Saturday, September 18, 2010

September - A New Year?

Well, the year is off to its start. If the beginning of the week was a bit 'rude'; my system took a hit with the car trouble, the returning imperatives of caring for kids, being in the daily rhythms of cooking, waking early, getting out the door and simply coping. But that seems to have passed, and I'm getting back into the flow of something I know oh so well, but from which I had unprecedented vacation time this summer.

The kids are back in school, both very much enjoying their teachers and friends. We've taken in just one extra child this year -- a 15 year old girl -- and thus life is infinitely calmer than last year. What a difference! Rather than rowdy, easily-upset pre-teens learning to deal with emotional surges and freaking out, I've a very calm, mostly autonomous and gentle teen female. Ahhhh. And just in time.

Leo and I are turning over a new leaf. This year I will survey his homework, follow-up on what he is doing/learning/preparing at school. I will do as I can to teach him better study habits (no more silly errors on those dictés please!). Somewhere, somehow, if only by being more present, able to truly concentrate on him every afternoon, I will help him be more grounded, more attentive, conscious of the importance of working at school. And he is grateful! The first afternoon after our long discussion on this subject he was there ready to show me all he'd done, assuring me that he'd finished his homework before listening to music, before playing outside, that he had taken me seriously and was ready to go forth into this new way of being. I am constantly amazed by my own children!

Jonas is 'vif', present, delighted to be again with his favorite friends, eagerly eating up the intellectual nourishment of school. I've taken to reading him Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. He is hearing and absorbing the story. As a Steiner teacher from Manhattan once told me, it is perfect for 3rd grade. He is at that age, open, curious, and amazed as I describe the days of this little boy, and the quantity of food he consumes! If Jonas has one or two pieces of toast and a bit of hot chocolate for breakfast, little Almanzo has sausages, a stack of 10 pancakes, two slices of apple pie and??? He's anything but fat!

And with the new fall, a new start. One of my summer tango partners has demonstrated that he'd like to be more. Hmmm. A calm, lovely, and very tall architect with two boys just a tad older than mine. A new world for me. And so I begin something anew. With my wits about me, gently, slowly, open and willing, but not yet head over heels (a good thing I think), we shall see if we are compatible (kids included!). And if nothing else, I'll be dancing more and more tango...

In the meantime, the next few weeks are filled with clients and tours. So, keeping my head on my shoulders, planning carefully, working out all the kinks (such as car repairs, rental vehicles, kids' swimming lessons and tennis...and all those lovely things!), I'm busy, occupied, focused, here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Living a Dream in Provence

Doug Graves has had a long romance with wine. From his position as a manager at Boeing (where he worked 34 years) he became a member of the Boeing Winemakers’ Club. However purchasing good wine wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to make wine, and serious quantities of it, not simply a couple of jugs for home consumption.

So he started purchasing grapes locally in Washington State and he took oenology and vinification classes at UC Davis on the weekends and he jumped in. On a small scale to start with, in his garage, with some help from family, friends and colleagues at first, and then on his own and seriously (even before his retirement from Boeing) he made wine under the Graves Cellars label.

But, even that wasn’t enough. Yes, the wine was good, yes, he was getting skilled at the chemistry side of things but, well, something was missing.

And so he came to Provence and he looked around. He’d traveled here before with his wife, exploring the country, most particularly the wine regions. So, he had an inkling of what he’d like. He’d studied French in high school, and so could cope linguistically. And then he found the Mas de la Lionne. And what a find!

The property of the Mas de la Lionne is in a tiny corner of the Côte du Rhône that butts right against the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. In fact all his closest neighbors are Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And he, with similar vineyards covered in those rolled stones, filled with 30 to 60 year old grenache vines, has a terroir to envy, if not the AOC (name brand if you will) to go with them.

He had never been a vintner in the vineyards before. But the man who sold him the winery with all the equipment, stayed in the neighborhood for the first full year to help Doug adapt to his new life as a farmer/vintner. He was there to show him how to prune in the winter, there to show him how to scratch the earth with the plough, there to show him when to spray the copper sulfate and how to mix it, manipulate the monster machine that sprays it, clean it, etc., When Doug needed assistance and teaching, he was there. Need I say that he was a quick learner? As you can see from the image above, he is adept at explaining the goblet pruning of the vines in this region to visitors.

