I was at university studying history and the conversation with my father went something like this…
Dad: what do you want to do with your life?
Dad: What do you like doing?
Dad: (showing Herculean restraint) well what do you like drinking?
And that my friends is where it all began. He assured me that I could indeed make a career out of drinking wine, or at least, tasting it, and being the fantastic and supportive father he is, he put me in contact with some friends in the wine trade and before long I was booked in to spend my summer working at a winery in France.
The only slight hiccup in this grand plan was I really can’t speak French. When I do summon up the courage to try I end up accidentally saying something wildly inappropriate. After one such excruciating experience I ended up desperately having to convince the hapless person that I was not, in fact, a call girl. After that I decided sign language was the more effective method of communication.
And so I arrived at the Chateau in Bordeaux, having made it across Paris on my own (in itself a miracle) and I was ridiculously keen to get stuck in. A rather grizzled old Frenchman appeared from the cellar and taking in my gleaming white t-shirt and my smart jeans, he looked distinctly unimpressed. After firing some totally unintelligible questions at me, he finally resorted to my favoured form of comms and I gradually realised he was asking if I wanted to get straight to work or go to my accommodation.
This was obviously a test so I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and eagerly agreed to get to ‘travail’. I should have clocked the sly grin. My white t-shirt didn’t stand a chance. All afternoon I toiled, moving the barrels from the cellar to the courtyard. When I finally had them all standing to attention in front of the Chateau like a miniature army, he calmly indicated for me to roll them all back inside.
On the bright side, I had passed the ‘willingness’ test with flying colours unlike the hapless Australian lad who arrived the following day and opted to see his room first. His penchant for breaks did nothing to help his cause. And so for the next few weeks it was me and the Auzzie (whose French was as bad as mine but who had the forethought to bring a language dictionary), the two French workers with zero English, and for a few brief moments the owner/winemaker, (which was a shame as she did actually speak English) working diligently (if silently) through harvest. It turns out the dictionary was pretty thin on winemaking terminology.
And so it was that I feel hook, line and sinker in love with the hard graft of winery life. I adored being in the vineyards, sadly I am not sure the French guys felt the same after I accidentally reversed the gondola filled with grapes into a tree. Being a part of a team, working under an endless blue sky, long hours, blisters, rustic lunches in the shade of the tree washed down with a few bottles of wine, more long hours, aching back, desperate apologies for dinged gondola… what more could a girl want.
The cellar work I found equally engaging, for some reason physical labour has always appealed to me and so I really was in my element. I was hauling pipes around the cellar, moving barrels (there was a raised eyebrow when that came up again), in fact it was in the cellar I became proficient with my first French words. I was in charge of topping barrels, this involved filling up the evaporated portion (the angels share) with more wine via what can only be described as a squirt gun attached to a hose attached to a mini tank. You are meant to listen to the change in tone as the liquid level rises and ascertain when it reaches the top. Needless to say pin-pointing that sweet spot proved elusive. The result was an eruption of red wine out of the barrel hole which spurted up the white washed walls, the surrounding barrels and yours truly. Despite doing this on multiple occasions I only seemed to have one set response. To keep my finger firmly pressed on the trigger and to shout ‘ATTENTION… MERDE’ repeatedly as wine gushed forth like a Naples fountain until someone rushed to my aid. My second job was to keep washing down the white washed walls. God knows how much wine they lost to the wall that year.
It was certainly a learning curve, and despite the language barrier I learnt a huge amount (excluding gondola driving and barrel topping) and by the end of my tenure I was invited to join the to two French guys for a BBQ on my last night. It was a beautiful evening, we drank wine, ate very rare steak and grinned at each other in companionable silence. After another bottle we spend a good 20 minutes pointing at body parts and trying to name them in our non-language. At the end of the night I received a nod of approval and a two handed handshake from each of them. I don’t think any words of praise have ever taken on so much meaning as that tacit stamp of approval. The Auzzie had not been invited.
I returned to England with a clear understanding that my life had taken on a new direction. Wine, in whatever guise was going to be my passion and my job. That fascination with the vineyards and the cellar is still holds me in its thrall and a true understanding of it plays into every other aspect of the wine world. It was not to be my last harvest, but you never forget your first do you?!
PS my friends in South Africa were quick to teach me to use a cork on a T shaped wire hanging through the barrel hole to ascertain the wine level when topping up… as soon as the cork bobs up stop squeezing the trigger! I never spilt another drop again!
PPS embarrassingly this was before the days of camera phones so the only pictures I have of this adventure are in my head.