Monday, September 25, 2006

from Vacquieres, France: fields of dreams

Sunday Afternoon

So I had to ask Jean-Benoit Cavalier, winemaker, proprietor of Chateau de Lascaux – what do you like best about this life of a vintner? Is the work in the fields? The mixing, blending? The harvest?

We were walking through the mixed forests, the garrigues, just north of his village of Vacquieres and every so often we would come across a field of vines. It is the nature of winemaking here: these woods are part of the terroir. And each vine-planted plot has a story – an age, an expectation, a purpose.

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I already know Jean-Benoit loves his work. He told me so. And really, it is obvious.

He tells me now how deeply satisfying it is to reflect about the entirety – putting together the whole story of a wine, from the planting to the final bottle placed in the cave. Watching it unfold, shaping the outcome.

The harvest is one important part of that entirety. Jean-Benoit leaves the vacation home up north, in the mountains, two weeks before the end of August.

I come back to the village and I think about how to run the harvest that year. It requires all my concentration and so I like to be alone then.

And there are other elements of pride – I can see that. There’s his family, sure. And his village, Vacquieres. His wife, Isabelle, is a fan of it as well.

Just the right size, she says to me. Three hundred people. No more. At this size we all look after each other, there is a sense of community. It is quite wonderful.

Aren’t all villages like this here, in the south of France? I think of Pierrerue – my June retreat this year, also with about three hundred. And with people who believed it was special, unique. Or maybe I have just visited the only two special and unique villages. These are it! They are the beloved ones, the savage babes (another term I hear about Pierrerue and now Vacquieres – sauvage, untamed by the outside world)!

Jean-Benoit pauses at a field of vines that is already harvested. Organically grown grapes, because they are better that way. The leaves are starting to turn. In a few weeks it will have to be a fiery red blaze of color.

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It is my first planting of a new field. The soil is terrible – layers of deep stone…
So why would you choose to plant in this spot?
Because I like coming here. Look, you can see the village, just so.

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There are trees on all sides. I can show you something else – bee hives. I have someone tend to the bees here.

I look closely. Why do I think a photo of a bee is well worth the encounter of a close kind? Maybe to remember the moment.

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And sure enough, a bee gets tangled in my hair. I remember childhood summers in the Polish countryside, with my grandparents. At least once each year a bee would dovetail right into my hair. There is a choice: endure a bite to the scalp or fish the bee out with your hand, knowing that you will get stung. I fish, I get stung.

I will remember the moment.

Back in the car, we drive up through a dense fragrant forest. The rain has really intensified the scent.

Rosemary? I ask, but I know the answer. The herb is everywhere, growing in the wild, adding its distinct essence to the forest floor.

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See this? It is a capitelle, a hut, a shelter, from sheepherding days. It is probably two thousand years old.

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We crawl inside. Jean-Benoit touches the roof, nicely layered into a conical shape.

It’s fine work, isn’t it?

He could be talking about the hut, he could be talking about winemaking.

Earlier in the afternoon, we had stopped at the garage/cave of his friend, Christophe. It was after the Sunday meal. Family members were gathered to help with the press. Christophe is a writer, a vintner (Domaine Beau Thorey), a man of several trades. He presses his grapes by hand.

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We like Americans because they gave us this model of a hand press. It is a California invention!
We like the French because you gave us your wines.

The men push, with great breaks in between. There are no pauses in the laughter.

We linger until the pressing is finished and the residue is carted away in wheelbarrows.

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One spot you have to see. Jean-Benoit knows the roads well. I am lost, but then I am always lost when a local person keeps track of the turns.

Before us, in the gray light of a misty, drizzly day I see a vineyard, stretching toward the hills. At the end of it there is a church, standing alone, unprotected by village houses.

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If you want a memorable wedding, this would be the scene. The feeling of your place in the scheme of things is tremendous. You get the sense that life is about your backbreaking work in your (chosen) field and the passion that drives you forward. Or is it I’ve been hanging around Jean-Benoit Cavalier and the Chateau de Lascaux too long...

Is there such a thing as a perfect moment? A perfect cluster of grapes? A perfect wine? …village? …host? Perfection, defined not only by the result, but also by the beauty of the effort that went into it? Do you need me to answer that?

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from Vacquieres, France: maman, papa, three daughters and tante Madelaine. and me.

Sunday Midday

Since when did I become a permanent fixture at the large kitchen table of the Cavalier family? Since Friday. Three times a day. I am hopeless when it comes to the family meal, especially when it is prepared by Isabelle.

I love to cook – for two, for four, for ten – all of it. But I love to be cooked for even more. Especially here in France.

On Sunday afternoon, though, the routines change. Out come the better clothes (I forgot my time and place, so the image of the grungy American will stay firmly rooted in the French consciousness after my visit here). Out come the relatives (the aunt, who lives just across the street). Out come the better dishes, the dining room table cloth placed at the dining room table.

We eat at midday and were it not for the fact that in the evening, Isabelle will serve a supper of pureed vegetable soup and omelets packed with wild girolles (mushrooms much like the chanterelles), I would probably throw down my napkin and retire from eating after that Sunday meal. Perhaps not. This is, after all, the south of France.

First come the mussels, straight from the Mediterranean sea.

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Then the eggplant and tomatoes, the salad, the cheeses and the chocolate gateau. The Cavalier daughters hover and help, maman serves, tante comes with freshly baked cake. And with the most fascinating conversational contributions you could imagine. Passion for all that is great and wonderful runs high in this family.

Oh, the Languedoc Sunday family dejeuner! I leave it with such a feeling of warmth and contentment! It’s not just that there are plates of foods that stir all senses. It is the understood sentiment that now is the time to put away all baggage and sit down and exhale. For a long while. Because the week ends well if there is shared food, wine and casual observation with people you care about.

I am so relaxed at the mere recollection that I will write no more. I’ll leave you with photos of la famille Cavalier of Vacquieres, France.

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aunt Madelaine, nephew Jean-Benoit

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oldest daughter

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middle daughter

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mother Isabelle and youngest daughter, beneath an old family portrait

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the mirror, creating a new family portrait

from Vacquieres, France: in the still of the barrel

A machine may pick well. It can, for the whites and ros├ęs, sort out the leaves and stems.

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It can mash, crush, move things from one bin to another.

And then there is quiet. The wines rest in their barrels. Twelve months for the Chateau de Lascaux les Pierres d'Argent, the whites. But early after the harvest, you need the human hand to open each barrel, plunge down a stick with a chain and stir up the residue. It's called la battonage. Daily, at this stage.

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And if you put your ear to the opening, you can hear the process of fermentation.

The world is never completely silent. You just have to pop a few corks sometimes to hear movement, that’s all.