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.
The other day I had a chance to ask Dave Phinney and Eugenia Keegan, two Americans making wine in Maury, why they were so excited about grenache.
Phinney: “You know I think winemakers really like grenache, but it never reaches it’s potential in California. There it’s weak, almost pink, it’s not hot enough to fully ripen. Here we can make a really exciting wine.”
Keegan: “People have made great wine from grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape and Priorat, but in the US people buy wine by variety and I think a lot of people come here driven by the desire to create a new category in the American market. As Dave said, I think winemakers do really like grenache and we feel it can make great wines here and we’d like to see it have a place on store shelves and restaurant lists. There is a huge amount of grenache here, most of it old vines and the price is affordable when compared with the Rhone or the new world.”
A few days later, I was out with the Calvet crew, this time picking the first harvest from vineyards Keegan had bought last year. She has been in the wine business 35 years – mostly in California and Oregon – but this was the first time she had harvested grapes from her own land. These were small plots, totaling less than 2 hectares (about 4 acres) of old vine grenache. The yield was small and Keegan wanted to make sure every grape was picked, but with Marie leading the crew, she needn’t have worried.
Back in the winery, processing has begun. The Calvets have a very sophisticated de-stemming machine that can be tuned to the size of the grapes going through so that you lose the desiccated over-ripe fruit and keep only the good stuff. Once through that process it rolls down a conveyor belt where Jean-Roger, his father, Eugenia and two employees were picking off bits of leaf and stem and the raisins which most people keep to increase concentration but Eugenia didn’t want. The berries then go whole into the fermentation tank. There was a spot open on the sorting line, so I put down the camera and jumped in to get my hands dirty. In no time at all I was a seasoned veteran with a sore back and Eugenia had the cleanest fruit in town.
Harvest 2012 is here and it’s a completely different animal. The crop is very small, the yield cut down by multiple hailstorms and the proliferation of the wild boar population. The weather has been extreme: very hot for a while, now cool, cloudy and rainy. It’s not often you get temperatures in the 60s early in September. Feels like San Francisco.
The white grapes are all in, reds still in progress and there are great differences among the winemakers. The Cooperative growers are finished. D66 hasn’t started yet. The Calvets are almost finished; Marcel and Carrie are just beginning. Some of this has to do with the location of your vineyard – the vines ripen in an east to west pattern, – and the elevation and exposure to the sun. Some of it is due to philosophy: in general, the longer you wait, the higher the sugar content and therefore the resulting alcohol content.
But there are dangers to waiting including the weather and the pigs. Marcel says he may have lost as much as 30% of his crop to the beasts and I expect he’ll be eating a lot of sanglier this winter.
I’m not planning to shoot as much this year but I couldn’t resist another opportunity to go chasing after Marie Calvet. I’m definitely a year older but I’m not sure about Marie. She’s just incredible. If you’re working on a crew with Marie, there’s no way you can slack off; she simply leads by example and she does it with good humor, compassion and the understanding that no one could possibly be as committed to this work as she is. She may not need a break, but she knows that her crew does. This is her life, her land, the source of everything she has and what she will have to pass on to her children.
As usual, harvest is a family affair: Jean-Roger is in the winery, processing, but his dad, Roger is there, along with Marie’s brother Cyril, a coop member who had finished picking his vineyards.
And the vineyard was extraordinary, high in the hills, just below Queribus; you can see Estagel from one end and Maury from the other. These are very old vines, farmed with very little chemical intervention and the yield was very small. I asked Marie, if they were going to have to rip them out for new plants and she said no: “There’s not much fruit but these were among the first vineyards my father bought and we love them. There are some vines here that are pre-phylloxera.”
One of those days that makes you feel privileged just to be there.
Educated in Burgundy, Marc Barriot, proprietor and winemaker of Clos de l’Origine, makes a Burgundian style of wine emphasizing finesse, balance, ease of drinking and low alcohol. He is out of step with most of his colleagues in Maury.
