Grele: Solidarity during a devastating hailstorm at winemaker Raimond de Villeneuve's vineyard

1-raimond de villeneuve
Un vrai bonnard. Don't miss this inspiring story about a winemaker's comeback following a devastating storm. Pictured: Raimond de Villeneuve. Photo montage from Google images.

la grêle (grel)

    : hail

Audio File: Listen to Jean-Marc: Download MP3 or Wav file

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.


Raimond de villeneuve3
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.

French Vocabulary
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 were asking how the dogs were getting along with the cats...

So I leave you, now, with these photos....

Left to right: Mama Braise ("brez"), her son, Smokey, and that's Lily the calico.

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! 

A Message from KristiOngoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal each week. If you find joy or value in these stories and would like to keep this site going, donating today will help so much. Thank you for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety

etre dans la lune

Across from Domaine Banneret in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (c) Kristin EspinasseOn being on the moon in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Today's subject is absentmindedness....

être dans la lune

    : to be lost in one's thoughts, to be absent-minded ("to be on the moon")

AUDIO FILE: Listen to Jean-Marc: Download MP3 or Wav file

De temps en temps elle ne porte pas trop d'attention. Elle est sur la lune.
At times, she doesn't pay attention. She is on the moon. 

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse

The Absentminded Confessor

We took the day off, yesterday, to join friends in the wine-making town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Chief Grape had called ahead to reserve several vineyard visits, which would be especially interesting for our friends, each of whom is involved, in one way or another, dans le mêtier du vin.

Wine is not my passion, but that did not keep me from tagging along with the grape enthusiasts. Sure, all that vine talk might get boring, but I could always enjoy the company of friends—and then there would be that delicious midday pause (lunch at La Mère Germaine!). There would also be plenty to see—eclectic village windows, sleepy stone façades, and other such camera candy. So what if that meant suffering so many oenopoetic arguments on appellation and vin nature

...At least I think those topics were brought up, then again, how can I be sure? For I did as I always do during a swarm of French conversation: I escaped into the recesses of my mind, letting the foreign chatter dissolve into an agreeable murmur.

The French have an expression for this kind of "absentmindedness" (I prefer a more dignifying  term—such as "mind travel"... or even "thought voyaging", for the hint at adventure... ). For we who lapse into a cognitive retreat, the French say: elle est dans la lune!

Et c'est vrai. There, in the apex of my mind... on that luminous half-moon, my two legs dangling over the golden edge, I can best view and appreciate my surroundings. Removed from the chaos of chatter, the world around me softens up... into a romantic still life. Though I no longer hear, I see: there are French lips flapping—but no voices, arms-flailing—but no words to ride them. When I dip back into conversation, or "come in for a brief landing", I find the opposite to be true: I hear voices... but no longer see those fabulous flapping lips, I understand words... but no longer notice the flailing arms. Perhaps some senses shut down with the opening of others? In that case, one has to choose: between seeing and hearing. Which do you choose?

I used to feel self-conscious about this tendency to float away from conversation, in favor of returning to my lunar perch, where I could swing my legs over the slivered moon's edge and watch the animated scene before me.

I began to have a sneaking suspicion that my inability to pay attention to a conversation might be evidence of a low intelligence quotient. I wondered, was I dumb?

And then I heard about a character called "The Absent-Minded Professor"! I began to feel hopeful: if an academic could be nearly perpetually absent-minded, then maybe I wasn't slow after all? And maybe I didn't have to try so hard to conceal my own attention lapses? If worse came to worse and I was caught, I no longer had to feel like a space cadet; I could brush off the incident as "an academic interlude"... and happily return to outer space pour être sur ma lune, as the French say.

That is not to say that embarrassing situations don't crop up. It is a risk an absent-minded one just has to take. Yesterday in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example, at the tail-end of our first vineyard visit, I decided to "land" in the current conversation. It looked as though the tasting was wrapping up, so I asked what I thought to be a "safe" question:

"Quelles sont vos horaires d'ouverture?" My intention was to share the vineyard's location and opening hours with others. 

My husband snickered. Confused, I searched the faces in our group for any clues of dissent.

"Why is that a stupid question?" I asked.

Thankfully the women in the group—friends Gilda and Caroline—stood up for me: "It is not a stupid question! In America," Gilda explained, "there are no stupid questions." 

"But in France," Caroline offered, sympathetically, "every question is a potentially stupid one!"

How true! I thought about cultural differences and, once again, I was off... to ponder that thought.


Post note: For many of us, listening is a core value. I do agree! But I find that it becomes difficult to listen, for long stretches, to French conversation. At the end of a dinner party (in French), many French language learners feel like their heads are about to explode. Is it any wonder that some of us float off... to decompress sur la lune

 P.S. And one more embarrassing incident (and an apology to Caroline, from Perth): Earlier that morning, as I wished my friend "Happy Australia Day!" Caroline admitted to having celebrated by enjoying Vegemite on her buttery croissant. I had thought that was so funny... Vegemite on a croissant! Only, hours later, it didn't stop me from asking Caroline, "What did you have for breakfast?" to figure out how much of this is absentmindedness—and how much is forgetfulness?

(The above confession was also an excuse to wish our Australian readers a belated Happy Australia Day! Do you like the idea of Vegemite on a buttery croissant?)


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dans le mêtier du vin = in the wine business

une appellation or vin d'appellation
= a wine carrying a guarantee of origin 

vin nature = natural wine

il ou elle est dans la lune = he or she is on the moon

et c'est vrai = and it's true

Quelles sont vos horaires d'ouverture? = what are your opening hours?



Our visit began here, at Domaine Bois de Boursan. That's owner Jean-Paul Versino up on the ladder. 


Jean-Marc Espinasse, Chateauneuf du Pape (c) Kristin Espinasse

We visited Uncle Jean-Claude's cellar in Chateauneuf-du-Pape....



Only a grape enthusiast could appreciate this. To the rest of us... it just looks like spit! 


And here is Kiwi The Dog, my cousin Audrey's charming chien. (Hi Audrey xoxo). Kiwi is admiring Gilda's wonderful coat--by the way Gilda and Robert Camuto joined us for the day. Read about another tasting we did here (wine lovers will not want to miss this story!)

Jean-Marc Espinasse (c) Kristin Espinasse

Chief Grape, a.k.a. Jean-Marc. I wrote, in the beginning of the story, that we took the day off... but do wine makers ever take the day off?



We also visited Laurent Charvin at his Domaine Charvin. This interesting arbre (which resembles a gigantic grape vine) is really a mulberry tree. Be sure to call ahead to visit any of the vineyards mentioned in today's post!


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A Message from KristiOngoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal each week. If you find joy or value in these stories and would like to keep this site going, donating today will help so much. Thank you for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.

Ways to contribute:
1.Zelle®, The best way to donate and there are no transaction fees. Zelle to [email protected]

2.Paypal or credit card
Or purchase my book for a friend and so help them discover this free weekly journal.
For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety