Wine Country

Asked if I could help harvest grapes for a family wanting to expand their Bio-wine industry; I agreed, and found that it was more than just grapes that were harvested.

A local family which we have come to know, began a business venture a few years ago producing ecologically friendly wine. Bio-wine, as it is known in Germany, has some tightly controlled standards which involve everything from the growing of the grapes, the maintenance of the vines; to the fermentation process, and end product. When I agreed to help I was simply told when to meet at the house, and the departure time to the Kaiserstuhl area where the vineyard is located.

I arrived at the beautiful rustic farmhouse to find some family members out in the field attending to the horses, and others attaching trailers to vehicles that were brimming full with colourful boxes and further supplies needed for the harvest. A group of about 12 people sat around a dinning table still laden with a hearty breakfast and I was met with the sent of warm bread, strong coffee and a number of different languages: German, French and English. A loud welcome was heard, and it was quickly announced that here we all use ‘Du’ the informal you whilst people poured out of the narrow doorway of the dinning room like sand in an hourglass to find rubber boats, jackets and bags, everyone shaking my hand in greeting.

A number of vehicles transported the group to the Kaiserstuhl region, an old volcanic area now teared with various vineyards, the hill cross-hatched with fencing and vines now heavy with grapes. Today we will be harvesting Spätbegrunder (Pino Noir), a full bodied red grape with compact bunches. After a quick tutorial about watching out for signs of fungus, rot and insects; some small plier-like sisores were placed in my hand and I was paired up with someone to work a row.

A few hired hands had also been brought to the vineyard, and as it seemed everyone had done this before, the people seemed to speed away down the sharply slopped land filling box after colourful box with a load of grapes the only sounds being the snip of scissors and shuffle of boots in the damp grass. The process was really very simple. Cut the bunches, pick out any signs of rotting fruit (easily seen, and smelled with the waft of vinegar) and place the grapes in the box, then repeat until you reached the end of the row, at which time you and your partner found another row to harvest. The work sped by as you quietly discuss things with your helper, getting to know about your individual stories and backgrounds. Every so often, one of the two young men who own the operation would come past to chat and take a look at the progress, often producing their own pruning sheers from pockets and working along side you in conversation, both quality control and encouragement.

At midday the sun has made the grey sky a lighter grey; the call to stop is shouted out, and a ‘table’ has been set using boxes and an old table clothe. Wine is poured into real wine glasses and we all wait until everyone has be served, and ‘Cheers’ is announced by the brothers together to which we echo with raised glasses, the sun appearing briefly to add sparkle to the ruby liquid in our wineglasses. We all begin to eat and drink as soup, sandwiches, chocolate and coffee are served. The two brothers who own and operate the vineyard make sure that everyone is well fed and happy. People sit around on upturned empty crates chatting to one another. For some, they have gathered here every year, and others much like myself, have only just started to work. The sun emerges from behind the high cloud cover and we have a view to the Rhein valley and beyond; all of it making the wine in our glasses taste all the more better.

By mid-afternoon we have cleared out one area of the vineyard and need to move to the next, which as it turns out, is easier said then done, as we are not the only ones on the hill harvesting today. Rains and a shortage of labourers have made it difficult and the window of opportunity will soon be slammed shut so tractors, both large and small, modern and ancient are travelling around the steep hill and the many narrow switchbacked roads. We move everyone and all the equipment down to the ‘crater’ where the village is, and over to the other side of the hill which affords more views. Cliff faces full of holes from nesting swallows and breeding pairs of Bee Eaters remind us of the ecologically sensitive area. Having taken a short 15 minute break as the smallest of all the vehicle present opens and beer has been unloaded for everyone to drink, no sooner is has the bottle been finished that we are back to work with another partner, and the snip of scissors and shuffle of feet is matched with the fall of grapes and rise of conversations.

