Sunday, September 7, 2014

No good deed goes unpunished


            Every evening at around 8 p.m. the sound of sheep bleating wafts over the meadow to our little farm in Southwest France. The cool evening air is scented with the lavender of Cindy’s garden and as I lift my glass of red wine and its aroma blends in the breeze, it’s at that time that I stop and give pause. I think of those little sheep, lambs really. Cute in their cottony cloaks, and never further than a meter from their mother. And the mothers, surrounded by the other proud mothers, chewing slowly on the straw as they await their next meal. And the farmer that walks the rows of feeding troughs, spilling out the grain mixture that the sheep love so. And I think of the farmer and I fucking thank God it’s not me. Been there done that. Never again!
            Little extreme? maybe. Let’s go back a few weeks.
            My good neighbor dropped by and announced cheerfully that he and his wife were getting vaccinations. He seemed real happy about this. I was trying to figure out the reason for his apparent glee, when he then described where they had to go to get the shots. Some camping area.
            Yeah, I figured it out quick enough, he was going on vacation, not vaccination. Although; if you were vacationing on certain south Pacific Islands, you might need vaccinations. Something about leprosy. Anyway, what he was angling at was he needed me to volunteer to feed the little darlings. And all things being French, there was a specific method to this chore. I had fed them last year, and I didn’t have any negative memories of it. So I accepted his requirement that I volunteer.
The next week, I went over to his farm the morning before he and the missus were to leave for their vacation. I’m invited into their house and enjoy a cup of coffee as he draws out the floor plan of the various livestock buildings. He walked me through the floor plan, and the sequence. Next we meander over to the enclosures and he indicates the buckets used for the two blends of grain. Green for the mommies and kiddies. (I am well aware a kid is a baby Goat, just go with it.) And white is for….crap, already got it wrong. Green was for the small enclosures that held the adolescents, and white was for the moms and young kids. You could also use white for the enclosure with the four male rams. (I know male ram is redundant.)
There is a round half silo grain bin in the furthest barn. Next to it is a smaller square bin full of recently harvested beans, kinda like brown lima beany looking things. Beside the square bin is a high speed, high voltage crusher, high pitch noise maker. It’s so powerful, when you turn it on you flip the switch once to the right and wait a few seconds, then you flip it again to the lower right. When the noise it makes starts to hurt your ears, you add three bucketful’s of the brown lima beans. The shrieker machine spits out a Quaker oats looking product and you gather it in four buckets to add to the regular grain later.      
            Next you go over to the half silo looking thing that stores the grain. You get on the old tractor with the grain blender attached to the rear of the tractor. It’s like a concrete mixer; so much so that when I arrived he was washing out the last batch of concrete that he had poured as I drove up earlier. You back the tractor up to the silo. There is an 8 inch tube sticking out of the silo, so you park the mixer under the end of the chute.   You unplug the shrieker, and plug in the electrically activated grain extractor. Very important. You keep it plugged in for exactly three minutes. Then with the grain added to the mixer thing, you open a small opening in the bottom of the mixed and dole out four bucketful’s of grain in White buckets. You walk them over to the closest pen and leave them there. This of course indicates to the sheep that they should now all start bleating as loud as they can. If you stop for a second and listen you would swear they were all yelling “Mmmmerdeee.”  (Merde’ is French for shit.)
            Then with the little darlings spreading the call for all the other sheep to express their lot in life, and the crescendo of “Merde” surrounds you and mixes with the odor of merde’, you make your way to the main holding area. The sound is deafening. Silence of the lambs my ass.