This is Doug’s third year on the property and soon to be his third harvest. He has learned that his land tends toward very ripe grapes (read alcohol content) and is adjusting. He has learned that the locals are a bit shy of foreigners (read fewer local purchasers of his wine -- those faithful to the former owner haven’t necessarily stuck by him). He is adapting to the ways and means of this corner of Provence. It is a lonely life at times, but also gratifying. You can learn more from his own words on his blog :

And yes, he is making very good wine. This is what happens when you put together the brains of an engineer, the passion of an individual and a good terroir. There are three wines to choose from: his bright and fruity Côte du Rhône rosé, his classic, very jammy red Côte du Rhône and a special reserve red wine aged in small oak casks. Now, the only link of the chain that he needs to work on (in a difficult economy) is getting it to the consumer. It’s a truism that a vintner must be gifted in the vineyards, the cellar, and at the selling counter.

However, for those of you in the Northwest his wine is available in Seattle and around Washington State. So look for it! You will be most pleasantly surprised.

Harvest around the Corner

Well, the news is in, harvest is just around the corner. For many it has begun, but gently, slowly. The cool spring, short summer, cool early fall, drying winds, minimal rains have all collaborated to push back the harvest for ten days to two weeks. This after multiple years of early (précoce) harvests here. It keeps you on your toes!

But, those first white grapes are coming in, and the younger reds for rosé. Picked in the cool morning air they are carried in bins to the cellars, de-stemmed (égrappées) and pressed directly before being pumped into the stainless tanks where they'll be kept cool and permitted to start fermenting either that same day, or two days later, depending on the vintner and his ability to quickly descend the temperature of his juice.
We had two fierce rain storms last week. Good news for the agricultural world -- yes, it's been a dry summer. But bad news for my roof (ouch!), and my sleep. Okay, a good harvest in 2010 is very important, that the grapes be fully ripe and not stunted is of supreme importance. But I tell you, it is a bummer getting up at 4 in the morning to put pans and cups and towels under not quite a dozen leaks, and the next night from 1-2. Yup. Better get that B&B in Arles sold so I can repair my roof!

But on to the ostensible reason for this post. This is also a period that I've lots of visitors (thank you!) and of course we visit the wineries. Thankfully I've friends and colleagues in a number of them. Thus even during this busy period we've been welcomed warmly, briefly shaking the hand of one vintner as he headed off to shower having just finished harvesting and pressing for the day. He simply left the store to me and I handled the tasting.

Last week's visits were between harvest days. The storms came down mid-week and all was put on hold till the roots absorbed the extra water. This helped the grapes finish up their ripening and from this Monday (in the case of those on the lower and more Southern slopes) the harvest picked back up.

And so depending on where you are in Provence and Southern France at this moment you will no doubt have many a tractor in the roads pulling their very full bins behind them. Some may drip a bit of that lovely red juice along the road, leaving their trail of crumbs if you will... Others having worked more carefully (hand-picked) will be gently heading down to the cellar, to the de-stemmer (égrappeur) and the presse. It's a busy busy time down here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tango in the Streets

Live musicians, dancing on asphalt (not easy to turn, I have to say), and many friends and new acquaintances. After the streets, we danced till 2 in the morning in the moonlight (literally for the last dance -- only by the full moon!) by the lake amidst the woods. T'was magical!

For future dancing afficionados, this is a mid-July festival, and lasts a week.

Memories of July

Guess What, IKEA has come to town...

I can't believe I did this. I spent the Saturday before school starts at the brand new IKEA in Le Pontet (just North of Avignon, and right close to the kids' school).

Normally, I would be the last person caught with the entire population of the Vaucluse, the Drome, Arles, and more at this, the busiest IKEA in all of Europe, on its first ever Saturday. Ouch!

Well, we took it slow. My girlfriend is building her house and needed shelves, curtain material, etc., so it sort of made sense, but... We could have been in Times Square, or perhaps the McDonalds in Tokyo?

The least I could do was purchase a bit of salmon and pickled herring.

A Few Avignonais de Juillet

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Part II of a memorable day of wine tasting

Okay. Good wine conquers all, or you might hope it would. But does it conquer a car that goes kaput? A car that will not advance? A car that signals a serious shift in programming?