Barriot: “I am a dinosaur, I don’t follow the market, I make the wine I like to drink.”
Combine that sentiment with his belief in biodynamic farming practice and you have the village outlier and a guy who appears to relish that role.
Biodynamics marries organic farming with a bit of mysticism to create some practices that go beyond science and cause many to mock. “Burying light” in the vineyard to enhance production is a matter of belief rather than agricultural science; but I want to focus on other aspects of the practice that I think have a more direct effect on the product and the environment. Adherents believe that a parcel of land being farmed is a complete system composed of the soil, insects, and animals that inhabit it and the microclimate that shapes it. It is the job of the grower to work in harmony with this system, managing the land and the crop with as little intrusion as possible in order to create a wine that truly expresses the terroir, which is composed of the grape variety, the soil and the microclimate. Like all other growers, he sprays sulfur to combat plant diseases, but for Barriot, that’s as far as he goes in introducing foreign substances to the land. And the practice continues in the winery: “If you add something not in the vineyard, you change the terroir.”
As you might imagine, Barriot is a very small producer. He owns ten hectares (about 22 acres) of vineyards and in this difficult year will produce only about 20,000 bottles of wine. The early flowering was battered by wind and then several hail storms caused substantial damage. It’s very hot and there’s been little rain. The vineyards appear wild and chaotic, weeds and dry grasses growing everywhere, when torn up by plowing they stay where they fall. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the rows of vines. These are small parcels, as small as .17 hectare and separated by miles. This makes harvesting slower and more difficult and therefore, more expensive, but according to Barriot: “the smaller the parcel, the bigger the expression of terroir.”
Once the fruit is in the winery, the idea is to do as little as possible.
RS: “What’s the winemaker’s job?”
MB: “ The winemaker is a guy who allows the wine to go its own way.”
And when it does, he gets the wine he wants: balanced in minerality and fruit, alcohol and acidity. He feels the finesse and lightness allow the delicate flavors of the garrigue to come through.
Most winemakers here would not agree. They’ll tell you the heat and soil naturally produce a fuller bodied, more concentrated wine with higher alcohol. They’ll say we’re not in Burgundy and the wine should reflect this place. That doesn’t seem to matter to Barriot, going his own way makes him a happy dinosaur. As for me: I’m always glad to have a choice.
I took a walk in the vineyards this evening to record the state of the fruit. I like to go the same vineyard at least once a month to see the changes and understand the process. It’s hot now and we have very young, small green berries with opaque skin. It’s baby wine and it made me think about all the things Maury does for its children. OK, I know that’s a stretch, the truth is there have been all these events for kids lately so I couldn’t help but think about them and then I went for a walk in the vineyards and it all got tossed together in the salad of my brain. I’ve warned you about this before: this blog doesn’t have an editor.
The children are everywhere; if you invite friends to dinner, expect the kids to come too. Parents tell me the school is excellent and they love the teachers. The library (http://www.maury-village.com/biblio/) serves everyone, but Cati has a special emphasis on children and if you go there on a Wednesday when school is all athletics, some of the kids who are not sports minded will be in there reading. She also has a Saturday morning meeting for parents to read to their preschoolers and even hosted a seminar for regional librarians on sexism in children’s books, featuring a prominent expert in the field.
Children are included in everything, they begin the Mass by bringing candles to the altar, Voix de Femmes included several theatrical presentations for kids; they carry the torches for the Fête de St. Jean (accompanied by firefighters). Even the large winter bingo parties set aside some of the games for kids only, with appropriate prizes.
This is one of the nice things about small town life and it’s important that it still exists here. Many small rural towns are dying because there is no economic opportunity, but Maury has the wine and so far, that has kept many of the younger generation and their young children here working in the independent wineries or growing for the cooperative. When I first came here I feared this generational continuity would be lost for two reasons: winemaking is a very difficult way to make a living, and the influx of foreign investment would buy up the best vineyards and drive the locals out of the business.