A micro-climate change has happened from one location to the next so that despite only a short ‘hop’ from one location to the next, here the grapes are larger, less tightly compact and very fresh, making the boxes fill quickly. A short rain shower passes and everyone is told to look out for a rainbow; a full one is found stretching across the whole valley, some take out mobile phones to photograph the scene, others talk in amazement.

As the sun prepares to set, the final preparations are made for departure. I am in one of the vehicles assigned to get some of the Romanian workers back to their lodgings, but we find ourselves all a bit frustrated, in that the lead car with the navigation and address has made it down the hillside quickly and left us behind as we slowly reverse down the narrow lanes with the sound of our tires slipping underneath. The driver I am with turns out to be from out of town, Berlin, and has no idea of the surrounding villages and we discover once he has pulled over in the village streets, his phone has no signal. My mobile alerts me quickly, that I am apparently in France and Roaming, just before the screen goes dark as the battery has run out of power. We turn to ask the Romanians where they live. They don’t know and they cannot answer even with using German and English we try to piece together were they are staying. The man who does the only speaking says it is near the ‘Rewe,’ a grocery store chain which is about as frequently seen as an Aldi, or Lidl in every village. He pronounces a name of a place which sounds like a garbled version of a village listed on a directional sign so we take a chance and head out.

Eventually we find ourselves pulled to the side of the road with me leaning out the window asking people for directions to this mysterious place where the farm labourers reside and to my astonishment a woman remarks, “Down the road, over the train tracks, then left.” We drive with renewed vigour having only to brake suddenly for a passing tractor hauling three wagons full of grapes. We find the road closed for construction and our led out several kilometres in the now dark valley. A large REWE sign illuminates our path ahead, and the man in the backseat starts looking around keenly with a hidden instinct of recognition.

“Not here!” The fellow shouts out. “Go.” he says and points straight ahead. After a few kilometres more, he says, “Slow,” and then he seems to have found his way more clearly by memory and he gives us a steady stream of directions as he yells out, “Left” while he points to his right, and “Right” as he points to his left. In the beginning of all this our van does a quick swerve at each instruction as the driver responds to the vocal response, and I have to reinterpret, glancing back to hand gestures pointing in the opposite directions. Soon the driver and I are speaking about the “other left” and the “other right” and our van remains steady on course. As the darkness surrounds us in the countryside the labourers are safely back at a large barn where they are housed.

A car waits for us in the dark and everything is explained about how we got lost and had the perfect combination of people in the van to get even more confused and disoriented. Now for the remainder of the the journey the driver and I have a more lighthearted conversation. We get to know each others backgrounds and he jokes in saying that for the last ten days he has been helping with the harvest and maybe knows a little more about what it is like to be a priest. He explains the routine of eating and work, but that each day is a different vineyard, often with different helpers. You are well fed, not paid well, and have to listen to people at what he called, “the vineyard confessional.” I laughed as he explained how the vines often obstruct the ‘co-worker’ on the other side of the trellis as does the screen in a confessional box. The conversation, he remarks, is also rather confessional, as people end up telling you their life-story. The driver also said that at the end of the day he is simply so exhausted that he has no energy left for himself, he cannot even make it through reading a newspaper article before falling asleep. Then he is woken by an alarm and a new day has dawned.

While I am now tired, and I am sure my muscles will let me know more about it tomorrow, I believe that the whole experience will be like a fine wine, better as it ages. Maybe, in due season, I will be asked again to help out with another harvest and my appreciation for those who labour and toil will make the food and drink taste all the more richer, and that while listening to the life stories of others mixed in with the snip of scissors and the swish of dew moistened grass, we may all be encouraged to pause glance upward and await a rainbow.

4 Countries & 1/2 a Tank of Fuel

A friend posted a brief response to a remark I had made online to the subject of my title: B-L-F-G (Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Germany).  He guessed correctly, and the time away has given me some food for thought as well as some amazing food for the stomach.

