Sour Grapes: What Goes Into a Glass of Wine

Christina Aushana/Guardian

On Sept. 27, the UC students in my program and I were treated to a day at a vineyard in Beaujolais, a little city just outside of Lyon known for producing some of the best wine in France. Our program director didn’t tell us much about what we were going to be doing all day at the vineyard, but being a big Paul Giamatti fan, I assumed that we would spend the afternoon wine tasting a la “Sideways.”

Leaving Lyon’s city limits through a tunnel, the busy streets and crowded spaces of France’s second-largest city disappeared. In their place was a countryside extending in every direction, with only an occasional farmhouse dotting the landscape. Almost at once our bus of 50 energized college students stopped chattering to admire the seemingly endless shades of reds and yellows signaling harvest time.

Being born and raised in California, rural scenery and agriculture is nothing new to me, but Beaujolais immediately seemed completely different from anything I had seen back home because the rolling fields I was staring at were framed by an equally green mountain range that would have seemed out of place even in California.

After a brief detour, lost on backcountry roads, we finally pulled into the vineyard where we would spend the rest of the day. Getting off the bus, we were greeted by a couple that led us in front of a rustic-looking farmhouse and motioned for us to gather around them. The man introduced himself in French, but the paused, not sure if the group of foreigners in front of him spoke the language. Always eager to show French people that we do speak their native tongue, we took advantage of the opportunity to break the ice and asked him to speak in French. Obviously relieved, he laughed to himself and finished welcoming us to his vineyard.

He told us that his name was Ludovic and introduced us to his wife, Marie. He explained that unlike most vineyards in the area, he and Marie do not limit their production solely to wine, but make their own bread as well, which is distributed throughout the area. As Ludovic was explaining how he runs the wine production and Marie the bread, a student raised her hand and asked how the couple had met each other. Each of them smiled shyly to themselves, looked up at the other and proceeded to jointly tell a story that they had obviously told hundreds of times before but which was recounted with so much sincerity that I could have sworn that they were telling it for the very first time.

The two met at a university where they each studied a different facet of agriculture. After taking enough classes together, Ludovic finally asked Marie out on a date, where they discovered that they were from a similar region in France and each came from an agricultural background. They dated throughout their time at the university and got married shortly after graduating, but it was not until a few years later until they received a phone call, showing them their calling in life. Marie’s grandmother told them that a vineyard just up the road had been put up for sale and that the couple should think about making on offer on it. Although both Ludovic and Marie had grown up on farms, neither of them had any experience with large-scale agricultural production, but that didn’t stop them from buying the acres of farmland that would become their home.

After the introductions, we all went inside, where four huge tables were waiting for us and we sat down to an epic two-hour lunch. Five courses were presented and a different bottle of wine complemented each one. Although all the courses were incredible, our main course of beef Bolognese was one of the day’s highlights. Marie brought out the food in clay pots that had been simmering all morning long in the same stone-brick ovens where she bakes bread, and you could see the sauce steaming out of every cranny of the supple meat. It took a few extra glasses of Ludovic’s wine to ease down my triple serving and Marie’s freshly baked bread proved to be the perfect mop-up utensil, for both the leftovers on my plate and chin.

To bring us out of food-induced comas, we were served coffee and spent the rest of the day touring the vineyard and wheat fields where Ludovic and Marie grow their ingredients. The vineyards were huge and we were all surprised to learn that despite bringing on extra help for the harvest, the couple takes care of their fields on their own throughout much of the year. With so much work for only two people, it was hard to believe Ludovic when he casually mentioned that he and Marie also have four young children to look after.

While walking through endless rows of grape vines I was able to speak with Ludovic about the method of growing his wine and the agricultural lifestyle in general. He spoke with an intense, yet very humble, passion about his work, and during our conversation he would look out over his fields with the same love in his eyes that I’m sure he shows when tucking in his kids at night. He invited me to pick some grapes straight off the vines and he grinned when he saw my surprise at eating what I found to be a rather sour grape.

“Those grapes you’re used to eating from super markets,” he told me, “those aren’t true grapes. You want something that’s going to give you great wine? Then you need these — the real thing.”

He spoke of the satisfaction in selling a product he nurtured through every step of its life, from seed to vine to barrel to bottle. As we walked through his vineyard he would drag his hand along his side, letting his fingers graze his beloved grapes on nearly every vine. While talking about how he and Marie both cared for the house and their family all while running a successful business, the midafternoon sun illuminated the face of a man who couldn’t possibly ask for anything more in life.

Throughout the day I couldn’t shake a feeling that something was so completely different yet so very calming about the area. Whether it was learning how to properly drink a good glass of wine, walking through the vineyards as the sun was setting or just getting a kick out of seeing a very stereotypical sheepdog running around, the place left me questioning my own direction. I’m not trying to say that I want to drop out of school to start up my own wine company; it’s just that being shown such an idyllic lifestyle really drew me in. I’ll probably never live on a farm and trying to make moonshine in my bathtub will be the only thing bringing me close to Ludovic’s profession. But observing how genuinely happy the man is, and knowing that his happiness has been made possible by factors that will never enter into my own life is actually a very refreshing thought.