Picking Grapes: No Stomping Allowed

Bucket of Grapes Oct

Hello friends! This is the goal, just so you know. Fill your bucket with grapes, again, and again, and again, until the boss says it’s time to go home.

Once again, telling people you’re doing research for a novel you’re writing opens a plethora of doors. When we met Pierre Thomann last spring, and he gave us the private tour of his chapel, I was elated. Then, I discovered a Pinot Gris Grand Cru among his cadre of wines that tasted like the nectar of the gods. He began explaining about growing grapes and the whole wine making process once I told him I needed to know for my story. I decided to be brave and ask if it would be possible, when we returned in the fall, to pick grapes in his vineyards. HE SAID YES!

Me & Girls Oct

(My grape-harvesting buddies.)

So here we are picking grapes the last week of harvest. This was the day to pick Gewurztraminier Grand Cru grapes. (Say that 5 times really fast.) Jim and I met Pierre and his wife, Titia, at their home/shop in Kaysersberg and drove up into the vineyards. We were paired up with someone to pick along side. I scored and got Titia. Maybe she thought I would need more help. After a very quick lesson in what was good enough to pick and what was not, we began.

Me picking grapes Oct

(Me in my new French headband.)

This is not a job for the faint of back. It was a beautiful sunny day. There we were in a vineyard, with a French vineyard owner, and his family, and his workers picking grapes. And they were all speaking French and laughing, and it was like we were in a movie. A very lovely movie. Someone came along fairly often checking our bucket and replacing it when it was full.  The buckets were then taken to a large bin on a trailer. The owner and his son would take each grape one by one, inspect them, and drop only the perfect ones into the bin. This, among many other things, makes a grape good enough to be a Grand Cru.

Me & Jim Oct

Jim and I picked enough grapes between us in one afternoon to make 200+ bottles of wine. Not bad for a couple of newbies. We did all take a break mid-pick. At which point all the smart phones came out of pockets and lots of photos were taken with the crazy American writer and her husband, who volunteered to pick grapes for free for the purpose of research. So what I thought was romantic and such an adventure, was for them life as they know it. And this is why I write fiction. Taking people who believe they are living ordinary lives and making them appear fantastic, romantic, legendary.

Me & Pierre at his shop

(Me and Pierre in his wine shop.)

After picking grapes, we went to visit Pierre again and bought some of my favorite wine. He then took us on a tour of the inner courtyard, where the chapel sits. He explained that his family has been in the wine business since 1525. They started as wine barrel makers and obtained vineyards by 1600. This business has passed from father to son since 1525! His great grandparents married and joined vineyards. His great grandmother was a Saltzman (good French name), thus the business name Saltzman-Thomann. Pierre’s grandmother was niece of the Abbess of the Abbey of Alspach, here in Alsace. (How about that for a lovely alliteration.)  Because of said grandmother, their family inherited this property in the 1700s, with the chapel and the building that was the original Abbey, built in the 1300s.

IMG_9943

(The staff of the Abbess of Alspach from 1700s. It is displayed on the wall in the chapel.)

IMG_9956

(The former Abbey, later it was a hospital, now a residence.)

The Abbey had an extensive wine cellar and vineyards. It was built around 1440. Across from the Abbey in the courtyard is a doorway that used to lead to the bakery for the Abbey. There is a date of 1580 and the symbol for bakery above the door. Attached to the chapel is the butcher. The sign above its doorway has a date of 1739. As you can see, the Abbey was self-contained. Of course, many people in the valley worked the Abbey lands and paid with their harvests. Tithes were high.

IMG_0732

(Door to ancient bakery. 1580)

IMG_9955

(Door to butcher. 1739)

IMG_0735

(Date and symbol above doorway of butcher shop.)

Finally, Pierre took us into the cellar of the ancient abbey. The original wooden wine barrels are still there. They no longer use these as of several years ago when they changed to stainless steel tanks. When it was time to clean the interior of these barrels. Someone, (Pierre was the one to do this most often.) had to climb inside through an opening 10″ high by 15-18″ wide. He told us he had to raise his hands over his head and put them together like he was diving and go into the barrel, twisting his body as he went. WHAT? I was claustrophobic just listening to him tell about it! Anyway, now they are taking apart the barrels and labeling them piece by piece so they can put them back together somewhere outside the cellar. Pierre also said that during WWII many of the neighbors would come into this cellar along with his family to hide during air raids. We stood in the cellar for a few moments quietly, and I tried to imagine the fear they must have felt. The parents trying to console their children as the sound of war raged outside. Thankfully, only a few houses where destroyed in this small village during the war. The village down the road was not so fortunate. It was leveled. Not a house left standing. Tragic.

Me & Pierre in wine cellar

 

(Pierre and me in front of a wine barrel.)

So there you have it. Just a few snippets from our wine picking adventure last fall. I hope you enjoyed your time with us and will take a moment to feel the stickiness of the grape juice on your fingers. Now breathe in deeply as you raise your hands to your face. Ahh. The sweet smell of the nectar of the gods.