The smallness of Europe hit home as we sped down motorways and side roads leaving Brussels and 4 hours later arriving home in Freiburg, having crossed, or at least entered 4 countries in the process.  The mini-holiday is n0w over, but it has given me some time to reflect on some larger issues.

I took my camera with me on the trip and fortunately the Automatic features were acting up for some reason.  I say, fortunately because I was then forced to do everything manually like I use to do by default with my old Mamiya 35mm.  Having to relearn the ƒ-stops, and shutter speed settings was good medicine.  A parishioner regularly posts “today’s moment calm” which I enjoy seeing, both for the creativity and for the much needed pause in the day.  Equally important for my trip was to slow down and set the scene, wait for the right light, and adjust the settings on the camera for the perfect picture.  Of course not all the photos worked out well, and I am certainly glad that I was not limited to the 24 or so exposures that film would have offered.  Nonetheless, I have a few random photos that are from France that I want to speak about.

Boundaries: The first is the gate of the manor house in which we were able to stay amongst extended family members.  This old house has rooms for the servants, as well as stately rooms for the former residents, yet on the grounds, which were expansive indeed, is an old iron foundry which is unoccupied.  The manor is gated and on the outskirts of the small French village surrounded only by fields of wheat, or pastures of cows.  In this area, like many other areas in Europe, the harvest happens all day and night.  The heavy machinery needed to harvest the grain is too expensive for each farmer to own, so only one or two large combines and tractors work round the clock.  The grain in the picture at the front gate of the manor was gone overnight leaving stubble behind.  I took the photo as it symbolized boundaries.  The boundaries of farm and manor, industry and agriculture.  The stone pillars and the far horizon set the tone for entry into rest and work.

Something that is important to hold onto is the boundaries between rest and work.

Rest:  Another photo is a close up of a large snail shell in amongst the green Hosta plants.  The snail is right outside the large wooden doors at the front of the house.  The snails are much larger than what I would have experienced on the West Coast of Canada, and so are the Hostas as those would often be eaten by the deer moments after planting, or emerging from the ground.  The snail was tucked up quietly in its own shell waiting for some cooler temperatures, but it did make me ponder the houses we live in – the largess of a manor house now used for foreign visitors during the summer months, and the smallness of the snails home which travels with and is its source of protection.  It is important to curl away in a sleep mood and take time to rest no matter how large or small your house.

Growth and Harvest:  In and around the area are several hiking trails, one of which is symbolized with a yellow and green stripe painted onto poles and fence posts.  I thought the one captured on camera had all the tones of the surrounding area.  One side of the road was green with grass and weeds; the other was newly harvested grain that has dried for weeks in the field. On all our journeys there are times of green growth often right next to golden harvest.  The landscape reflected these colours and this mood.  In all of life there is time to plant, and time to harvest and sometimes we are fortunate to see it happen before our eyes.

Risk:  One of the final photos of the day was at a small stream.  The track took me though hot fields and dry roadways.  A small bench was situated next to the stream that was full of trout and looked like an ideal place to swim for all the children staying at the manor house.  The green trees brought shade and the water was rippled in some places only by small water insects gliding over the surface.  The growl of an engine steadily grew as I soon saw a car approaching.  Even on some of the smaller roads the speed limit can be significant (90-100 km/hr) and I watched in astonishment as a small car barely slowed to drive through the water.  I was filled with envy when I saw this happen as I’ve always wanted to drive through water like that, having only done it once after convincing my Dad to drive his truck through a flooded roadway.

This picture made me think about risk.  We would have risked swimming here, and I could have risked taking our own car through the water.  The element of risk is sometimes important to shock our systems into life.  Just like risking our vulnerability in opening up to people about our feelings, or risking scathing comments for some mediocre photographs.

Vacations, no matter how small, can teach us something.  A reminder to risk.  To look for signs of growth, and places to harvest. To take the time to be small and rest.  To be aware of the boundaries of work and play, heaven and earth.