31 New Years Eve With Artistes and Stanley Dog
We arrive at the apartment of an Italian/Austrian couple to celebrate New Year’s. We bring a magnum of Villa Rosé 2008 (Franciacorta) and a Bianco di Custoza Amedeo 2011 from Cavalchina. The rosé is wonderful…it goes well with the sushi and the salmon starter, the Cavalchina Custoza -one of the best I have ever had –is excellent with the soup. Our hostess requests that everyone visiting her apartment leave their shoes in the hall. This gives me the opportunity to wear my Champagne socks in public for the first time in two decades. They were knitted for me by my pal Evelyn H. Table-talk: art, what is an artist and poetry. A good time was had by all.
28 December Happy Birthday Cinema
We go the deconsecrated church where Ugo shows a silent film – The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford. Afterward there is cake and wine for all. We take 2 magnums of Zamuner Rosé that go down a treat. People are lining up at my end of the table for more. This makes me happy. I love sparkling wine…but it is very hard to find occasions to open magnums.
26 December Boxing Day Tea with the Ladies (Michael is Tea Master)
13 December How I Hitchhiked into the Wine Trade
I met Lucy, a spare, taciturn English Quaker over broken butter-cookies and watery tea at a Quaker meeting in Paris. In a certain sense it was this chance meeting that propelled me into the wine trade. Here is how it all began that early autumn in Paris some 31 years ago.
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.
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. First she recognized that Lucy and I had recently been in Paris. Then the notion that we might not be typical farm laborers flitted by.
“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.
Being granted special privileges did not endear us to our colleagues, nor did the speed and accuracy with which we picked. A quick harvest meant fewer hours work and therefore less pay.
At the end of our first work session an overseer praised our conscientiousness, going so far as to suggest that the others should follow our example. The French pickers took this as an open declaration of war. Healthy bunches of grapes would be stealthily tossed under our already picked vines in order to create the impression that our speed was due to sloppy work. Leaves and stones were dumped into our baskets should we chance to leave them unattended. We sussed out these ploys fairly quickly and we reacted by scrupulously policing our rows a second and sometimes a third time, by keeping our baskets by our sides and by remarking casually but loudly that the origin of the word sabotage was French…and little wonder! Thus we robbed them of the pleasure of reporting us to the overseers. At the time I don’t think we fully realize the existential crises we created in the minds and souls of our French fellow workers.
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?
Our picking team had two overseers: Raymond, the nice one, and Mini H., so dubbed by Lucy and standing for Little Hitler. The only other foreign pickers were four exceedingly tall Dutchmen with children’s faces. Picking was much more difficult for them: even on their knees they had to bend double to reach the bunches. We called them John, Paul, George and Ringo. These nicknames allowed us to talk freely about them without arousing too much interest. I am sure that remarks like: “Paul is really cute,” followed by furtive glances in young Dieter’s direction went completely unnoticed.
The final day of picking ended in a party. All the horrible things we had wished on Mini H. vanished into vapor when we met his wife. Poor old Mini H. had his Hell on earth. Mrs. Mini vamped into the tasting room in tight black slacks and a leopard print bodysuit. She swayed up to pink-cheeked Dieter and grabbed his arm. “Oh, you are so strong,” she said rubbing her bosom against his midriff. She then gripped Frank’s hand and walked her fingers up his sleeve, “Oh, you are so tall,” she said, looking hungrily into his ever-widening eyes. Raymond, the nice overseer, also had the wife he deserved – charming, attractive and clearly in love with her husband. Sometimes there is justice in the world.
Lucy and I continued to ramble around France. As Christmas neared Lucy returned to her family home in England and I returned to New York to earn more money for my next trip to Europe. We vowed to meet up for future harvests. We suited each other as traveling companions. We shared the rare ability to appreciate silence. Neither of us felt the need to state the obvious and we were not complainers. When our random rambles left us in the mud we just carried on, knowing that around the next bend things would be different and, perhaps, better.
There you have it: How I hitchhiked into the wine trade.
9 December My WSET Tasting Students
At 9:30 a.m. yesterday morning my WSET tasting students arrived to blind taste the 4 wines I had prepared for them: a generic Burgundy, a Mersault, a Chardonnay from Sandro de Bruno and a 2003 Tergeno (an Albana and Chardonnay blend produced by Fattoria Zerbina). This latter wine is made from late harvest grapes and often has a touch of botrytis. Its freshness and liveliness on the nose and palate blew the boys away. I then gave them some tips that my tasting tutor had given me lo those many years ago and sent them on their happy way. I studied blind tasting for three years in London with Maggie McNee, M.W. She was a revelation. I only hope I can transmit to my students the energy, enthusiasm and knowledge that she gave to me.