First things first books: As most of you know I read and review 3 books a week for Publishers Weekly. Those who do not read books think that this is impossible. Those who love to read – as I do – think that this sounds like heaven. And it is.
Since I have been busy reading I have decided that instead of my usual diary I will reminisce.
Hitchhiking into the Wine Trade
At seventeen I had made a list of things I wanted to accomplish in the coming decade. Number one was to go to the moon on a tourist shuttle. Visit Paris was number two on the list. With my twenty-eighth birthday just a few heartbeats away, I bought a plane ticket, gave my three weeks’ notice to the owner of Foul Play and happily began planning my new life sous le ciel blu de Paris.
My approach to learning French consisted of singing along with Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand, neither of whom, I was to learn later, is actually French. Charles is a native son of Armenia and Yves (born Ivo) is proudly claimed by Italy.
I rambled through Paris making her my friend. I love that city and can still remember the books I read during that period: Robertson Davies’ A Mixture of Frailties on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, Matthew Head’s Murder at the Flea Club at a café on the square in front of St. Sulpice. I often carried a copy of Peter Devries’ Rueben, Rueben or Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands to posh restaurants when I was dining alone. I always came early – 7:30. As a result I was always given a nice table, usually by the window.
One dark autumn morning I stopped into the French Quaker meeting room in Paris seeking some silent contemplation, unaware of the French Quakers’ need to speak…at length. The only other meeting I had ever attended had been in Brooklyn, where thirty-six people sat in a sunny room and said nothing for an hour. I had gone to that meeting with Stanley Ellin and his wife. Stanley is perhaps best remembered for his much-anthologized stories “The Specialty of the House”, a chilling little masterpiece for the gourmet, and “The Last Bottle in the World”, a wine connoisseurs delight. I loved to watch Stanley’s face light up when his wife entered a room. It was possible to see the beautiful, incandescent woman he had married thirty years before reflected in his eyes.
After the French meeting, over broken butter-cookies and watery tea, I met Lucy, a spare, taciturn English Quaker with long brown hair and a tan. That she had worked as a chambermaid at ski resorts and as a cheese-maker on a dairy farm impressed me, and my ability to sort out the intricacies of city life had the same effect on her.
“If we traveled together,” said Lucy “We could hitchhike and save some money. Just don’t ever tell my dad.”
We met at the Gare de Lyon station the next morning. Our travel plans consisted of buying a ticket for the destination with the prettiest or most intriguing name. My appreciation of fine mustard led us to Dijon. And the direction of my life changed once again.
We arrived in the late morning of a gloriously sunny autumn day. After a tramp around to get our bearings we stopped to take the sun in a public park. A young man lounged on the grass beside his backpack, turning the final pages in a book. When he finished it he walked to a dustbin by the footpath with the clear intention of dumping the book so as to lighten his load. Desperate to read something in English, having just finished off Travels With a Donkey, I swooped down on him and he offered the book to me. The word “wine” stood out in large black letters across the cover. I started to read. The author, Hugh Johnson, wrote in an appealingly witty way about wine and I found myself seduced by his writing style and by the topic. He mentioned causally that the village of Avize in the Champagne region produced Chardonnay grapes. It was harvest time and the village was less than an hour away. It seemed kismet. We headed out to the main road, flagged down a small flatbed truck and set off for Avize.
The driver pulled over to the side of the road and let us off just outside the village. I hoisted my small suitcase, Lucy slung her knapsack over her shoulder and we walked into the deserted lanes of Avize. All able-bodied residents were working in the vineyards that surrounded the village. At Lucy’s suggestion we headed to the church. “Our things will be safe here,” she said, lifting a curtain that covered the back of the confessional. When I shoved my bag underneath the priest’s chair I felt the spasm of guilt that betrays a person with no religious upbringing. I knew I had committed a sacrilege of some kind, but the precise spiritual details escaped me.
We walked into the nearest vineyard. The workers bent low over the vines and continued to pick the pendulous bunches of pale golden-green Chardonnay grapes. Only an old woman in a straw sun hat acknowledged us. She removed her work gloves and whipped her hands on her apron.
“Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” She asked.
“It’s hard work,” she said. Her eyes narrowed as she sized us up. We must have looked strong and hearty or perhaps we just looked hungry. “Okay,” she said. “We’re about ready to break for lunch anyway. Come with me.”
We followed her along the narrow lanes of Avize to the winery. Waiting for us with other members of the family was a young matron. From her chic yet casual clothes, city shoes and the carved arabesques that decorated her spectacles, I rightly guessed she would rather be in Paris than visiting the wine estate at that particular moment.
“Nice glasses,” I said, admiring her elaborate wooden frames. “I looked at a similar pair in Paris.” And I named a trendy optical shop.
She gave me a reflective stare. I watched thoughts pass across her broad, handsome face. She grasped the notion that we might not be typical farm laborers.
“Wait here,” she said. She walked to a cluster of other family members and a whispered conversation ensued. There were enough guarded looks in our direction for us to realize that our fate was being decided.
“Come this way,” she said, leading us toward the family home, while our co-workers headed off to wash up for lunch. We followed her up the stair to a small sunny room at the top of the house. Lace curtains hung at the windows and soft duvets made from cotton imprinted with pastel flowers covered the beds. From our window we could just make out the barracks where the other workers bunked.
That first evening, after a long day laboring in the vineyard, we settled down to our place at the workers’ dining table set up in the tasting room of the winery. Muscles aching, I felt as if I had earned my hunger.
Glasses of some rough and ruddy vinegar were placed beside each worker’s plate of meat and two veg. I took my glass to the lady with the trendy glasses and said, “I think there is something wrong with this wine.” Again. she gave me that hard stare before taking the glass from me. “You are quite right,” she said. I went back to my place and she soon returned with a fresh glass of darker, richer colored wine. I tasted it. Flashes of my first sips of wine danced across my memory: rich but elegant, fruity yet graceful. Fine Burgundy, I realized, was my equivalent of Proust’s madeleines.
I went to the kitchen and thanked her. She looked furtively toward the kitchen door to make sure there was no one around then opened a cupboard and showed me a bottle of Vosne-Romanée from, as I was to learn much later, an excellent vintage. From that point on, the color of my wine always matched that in the family’s own glasses.
Lucy would pick one side of the row and I would work the other. The vines are trained relatively low in Champagne, so we were on our knees most of the time. To while away the working hours we told each other the plots of Fred Astaire movies, enriched by a few snatches of songs. Dancing Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It Romantic, They All Laughed. The fruit was round and ripe, the sun shone. There was only a little rain on the last day of picking. Even with safety secateurs – the other workers had those dangerous looking needle-nosed jobbies – Lucy and I managed to cut our fingers.
In the middle of the harvest Grace Kelly’s car sped off a cliff on a winding road near Monte Carlo. Beautiful, blonde Grace Kelly epitomized movie-star chic for us. She could swirl into Jimmy Stewart’s life in Rear Window and give him a slow-motion kiss infused with Hitchcock’s eroticism. She could ignite Cary Grant’s passion while fireworks lit the sky. That evening Lucy and I walked down to a little bar not far from the winery and ordered small glasses of Cointreau. Looking at our hands, covered in cuts, sticky grape juice still under our nails, we thought about elegance and glamour and all the times our hands had been kissed by French boys trying hard to assume savoir-faire. How long, we wondered, would it take for our hands to heal?