April 16, 2015

Shadows in the Vineyard, by Maximillian Potter

Sometimes the most unlikely catalyst serves to open doors of new understanding. So it is for me with the book Shadows in the Vineyard from writer Maximilian Potter.

I posted on Twitter a few weeks ago when I started the book, a little nervous seeing a first paragraph that reads so over the top and frankly sappy that I nearly put the whole thing down.

Somehow the book grew on me. Perhaps the subject matter is simply that interesting to me. I kept finding pieces of the narrative that connected with me. And Potter, even with his heavy prose, really seems to have captured, and been captured by, the profound magic of Burgundy. I believe in that.

The story itself makes for a fun read. A plot to poison the finest vineyard of the greatest domaine in Burgundy is discovered and ultimately foiled (spoiler alert, though not really).

Add to that a broad brush of French Revolution history as well as fascinating details of the monks a thousand years ago who cultivated the vineyards and lieux dits of the Cote d'Or, much as we know them today.

I found it interesting to learn that the scourge phylloxera were originally called “la nouvelle maladie de la vigne.” A new malady, to put it mildly.

I knew that the Benedictine monks who cultivated the Cote d'Or followed a particularly strict life, but didn't know their discipline was what St. Benedict termed "The Rule." I suppose we all must have rules.

It's understandable. Potter's hardly alone in revering M. de. Villaine, a legend, the general manager of one of wine's crown jewels and apparently quite a well mannered guy. What's not to like there? He's also proprietor with his wife Pamela of their own estate, Dom. A. et P. de Villaine in Bouzeron, producing of lovely, pure wines from the Côte Chalonnaise. I personally love these wines, and not only because I can still afford them.

Then there are various passages in the book that simply struck me well when I found them. On p. 85, a bit on Bouzeron had me reflecting on moving my own wine production out of Portland, perhaps allowing for a similar positive distance between work and home as that of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Vosne and home estate in Bouzeron.
Bouzeron’s simplicity was one of the things that had drawn Monsieur Aubert de Villaine to the village five decades earlier. Its simplicity and its distance from Vosne and the Domaine. Monsieur de Villaine believed it was important for him to have a life removed from the Domaine. The drive was sometimes a nuisance, but it provided both a real and a psychological buffer, enabling him to drive into and away from the world of the Domaine. Plus, Bouzeron had splendid if underrated vineyards of its own, wholly unlike those in Vosne-Romanee.
Then on the next page, Potter suggests something of de Villaine that I think about a lot in my own work with the terroir of the northern Willamette Valley.
In Bouzeron there were no expectations. He would be free to discover the terroir in his own way. There were no pressures other than those he chose to impose on himself.
The most lasting parts for me touch on the magic of Burgundy, the spiritual work of farming grapes and vinifying wine, particularly the Pinot Noir. This work is very difficult, stressful, not simply romantic by any stretch. But it is special, important work because of magic, in Burgundy and elsewhere.

Of Jean-Charles Cuvelier, a manager at the Domaine:
[H]e continued to believe in magic. That’s part of what he loved about the Domaine. In every vintage, in every bottle there was magic. There was hope. There was rebirth. The magic of the Domaine, the magic of the family he had there, is what enabled him to get through Annick’s long bout with cancer and then begin his life without her.
Quoting Francois Millet of Comte de Vogue, another top Burgundy producer, after the poisoning scheme at the Domaine was discovered:
Burgundy is a place that has been and must be free of such evil so that man can focus on the poetry of nature that God has given us, and we can focus on our responsibility to honor that.
And then quoting Pierre de Benoist, nephew of the Grand Monsieur and maker of A. et P. de Villaine wines in Bouzeron:
People say that wine is grapes in a glass, but I have a different view. The grapes are gone. They are no more. What’s left are the juices, the souls of the grapes, the ghosts of the grapes. These souls, these ghosts, these are what we drink; their spirit infuses our own.
These sentiments may seem overly romantic, but they are part of this life, even here in Oregon. There is a much deeper purpose in this work than commercial success.

Potter concludes with an image of a sunset in Vosne, in the heart of the Cote d'Or
It was the sort of light that left you with no choice but to have faith, to believe.
I'm struck how growing grapes and making wine almost require this sentiment. This work can be full of anxiety. A man wants some reassurance, some hope. He needs it. And I enjoyed reading that Potter gets that.

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