When a friend texted to complain it was hard to make appointments to visit French winemakers, I didn’t think before replying “Ha. Try buying grapes from them.” I commiserate, it is hard. But let’s try to understand it from their point of view.
Imagine you have decided to become a winemaker. Perhaps it’s because you were an alcoholic. Maybe you weren’t, but you are now. Perhaps it’s because you love cleaning, plants or you’re a sucker for performing repetitive tasks outdoors.
Maybe the story involves the Czech army and how you defected from it. Maybe the prospect of taking over the family domaine didn’t initially seem complicated. Perhaps like me, you fell into it by accident.
But I bet at no point did you decide to make wine because you wanted to spend all your time drinking with random people in your kitchen.
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Unless you went to winemaking school, I bet you didn’t know how much of making wine is time spent on the computer. There, you will have learned that dealing with the douane and the French State is like navigating compass-less through a sea of red tape. But I doubt they give you any warning of all the time you will spend corresponding with your equally demanding public.
“I get hundreds of mails a day, I don’t even check any more” says one Jurassien who relies on a relative as his first line of defence. Some have their partners do the dirty work, others fend for themselves. Enquiries from would-be importers from countries you haven’t heard of, with names you can’t pronounce. Tasters who want to drink, journalists, hobbyists who pretend to be journalists, trophy collectors on the hunt.
Mostly you don’t mean not to reply, it’s just that these after work mail sessions feel so much more like work than your work. Plus your tanks are empty, there’s nothing to try. Your wine is long sold out. Maybe you love giving tastings, you just don’t have the time. Sunday morning will be your eleventh vineyard treatment this year – that mildew won’t kill itself.
Tastings take up a lot of time, never mind waiting for the holiday-maker who inevitably arrives late. Sat-navs don’t do cellars and since you’re a natural winemaker you don’t have a sign with anything useful like your name or dégustation non-stop.
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You look at your phone: it’s a foreign number, you have six missed calls. Merde. They’ve finally arrived and you forgot. You’re half an hour from the winery and halfway through pruning a row. Merde!
For some winemakers, welcoming strangers off the internet into their homes is their idea of fun. They seek exchange, news from the outside world, a chance to talk and talk. But what if you’re more reserved? If your guests don’t have much to say? What if you don’t love that habit non-winemaking people have of identifying every flaw they taste, or you can’t help feel a little antsy when your most precious cuvée is just spat or poured away.
You need to be careful when alcohol is your work. Know when they say how you spend your days is how you live your life? Then you’ll know how easy it is for that 10am tasting to turn into opening bottles over lunch. While wine is often the gateway to more wine, it’s rarely the gateway to getting down to work. The taster has a blast before they head back to the hotel for a lie-down. But for the winemaker, all those slow days and late nights add up to more and more work not done.
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Some people bring gifts, but most just turn up around apero time. Once a visitor even remarks “I heard your wife cooks good.” Apparently this information is being traded on the internet. Your life is being rated like a restaurant. It hasn’t been lost on you how many people book flexible accommodation, if at all, hoping for a better offer.
When you signed up to be a winemaker you did so because you wanted to make wine. You may not have realised how much time the not-making-wine part would take. That meagre farmer’s income doesn’t even begin to cover the hours you spend as a tour guide, technician, cleaner, part time cook and magician.
So please bear with me. I’m not at my desk right now, and you are millionth in line. I’m probably just trying my best. I hope that in my next life I’ll have a moment to get back to you but in the meantime, don’t hold your breath.