I am moving back to France. Not an easy decision, but in the end, the need for change won out. It was time, as my friends at 826 Valencia put it, for a new adventure. There are other reasons, of course. The high cost of living in San Francisco becomes a greater burden as I age and my ability to make money diminishes. The result of a lifetime of decisions made for reasons that did not enhance my bank account may just be that I cannot continue to live in this city I still love. So it goes. I can live with that.
The ascendance of the abominable Trump had something to do with it, but not very much, and, after all, I may very well be faced with President Le Pen, another malignant nightmare.
I was able to overcome election despair because volunteering at 826 gave me hope. The people who run this program are doing something terribly important by helping the children learn to think independently and inspiring them to express their thoughts. Teaching a child that what he thinks and feels really matters is an important step in countering the growing racism and misogyny that threatens us all, and the cynicism that allows it to happen. If I had even the smallest hand in helping a child find her voice, I will have done something worthwhile.
The booklet in the photo is indeed a treasure chest for me but the treasure is not in the memories, it is in the future of these bright and beautiful children who can create a world better than the one they will inherit. When Barack Obama was elected I thought we had achieved a significant milestone in our achingly slow climb out of the slough of genocide and slavery in which this country was born. Certainly the last election was a major setback but it doesn’t have to be fatal. I look at these children and realize their gift to me was a belief in the cyclical nature of progress. They can take back the future and we can help.
So I leave here with very mixed emotions. I do believe it is the best thing for me but I’m saddened to leave my very good friends and the extraordinary effort of hope that is 826 Valencia. I will, I must, find another way to contribute.
Just because I’ve returned to San Francisco doesn’t mean I’m divorced from France, it’s more a trial separation. A conversation with the Walkers trying to answer the question “what is a novel?” brought up a number of issues about how we fictionalize our lives. Selective memory enables us to rewrite the past and, in the present, we choose what to see and retain, especially when we travel, much as we choose what to include in the frame when we make a photo. So we’re always making stories and a novel is just one way of telling stories, something humans have been doing for a very long time.
J’adore la France, but it’s not easy to explain: I’ll always be a foreigner there and the French do not welcome strangers easily, yet I’m pretty comfortable and could probably live there, although not in a small rural village. I’m too much a city kid.
There’s still lots of Maury in my life: making prints for Tom and Susan, writing about Marcel and Carrie for Helen Tate’s company:
followed by a short Facebook conversation with Jean-Roger and Marie.
And there’s fiction too, but that’s not ready for prime time.
San Francisco is home and I’m happy to be here – although I might reconsider if the Giants don’t start playing better – but I miss the friends I made there and I’ll go back.
In the interest of fair play for California wine I stopped off at Tank 18, an urban winery and a new venue for Ann Walker Catering. It’s a nice industrial space South of Market with about six wines purchased and bottled under their own label.
Mary Ann did some business, Larry and I tasted and then I played with the iPhone’s panorama software and discussed mounting an exhibition here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The idea of moving to France goes back to the first time I landed there on a rainy night, not much money and no clue where to go. A friend and I had been on the road for a while and decided we needed a hotel for the night. Wandering empty streets, looking for a hotel or someone to ask, we see a driver pulling into a rare parking space and stop him to ask for directions. Putting the lie to every cliche about rude Parisians and giving up his parking space, he takes us to a nearby and very cheap hotel and thereby creates a bond with the country and the people that has only grown over the years.
Many visits and French lessons later I was in a management training program, playing games and doing exercises designed to move me up the ladder. We needed to select a goal and chart out the steps to get there; my goal was to own a house in France within five years and all my necessary steps added up to the height of the Eiffel Tower.
But things happen and some things you make happen.
Prospective partners appeared, web searches pinpointed affordable areas and turned up a real estate agent, one town led to another, and the right house came on the market. Finally, George Bush was reinstalled in the White House and I wanted to be sure there was somewhere else to go. We bought the house.
Maury is in the southeast corner of France, in a valley between the Pyrenees and the Corbieres mountains. It’s close to the Mediterranean and the Spanish border about three hours north of Barcelona. It is French Catalunya. Wine grows here and not much else and wine is the major source of income in the region. This blog will look at regional societal changes caused by globalization in the wine industry and generational changes in wine producing families.
Everything began in January. Alone in Maury, photographing winter vineyards and vignerons, learning to prune the vines, tasting from barrel, visiting large and small wineries, I decided to do a book. It would be mostly photographs, but some text was needed. It would speak of global changes while focusing on the region around Maury. Wine would be central to the book as it is to the region, but it would symbolize other industries in other places. It may be published as an e-book or in print, but it would start as a blog.
It’s exciting and intimidating, involving leaving a job, changing a long standing relationship, leaving a home, the big three of peace of mind. There aren’t many times in life that we’re faced with a truly life changing decision and the older we get, the fewer such opportunities arise and the harder it becomes to take advantage of them. The only reasonable answer was: “if not now, when?”
And now I make lists, on paper, on the phone, tablet and computer, and in my head at night when I’d rather be sleeping.
The French visa process is not designed to make you feel welcome. There are lists of documents, some to be notarized, all to be copied and presented in the prescribed order. There are security guards and plexiglass boundaries, pictures to be taken (do not smile) and color coded chairs to be occupied. I know unemployment is a problem and no I will not look for a job. Yes I have enough money, a place to live and health insurance. I will not be a drain on scarce and fraying resources. No matter how precise I thought I was, there was something not quite up to their standards and a small delay is the penalty. And when I return I also need to bring my itinerary.
So, it’s time to pick the date and buy the ticket. August 15 becomes the date and the deadline. Revise the lists with the time frame set.
So today I went to a packing and shipping service to get some estimates on getting my stuff to Maury. I found a helpful guy who couldn’t resist asking: “Are you moving there? Wow man, that’s my dream too, I just don’t have it together yet.”