talked business.

Photo of the mayor
Mayor Charles Chivilo Serving an Aperitif ©2011 Ron Scherl

The weekend concluded with a tea dance but worn out from all the unusual activity, I slept right through it.   (No Photo)

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.