By Noah Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust
All rights reserved.
On the morning when everything changed, Josep was working in the Mendes vineyard, and by midmorning he had settled into a trance-like routine, moving from vine to vine, removing the dry, tired branches that had borne the fruit harvested in October, when each grape had been juicy as a ripe woman. He pruned with a ruthless hand, leaving economical vines that would produce the next generation of grapes. It was a rare, lovely day in what had been a sour February, and despite the chill the sun seemed to surge in the vast French sky. Sometimes when he came upon a shriveled grape that had been missed by the pickers, he salvaged the Fer Servadou raisin and relished its spicy sweetness. Whenever he reached the end of the row, he made a pile of the prunings and took a flaming vine from the previous burning to ignite a new fire, the bitter stink of the smoke adding to his pleasure in the work.
He had just finished firing a pile when he looked up and saw Leon Mendes making his way across the vineyard, not pausing to speak with any of the other four workers.
"Monsieur," he said respectfully when Mendes reached him.
"Senyor." It was their little joke, the proprietor addressing him as if Josep were the proprietor and not the peon, but Mendes wasn't smiling. He was gentle but as direct as always. "I spoke this morning with Henri Fontaine, who has recently returned from Catalonia. Josep, I have very bad news. Your father is dead."
Josep found himself as if clubbed, unable to speak. My father? How could my father be dead? Finally, "What was the cause?" he said stupidly.
Mendes shook his head. "Henri had heard only that he had died late in August. Henri knew nothing more."
"... I'll go back to Spain, Monsieur."
"Are you certain?" Mendes said. "After all, he is gone."
"No, I must go back."
"And shall it be ... safe for you?" Mendes asked gently.
"I believe so, Monsieur. For a long time I've been thinking about returning. I thank you for your kindnesses to me, Monsieur Mendes. For taking me in. And teaching me."
Mendes shrugged. "It's nothing. One never stops learning about wine. I deeply regret the loss of your father, Josep. I remember you have an older brother, is it not so?"
"Where you live, does the eldest inherit? Shall Donat get the vineyard from your father?"
"Where we live, the custom is for the eldest son to inherit two-thirds, with any younger sons sharing the remainder and given jobs that provide a living. But it's my family's custom—because we have so little land—that all goes to the eldest son. My father always made it clear that my future was with the army or with the Church. Unfortunately, I am fit for neither."
Mendes smiled, but the smile was sad. "I can't disapprove. In France, splitting properties among surviving children has led to some ridiculously small farms."
"Our vineyard is made up of only four hectares as it is. That's barely enough land to support one family when the grapes grown on it are used to make cheap vinegar."
"Your grapes start out fine enough. They have pleasant, promising flavors—too good, in fact, for cheap vinegar! Four hectares run properly can give a crop to make good wine. However, you need to dig cellars, so the wine doesn't turn sour in the heat of summer," Mendes said mildly.
Josep had great respect for Mendes, but what did the French winemaker know of Catalonia or of growing grapes from which to make vinegar? "Monsieur, you've seen our little casas with their dirt floors," he said too impatiently, numbly thinking of Padre. "We don't have great chateaus. There is no money for the construction of grand bodegas with wine cellars."
It was obvious Monsieur Mendes didn't wish to argue. "Since you don't inherit the winery, what shall you do in Spain?"
Josep shrugged. "Find employment." Almost certainly not with Donat, he thought.
"Perhaps not in your village? Spain's Rioja district has a few vineyards that would be fortunate to have you, for you're a born grower of grapes. You sense their needs, and your hands are happy in the earth. Of course, Rioja is not Bordeaux, though they make a few passable reds there," he said loftily. "But if ever you wish to return here to work, you will find quick employment with me."
Josep thanked him again. "I don't believe I'll go to Rioja or come back to Languedoc to work, Monsieur. Catalonia is where I belong."
Mendes nodded his understanding.. "The call of home is always loud. Go with God, Josep," he said. He smiled. "And tell your brother to dig a cellar."
Josep smiled too and shook his head. Donat would not dig a hole even for a shithouse, he told himself.
