Of Cows and Vines

One of my indelible childhood memories is seeing a life-size replica of a cow made of butter at the Big E State Fair.  Presumably a lot of other things happened in my formative years, but I distinctly remember seeing this cow in a climate-controlled glass case under a white wall tent.  She had Holstein splotches carved into her flanks and stumpy horns curving out from her head.   At the age of 6 years and the height of 3 and a half feet tall I remember pushing through the forest of thighs and hips that defined my horizons to look at this yellowish, perfectly-proportioned tribute to the fineness of the New England dairy industry.   I had seen a lot of cows that day and was not about to have my socks knocked off by another, but my Grandma Oz leaned over and told me it was made of butter and thus, unknowingly, locked that fleeting moment of 1997 into my memory.

The Big E is the annual pinnacle of animal husbandry and agricultural achievement in the six New England states.  As a kid, a state fair is perhaps the most overwhelming sensual experience you can encounter.   The air is pungent with the scents of fried dough and candied apples, you can hear the pigs squealing in their pens and the bearings of the tilt-a-whirl out-squealing them in protest over years of inadequate maintenance, the caramel corn that you ate for breakfast stays stuck in your teeth all day, and you see the dazzling sights of bewildered sheep being competitively stripped of wool cocoons, psychedelic lights flashing from the midway games, and farmers in Carhartt work pants wearing more varieties of tartan flannel than all the clans of Scotland combined.   That fair centralized a lot of what I like best about my native region.

I’m thinking about my own fair experience because earlier I attended Libourne Fête Le Vin, a bi-annual celebration of the wine industry in Libourne, France.   To say that wine is common here is an understatement.  Ancient farmhouses are surrounded by perfect rows of vines that stretch up to their very walls, and the stained-glass windows in the churches show scenes of Jesus turning water into wine.   LFLV is a three-day bacchanal in the town center, where the square of the city hall is converted into the largest open-air bar for hundreds of kilometers.  Local wine regions sponsor tents to display the variety of their offerings, and around these central kiosks local food trucks, artisanal producers, and other shops prepare a celebration of regional industry.

I drove down the hill into town last night and was amazed by what I saw.   I have been coming to this region of France for close to 25 years now, but tonight I saw more people congregated here than I had ever seen before.  Every region offers selections from dozens of tiny local vineyards, and neighboring vineyards grow different grape varietals, harvest, ferment, and bottle at different times, sell to different markets, and differentiate themselves on thousands of minute levels.   Pierre uses fertilizer A, Jacques uses fertilizer B, and ultimately a critic with a good palate can tell the two apart every time.  You could taste 30 different vineyards every night and have a new hangover every morning, and after a week you would only be scratching the surface of the complexity of these wines.   This event was distinctly not for tourists.   All evening I didn’t hear a single person speaking a language other than French, and I saw many multigenerational local families attending.   Everyone was well dressed without pretension, and patrons held in-depth conversations with the vineyard owners about their precise wine preparation techniques.

It took me a while to realize that I was back in the Big E of my youth.   Instead of plaid the farmers wore rugby jerseys and exotically patterned shirts, and the fried dough stands were replaced by local producers selling fried paté and duck burgers.   Kids didn’t play skeeball and jump in inflatable castles here; instead they ran around their parents’ legs and were playfully scolded for guessing that a wine smelled of apricots when instead it smelled of peaches.   Instead of eating picnics off hay bales the families clustered around oak fermentation barrels, and the air was thick with the smell of fried escargot and the intoxicating aroma of spilled Côtes de Bordeaux.   Colored lights winked over the picnic tables and vineyard managers moaned about too much or too little rain in the weeks before last year’s harvest.

An event like this works best when a vineyard owner is deeply proud of the wine he produces on his tiny three hectare spread and wants to show how it compares to wine that is exported internationally.  The Big E thrives on the competitiveness and camaraderie that compels a beekeeper from Maine to drive for 5 hours in a truck loaded with hives to prove that his honey is superior to any honey produced in Rhode Island.   I was 3,500 miles and 19 years away from the Big E fair of my youth, but once again I found myself surrounded by the same kind of people who would stay up late sculpting a butter cow.  This patchwork of tiny farms laments the same heat waves and uneven rainfall, while priding themselves that the clay in their soil is of much higher agricultural quality than that of their neighbor next door.  Whether farmer, merchant, or consumer, everyone present cared deeply about wine production.

I stayed for a while, then left and drove home.   The route from the town to Château LVC, where I’m staying, is only six kilometers long but passes through dozens of different vineyards.   Two millennia ago the Roman settlers of this area subdued the Gallic tribes and planted vines on hills that reminded them of the soil they had left behind at home.   The productive life span of a vine is roughly eighty years, similar, perhaps, to that of a human being.  Now the distant progeny of these Gallo-Romans live in centuries-old limestone houses and cultivate vines that may be as many generations distant from their fermenting forebears as they are.   Their children play hide and seek around oak barrels and are taught the difference between acidity and bitterness, and maybe one of them will later have a clear memory of a massive oak barrel carved with vines sprouting grapes and leaves.  Maybe someday they’ll see a cow made of butter and think of wine.

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