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.


  1. "Because we all know Karma is Mother Nature’s hit man." Brilliant! Can I requote on twitter? And oh so true! Great post, I had many an 'ironic' chuckle. Once had a two and half acre show garden, know just where you are coming from. Cheers, M

  2. By all means, thanks again for your kind comment on query shark, it was a real nice reminder for me. Will I see you on the Flash fiction contest this week? Good luck, cheers Hank

  3. Congrats on your special commendation on Flash Fiction.

    Re FF -- may be a bit late, or way too early for me -- Australian time difference!

    Totally agree with you about the 'Oh Deeer' comment. That got to me too. Shows immaturity (or insecurity) to be so facetious.

  4. Hiya,

    You were my first blog commenter so...thanks! And thank you for complimenting my flash fiction, I really liked the end of yours. "fucking nuts" Awesome.

    Don't be afraid to call your story a manuscript. Amateur or no, you're a writer, be bold, be proud, take the leap!

    Thanks again and lots of luck to you!

  5. Loved your gone fishin' flash fiction post, I'm glad it was a finalist. So sad they're over though. Good luck on your MS...or are you still calling it a collection of words? :P