            Once you have driven the old tractor to the main sheep dorm, you dole out seven White buckets of regular grain. Then you dole out another seven White buckets of the regular grain to use at the 8 p.m. feeding.
            Then you add the four buckets of crushed brown beans to the mixer and it combines the grain with the beans. Eh Viola! You dole out 8 buckets of the mix into the Green buckets. And then comes the fun part. This is where the system really pays off. You walk down the aisles placing the full buckets of grain (or the mixed ones) next to the troughs so when you start to pour them, it’s done in a fluid manner, and you don’t have sheep getting laryngitis while they wait.
            Then you do the walk of life. You pour the buckets evenly down the troughs and end where the next bucket is awaiting the frenzied clients. When you’re done, the next chore is to check that the auto watering devices are devicing. Then to finish it off you look outside at the balls of hay. If one is done, you get in the new tractor with the hay fork on it and place a ball of hay to replace it.
            Alright, so he’s fairly certain I’ve got the hang of it so he nods. Yep I’ll do.
            One last thing, I tell him. There is a medium small sheep body lying in the third stall. He looks at it and nods. That reminds him luckily,
“Henri, you are going for to be needing to give that sickly one a few shots. There is syringe, take from this bottle.”
“How much do I use?”
“To being this line here on syringe, Henri’.”
“So, if any of these other tiny majestic little creatures pass onto the next bye and bye, where should I place them?”
I looked around for a suitable enclosure, and saw none. He responds by pointing vaguely to the back of a nearby area where there are pallets stacked.
So like the idiot I am, I presume the little nipper will be removed by tomorrow morning when I “Start”.
            The next morning I awake and have a quick cup of coffee, thank you Cindy.
I drive over to Death Valley Ranch and Noise Making Farm and well who would have guessed it? Little dead, starting to stink smiley sheep face is lying their looking to be taken for a drag.
“Fuck me!”
            Then it went from depressing to morbidly surreal. As I’m dragging the Bambi sheep equivalent away to the next beyond (next to the stack of pallets) the other sheep start bleating, (I kid you not)
“MMMMMaaaa, MMMMaaaa.”
            I get them all fed and watered and then look at the sick one. It was easy to identify, as the farmer grabbed this waxy red crayon and made three red stripes down the sheep’s back. I take the syringe and pierce it into the magic sheep curing elixir, withdraw the required amount and make my way over to the little one. I jab the needle in and depress the syringe and retract it. Eh Viola!
I come back that night, repeat the procedure. No problem. Next morning another sheep is lying dead. I get a wheel barrow, after feeding the noise makers, and cart off today losing contestant. Then I administer the last dosage of cure-all to the little red striped one. This time the shot didn’t go so well. As I’m inserting the needle, the sheep moved, and I felt the needle hit the neck bone. So I withdrew it slightly and gave it the shot. It was fine, and still alive today.
I took care of these animals; this pack of little intelligence, these poor creatures that deserved better, for a week. In that week three died, carry the one that was left for me, four all told. Every day there was something waiting for me. A corpse, the smell of the previous dead carcasses, the futility of their existence, their lack of any quality of life. I don’t think I’m going to be available next year for slaughterhouse five.

 I think I will stay across the dell, in the garden Cindy cultivated. Smell that lavender, eye the beauty of her garden. Watch the kestrels as they flutter in flight, perched skyward. Maybe lift another glass of the regions red wine. Take a last look at our small holding of vines. I just know in my heart of hearts, that I sure the fuck won’t be over there.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The scars we carry through life.