It hasn’t worked out that way. For one thing, it’s difficult to earn a living anywhere right now and the scarcity of employment may very well have kept some people in the vineyards. Also, much of the acreage that changed hands was scheduled to be torn out because the farmers had retired, and many of the best vineyards remain in the hands of the locals, who continue to make wine and feel they will prosper because of the new attention being focused on the region. And it’s this generation, in their twenties and thirties whose children are filling the school.
Meanwhile, the mayor works for managed growth and a balance between the new investment and family traditions and I have to think that if anyone can make this work, it’s Charley.
Last week I went out to the vineyards with Bob and his son, Gabriel. Bob was doing his weekly inspection, checking the progress of the vines, looking for any signs of disease or weather damage. There had been some hail the week before and some leaves were damaged but the baby fruit looked fine. Gabriel is a bright and curious six-year-old boy and when you see him playing with friends or his little sister, you notice a gentle and caring nature.
All Gabby’s questions start “Daddy?” and Bob’s patience is impressive. Every one is answered seriously as Bob treats him with respect and guides him with knowledge, encouraging more questions. While looking out for his safety, he also gives him the freedom to explore, and plants the seeds of self-reliance so necessary for growth. Bob urges him to join in the inspection, teaching his trade, letting him touch and understand, transferring his love of the land. It occurs to me that this is exactly the progression of generations that has farmed these vineyards for centuries. That Bob is not French and not from here means nothing at all; he is doing what the Calvets and Raynauds and Batlles and Lafages have always done in farming their land and passing the knowledge along to the next generation, along with the strength and independence needed to make it work. Societies like this can be suffocating to some who will find it necessary to leave; others will take comfort in tradition and stay. But with the continuity of knowledge, if you feel the need to rebel, at least you know what you’re rejecting.
Late in the morning, Bob and I were walking together in a very hilly vineyard; Gabriel lagging behind picking up rocks and sticks. When he looked up and realized he’d lost sight of us, Gabby was frightened and cried out for Bob, who ran back to pick him up and comfort him.
I’ve seen Bob be stern and strict when he thought the boy’s behavior was inappropriate; out in the vineyards this day I saw the rest of the job: the guidance, caring, patience and love of a parent. Watching them interact you feel that Bob will not hesitate to provide guidance and encouragement when needed, criticism and discipline when warranted. Within this framework are positive expectations of independence, self-reliance, security and comfort.
We never see the whole story, but it’s nice when the good stuff’s in focus.
I’ve been thinking about art again. I know, I know, but take it as a warning like when Jon Carroll announces up front that it’s going to be another cat column. Cats, art, it’s all the same.
So here’s the deal, it’s been cold and gray outside and in, for the last month and I haven’t been shooting very much. I also haven’t been writing all that much and experiencing frequent days of funkiness: nothing major, just the usual free-floating anxiety mixed with a bit of regret, a touch of homesickness and a soupcon of anger (I always wanted to use that word).
Then a few days ago, Marcel called to say the horses had arrived and plowing would begin this week. Photo-op.
Plowing is necessary to turn the weeds under, adding organic material to the soil, to fertilize and to loosen the soil allowing it to capture the rain. Plowing with a horse or mule is no longer an every day thing but in some of the older and steeper vineyards there may be no other way. Vines that were planted before the use of tractors became widespread are now too close together for a tractor to get through the rows. Of course this is also part of Marcel’s organic process, his desire to work close to nature and perhaps a part of his own need to test himself. The vineyards need plowing and if the terrain will not accommodate a tractor, he’ll get some horses and learn how to do it himself.
I photographed the process from shoeing to grooming to plowing. I can’t be sure of the horses but I felt better and of course, when I got home and poured a glass of wine I had to wonder why.
I used to spend a lot of time thinking about what makes something art (www.stageimage.com), but I was cured of that by going to work at SFMOMA where I learned that art happens when an academic finds something to write about and a rich person finds something to buy. And now that I’m preparing an exhibit, I just figure that anything I choose to put on the walls is art. But I still had to deal with the persistent image of the obsessed, alcoholic or drug ridden unhappy artist and how to reconcile this with the realization that making my art made me happy.