Well, it certainly helps. Yes, at 11:15 on Monday morning, my car decided it would not turn-over. Neither trying again, nor pushing it worked. So, we put it over to the side of the road, raised the hood and considered things. I had my handy dandy Iphone on me and started calling. By the third call I struck gold -- my fantastic friend and colleague Guy Brémond, the self-same chef-sommelier who has taught me soooo much over the years. He found me a tow truck (remorque) and sent him my way. In the meantime (we had a good hour's wait till he arrived), we spread out the picnic. Yes, for the first time this year I actually prepared a picnic for my guests (actually the second time). Phew! Imagine if we'd programmed a lovely lunch in one of my favorite restaurants??? Well, there was a pool at the winery that looked tempting...

Our friends at the winery offered a bottle (and opened it for us) to enjoy during our impromptu lunch. I promise, normally my picnic spots are chosen far from roads and cars! But this one was at least in the shade, and by vineyards...
And so we waited the arrival of our friendly tow truck man. And I called my insurance which assured me that the towing would be covered (thank you Universe, and former husband!). Of course this tower wasn't listed with them... but he was able to persuade the insurance rep on the phone and all was well.

Amazingly, he had his largest tow truck (well I do have a 9 seater... a small Prius this is not) and all eight of us fit (snuggly, I do admit) into his car. No seat belts of course.

Meantime, I was strenuously seeking a taxi man with a 9 seater vehicle (apparently quite rare). Of the fleet of 43 vehicles in Avignon, there was one 8 seater... and at long last he arrived. By 2:30PM we were en route for more wine tasting with a pleasant, extremely careful and slow-driving taxi man who took directions from me in a region he works regularly (got to love it, n'est-ce pas?).

He and I chatted a bit. I admired his collection of train conductor hats. Our pregnant passenger got the front seat and was thus not too squnched, and four (including two tall men, but slender, men) shared a not-too-ample back seat meant for three. The pleasant chattiness of our morning drive had definitely been dampened by the unforeseen events.

But the warm reception of Jean David, the funky and wonderful tasting room, the excellent wines, the tales of his history... this helped hugely. As did discovering the lovely wines of Gigondas, the gorgeous vistas, the hill towns around us.

It was not the perfect day I try to offer, but we all did our best. If nothing else, I suppose I proved I can adjust to difficult circumstances, grace under fire, flexibility when glitches appear, plans B, C, D, and more. And it might have been far worse... At least we had a good lunch, good wines, and lovely meetings. I met and got the card of a good tow guy (available even on holidays) and the local taxi service now knows me. But no, it was far from a 'normal' outing.

And my car? It was an electric cable that connects the starter to the motor. Once put back in place, soldered, etc., It was fixed within 24 hours for a relatively minor sum. Apparently I drove over one dirt road too many which likely dislodged the cable...Must have been that last visit to the beekeeper's.

Wine tasting -- just before Harvest

A day of wine tasting: the weather was perfect, the clients lovely, the wines superb, the wineries welcoming. All that one could wish for right? Well, let's make this a two part article. This part is all about the wine, and the next one will be about the 'glitch' we experienced. That is, ahem, technical difficulties. Or, as I occasionally view these things, a test from the universe. But I'll get to that later.

My seven dynamic, young and multi-national clients and I started the day by heading off to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos du Caillou in Courthézon to be exact. There we were warmly received on a Monday (a day they don't normally do tastings) and just after harvest had begun (and the day before a serious rain storm!). Privileged as we were, we tasted the full range of wines they have:

Two whites (one marvelously concentrated clairette, and one blend of roussanne, viognier, grenache blanc and clairette). The first was bright and lively in the mouth, rich in citrus fruits (grapefruit) with a nice length to it. Hmmmm - yes, I brought home a case! It was their Côte du Rhône 2009. The second was quite different, from 2008, softer, warmer, more orchard fruits, creamier, and yet this one too had not gone through oak. We were tasting the grapes and only the grapes.

Onward to their two red Côte du Rhônes -- these differing in their vinification. The first rich in grenache, syrah and mourvedre, and vinified/aged in cement tanks. The second a similar blend but aged as they do their Châteauneufs, that is 18 months in large oak barrels.

I'd been to taste at this winery before, and as I remembered, they have great Châteauneufs, but I remember being blown away by their 'smaller' wines, their Côte du Rhônes. The winery is situated just beside the far better known Domaine Beaucastel, and like their neighbor, they too are working organically and soon bio dynamically -- always a good sign.