            Here’s a little pointer I want to share with anyone ever thinking of moving to France. If you make an appointment over here…keep it. We learned this lesson from Caleigh missing a couple doctors’ appointments. She was then instructed to find another doctor.
            I had swelling in my lower abdomen…knock it off!....from over exerting myself… behave!...while working with large heavy stones. I made an appointment with my doctor and had an appointment for the following week. Well a week passes and the swelling is gone, but I don’t want to annoy him by missing the appointment, so I show up. After waiting the hour in the waiting room, I am ushered in.
            “Good afternoon Mr. Petterson. What seems to be the problem?”
            “Good afternoon Doctor Biamou…well I had swelling here (points) and it’s gone down.”
            “Let me see…(Unrobes) …Ah you had a hernia….you will need an operation.”
            “Um…O.K. good thing I didn’t skip my appointment.”
            “It is a very serious condition…if you don’t have this operation…it could be catastrophic if anything happened.”
            Then he calls the Marmande Hospital and sets up a screening for me. I attend two different observations and the operation is set for the following month. The surgery is a great success…as is proof as I am still sucking air, and not taking a dirt nap.
            After recovering for a few weeks, the bandage is removed and a scar is in the place where there wasn’t one before. It was my first real scar. I got smacked next to my right eye socket once playing Ice Hockey when I was younger, my own team mate as a matter of fact. But we all have scars…every single one of us.
            So I check out my scar and notice how irregular it seems. It’s serrated almost. I can’t help but imagine the scene during the operation.
            Picture two tables set up in a hospital operating room. One has a nice red checkered table cloth on it, the other is a white spotless ironed cloth. The doctors enter and start placing Cheese, bottles of red wine, and baguettes on the pristine white cloth. I am wheeled in semi-conscious and placed on the picnic table cloth. The anesthesia’s inserted and I’m out. The doctors then wave in the half dozen medical students and they commence carving up the baguettes. The doctors take note of how each student carves off a piece of baguette.
            “Why Claude…your knife work is being exquisite…I have drawn a line on the patient…please make the incision.” The doctor turns to fill his empty wine glass as Claude starts the incision. He turns and laughs and says.
            “No Claude…although it is being a very nice cut…I think you are to be using one of those very sharp pointy surgery knife thingy’s….you are not to be using the baguette knife…really…we have to eat with that.”
            Well, it does look as though a few apprentices had their hands in the incision; because it looks as straight as West Hollywood. But the surgery, the prescriptions, and nurse visits cost us a grand total of zero euros, so I really can’t complain.
            To finish on the subject of scars both visible and otherwise, it has to be how you look at them and not others. I remember one of my most memorable scars. I was 25 and had just moved to Southern California. I got a job as a construction superintendent in high end estate building. It paid well, but being young and going out it didn’t seem to stretch as much as I would have liked.
A friend told me he moonlighted at this dance place called Chippendales. He told me to just show up and once the music started, start taking off my clothes. The money would start being tossed on stage because all the housewives were bored and this was an escape for them.
Well not knowing the area too well, I asked around and was given directions. I had to pay to get in, and it seemed expensive to me…but you can’t make money without spending a little.
            I make my way over to the stage and brace up myself…being naturally shy. Well the music starts and I try to get into it, and finally I get a second wind and it’s going pretty well. I look around and all these women are crowding the stage…there are quite a few one dollar bills by my feet and so I turn it up a notch and loose myself. There must have been fifty dollar bills about the stage. Then I hear it…some guy starts yelling.
            “Are you insane?....what are you doing.” The women drown out his heckling by yelling louder. The guy jumps on the stage and I yell to him.
            “You can dance after this song…that money is mine.” I go back to dancing but keep my eye on him.
            Another couple guys get on stage in these stupid outfits, and I’m getting angry. “Get off the stage until I’m done.” No effect. The guys start picking up my clothes and trying to hand them to me. Then this tall guy stands in front of me and says.
“Sha…sha…shows over…yuk, yuk, yuk.”
            Well I haul back and punch the goofy son of a bitch in the kisser, then all these cops from Anaheim storm the stage, and I’m escorted off. The housewives start grabbing back their dollar bills.
I remember thinking how hard I worked, and then I get pissed at having to dance to “It’s a small world after all” and how inappropriate the lyrics were. Well I’m escorted out of the park and was astonished how many families’ brought their kids to a Chippendale s’ Adventure Park for adults.

(I should note that the above was fiction…other than the odd serpentine scar. And that I never danced topless or otherwise at the Disney park…located in Anaheim California. And Goofy and I have partied many times. Don’t get him started on he and Minnie…that’s a joke for the Disney brand lawyers as well.) 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cold vine pruning weather has arrived.


    The really, really cold weather has arrived…in all its glory.  yippee!! The photo below was taken in the summer...not in the freezing December weather we have now.

