I don’t know if personality can change a wine, but it can change the feel of a harvest. In September I worked on two vendange teams: two days with François Blanchard and five for Baptiste and Olivier Cousin. And though both work with horses, the experiences could not have been more different.
First, François Blanchard. François lives in 3/4 of a château in Lémére, Touraine, while the other 1/4 is full of rooms full of mattresses, dodgy-to-no electricity and bidets in unlikely places. He is a short man with long, Pocahontas hair and is full of Jazz, capital J. When we pulled in four hours later than we said we would, we were greeted with howls, his skin-macerated Sauvignon and a fairly famous accordion player who looked like Hemingway and who used to make illustrations on acid. Long into the morning there was throat singing, a great deal of dissonance and a little philosophy flying around. Then we dragged ourselves to bed.
The objective of the next day, which started at 11, was to pick some Sauvignon (grandparents, kids, slightly bigger kids, café-philosophers, friends and neighbours in for a good lunch meandering through the vines mostly chatting, vaguely picking) and prepare for the party.
For François, it’s all about la fête. It’s about what you bring to the party which is music, mainly, but also ‘good vibes’ (his words, on repeat). Music plays a huge role not only in his life, but also in his work. And while it’s one thing that he’s dedicated an outhouse to a teenage dream of amplifiers and beat up couches, it’s quite another to organise the harvest around it: to spread it over three weeks and to pick only on weekends so more people can make it.
But he does.
At the Cousins’ most people carried knives. Accordingly, most bottles we drank were sabred.
Baptiste and Olivier Cousin, on the other hand, don’t work on weekends. With them, what you are doing is dictated by what time the church bell is chiming or what the field manager says. Note the manager part. When it strikes eight you are finishing breakfast or you won’t be having breakfast. Work starts at 08:15. Casse-croûte is at 10:30, lunch is at 12:30, dinner is at 20.30 and if you are not at the table everyone will know thanks to the tradition of joining hands and shouting thanks at the cook before eating. At all other times you will be picking grapes.
Baptiste lives in a trailer parked outside his derelict château in Anjou (sorry: I said it was only the horses but châteaux in varying stages of decay seem also to be a theme). The rest of the vendange team also lived in vehicles, most with big sound systems blowing heavy dub and all parked in a field across the road from the vines and the Cousin summer camp with the Dutch army-issue stoves. All toilets are wood-chip fuelled. We were given shots of Poire Williams to kill germs. The handsome guys had dreads, those less so had teeth missing and the girl working one of two horses worked largely topless, surfing through the vines on a sleigh (which may sound idyllic, but is incredibly hard work). There were dogs saved from Syria running around, bottles delivered unto your mouth if you shouted ‘du vin’, and karaoke was a thing. Most people carried knives. Accordingly, most bottles we drank were sabred.
The work for the Cousins was unrelenting, the grapes very low and the ground, thistly. The pace was also incredibly fast, driven on and on by the manager’s, “CUT CUT CUT” (this command in English, no doubt for our benefit). But for all the hard work, play was on par if not harder; for all the tough love, there was love — for their work, for the wine, the vines — and it was real. I felt pride riding through the village of Martignè-Briand on a cart stacked with grapes pulled by a huge draft horse called Romeo. Leaving, I experienced a minor case of Stockholm Syndrome.
What did I take away? Apart from lessons in hard labour, ancient French drinking songs and how to open a bottle (at least in theory) with a shoelace, I better appreciate that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Each of these winemakers have laser-like focus. They are uncompromising with their principles. Every aspect of their lives is tuned-in to their wines. Their life and work is nothing if not holistic. They just happen to have different interpretations of ‘holistic’.
And as anyone listening to the sameness of mainstream radio on a nine hour drive can attest: Gosh, are differences a good thing.