"Leaving? Ah ... Good fortune, then." Margit Fontaine, Josep's landlady, received the news of his departure with her secret, almost sly, little smile—even, he suspected, with pleasure. A middle-aged widow, she still had a lovely face and a body that made Josep's heart thump when he first saw her, but she was so completely absorbed with herself that after a time she had lost any allure. She had provided him with careless meals and a soft bed she had sometimes shared scornfully, treating him like a dull pupil in her strict sexual academy. Slowly, purposefully. Gently! Jésus, boy, you are not running a race! It was true she had meticulously taught him what a man could do. He had been intrigued by the lessons and by her attractiveness but there were never tender feelings between them, and his pleasures were limited because he came to dislike her. He knew that she saw him as a rawboned country youth, an uninteresting Spaniard who spoke Occitan, the regional language, badly and French not at all. So with an unromantic adieu he departed early the next morning the way he had come to France, quietly and unnoticed, disturbing no one. Hung from one shoulder, he carried a cloth bag containing sausages, a baguette, and a bottle of water. From his other shoulder, he carried a rolled blanket and a gift from Monsieur Mendes, a small skin of wine on a rope strap. The sun was gone again, the sky was gray as a dove's neck; the day was cool but dry, and the surface of the dusty road was firm, good conditions for walking. Fortunately, his legs and feet were hardened by work. He had a long way to go and set himself a purposeful but unhurried pace.
His goal for the first day on the road was to reach a chateau in the village of Ste. Claire. When he arrived there late in the afternoon, he stopped at the small Church of St. Nazaire and asked a priest for directions to the winery of a man named Charles Houdon, a friend of Leon Mendes. When he had found the winery and had given Monsieur Houdon the felicitations of Monsieur Mendes, he received Houdon's permission to sleep that night in the barrel room.
As evening fell, he sat on the floor next to the casks and ate bread and sausage. Houdon's barrel room was spotlessly clean. The heavy sweetness of fermenting grapes didn't quite mask the harsh scent of new oak wood and the sulfur that the French burned in their bottles and barrels to keep them pure. In southern France they burned a great deal of sulfur, fearful of all disease but especially phylloxera, a plague that was ruining vineyards to the north, caused by a tiny louse that ate the roots of the vines. This barrel room reminded him of the one in Mendes' winery, though Leon Mendes made red wines, and Houdon made only white wine from the Chardonnay grape. Josep preferred red wine, and now he gave himself the indulgence of a single swallow from his wineskin. The drink was a small burst, sharp and clean—vin ordinaire, common wine even workingmen could afford in France, yet better than any wine Josep had tasted in his village.
He had worked two years for Mendes in the vineyard, another year filling in as a cellarman, and a fourth year in the barrel room, blessed with the opportunity to taste wines whose qualities he had never imagined. "Languenoc is known for decent vin ordinaire. I make honest wine, somewhat better than ordinary. Occasionally, through poor fortune or stupidity, I make rather poor wine," Monsieur Mendes had told him, "but most of the time, thanks to heaven, my wine is good. Of course, I have never made a great wine, a wine for the ages, such as the vintages created by the fabled wine-makers like Lafite and Haut-Brion."
But he never stopped trying. In his unrelenting search for the ultimate cru—a perfection he spoke of as "God's wine"—whenever he achieved a vintage that spread joy over gullet and palate, he beamed for a week. "Do you detect the fragrance?" he would demand of Josep. "Do you sense the depth, the dark scent that teases the soul, the floral smell, the taste of plums?"
Mendes had given him knowledge of what wine could be. It would have been merciful to have left Josep in ignorance. The thin, sour stuff created by the vintners of his village was poor wine, he now realized. Horse piss, he told himself morosely; probably it would have been better for him to have stayed in France with Mendes and strive to make better vintages, instead of courting danger by returning to Spain. He comforted himself with the assurance that by now it must be safe for him to go home. Four years had passed without a single indication that he was being sought by the Spanish authorities.