          So the first thing we did was fire up the recently added wood furnace that heats the water for the radiators. The house has legitimate heat for the first time in…well since it was built …a hundred and twenty some odd years ago.
         The second thing I did was trudge out of the sauna like environment of the house and headed north to frozen adventure…vine pruning. The vines had eased themselves into dormancy…me not so much. I love the process so much that I thought I would post a how to prune vines.
         Not many people will do this in their lifetime…so why not experience it vicariously through this blog.  I have always gotten my nose out of joint whenever I read some jerk ass reviewing some bottle of wine. It’s like the “Emperor’s new clothes.” Wine is not some special elixir that only toffee nosed snobs can truly appreciate. That is such bullshit! Wine is a great equalizer…you don’t need a degree…you don’t need excessive finances….you don’t need some custom built wine tasting room…or even one of those overpriced glass door wine refrigerators.
         All you need is a glass…and a church key…or what most people would call a corkscrew.   The secret to wine is this…buy a bottle of say…ten dollar wine. Go to a Bevmo…Trader Joe’s…a large grocery store where there is a huge selection.
         Try it out…pour a glass…relax. Nibble on different snacky things …cheese... crackers with spread, sliced fruit. Relax…  
         If you enjoy it …guess what….you’re part of the club. No fee’s, no Mercedes required, just a glass. You don’t need to write 50 word sentences describing the “florally jasmine tinted aroma mixed with colored pencil shavings that were passed through an Amazonian rainforest, and yet the color resembles the red found in a salmons blood swirl after the spawning during the second week of September, served in the 20 ounce snifting goblet that had been cooled to 57 degrees and imparted the mildest hint of….fucking Palmolive dishwashing soap”.
         Give me a break.  
          The first time I pruned vines I was mortified….what if I do it wrong and cripple all these innocent plants. The French guy tutoring me said, “Henri’, cut as I show you…and don’t worry…next summer you will have grapes…there won’t be asparagus growing from the vines.” I smiled, he had erased this great expectation I was harboring if awe of the vines. So anyway below is the process for pruning vines. Ideally you should be sitting in your refrigerator reading this to impart the feeling of numbness your hands should have.

        First address the customer. This is what our subject looks like…don’t judge.

        “Hello….my name is Henri…I will be pruning your vines today...darling your tendrils are looking so dry…you are using conditioner no? I am thinking you are wanting it short for the winter look?”

         The main thing that pruning accomplishes is choosing the two shoots that will carry next year’s crop. There will also be two smaller reserve shoots…should something happen to the main two shoots. Pruning tames the vines so to speak…otherwise there would be an anarchy of shoots multiplying each year…like Medusa on speed. We certainly don’t want that. 
          What I do is select the two shoots that are placed on the vine stock in the most optimum location. Two that will allow me to attach them to the wire trellis structure that supports the vines during the growing season. They should be low on the stock so that they will allow next year’s vines plenty of trellis to hang on. Otherwise each year it would start a little higher and after five years the plant would be really tall with the grape shoots at the top of the six foot high trellis system. Also I was taught you ideally want the shoots that are starting from under last year’s larger branch. In my mind I imagine the flow of nutriments going in the least obstructed path to the leaves and grapes. Odd maybe but it helps me visualize the process of growth for the little darlings. 

          After pruning the unneeded shoots it looks like this. I have kept all four shoots long. I do this because if one of the shoots has a weak connection to the stock head I will need to use my second choice for the next year’s crop. (or runner) Meanwhile all the shoots I cut off, I throw into a pile for collection and burning later.

         Here is a close up of the pruned vine. In this case all four shoots for next year are located on the underside of last year’s stock. Not always the case. As this is my third year pruning, I find myself correcting the first two years occasional mistakes. Hey it’s all about experience. It’s also like enjoying wine, as you sample more and more, you develop a taste for different aspects of the different wines. And you don’t need to read some puffed windbag pontificating about his/her special talents in describing the complexities of this most noble….blah,blah,blah. (I admit a perverse pleasure in reading the articles if only to count how many words in a sentence they use…my record find to date 54 words in one sentence.) There were 30 words in the parenthesis…gotta work on it.

