One Year

Thursday marks one year to the day since I arrived in Maury, a chance to indulge in a bit of reflection. I came here because I had to change and because I thought I could make a book here. The book was to be the story of what happens to a traditional rural village when new money comes in to build wineries and make new “International” wines from the old vines that for centuries have been farmed by local families and delivered to the coop to make strong, if mostly undistinguished table wines and a well known fortified sweet wine that is drunk as an aperitif. I was interested in exploring the downside of globalization by drawing a portrait of a village undergoing radical change from rural and isolated to a “wine experience” where tourists flock to bask in the glory of the latest cult wines. I expected to find that locals were being driven off their land and out of their homes by rising prices. I thought the younger generation would be abandoning the village for the city because they could no longer envision succeeding their parents in the family vineyards. I expected corporate hotels and cute B&B’s to be on the drawing board. So what has happened here? Not much.

Change happens but here, everything happens very slowly. Certainly there is new money being invested in the region and that will have some effect in the years to come, but for now the effect is benign. Dave Phinney, (aka: the guy from Napa) has bought 100 hectares of vineyards that were scheduled to be torn out either because they were not productive enough, or because the family had no one left to farm them. That’s about one million euros into a local economy that sorely needs it. Yes, he’s built a winery that seems designed to keep people away and yes, he makes blockbuster, high alcohol, wines for the U.S. market and he will sell them because Phinney is a master marketer. But who is this hurting? Do other winemakers feel they have to keep upping the ante by making bigger wines to match? I don’t see it. The French don’t feel as if they’re being exploited, on the contrary, they argue that all publicity is good and all Maury winemakers stand to profit if the town becomes better known in the wine world.

This is arguable of course, but the mayor, an incurable optimist, believes that change can be managed. He foresees a time when as much as 50% of the vineyards might be owned by outsiders and a free interchange of skills and ideas benefits everyone. That’s a tall order but Charley has the combination of warmth and charisma that makes you want to believe. We’ll see.

There are others here now and they all add something a little different: Marcel Buhler has gone from being a Swiss banker to an organic wine grower. Katie Jones is getting good press for her wines. Eugenia Keegan just bought some vineyards. There’s a group of Mexican vintners just over the hill and Chapoutier from the Rhone just released his first Roussillon wine in the US.

All of this activity has taken place in the last ten years but there aren’t many obvious signs of change in the village. There are about thirty independent wineries in town and more often than not you’ll find multiple generations working together. The coop membership has stabilized with about 130 growers and a goal of making equal amounts of sweet and dry wines. I’ve recently been working with a marketing committee there composed of three men and two women all in their 20’s.

So change is slow and the book I envisioned is not going to happen, well it might be done some day but not by me. I think the impact on the village of the new wineries of today is twenty years away from being evident. I don’t have that kind of patience. Instead, I’ll provide a source for that writer down the road: a portrait of the village as it is today, a look at some of the surrounding area, and a discussion of the only game in town, making wine. The interesting thing about this for me is how much personal taste and philosophy determine the final product. Every winemaker will tell you that the wine she is making truly expresses the terroir from which it comes; yet there are huge differences in wines from the same place. I realize that even a small difference in location, even within the same vineyard, can make a difference in the wine, but the more profound differences come from the mind of the winemaker.

Here’s how Larry Walker put it in an email:

“Maury Grenache will produce what it is told to produce within certain limits. Those limits are very flexible and are set by the will of the winemaker: how ripe do I let these grapes get? How long do I leave them on the skins? How long in oak and what % of new oak–and there are a lot of other details but those are the Big Three: grape ripeness, skin contact, barrel treatment.”

I’ve produced a first step book through Blurb that I originally thought I’d use as a portfolio sample to try to persuade tourist and trade organizations to sponsor the book by agreeing to buy a substantial number of copies. Now I think I’m just going to produce the book I want to make and then see if anyone’s interested in publishing it, which is kind of how this whole thing started.

Between the Vines Cover ©2012 Ron Scherl


Book Review

World War II is still present here. Every village has a memorial to those who died in combat, most built after WWI and updated with names from II, and in some cases, Indochina and Algeria. You still meet people who fought in the war. The village history published in the annual report focuses on the years of the war and talks about the occupation, collaborators and the resistance. It speaks of driving out the collaborationist town government to be replaced by one led by the resistance.

Maury: War Memorial © 2012 Ron Scherl

There’s a wonderful little novel by Vercors, the nom de guerre of the French writer Jean Bruller, called The Silence of the Sea that perfectly captures the horror of war without ever relating a battle.  A German officer is assigned to live with a French family in a small village in the south. The family consists of an uncle and his niece. The officer speaks French and is enamored of French culture. The family will not speak to him or acknowledge his presence. Every evening he comes to see them and talks of his love for France especially the literature and his hope that the two cultures will be married and Europe will be at peace. He speaks of this with total sincerity and it makes me queasy to read it.


The family never responds but they listen. The book consists almost entirely of physical descriptions of the three characters; how their bodies reflect their thoughts and the subtle changes they each endure.


When the officer returns from leave in Paris, everything changes. The uncle, sensing his niece’s unspoken attraction to the German, invites him in, “Entrez, monsieur” are his first and only words of dialogue in the entire book. The officer is changed. He has seen his friends and fellow officers in Paris and learned the plan is not marriage but annihilation. The German command does not share his love for French culture and intends to destroy it. We know this, of course, in hindsight, but it’s shocking to realize the officer was sincere. He genuinely believed in the potential marriage of German music and French literature and was hoping for the human counterpart, marriage to the French niece. As for the girl, there are silent signs along the way that she believed he was sincere or maybe just desperately needed to believe it.


Was he an outlier, the exception that proves the rule? Vercors makes no attempt to apply his story on a larger scale. We have just the three characters. The book ends with the officer explaining they would not see him again as he had volunteered for the eastern front.


I’m thinking about why this book touched me so much. The prose is very simple and I was able to read it in French, but more importantly, I think, is that I read it here, where it is set and where the war is still remembered. Literature of the time is still read, memorials are still seriously observed, memories are still alive. It’s different here.