He didn't like the bitter realization that generations of his family had used up their lives making such bad wine. Still, they had been good people. Hardworking people. Which brought him again to his father. He tried to picture Marcel Alvarez but could remember only small, homely details—his father's large hands, his rare smile. There was a gap from a missing lower tooth in front; the two teeth next to the gap were crooked. His father had a crooked toe, too, the small toe of his left foot, from wearing bad shoes. Some of the time Padre had worked without shoes—he liked the feeling of soil beneath his soles and between his gnarled toes. Lying back, Josep indulged in memories, for the first time allowing himself to enter a true state of mourning, as darkness drifted into the room through its two high windows. Finally, distraught, he fell asleep among the barrels.
The next day the air turned sharper. That night Josep wrapped himself in his blanket and burrowed into a haymow in a farm field. The rotting hay was warm and made him feel a kinship with all the burrowing creatures waiting for the sun. He had two dreams that night. First the bad dream, the terrible dream. Then, mercifully, he dreamed of Teresa Gallego, and when he awoke he remembered the dream about her very clearly, in delicious, torturous detail. A waste of a dream, he told himself. After four years, no doubt she was married or working somewhere far from the village. Or both.
Mid-morning, he had a stroke of fortune when a carter gave him a ride on a wagonload of firewood pulled by two oxen with red wooden balls on the sharp tips of their horns. If a billet fell from the load, Josep would leap off and replace it. Otherwise he rode for more than three leagues atop the load in comparative luxury. Alas, that night, his third night on the road, wasn't spent in any sort of comfort. Darkness found him afoot in wooded country, with neither village nor farmhouse in sight.
He believed that he had traveled beyond Languedoc and that the forest in which he found himself was part of the province of Roussillon. He didn't mind the woods in daylight; indeed, during the hunting group's existence he had enjoyed its forays into the woods. But darkness in the woods wasn't to his liking. There were neither stars nor moon in the sky, and it made no sense to walk the forest track without being able to see. At first he sat on the ground with his back against the bole of a large pine, but the great soft hissing of the insistent wind through so many trees soon unmanned him, and he clambered into the lowest branches of the pine tree and climbed until he was well off the ground.
He crammed himself into a crotch and tried to cover as much of himself as possible with the blanket, but it was a sorry attempt, and the cold won out as he perched in the tree in great discomfort. From the blackness around him there was an occasional sound. The hooting of a distant owl. A mournful call of doves. A high-pitched ... something ... that he imagined was the scream of a rabbit or some other creature being murdered.
Then, from the ground directly below, the rasp of bodies brushing against one another. Grunting, snuffling, a loud snort, the scrape of earth being pawed. He knew it was wild pigs. He couldn't see them. Perhaps there were only a few, though his imagination painted a large pack. If he fell, even one boar could be lethal, with those terrible tusks and sharp hooves. Doubtless the brutes were smelling his sausages and cheese, though he knew they would eat anything. Once his father had told him that in his youth he had seen wild pigs tear into and eat a living horse with a broken leg.
Josep clung tightly to the tree branch. After a time he could hear the pigs moving away. Everything was quiet again and shivering cold. It seemed to him that the dark lasted forever.
When daylight finally arrived, he didn't see or hear animals, and he came down from the tree and breakfasted on sausage as he walked the narrow road. The sleepless night had left him tired, but he went at his usual pace. Around noontime the trees thinned and then there were fields and a good glimpse of the higher mountains ahead. An hour or so later, when he had gained the Pyrenees, it began to rain very hard, and he took refuge through the open door of a barn attached to a handsome masia.
Inside the barn a man and his son stopped mucking out their cows' bedding and stared. "So what is it?" the man said brusquely.
"Passing through, monsieur. If I can wait in here for a few moments, until the worst of the rain is gone?" Josep saw that the man was looking him over carefully, clearly less than pleased with what the rain had brought him.
"All right then," the farmer said, moving slightly so he could continue using his sharp hay fork while watching the stranger.
The rain continued to teem. In a little while, instead of just standing, Josep picked up a shovel that was leaning against the wall and began to help the other two in their work. Soon they were listening with interest as he told them about the wild pigs.
The farmer nodded. "Mean bastards, those damned swine. And they breed like rats. They're everywhere." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Winemaker by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 2012 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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