          This is a photo of the first row being pruned and the five rows behind are still waiting. Our subject is in the lower left. You can make out a small pile of trimmings between the first and second row in the upper right corner. You can see I’ve chosen the lower two shoots for next year’s runners, and the upper two are the reserves.

         Cheers Hank.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

We knew what we had before he was gone.

        Skye in a prairie with chocolate lilies

Compared to an insect, our lifetime spans generations. Compared to a mountain, it’s rather instantaneous. I imagine the secret to life is to experience it to its fullest, share it, and help build it for others. For me it helps round out any sharp edges by realizing that my worst day is better than 70 percent of the world’s best day. As depressing a statistic as that is, it also reinforces that we shouldn't waste the breath we each have.
O.K. so that concludes life 101.
I wonder if it’s natural or even normal to guard our fondest memories. Is it selfish to revel in the experience that warms us in the coldest times? Well, let me share one that just ended.
When Caleigh was four years old, we thought. “Hmmm, It’s probably time we got her a puppy.”
There was an e-mail going around the office where Cindy worked, it showed this pup that was offered to a good deserving home. As no one else answered the ad, she then invited us to come look at the dog. We got there and Cindy and I went to the door. We left Caleigh in the car. The woman who had placed the e-mail answered the door. We introduced ourselves, she smiled weakly and we started talking about the dog.
“Well, the first 18 months of his life he was kept in a kennel…the kennel called the owner and demanded that the poor soul be picked up and taken to a normal home. The woman arrived and picked up the dog and drove down the road a few miles. She stopped at another kennel and placed the dog there. Well kennel one finds out from kennel two that this is one and the same dog. They are rightly pissed and so they contact the woman who rescues dogs. She picks up the dog and re-socializes him. (Yeah I asked…she couldn't help me…but thanks for thinking about that.) The dog is wonderful and we all turn as we hear Caleigh open her car door and she gets out and stands by the car. The nice woman continues talking about the dog and its wonderful personality and we all stop talking as we notice this beautiful dog walk down her farm road from one of her barns. Caleigh is standing by the car watching the dog, she’s fine, relaxed. Then the dog sees her and puts its head down slightly and walks over to Caleigh. He sits right next to her and leans gently on her. She starts petting the dog. The dog smiles…it never ceased to amaze me of that trait. It had the funniest expression, it would slightly open its mouth and its tongue would hang out and he would gently pant.
We’re all watching the most genuine Hallmark moment for a couple minutes and we pretty much said at the same time.
“Wrap him up we’ll take him.”

Australian Blue “Skye” Shepard
Skye  2001-2013
The best dog I’ve ever had, sleep well young prince

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The great grape harvest (part two)

Well Petit Clos’s first harvest of the Sauvignon Blanc grapes is under our belt…so to speak. The grape harvesting machine tractor arrived this morning at 7:45a.m. Last year, I had inspected the vines after the harvest and noticed that there were small bunches of grapes gathered at the wooden posts. The harvesting machine operated in a manner such that the “vibrating arm” must have bounced at each post. Well this year they got that glitch sorted out. After this huge tractor that straddles the vines was completed harvesting the vines, there were no grapes left hanging, left for me to sample.

Each of the last three years has been a mix of weather conditions. Two years ago there was a drought; last year there was a late frost; and this year we had horizontal blowing hail. This happened two days ago, nice cloudy day, nothing special then this black locust looking cloud approaching from the east. First the wind hit, then the rain added it’s two cents worth, then the wind raised the ante…well the rain thought; “fuck this…I’m going ballistic”.

I had run upstairs in the house to check on all the windows, thankfully they were all closed. I looked out one of the windows facing our driveway and saw it hit. First the rain was falling at a 15 degree angle, then the wind up the velocity, and then the horizontally bowing rain turned into ¼”inch hail.