Researching the connection between artists and depression turned up a number of theories including an excess of spirituality, social isolation and the lack of a life plan, plus long lists of famous depressed people and countless pharmaceutical ads. So we have diagnoses coming from all angles, the hypothetical psychoanalysis of the long dead and the current fashion among the famous to admit that you’re not just bummed out, you’re really sick.
A couple of interesting notes on artistic productivity:
Vermeer made only about 50-60 paintings and had 15 children with his only wife. He died at the age of 43, poor and depressed because he could not support his family. Imagine how she felt.
Picasso made an estimated 50,000 works of art, had numerous mistresses, four children by three women and died a wealthy man at the age of 91. His “blue period” is now thought to be the result of depression.
But the internet can also be a dangerous place. Here are a couple of favorites from sites that purport to be sources of information on mental illness:
“Who are some famous people with manic depression or bipolar disorder? Disclaimer – the list of people mentioned on this page have been compiled from other sources, and we are not able to verify its accuracy.”
“I think you’ll agree that you can be mentally ill and fabulously talented at the same time.”
There is some serious research work being done but no one has yet been able to establish the link between creativity and depression or to determine which is the cause and which the effect if there is a link. In the meantime I’ll make pictures and hang them on the wall.
Today is warm, sunny and windless. That makes me happy.
New Years Day I reluctantly dragged myself from bed around noon and took a coffee up to the terrace to heal in the sun. Tout à coup, an Alfred Hitchcock movie broke out. The sun brought out more birds than I had ever seen. Run down for the camera, back up for the show. They’re starlings I believe. Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe describes them as “jaunty, quarrelsome and garrulous.” (Serious understatement) The voice is a “harsh descending tcheer with a medley of clear whistles, clicks, rattles and chuckles, woven into a long, rambling song.” Now multiply that by about 100,000 and you have some idea of the sound and why some people went looking for their weapons. The noise was incredible, as they seemed to call (or tweet) all their friends to say the weather was nice here and there’s a good tree for resting. This became a flash mob, the numbers grew, the tree was overcrowded and the quarrels escalated. I couldn’t come close to an estimate, 100,000 is probably low, but for you Photoshop skeptics, this photo is real and only covers a small section of the flock.
After about 30 minutes, someone had had enough and fired off a gun, which the birds took to mean that the weather may be nice but they weren’t too sure of the people. They stopped talking and took off, and I went down to wash my hair.
Spent the next morning applying for Social Security and needed a walk after lunch. There’s something powerfully restorative about a walk in the vineyards, even in winter when the old vines look dead as can be. They’re not, of course and we know winter will end, the vines will bud, sprout leaves, grow fruit and there will be more wine. It’s just a good idea to get out there and remember. And if you need a longer perspective, there are young vines too, new plantings just taking root.
I met an 89-year-old man with few teeth and the heavy local accent, which left me understanding very little. Here’s what I learned: he was born here, lived here all his life, fought in the war of 1940, his father in the war of 1914, and he knows that war is never good. His back hurts some, but he can continue working the vines because he’s not tall like me. His arms are strong from working the vineyards all his life. It’s a lot of work but he likes being outside. He also likes Barack Obama and a pastis now and then.
He continues to work his vineyards and I don’t think there’s anyone to take over when he no longer can. If that’s the case, another winemaker will purchase the land, or the vines will be torn out by a successor not interested in making wine. The land isn’t really suited for crops other than wine or olives, neither of which is likely to make anyone rich any time soon. So what is best for the town: to let the land lie fallow, hope foreign investors want to purchase the vineyard, or seek subsidies to build housing for which there doesn’t appear to be a great demand? It’s a critical question for a town with an aging population and the answer isn’t easy. Mayor Chivilo sees the answer in a balance of new and old but getting there requires a sufficient number of local families continuing in the wine business. There are some, but at this time no one knows if there are enough. Change happens slowly here, but it does happen.
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.