Truth be told, I was not really predisposed to fall in the barrel. My mother was not a drinker of wine. She never passed down that knowledge or passion to me. In fact, she made a grimace and sighed loudly when, in the honeymoon phase of my relationship with wine, I dramatically announced I was going to dedicate my life to it.
However, she did pass down other passions that were related: food, travel, opinions. She may not even have realized, but each simple yet delicious meal she carefully crafted was a ceremony and an occasion to sit down, catch up, communicate, at times bicker, at times laugh. As a child, she grew up on a farm in southern France in a small village to peasant parents. I often wondered what her relationship to wine was and why she had grown to dislike it so…
“I was born in south-western France, near Toulouse, in a hamlet with exactly four houses and three families, since one of the houses was empty. Not the most exciting place… To make matters worse, there were no children my age, and the closer playmates were a good kilometre away, in a bee-line across the fields. We were two girls in the family, ten years apart, and since my sister married and moved away when I was ten years old, I spent half of my younger years as an only child. What I remember most about my childhood is being bored.
We lived on a small farm, my parents, my grandparents, my sister and me. We had five cows, a couple of pigs, and a variety of fowl, which my mother tended, apart from helping in the fields with the hay and wheat harvest. She had to get up at six every morning to make breakfast for the whole family, and milk the cows. My father worked in a local factory which made mostly chairs and desks, the very chairs and desks we, kids, sat on in primary school. He stood all day long in front of a huge machine, a saw blade going round and round, up and down. He would push the wood through the blade following the shapes that produced the various pieces of furniture. He had to work in the factory as the farm was not big enough to support the family. But my father had a hobby: a beloved vineyard which he tended meticulously, and from which he got the grapes to make wine. Too bad that neither the soil of the area, nor the weather, were suited to a good vintage.
He had a huge cement vat where he put the grapes, crushed them, and let them ferment until the dark red juice came out to be put in barrels. We would drink that wine all year long. My father was a kind, mild mannered man, and I suspect his hobby took the brunt of standing up all day in front of that roaring saw at the factory. The problem was that his wine was –to put it mildly—quite bad. It was a cross between wine and vinegar, and even when you cut it with a bit of water, the result was far from satisfactory. But my dad was adamant that it was a great brew, and the whole family downed a glass or two at each meal to please him.
It was my father’s self assigned job to tend the vineyard. The grape harvest, however, was a family event, and all of us, including my sister and I, took part in this September activity. Picking grapes may seem fun for those city types who have never had to bend down all day under a blazing sun, and cut grapes off the vines. It’s a backbreaking job, and one I remember without fondness.
One particular year, when I was about nine years old, I was busy cutting the grapes off when I noticed a strange movement on the rough vine trunk. I stepped back, and froze, knife in hand. I could have sworn the vine bark was changing shape under my very eyes… It suddenly stretched, undulated, and raised its triangular, V-marked head. I’d been warned about snakes, and screamed in recognition, “Mom, there is a viper…here on this vine, Mom…” My father heard me first. He came to me and bashed the slithering beast with a garden hoe chopping its head right off on the brown earth. This incident did not improve my harvesting output.
I didn’t mind living on a farm because I enjoyed the outdoors, and the freedom I had as a child. We had no running water, and of course, no TV. But I mostly missed books and playmates. I had to make do with the house cats and the shepherd dog as companions, and they complied happily most of the time.
When I reached my fourteenth year, I decided that whatever else I did, I would leave home and explore the world. In due course, I moved to Paris which I found disappointing despite its physical beauty. Later still, I ventured into England and worked hard to learn the language. As a foreigner in London, I enjoyed a social freedom that France never afforded me. Finally, I landed in Canada and made my permanent home in Montreal. I found the city both village-like in its different neighbourhoods, and stimulating in its dual culture and language. I don’t have to drink lousy wine anymore. Except that to this day, I have retained a persistent aversion to red wine, no matter how prestigious its vintage.
Clearly, there must be some affinity for wine in my genes, although it may have skipped a generation. How else can I explain my daughter Laura’s passion for the brew of the gods?”