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.
Just returned from five days in Spain with Barbara doing what we do best, eating and drinking. Having not seen each other for 15 months, it took us all of about 15 seconds to fall back into our normal patterns and habits; all the history revives the common references without even trying. Change would have been much more difficult.
Barbara flew into Barcelona and after a stop at the Boqueria to stock the kitchen we came up to Maury for Barbara to meet friends and recover from jet lag. Off to Leucate for oysters, then packed the Twingo and headed down the coast, lunch at Sitges then on to Tarragona for warm sunshine, café sitting and tapas.
A couple of diversions along the way to Valencia gave us a great lunch at a restaurant in Gandesa that looked like the dining room of a Holiday Inn in 1970 (I’ll leave it to Barbara to add a comment on her pigs feet carpaccio). Then a little way down the road we found ourselves on a tiny car ferry crossing the Ebro River to get to Miravet and its famous castle, which was closed for lunch. The ferry was a treat though, just a steel platform mounted on two small motor boats.
Valencia is a lovely city and we took a few long walks, dined on paella and went sightseeing at the Central Market, actually Barbara insisted on breaking the pattern and actually going to a museum that wasn’t even about food or wine, but we did get to see some of the portraits of Joaquin Sorolla, who paints the most astonishing eyes. It wasn’t long before we restored our balance with a couple of glasses of Cava in a nice bar at the beach.
Another morning at the market before heading back to Barcelona for the last night. Banys-Orientales is a nice hotel in the Gothic Quarter, which is being revived and renewed with artist studios, boutiques, trendy bars and the most amazing – and probably the most expensive – grocery store, wine bar in town. Order a glass of wine and wander over to the cheese and ham section, have another and you may not even notice the prices. A tapas dinner in the Eixample district and we were done.
Barbara flew back the next morning and I returned to Maury and an invitation to the end of harvest party at Domaine des Enfants: wine from Marcel, sushi from Pascal his intern, guacamole from Carrie, and wild boar from Taieb the hunter, quite a menu. The Tramontane was blowing, the temperature was dropping into the 30s but the crowd was warm, the food was great and someone kept filling the photographer’s glass.
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.
The guy from Napa is big in Maury. He owns 108 hectares (238 acres) of vineyards and a large state-of-the-art winery where he makes big powerful wines for the American market. He made his name in the US with The Prisoner, a zinfandel-based blend that grew from the initial 385 cases to 70,000 when he sold the label and inventory to Huneeus Vintners in 2009.
When I asked Phinney to what he attributed the success of the Prisoner he replied:
“Good winemaking.” He smiled and added: “Of course we were in the right time and the right place and it wasn’t an overnight success. It took 10 years to really establish the brand, but if you have the right wine, at the right price, in the right package, it will sell.”
When I said it really sounded like a triumph of marketing, he said: “I’m not interested in that. I want to make the best wine I can and if I do the rest will take care of itself.”
This is the message and he’s very disciplined in sticking to it with only slight variations. He’s in Maury because of the amazing potential of this terroir. He’s intent on making the best wine he can by respecting the terroir and, is confident that in the long run it will be profitable.
Here, he’s applying his opulent, concentrated, high alcohol style to the old vine grenache that dominates the vineyards to make wine for the American market. The initial label, D66, has now been joined by Shatter, a wine made from vineyards farmed by members of the Cave Cooperative. Phinney and his team selected and managed the vineyards and invested in a renovation of some coop facilities. They then purchased the wine from the coop, bottled it here and sell it in the US in a joint venture with Joel Gott and Trinchero Family Estates. Not your typical negociant deal, but spread the numbers over sufficient volume and the profit potential comes into focus.
Talking with Phinney he seems almost uninterested in the business end of the business, but his success would seem to belie that image. He came to Maury because the vines, soil and climate promised the right conditions to make wine in the style he prefers. And it didn’t hurt that the land prices here are like a rounding error in California. He bought vineyards that were going to be torn out because the families that owned them could no longer work them and certainly that eased the retirement of some residents. The village government was more than happy to welcome him, but rapid expansion in a place where change is usually slow to come, makes some people uneasy. Whether it’s jealousy or foresight remains to be seen. His Maury property and production are growing rapidly and new ventures have been launched in Spain and Italy with more locations to follow. But ask him about the business or marketing side of wine and he’ll respond: “Respect the terroir, make the best wine you can, and the economics will follow.”
I felt like a reporter at a political convention: stay on message Dave.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a great event. It’s known as a balade and consists of a walk of about three miles through the vineyards on a beautiful spring day when the vines are green and the fruit is forming, the fields in between are a riot of wildflowers, and the temperature is 75-80o. Along the way, you’ll stop at six stations, each has one course in a complete meal designed to complement the wines of the terroir available to taste from the 26 participating wineries. The winemakers are there to answer questions and there are several guides on the trail to provide information on grape varietals, soil composition and geological history of the region. The dessert stage is at a plaza in town where a fine jazz combo plays standards in a mellow ending to the day.
The event is sponsored by the winemakers with support from regional council tourism funds. It’s great PR and it sells wine. At the last stop you can buy any of the featured wines and they seemed to be selling well. This is hands-on and local, and when a wine sells out the winemaker rushes back to his cave to get more.
It’s fun, educational, delicious; totally without pretension and you get some exercise too. It’s hard to imagine feeling better about spending a day eating and drinking.
But I was working. I’d been invited to participate, knew to bring my cameras along and for me it was an assignment. I knew there was no money in this but I coveted the t-shirt. I also knew there would be material for my book and blog and an opportunity to meet many winemakers I didn’t already know. So I took it seriously and went to work and for me that means I didn’t eat and didn’t taste (mostly). I know, I know, men are not very good at multi-tasking, but that’s the way I have to work. I don’t make good photos when I’m on vacation or tasting wine.
So when I finished the walk and met up with the leaders, the first thing they asked was “Did I enjoy the food?” I said I didn’t eat. No food, no wine tasting. I said there was too much work I wanted to do. Bernard responded: “There is work and there is life, you must have both.” I love the French, they really talk like this.
Pierrette asked me to stay for the grillade but I was done. I had a shower, some wine, cheese and ibuprophen and went to bed.