The following is the third in a three-part recollection of my time spent in Alsace last autumn for harvest at a winery called Sipp Mack in Hunawhir, a little village with a rich history, much of which is knee-deep in grape juice. Here are more stories from the vineyard. (Read Part I here, and Part II here.)
The last day of my harvest was wet. I say “my” because the weather created a strange rhythm for the harvesters and a few more days after my departure will be required to collect all the crop, Riesling especially, Grand Cru especially. We hadn’t touched those yet, they’re the true gems of production, too. The rain is persistent and though the forecast predicted that Thursday to be moderately clear, it’s teeming rain by the time we hit the vines, each row lined with what quickly becomes shin-deep mud. I left my jacket home, and my vest is soaked through. There’s no warmth in baggy latex gloves and the water and Pinot Gris juice fill them anyway, so they’re abandoned pretty quickly. All of us out there look like weary wanderers, plastic bags and other makeshift endeavors manufactured around heads and hands. I give up after a bit, I am just damp.
The rain stops in time for me to be ready for it, but the mud persists. On either side of every row there’s a patch of grass or a train of mud, I think caused by the occasional drive through of a tractor. It doesn’t take long for the partner on the mud side to accumulate additional pounds of the mortar-like grass-and-dirt combination caked to the bottom of the boots. My wellies have finally given up and cracked along the ankle, making for a significant slosh in between my toes.
That day last day in the vineyard took away much of the romantic notion of grapes ripening on the vine. The combination of rain and warmer evenings means the grapes are more prone to mold, and though it’s not universal, some of them are so fuzzy it’s hard to believe anything good can come of them. The mold makes them more fragile, more prone to turning on the vine, so we submit them to a sniff test: does it smell like vinegar? No? Into the bucket it goes! The juice will be cleaned up significantly before the winemaking begins, so no harm, no foul.
I admit it’s a little off-putting: these grapes are now muddy, many are succumbing to Noble Rot, many to not-so-noble mildew, bugs are often at the bottom of our buckets, our hands are dirty, but the beauty of all of this, of harvest itself, is how demonstrative it is of the rusticity of it all. It’s the earth, it’s the vine. The origins of wine have little to do with white tablecloths and the proper glass choice; sometimes it’s a plastic cup at ten in the morning in the middle of a vineyard, sometimes it’s a juice glass and a mislabeled bottle slapped onto a lunch table with a bunch of raucous old Frenchmen.
The final night of my Alsatian adventure is wonderful and sad and exciting. My body is tired from good work, hard work alongside folks who knew the value of good, hard work and had been doing it one way or another for decades. To wake with them, dine with them, ride with them, laugh with them, and listen to their stories all without understanding more than two or three words is clearly a privilege; here, there’s little honor without the blackened hands of working the vineyard. My knowledge of outside wines is irrelevant, my knowledge of almost anything is irrelevant. I am here only to learn and watch and listen, to smile and acknowledge my own inexperience.
A guest, perhaps a cousin, also in the wine business, came to dinner bearing two bottles of Côte-Rôtie, a wine made from Syrah from the northern Rhone Valley. Aside our vivacious bottles of white, most of them fine, persistent Riesling with sharpened acid and focus and gorgeous, finicky tree fruit and floral accents, these reds seem massive, almost cumbersome. Syrah is aromatic and almost emits aromas of blueberries, violets, and black pepper, but here, the meaty, minerally deeply red wine is an outsider, foreign to these parts. It doesn’t seem to understand the food or the table, or what we’re all doing here. We are the same, I guess, those wines and me, but I think I’ve managed to coerce a more accepted place at the table.
Tonight the guitar comes out, as does a fellow harvester’s harmonica. Turns out Tomás is a professional musician, a professional harmonica player in a folk band, and our styles make sense together. We play a little, I think I earn the respect and affection of all the older women in the room. “Keh-tee,” they sigh, touching my arm, finally accepting the strange pronunciation of my name. It feels good to be able to offer something back here after so many gifts freely given to me.
Tomorrow I head to Paris on a train, another place to be a stranger, another chance to be silenced and experience a pocket of the world I’ve never tasted. But tonight, it’s a special Alsatian tart of Mirabelles, sweet, tiny goldenrod plums arranged just so on a short crust, made in my honor by the wonderful Leo. He mimes his tears as he sets it down before me along with the famed Alsatian eau du vie of the same fruit. Just enough of the fruit marked by a sweet, hot burn as it curls into my belly, nestling alongside all the food and company and music.
If you’re interested in Sipp Mack wines (as well you should be!), check out local stores like Bin 604 Wine Sellers, pour yourself a juice glass full, and think about muddy boots, exuberant French folk, and the most picturesque countryside you can imagine.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.