Great Mother Nature’s having a pissing contest. (No…I don’t know with who…I just liked the imagery)

Well after getting the chainsaw out, and then cutting the two trees; that were blown over, and moving them out of the driveway. I proceeded to walk a kilometer (5/8’s of a mile) with the chainsaw and helped my neighbor cut up a thirty inch diameter tree that had blocked our main road. Then after lifting and clearing the main route I returned to the house and dropped off the chainsaw. I then took off my soaked sneakers and put on a dry pair of boots and walked to the vines.

I was thinking that if thirty inch trees were falling like dominoes; then my vines would be flattened. I arrived and started walking up one of the rows, no bad…if anything the wind seemed to have cleared the vines of any superfluous leaves. I was pleasantly surprised. And with closer inspection I saw that there were a lot more grapes than I originally presumed. There were about 15% of the grapes that were raisin-ey looking, another 15% that were tiny, and the rest looked vigorous. 

Overall the jury is still out. It will be months from now when we learn how many kilograms the vines yielded. We paid the harvester and the tractor with a grape bin trailer, 310 euro’s, and they drove the 12 kilometers to the winery. Last year was a smaller crop, so it will be interesting to see if I make more than $1.25 an hour.

Just returned from Bertico, winery and got my delivery ticket, it was about 20% more than last year. So I ‘m happy.

C est’ la Vie….It is the life.

This years Sauvignon Blanc grape harvest (part one)

You place me in any French Home Depot type store, and I can talk for hours describing what I need, what I’m doing, and how much I need. (It’s called Brico Depot over here…I have no f-ing idea what it means…either.)  However…if you get three guys in my vineyard pontificating in French about the various methodologies and requirements about the different cause and effects of the last three weeks of weather…yeah just like that. They could be describing Pythagoreans Theorem, Pythagoreans wife’s sexual proclivities, or Pythagoreans wife was having sex with Pericles.

My point you ask:

            What with the bizarre weather we’ve had the last few weeks; it was fast approaching time to harvest the vines. My vintner savior Sylvan dropped by to see how the grapes were doing. We spoke for a while and I informed him that I had stopped by the winery that was buying my grapes. I had spoken to so and so about having his tractor harvest my grapes. Sylvan looked at me and said. “He is the representative for the winery, he does not harvest, Henri.”

            “Well, I’m… you know what… out of luck,” I think to myself. Sylvan takes his cell phone out of his pocket and calls a few numbers. “They are being busy with the harvest; I will call a few more people from home and let you know.” I genuflected and he left.

            Not three hours later he drops by the house with a piece of paper and a phone number on it. “Be calling him tomorrow morning. “I again thank him profusely and he shrugs like it’s nothing, and leaves.

            Next day I call the phone number, after four hours of calling this number, it never rings through. I thought it was not turned on, but it didn’t even go to the mail box. Sylvan stops by later in the day. “Everything is good Henri?” I describe to him the amount of times I called the cell phone and shrug. “Let me make some calls later.” I’m feeling like some village somewhere really needs me back, as the stand in village idiot surpassed their requirements and they want the old village idiot back.

            Again next day, I’m just taking a break from cutting the fallen trees from a bizarre thunder/lightning/horizontal rain/hail cluster f**k, and Sylvan drives up.  “Not to be worrying Henri. Everything is set up for Monday at eight…eight thirty.” I can’t tell you how helpful it was, to coordinate the harvest machine and the tractor with the grape trailer (water tight) and he called the winery and scheduled that as well. If I had tried this on the morning of the harvest the harvesting machine would have been waiting for three hours for the tractor grape trailer, then it would have gone to the winery the one day it was closed.

As I’ve always said…One hand washes the others back….It really pisses Sylvan when I show up at bath time, his wife is getting a little leery. All kidding aside Cindy and I will be helping Sylvan hand pick his two different types of grapes. So that will be one full day each of backbreaking work, on following weekends. I still think I got the better end of the deal…because during the full day of harvesting…see they have this two hour lunch as a thanks to all the friends and family who pitch in. No great thing really…just the usual suspects…baguette, cheese, dried sausage, white wine, red wine, cold cuts, nap, more cheese, baguette, red wine, a little more red wine. 

