Around here, the start of harvest is like opening day of the baseball season, full of anticipation and uncertainty.
Is all the fruit truly ripe? Are the rookies ready?
Will the old vines continue to produce? Do the veterans have another year in them?
Will this year’s pickers work hard and well? Will the free agents produce?
Yesterday, I went out with Marcel and Carrie and the crew from Domaine des Enfants who were picking the first whites of the season: Muscat, Grenache Gris and Blanc, Maccabeu. Not all the fruit is ripe, but sample testing had shown some vines that were pruned early were ready to go.
Marcel and Carrie feed me often and keep me in wine; in exchange, I wanted to update their photo library. My pix from five years ago were ready for retirement. I also needed to see if I still had the legs to scramble up and down a steep hillside vineyard, kind of like tracking down a liner in the gap. Not bad. I may have lost a step but I was able to keep up with the kids. My average wasn’t great but it’s early and I did manage a few hits.
Back at the cave, a little cathartic foot stomping before refrigeration and pressing, followed by a sausage grillade lunch, which I followed with a nap.
Spent a day on the bottling line at Domaine des Enfants this week and decided to go back to being a photographer.
If you’ve ever thought “I’m going to go off and buy some vineyards and make wine”, try a day of bottling first. It’s a sure-fire cure for romantic fantasy disease.
But sometimes friendship wins out and Marcel thought he needed another pair of hands so I volunteered.
Today’s Starting Lineup
brought to you by Domaine des Enfants:
“When the kids get you down, reach for another bottle.”
Sabrina and Delphine Boxes
Marcel and Carrie Filling Boxes
“I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff”, B. Dylan, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, actually I started on capsules which sounds like a drug confession but isn’t. After the bottles are filled and corked by machine, a capsule is placed over the top before moving on for sealing. Sounds simple, here are the details: the capsules are a very thin plastic that is easily crushed. Once crushed, they are useless, and they come nested in a row of about 50 and tend to stick together out of the box. It takes a gentle hand to separate them without crushing and the meat on the ends of my arms is not the perfect instrument. Now the bottles are moving by at a rate that’s approximately twice as fast as I’d like to see, I can keep up until I reach the end of a stack when the crinkles in the last few and the motion of picking up a new stack and loosening them gets me behind. I’m thinking soon I’ll get into the rhythm of this, it will become automatic, a meditative experience. Didn’t happen. Marcel decides I’d be better suited to another task and sends me off to help Sabrina make boxes, replacing me with Delphine.
Sabrina assigned me to check off the varietal on the outside of the carton and write “10” next to it to signify the vintage. There’s no reason to think of this as a demotion, I prefer to think that Sabrina was falling a bit behind and Marcel, knowing of my literary skills thought I’d be perfect for the job. But Sabrina, being the trusted employee she is, was way ahead and wondering what I was doing there. So after checking the right box and writing 10 about 100 times, without error I might add, I was sent back to capsules to back up Delphine.
Now Delphine was clearly faster than I was – she has smaller fingers – but every once in a while she’d miss one and I was there to pick her up– when suddenly our eyes met over the rhythmic motion of the bottling line and we knew – sorry, that’s a different book.
After lunch I had even less to do because the guy from the bottling service decided he liked standing next to Delphine and placing a capsule every now and then.
When we reached the café, I asked Marcel if he needed me tomorrow. He apologized, said he really didn’t, and bought me another drink. Seemed fair to me.
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.