The Wrath of Grapes

The garden at our country house is managed by De-facto and the girls; each spring there’s a big production to plant carrots and green beans and radishes and lettuce and whatever we want to cross our fingers and hope will grow. We’re not here enough to weed and water and watch with the kind of care a good garden deserves. But we give it a shot, plant those seeds and pray there’s a balance of rain and sun until we return again. If we’re lucky we’ll get here once a month. This year we might not be back until July. So when it comes to our garden, it’s a crap shoot.

But the grapes – we have nine gnarly vines on our property – I’ve made them my business.

Behind the house where I spent my childhood in western New York State there were rows and rows of vineyards. This was where my neighbors and I played pretend spy wars and carried out imaginary pageantry. Later, as a teenager, I worked in the vineyards after school and during spring vacations, tying the thick trunks and thin canes to the wires so that as the grapes grew heavy the vine wouldn’t bend and break to the ground.

By the time I encountered those vines, they’d been pruned by someone (the vintner or his sons, suffering the cold winter with double hooded-sweatshirts under their parkas) who knew exactly how far back to cut them so they’d grow just the right amount to produce the juiciest grapes. Back then those vines yielded mostly grape juice, but now it should be said that New York State wineries produce some very surprising, refined and delighting wines. Okay, maybe it’s not the region you’d turn to first. But you can find something very drinkable there.

The grapevines we inherited when we bought this country house in France – in the Charente, north of Bordeaux – had not been tended for many years. The trunks were burdened with too many vines, their long arms stretched up into the trees above them, tendrils strangling the branches to fight for sunlight. The stalks that had been planted beside the old bergerie sent a web of canes up into the roof, wrestling the terra-cotta tiles. I spent much of the first summer we were here cursing the previous owner and disentangling
three_vinesthe mess of neglected vines and cutting them back, apologizing to them each time, reminding them it was for their own good. Last summer, our third summer here, was too cloudy and too rainy to produce anything very interesting. My vintner efforts went unanswered. I’m hoping this summer will be the breakthrough. The buds that grinned at me this week, they give me hope. All we need is a summer with some serious sun, not at all guaranteed in this green (wet) region of France, which is why it’s not one that’s known for its wine. I am waging an uphill battle.

People who see me toiling in my micro-vineyard always ask if we intend to make wine. I assure them that a few youthful years working for a neighboring winegrower hardly makes me expert at growing grapes or making wine (though I am rather experienced when it comes to drinking it). Someday I would like to make some plonk, just for the fun of it. Right now, however, I just want to grow some damn grapes.

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