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


Saturday in the Vineyard with Georges

As you would expect, one contact leads to another, and so to Georges.
Photo of Georges Feuerstein
Georges Feuerstein ©2011 Ron Scherl

The first phone call was a masterpiece of miscommunication, speaking French is harder for me on the phone and Georges, who has spent all of his 79 years in Rasiguères, has that southern accent that seems to mix in a bit of Catalan and a dash of Occitan. It was a struggle, but we managed to agree on Saturday morning at 9:00 in front of the Mairie in Rasiguères.


The first thing Georges did was take me over to the coop to taste some of the local wines and, as always happens, when I taste I buy. He did, however, secure a 20% discount for me, which he was very happy to point out. Business accomplished, we went out to a small syrah vineyard where Georges introduced me to his son, grandson, granddaughter and the rest of the pickers. Turned out the grandson was on the Domaine Pertuisane crew I had photographed and he wanted to know if I had any good photos of his girlfriend who was also there.


In this method of harvesting, the pickers drop the grapes in buckets which are the dumped into la hotte, the plastic bin carried by one of the workers. When full, he dumps the load into a truck, which is unloaded directly into the crusher at the coop.


When the picking was finished for the day, Georges invited me back to his house for something to drink. He seemed pleased when I accepted a glass of sweet wine and we made our way as best we could through a conversation in which he explained how the wine had been stored in oak, giving it a characteristic brown color. When I told him I liked it very much, Georges went out to the garage, drew a bottle from the barrel and sent me on my way with a bonne journée.

Click the thumbnail to see a larger image.



Getting it Together

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.Photo of lists

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.”