These wineries are located in a small island apart from the main portion of Châteauneuf AOC. If you see the map of Châteauneuf, you see one large chunk delineated and marked out, and then a small chunk of land off to the West, with more winery land between it and the large chunk. It's rather complicated to understand -- no doubt a political choice back when the geographic outlines of the AOC were determined. In any case, that line of land between the big and little chunks? well it has lovely vineyards too, but they can't be called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is where the Clos du Caillou Côte du Rhône vineyards are and do they make a magnificent one! It is the rare Côte du Rhône that could be mistaken for a Châteauneuf -- truly jammy and dense in flavor and bouquet, not farmy or vegetal or rude at all. And yes, I brought home a case of each too.

Their bonafide Châteauneuf-du-Papes are nothing to sneeze at. Truly they are dense and chewy, jammy yet fresh. The 2008 has finesse and elegance, something to drink soon or in ten years when it will no doubt evolve to new heights.

It was as we were leaving this elegant winery, after visiting the aging cellar and seeing their casks of three dimensions -- small and medium size new/multi-passage oak barrels and large casks. Yes, as we were trying to leave this winery that my car went kaput. Silence. Lights yes, but no motor, not even after pushing it down hill and putting it into second (something I'm quite skilled at after these past couple of years on my own). Nope. It chose to not budge. However, I shall go into detail on this event in the next post. Here I will continue with our tastings which -- after an unexpected and unintended pause of about 2-3 hours, did continue!

And so, later than desired, thirsty and eager, we arrived at our second winery, Domaine Jean David in Séguret, a village of the Côte du Rhône Villages region. I've known Jean David for years now and adore his selection of organic wines (he's a pioneer and a devoted one at that in the organic world).
We were able to taste his white -- a blend of roussanne and bourbelenc (that unusual grape in the 13 cépages of Châteauneuf-du-Pape) vinified in stainless steel. It is a simple and pleasant white with notes of orchard fruits and flowers. Then onward to his selection of reds, which is quite wide these days. He has a Côte du Rhône with a funky new label in reds with green notes (designed by his daughter and appreciated by his Japanese clientele), his 'green label' Côte du Rhône Village Séguret -- a lovely, concentrated classic to be appreciated often.
His very special cuvée Le Beau nez (or le Bonnet) identified by an image of a man with either a red nose, or a red knit cap!. This is his drink it now no-sulfites wine. Rich in fruit, dense, high in alcohol. Enjoy now! Tomorrow may not come. And, with his oldest vines -- 50-80 years' old -- he makes his splendid Les Couchants. A dense and nearly syrupy grenache dominant blend. Wow. None of these see wood. He's a purist of his grapes and his terroir. And all are worthy. From the simplest to the most complex.

Jean David told us stories about how he came to work organically (much against his father's wishes!) after tasting fresh organic vegetables from an 'older brother's' garden. He is just a tad younger than the "soixante huitard" generation, one marked by the return of many young people to the countryside, fleeing the materialism and regimen of city life. He was an early convert, and due to his father's animosity at such backward thinking, set off on his own to travel Europe on foot for a year rather than back down. His father finally agreed to pass him 5 hectares (12 acres) to work in his new fangled ways. And, yes, Jean David and his wife Martine were able to make a go of it. Slowly, he took over more of the family vineyards and surely, he did it his way. His father still has moments of contrariness to all this, but grudgingly respects his son's dream and realization of it.

From Jean David's we took a quite ten minute ride to Gigondas, the second best known "cru" of the Southern Rhône wines. (the first being Châteaneuf-du-Pape). Our destination was a young winery with a young winemaker -- Domaine Les Florets. It's dynamic vintner--of almost local stock (a couple villages' away) has been in place since 2006. A young father of three he is working a small area of vineyards (8 hectares, which is actually about standard for the AOC) with a few extra hectares in Cairanne (another of the Village wines). Young, working organically (if not as yet certified as such), he has taken on vineyards high up in the hills (a tiny tractor could get there, but not much else!) and is perfecting his own recipe for a spicy, berry-filled yet refined and elegant Gigondas. His is not the chewy power punch of many who have vineyards lower down the slopes. His is surprising and pleasing. And he's willing to have me represent him towards the US. What a treat!

He has a rich and flavorful rosé -- grenache, syrah and cinsault. A marvelous and fruit filled Cairanne -- quite startling in the expression of ripe red berries. His classic Gigondas -- with no oaks -- and his far more heavily oaked special cuvée (a blend of grenache and mourvedre) which was spicy, tobacco, and for some reminiscent of a Barollo... Quite the surprise. It will be interesting to see where he goes as the years pass, and to accompany him for part of that voyage!

