Un orage de grêle détruit en deux minutes deux années de récolte de raisins. A hail storm destroys in two minutes two years worth of grapes.
A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse
I have an inspiring lemons to lemonade story for you now. It's about local winemaker Raimond de Villeneuve who came over for lunch yesterday.
"Il est bonnard!" Jean-Marc said of our guest, assuring me not to worry about what to cook. But depending on what bonnard meant, I would serve french fries or soufflé.... I was betting on the first hunch (bonnard = fun-loving?), and that this meant a comfort meal was in order. Nothing complicated.
Coincidentally, the night before, I'd made a dish by chef and winemaker Jamie Oliver. I couldn't remember the exact ingredients, but having made the braised cabbage last year, I winged it (je l'ai fait au pif)--sauteing red onion, one chou rouge, and 3 golden apples....
I had found some dried figs in the fridge and chopped those up, tossing them in, adding salt, pepper, and coriander seeds. The result was encouraging but something was missing. So before our guest arrived, I doctored up the dish with some soft chestnuts (hadn't Jamie added those?), chopped and mixed in for texture and even more comfort.
From the new living room window that looks onto the front yard, I spied our guest, who threw back his head as he laughed with Jean-Marc. Yes, bonnard had to mean fun-loving. Today's relaxed menu would work.
The two men bounded into the house, heading toward the kitchen. As I was on the other side of the door when they entered, our guest didn't see me. Amused, I followed quietly on the stranger's heels, curious to see how long it would take to be found out.
Only a step behind the rugged man with the curly black hair, I could have reached out and tapped him on the shoulder--but resisted. And when Raimond de Villeneuve finally turned around we both burst out laughing.
"So you are the genius winemaker!" I said. "Jean-Marc has told me so much about you."
Raimond's smile was a mixture of elegance and mischief. His blue eyes twinkled as he considered a response to my greeting, finally settling on more laughter. And then, elegance won over.
"Enchanté," Raimond said, kissing my cheek.
I was a little star-struck but any misplaced emotion was quickly replaced by steam. My cabbage was on fire! I dashed past our guest, and landed beside the kitchen range--in time to save the side dish.
Joining the two men at the table, I wanted to hear all about how this young winemaker managed to turn around a natural catastrophy. Raimond's latest vintage, called "Grêle," was thoughtfully named after the devastating hailstorm that stole his future harvest at his Chateau de Roquefort. If that isn't bad enough, it hijacked the next year's grapes as well--for when hail hits the vines its damage affects the vine's constitution.
As we sat down to eat, Raimond told us the story. "In seven minutes I had lost everything!"
Facing bankruptcy, Raimond was surprised by a miracle. It began when one winemaker offered him a couple cases of grapes....
Then another vigneron encouraged Raimond to harvest several rows of vines at his domaine, never mind it wasn't in the same appellation (Bandol). Similar offers began pouring in across southern France until Raimond realized what was happening: people were coming out of the woodwork to help. And not just people--extremely busy winemakers who should normally be working round the clock to meet their own harvest deadlines!
With this kind of encouragement and support, Raimond quickly learned not only to accept the handouts, but to encourage them. In order for the gifted grapes to amount to something, he would need enough fruit to fill his tanks so that he might have the chance to entirely replace the lost vintage.
To organize such a feat is one thing--getting it to clear nit-picky customs is quite another. The grapes were rolling in from all over the Mediterranean--and from Bandol all the way up to Chateauneuf-du-Pape! Normally this would be an evil customs' officers hayday (those notoriously strick bureaucrats, in charge of controlling wine production, seem to love to find the glitch. And here, there were enough broken rules to land all the renegade winemakers in the principal's office.)
But an astonishing thing happened. The customs officers closed their eyes on all the grape-schlepping! What's more, they seemed moved by the sweating effort and sacrifice of the winemakers. In what could be a competitive field, winemakers were now sharing more than their grapes, they were sharing their machinery, their cellars, their lunches, and their savoir-faire.
One of the unexpected rewards about this organized effort was the chance for Raimond to work in so many different wine cellars, while accepting all the handouts, and to see how everyone made wine. "It reminds me of how chefs work--each with his own method of cooking a great meal."
As Raimond recounted his story, he paused here and there to pick up the lambchops Jean-Marc had grilled. "You don't mind if I use my hands?" he asked.
"Bien sûr que non!" I insisted. Still, I couldn't determine whether or not the braised cabbage with chestnuts was a hit or a miss with our guest... And when, finally, he turned his attention to the side dish, shoveling it down with glee, I felt as relieved as the winemaker must have, the day every lost grape was retrieved.
Post note: Hopefully there will be another story about Raimond, who will use his grafting expertese to help us plant our new vineyard this spring! Stay tuned.
Another group of empathetic winemakers who contributed to Raimond's "Grêle" vintage. The sign they are holding offers this heartwarming message: "Du Mourvèdre de la Tour du Bon pour Raimond!" (Some mourvèdre from the Tour de Bon for Raimond!)
To comment on today's post, click here. If you enjoyed Raimond's story, send him a note here in the comments section.
You can visit Raimond's website, with information about his Chateau de Roquefort wines, here.
bonnard = fun, easy to get along with, cool
il est bonnard = he's a good guy
au pif = by guesswork
je l'ai fait au pif = I winged it
à la bise = in "bise" fashion (la bise, or faire la bise, is to kiss someone on both cheeks)
le vigneron = winemaker
Listen to A French Christmas and "Mon Beau Sapin", "Saint Nuit", "La Marche des Rois", "Petite Ville Bethléem", "Il est né Le Divin Enfant".
You are wondering where Lily's brother, Pancho, is? No worries. He wasn't eaten.
Pancho was watching the scene from above. Happy holiday season to all! To comment on this post, click here.
Thank you for the time you've spent reading my column. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next story, please know that ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue doing what I love most: sharing these missives from France. Your support is vivement apprécié! Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment! Kristi