France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

October 31, 2009

Journalist has heart attack while turning turn-of-the-century wine press

When we last left our hero, he’d just finished the vendange, filling four of Mr. Marty’s colorful plastic barrels with grapes, most red, with a few exceptionally sweet green grapes he’d found high up in Mr. Marty’s vines thrown in, plus a few drunk bees and scattered weeds. That was Thursday, October 22. The next steps, Mr. Marty said, were to turn the grapes in the press and then leave them to ferment in the big square blue bath-tub in the barn.

I started to get worried when Bernard told me, a week later, that the grapes would rot if Mr. Marty left them in the barrels too long, so I’ve been bugging him since then to get them into the press, always adding that I’d do the heavy lifting. I felt a little guilty about practically harassing him, but didn’t want the sweat I’d put into the vendange to go to waste. (Plus, okay, I was looking forward to tasting the cru.)

So finally today, when I knocked on his door around one after returning from the village, he said to come by in an hour. I had a quick lunch of the butcher’s house-made pate mixed with some of my apples cooked up and walnuts toasted up, plus a little mustard, all blended with my ’60s-era ‘mixer-baby’ and served over country tourte bread from the Boulangerie Margot.

“I’m not sure if I have the cork,” Mr. Marty said doubtfully, looking at the broken cork that was stopping up the sky blue fermenting vat, when I came by after lunch. “I have some wine bottle corks,” I suggested, helpfully I thought, but he explained that for this he required a special, pointed cork. He went to look for it and emerged from his home a few minutes later.

“Une petite gout, pour remontre le morale?” he asked with a petite twinkle in his eye. Far be it from me to say no to a ‘petite gout’ of Mr. Marty’s eau de vie and it did indeed re-mount my morale. It also helped that he’d found a pointed cork.

Fortified by the eau de vie, I helped Mr. Marty wheel out the wooden press — which looked like it might date from the turn of the last century, at the latest — and put it on top of one of the barrels. It looks like a wheel-barrel, except that what would be the levers protrude from the bottom of the barrel. Inside it are two cylinders through which the grapes pass, and on the side is the wheel with lever which turns the cylinders. First we emptied one barrel into the press and, with Mr. Marty pressing its grapes down and me turning the wheel, squeezed the grapes. We repeated this three times. Some of the juice had already naturally come out of the raisins and that fell easily through the two cylinders. For the rest, the pressing was tough — a real workout. I had to take a pause after two, and couldn’t help seeing the headline, “Journalist has heart attack making wine in southwest France.”

After each barrel-full was passed through the press into another barrel, we lifted it and emptied it into the blue vat. When we finished, Mr. Marty urged me, “Get a glass and taste it!” I ran home across the path and got a couple of my ’50s-vintage Pastis 51 glasses, lifting them to show Mr. Marty, but he said, “No, just for you!” We waited for the grapes to settle in the last barrel before I dipped my glass in, scooping up some raisins with the juice. Here goes! It was dense and sour — reminding me of fermented plums I’d once tasted on a Mandarin class field-trip to a Chinese movie theater in junior high which surprised me with there salty sour taste.

“Kind of lemony,” I said, my lips puckered, to Mr. Marty. I had to ask if it would taste like that once it was done, but he said the taste would go away once the wine fermented. “Usually you leave it for 15 days, but because it’s so little, eight will do.” Afterwards, as we sat on the stone border of the garden in front of his house talking about the day when the neighborhood was full of vines and everyone made their own eau de vie before the government decided to tax it, I started feeling nauseous. N’impeche que I didn’t say no when he offered me to come in for another ‘petite gout.’ I also asked for some of the lemon soda he poured for himself, and that helped the stomach, but at the first trés petit gout I felt the wine coming up again. “Would it derange you if I saved this for later?” “Pas du tout!”

Tch-tch-tchin!

Post-script:

It was hard for me to write about this at the time because I was too busy sobbing in the wine I’d never have, but here’s the sequel: When Mr. Marty checked the wine a little later, he swiggled it in his mouth, then shook his head and said, “It’s no good.” Apparently Bernard was right; he’d let the grapes sit in the barrels too long before running them through the press, and they had soured. At the time I was disappointed and deflated; all that work for nothing! But in fact it yielded a lot more. Born and bred in Northern California, and having spent the past nine years in France, I have always considered myself something of a wine expert. At this point I can just about tell you what wine — or digestif or aperitif — goes with anything. But now thanks to Mr. Marty I had finally had the experience of making wine from scratch. I had learned how to make it. I had done so in a veritable crucible of wine-making; Mr Marty’s vineyards were not well-maintained, so I had had to sit on my knees among thistles and sometimes wade through weeds to get to the vines. I had pulled the grapes with my own hands. And I had turned a 100-year-old mill to make the wine. How many wine connoisseurs — even in France — can make that claim?

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