This year I will bring my pocket knife, everyone brings one….except for me last year. One of the guys asked his child if I could borrow their French equivalent of a Playskool knife, and if the child wouldn’t mind showing me how to correctly use it.

            So…to end this tale. I’m standing out by the vines at 7:30 on the morning of the harvest. I see down the road a harvester approaching. They are the oddest looking vehicles, they straddle the row of vines and harvest by means of vibrating bowed fiberglass arms that drop the grapes to a conveyor belt. They are then transported into these large stainless steel bins on either side of the harvester. The leaves and fingers are separated and….kidding, come on…they are ejected through a side port.

            The guy driving the harvester lines it up on a row and waits for his boss to arrive, two minutes later. Then Sylvan arrives and shakes everyone’s hand. I still can’t believe how fortunate we are. To have a guardian vigneron (winemaker) watching over us.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The romantic life of a vineyard owner, and other…..Myth-understandings.

          When we bought the “Petit Clos” farm there was a hectare (two and a half acres) of Sauvignon Blanc vines included. As the renovation of the main house was our primary focus, we had the seller continue managing the vines. After a year of renovations we decided it would be possible to take on the maintenance of the grapes. I mean how hard could it be, maybe a couple hours a week tidying up the rows?

          Fast forward to two years later; I’m taking a precious day off as the grapes are up to date on their tending. Our Chambres d’hotes; bed and breakfast, is running smoothly and we don’t have any more bookings for a couple days. And the house renovation is 90% done; the remaining 10% is like splitting infinity.  We have all modern conveniences and the esthetics are pretty much there. All that really remains are the assorted little finish items that we see daily, but hopefully visitors glaze over when admiring this beautiful old house through rose’ tinted wine glasses.

          There are two fronts that must be constantly fought in relation to running a vineyard. There is the paperwork and the labor in the vines. There are two skillsets between Cindy and I. Cindy is a contract negotiator and marketing professional, and I have a strong back….for now. So that defines who does what, believe me if I were handling the French document process we would both be shipped off to French Guyana. Do you remember that really cute island resort where Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman stayed, in the movie…”Papillon” (1973).

          In two years we have learned many lessons on the care and work required to keep the grapes not only alive, but more importantly, how to maintain their A.O.C. Cotes de Duras designation. I’m going to ask Cindy to chip in at this point and help the lowly laborer with delineating the process.

          First, we had to become “Farmers." There are two categories for farmers in France, the weekend farmer, and the fulltime farmer. We went through the process of declaring ourselves “weekend” farmers. That required dossiers for four bureaus. Not the furniture kind mind you. Each bureau was intertwined with the other.

The thought process (?) over here is illustrated by the first thing you need to set-up in France as an example.  In order to get a telephone, you need an electric bill. In order to set up an account with the electrical company you need a telephone number. You see where I’m going with this?

          Back to the four farming bureaus, multiply the phone/electrical bill conundrum by a factor of sixteen and there you have it. We had three meetings a month for a year in order to finally be a Farmer. You think that was it then?

No,no,no,no,…no! That just started the paper snowball rolling.

Let’s see what else was there? Oh yeah the vines, think they were covered in the farming dossier? Nope that only allowed me to work the fields, forest, and pastures. (Think skillsets again)

          The vines required only three bureaus.  But on the bright side the French vocabulary was twice as difficult on the Vineyard documents.

          They stipulate there will be inspections to ensure the care required of the vines is being done. Makes sense, also adds stress as I have a standard that I really care about. I really want the vines to be maintained and kept orderly; when we drive around I’m always judging the other vineyards. It is a source of pride for me that my vines are as good as, or better than the neighboring vineyards. We really try to maintain our vines with care. They still probably haven't forgiven us for bringing over phylloxera in the 19th century.