With vineyards high up in the hills, he is not yet ready to harvest (perhaps next week?) and will be harvesting through to mid/late October! Quite late compared to other Souther Rhône areas. We chatted about the chilly Mistral winds of last week, the soon to be upon us rain storms (not as yet a catastrophe -- the water could help finish off the ripening, particularly if it is followed by sun and some good breezes), and the possibility of returning to see how things are advancing and even/maybe joining his harvesters up in those hill-top vineyards to pick a bit? perhaps a hike to be followed by... -- I think I've now decided where we'll be hiking late September with my group!

As per my methods (and pleasure) I purchased wine in each of the wineries -- one of the ways I maintain my contacts and a way to be received warmly the next time. So, should you be stopping by to visit.. perhaps I'll pull a lovely bottle out for you?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Summer Gains

This was a glorious summer for both of my children. Major achievements, lots of joy, time with cousins and friends, the rhythm of the summer cottage and so much more.

Jonas can now swim! and dive into deep water! Why so thrilled? Why the exclamation points? Well, this is a child who wouldn't put his head under water in the bath tub the 1st of July and who lived through a near-drowning at the tender age of four. This déclic seems to have given him such a boost of self esteem that he is expressing himself more and more clearly, he is attacking books -- determined to read and to write, he is tolerating littler cousins and friends who aren't always perfect, but hey, he can still play with. He is consciously putting up with his bossy brother, knowing full well that he can stop him if he wants to... and some day will. But for the moment, being teased/not ignored is far more amusing than not. He is in control. It is quite marvelous to see.

And Leo, my elder. Now nearly my height (he'll catch me by Christmas I bet!) leg and arm bones longer than mine, knee caps wider than mine. He is thirteen this summer.

We've had the discussions on hygiene (wash your face daily to prevent pimples, your teeth twice/daily, showers at least every other day, hair at least twice/weekly), and we've had the wake up and start working at school discussion. This following the reception of his report card, which basically said one thing, he's very bright, but he only does the minimum. He can do better.

Thus, how to motivate my beautiful young man? How to convey to him the next path? How to shake him up, wake him up to his own role in his future?

I took this tact: You are thirteen. What do you want in this life? I see you eyeing that comfortable house of our neighbors, the toys, the Wii, the boats, and all that fun stuff. How are you going to get it? I hate to break it to you, but your mother is not wealthy, and though I should be able to get you through high school and we can hope into college, I won't be able to support you. And, it is quite possible that you'll need to care for your father. Even if you inherit his house, the funds from its sale wouldn't last more than two/three years at best. So. You need to work. All these friends we see who've 'made' it worked hard in school and went to university. They didn't settle for the minimum. Yes, you are doing better in school than before, and I applaud this. However, it's still not enough. Sorry my friend, but you need to give more of yourself, more than even you can imagine is necessary to truly get ahead. You are responsible for your future. At this point, I can only be here to help you along. You will make it or no, no one else will hand it to you on a platter.


The reaction? Shock, sadness, and a time of reflection alone in the bathroom. I let him be there. He's an intense one, and I'd said all I needed to (and likely too much), but it had felt fiercely urgent, to convey to my adored elder son that he needs to work harder. And so he sulked (boudé) and stayed out of sight for most of the evening.

It is a month later now. His sulking just that one night. He was far better the next day, and yes, more willing to do his short one page essays for Ma and me, to read aloud with me, and to be helpful.

Today is the first day of school. He is excited. He has the teacher of his dreams -- a lovely man with lots of experience handling multiple Waldorf classes. He will be his guitar teacher as well. Leo is back in his known environment and willing to focus. I will also find him another speech/writing therapist to work on his writing/grammar/etc., He has expressed that he is more than willing to get extra help.

Last year we had the cathartic moment of absorbing the fact that he is not dumb, that he may have a learning disability that makes it, for example, difficult to remember spellings. He clearly doesn't have a photographic memory for letters and words, nor for sentence structure from books, etc., He devoured the series of Percy and the Olympiads this year, and has an idea now that he might have a bit of ADHD in him, if not the dyslexia. In any case, he knows that no one thinks him stupid, but he needs to work harder. School doesn't come easy to him, or rather not the subjects that require writing and written expression. He's fine with math in his head.

May this year be the one where he takes himself in charge and begins pushing himself, discovering what it might be to break through mental barriers, to no longer be afraid when he doesn't 'get' it immediately, but to keep working at it.

We'll see, and I'll be there to cheer him along, and to have more of our pre-adult discussions!