I will end our day’s journey with a few pictures of the vineyards once the harvest has ended. It’s late October and soon the leaves will fall from the vines, and they will sleep through the long winter ahead. Until next time. Bonjour.

Chateau late Oct

Oct

Late Oct

 

Beautiful Landscapes: A Vine for All Seasons

Sept

I have come to love vineyards. Not growing up around them, I had no idea how beautiful they truly are. The Alsatian landscape in France is breathtaking. You cross the Rhine River from Germany, et voilà! You find yourself in the Plain of Alsace. As you travel west you come to the Valley of Kaysersberg. It is the gateway to the Vosges Mountains. Vineyards and orchards cover the hillsides and the valleys. Medieval villages are nestled at the base of the mountains. Everywhere you look is lovely.

Let’s take a visual tour of the seasons of a vineyard.

Nov

 

The vines can be found sleeping during November and the winter months. Not the vineyard owners, there is still tending to be done. I will admit the landscape takes on a harsher look this time of year. But then, don’t we all.

April

It’s early April, and not much has changed. But the wild flowers are coming up in the grass between the rows. Color is coming to the vineyard.

May

What a difference a month makes. It’s late May, and the storks have returned to Alsace, all the way from Africa, and are enjoying a stroll through the vineyard. Everyone in the valley hopes they’ve brought good luck with them. So the legend goes.

June

It is mid-June and the vines have finished blooming, three weeks early this year, and the grapes are beginning to form. Now is the time to start watching for the wild boar that room the woods. And hey, it’s not their fault. They’ve just been in the forest digging for truffles all day and stuffing themselves. Now there’re thirsty.  So, of course, they need to wander down the hillside into the vineyards for a drink. And what a drink! These aren’t just any grapes. These are the famous Grand Cru variety. Not what you think of as pig food. But then again, these are French pigs.

Chateau vineyard Oct

It’s fall, and harvest is upon us! The vines are full and the grapes are ready. There are normally three weeks of harvest. The final week will be the Verdange Tardive, late harvest grapes . . . sweeeeeeet. Mmm.

So here is where it’s about to get fun. I’d love for you to join me as I learn to harvest grapes. Who wants to help? Just show up with a pair of gloves, rubber are better because the grapes are tender, and by the end of the day you’re hands will be soaked in grape juices. You’ll also need a pair of Wellies (a.k.a. rain boots). Not because it’s going to rain, but because we’ll be walking up and down the aisles of vines, and invariably grapes will fall, and you will step on them. THIS IS WHERE I NEED TO TELL YOU, YOU WILL BE VERY STICKY BY THE END OF THE DAY. GOOD STICKY. And finally, you will need to get you a really cute head band/ribbon to tie back your hair if it’s long. There’s a shop here in the village with a great selection.

So get yourself ready! I’ll see you tomorrow.

 

 

 

The Village: There and Back Again

IMG_9895

(Kaysersberg, Alsace, France. Oct. 2013)

Let me begin by apologizing for the long silence. The Spring has been full of other work. But, I am back in France, and it is time to write! It’s been eight months since we were here last. Not much has changed. Although the weather is nothing the same. We arrived five days ago. Five very long, very hot days. I’ve not gotten much done beyond sitting in front of the fan with a damp cloth draped over my neck in our third floor un-airconditioned apartment. So when I say it was 97º F for a high yesterday, believe it . . . it was HOT.

But last night the clever north wind began to blow, and today is a new day. The sun is shining brightly, but the air has a hint of coolness. And I am thankful. The brain fog has cleared, and once again I hear my characters conversing. Once again, I wander the streets and the castle ruins following their lead.

IMG_0771

(Beatrix. Oct. 2013)

The day we arrived, I was greeted by our friends and neighbors. Beatrix from the shop across the street, Maurice, our red-headed friend, whose family owns the castle property, the lovely woman who runs the antique book store whose name I cannot recall, and our delightful landlords, Jean Jacques and Gabrielle.

IMG_0817

(Maurice. Oct. 2013)

I do love this village and the delightful people who live and/or work here. My biggest regret is my lack of ability to communicate in French. This limits any deep, meaningful conversation. And though I am determined to learn this beautiful language, I fear it will be some time before these conversations can be had. So for now, we talk about everyday life and family, and legends and love. That should be sufficient for the moment.

IMG_0073 IMG_0782

(Top: Jean Jacques and Gabrielle in their restaurant. Bottom: The antique book shop. Oct. 2013)

The church bells are tolling as I’m writing, and they remind me of a simpler time when people knew the hour of the day by the clanging of bells. No clocks, no phones, no computers. And people didn’t count by minutes or hours, but by blocks of time, as needed. I could do with some simplification, less micro-management of my time and life. More reflecting, more deep breathing, more observing.

IMG_9628

(Bell tower of Église Set Croix. Oct. 2013)

I intend to post regularly while staying in Kaysersberg. Some writing will resemble mini-village tours, some will be from our time now and some from last October, and some will be about the novel that is currently in process. So sit back, and join me won’t you for our all too brief time in Alsace.