          Two years ago we paid an English winemaker to come over for an hour and give me a tutorial on the procedure of trimming vines. It was winter and the dormant vines were ready to be pruned. This entails trimming 90% of the vine and leaving two shoots that will carry the crop the coming year. You also leave two reserves shoots that will be called upon should something happen to the first two shoots.  Well the lesson was great and in an hour we had done a couple dozen examples; that left 1480 remaining vines for me. Merde’

          The process of vine pruning was blogged about earlier. “Vine Pruning” (Monday Feb. 6th 2012)

          The other main work load for the vines is the constant mowing between the rows of the grass. If cut constantly it ensures that when it rains; the vines get their water. It is illegal to water the vines manually.

          Now comes the most labor intensive part of maintaining the vines;” Weeding between the vines”. After mowing the rows of vines, what’s left is to get between the individual plants. I accomplish this by the use of a weed wacker.

         I kid you not.

 It takes two days, and in the two years I’ve done it I’ve essentially burnt out one weed wacker. The large vineyards have an attachment on the back of their tractors. Yours for the low, low cost of 7,500 euros. That’s over ten thousand dollars. I am in the process of acquiring a professional grade Husquavana weed wacker. (1,000 bucks)

Then there’s the spraying of the vines with sulfur and copper solutions to guard against mildew. One of the neighboring vineyard owners lets me borrow his backpack sprayer. It weighs about eighty pounds, plus another forty pounds of the liquid solution of the anti-mildew treatment. So one walks the two miles of vines, refilling the gas operated sprayer; six times. Think about the process; stop, put it on the ground, walk to where the solution is, carry 20 gallon container to the sprayer, fill up the top mounted reservoir, pull start the gas motor, lift it onto your back and go. Blood, sweat, and tears….well no blood anyway.

          As I drive through the French countryside I’ve noticed that each year vineyards plow between alternating rows. This aerates the soil and allows the precious rainwater a better chance of reaching the roots of the vines. 

          So I ask the man who has his horses here, in exchange for helping with the property, if he has any ideas how I can do this. He shows up a week later with this huge 4x4 John Deere tractor that has a disking plow behind it. He proceeds to drive up and down every other row. The result is glorious, I have conquered the tilling of the vineyard. A week later I’m trimming the vines and discover that it is near impossible to walk on these freshly tilled rows. They have dried up and weeds are starting to grow, and grow. I should point out that it is impossible to mow these weeds as the rows are like half scale relief maps of the Andes mountain range.

          I voice my frustrations to my neighbor. He has thirty odd farming implements at his farm and I’m hoping that he might be able to pass through the petit Andes and solve my problem. The next day I drive around to all the Agriculture shops and start pricing rototillers that attach to tractors. Mostly they have these four foot wide 3,000 dollar rototillers. Even the used ones are a couple grand, but narrow, it would take me two passes for each row. Well, there’s no other way around it, I’m going to have to ask for help. I don’t like asking for help! Or directions, or the cost of things.

          I get home from my shopping expedition, having not even entertained buying any of the rototillers. About a half an hour later my neighbor drives up on one of his many nice tractors and behind him is this eight foot wide rototiller. He drives over to the vines and goes about ten feet into the vines, backs up and drives over to our house. He parks the tractor in the field near our pool and unloads the rototiller. I come over and after the ten minute hello conversation he say

 “For you Henri’”

          Well I tell him there’s no way I can take this piece of equipment from him, could I buy it? He says he has no use for it and that it would make his wife happy to have it out of his farm. There’s no way I can take it, it has to be worth thousands of euros. He elaborates it’s not a piece of equipment he can use.  Then as his final point he says,

          “Tell you what, you borrow it for now…..but never return it.”

          The kindness I have encountered over here is a function of getting to know my neighbors, working nonstop like them and always being happy when they drop by. They have seen our struggles, determination and results. It probably helps that we are not some stereotypical deep pocketed American family, and that we scrimp just like every one of our neighbors, friends, and even our family back in the States.   

It’s a commonality that is now global, an unfortunate set of circumstances that is like the vineyard. Individual vines growing together, needing care and tending. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors when in need. We have helped out most of our neighbors in one way or another, and what goes around comes around.

Because we all know Karma is Mother Nature’s hit man.