Key to the Farm 4

Friday I handed over the apartment keys, last vestige of city life, and boarded the train out of Paris.  The end of four decades as city dwellers: living, loving and leaving a succession of homes in Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, Brussels, London and Paris. In some ways we’ve “bet the farm” to get here.  But more accurately, we’re betting on the farm to get us somewhere else.  Sometimes places turn out to be vehicles that help us experience something we need to live.  It now appears we need to live the farm.  Of course there’s a pretty side to […]

Vineyard in Flower 4

The perfume is subtle, wafting lightly in aromatic episodes.  A vineyard in flower is delicate, in more ways than one. The clusters of green “buttons” (the future flowers) appeared a couple of weeks ago.  Now we understand why May is such a hold-your-breath month.  The weather needs to be stable and reasonably warm, and hopefully rather dry so the buttons can give way to flowers and the flowers have a chance to pollinate.   Last year flowering happened in June, after the coldest May on record.  The bees were not happy. But this Spring has been lovely.   The flowers – tiny, […]

Our First Gold 10

It never even crossed my mind to wish.  You spend your energy trying to make something, often in the dark, not quite sure where it’s all going.  Then suddenly a light snaps on. You’re actually on a path. Our First Gold Medal.  From the Concours de Bordeaux, for La Tourbeille 2012. When we recovered from the surprise and stopped hopping up and down like six-year-olds, we took a look back at 2012.    A few moments from that vintage: A good vintage.  Many wonderful helpers along the way. Thanks to all of you who walked with us, when we couldn’t […]

Vigor in the Vineyard 3

My early appreciation for vigor was shaped by President John F. Kennedy.  It seemed every speech was lit up by the word, pronounced vigorously as – “vigah.”  “Vigah” was etched in my childhood mind as a cardinal virtue, invoking images of all that is robust, strong, healthy, shining, vibrant, confident, competitive. Vigor is also relevant in a vineyard.  At first glance, I thought of JFK and assumed vigor was synonymous with desirable.   But apparently, not quite. End of May and our oenologue, Francoise, came by yesterday for the first inspection of the season. After the problems of last May (cold […]

The 17th of May in 1763 3

It’s one of those perfect Tourbeille days.  Sunlight and sky so crisp you want to sing.  Air fragrant with Acacia blossoms.  Fields rising high with clover and prairie flowers. On the most sublime day of the year, John waltzes off to an overgrown pasture with his scythe and I chain myself to my desk. The United States government has requested a translation of the “wallpaper” on our wine label. By scythe and by pen, we jump back in time. I open my copy of a page from the Old Parchment Journal to find the scribbles in antique French that make […]

The Cruellest Month

The farmer’s wife:  “Ca me fatigue.  Everywhere this green, starting up all over again.  It’s exhausting.”   I laugh automatically and compliment her self-effacing wit.  She with her lifetime of fieldwork, not to mention green thumb and meticulous flower garden. But she won’t have it.  She insists her favorite season is the onset of winter. Hard to fathom.  What could be more heartening than the first signs of spring? Intoxicating, thrilling, joy-inducing… one can think of a dozen words for typical reactions to April.   But “fatigue”?   Is she in a secret club with T.S. Eliot? Everywhere we turn, the world is […]

The Taste of Earth 4

My mother once passed around a photo of a toddler in a muddy springtime garden, mouth full of dirt, fingers gingerly lifting an earthworm to taste.   For years my brothers taunted me – Wanda the Worm Eater. Decades on I’m still caught by the spell of thawing earth, and the hidden, mysterious workings down below. It’s March.  The allées in the vineyard are suddenly bursting with clover and wildflowers, a godsend for the first pollinators.  But the real showstopper: entire parcels of spring onions.  I asked the farmer who planted them.  No one, they grow wild.  When he was a […]

Asian Hornets 2

Someone asked about these ugly, dirty plastic bottles we keep in a garage.  But are aesthetics necessary when you’re on a mission to kill? It has become a February ritual: setting the traps for the asian hornet queens. They wake up before their workers and start the construction of enormous, spherical, paper maché style nests, very high up in a tree; the nests only become visible in autumn when the leaves have fallen. A year ago we had to call in the hornet busters.  They arrived at dawn with their gear to remove the nest in an old oak.  15 […]

Our Hunters 5

Thirty years ago my eldest brother was a deer hunter in Michigan.  He tracked alone in the woods after a snowfall and perched for hours in a tree, waiting with bow and arrow and thermos.  When his prey finally came in sight he aimed, knowing the hit would be true.   Then he set down his weapon.  He promised his children he’d hunt but not kill. Our local hunters don’t have that luxury.  They are called to duty at moments through the winter, as boar and deer overpopulate, and damage to orchards and vineyards reaches a tipping point. There’s a slight […]

Magic Winter Lettuces 4

The oddness of it first struck me when the mason asked if he could pluck a few green things out of the wreckage he wrought demolishing the old chicken coop.   “Winter Lettuce,” he chirped holding up a shiny specimen.  He gestured to the mess that was the chicken yard/orchard/vegetable patch as if to hint there were gems strewn about, and then carried off three muddy plantlings held close to his chest. Back to work. We tore up and ploughed over the entire area. Tossed some grass seed to keep the mud at bay. Turned our backs, got busy with everything […]

The Wish Box 9

When the children were small we started a ritual.  Since their favorite fairy tales were mostly about dreams coming true, I wanted to help them make their dreams come true.  So we started a Wish Box.  That first year we rode our bikes to the Thames in the dark, lit candles, read a poem.  Warm cinnamon cider from a thermos for them, brandy in a flask for us.  We breathed our wishes into the river.  At home we wrote them down on little index cards, packed them in a chocolate box we decorated, closed the box, breathed and wished hard.  Ate […]

The Legacy of Cedars 7

Near impossible to convey the majesty of a mature Cedar of Lebanon.  I’m standing in the field gazing up, body-dwarfed, mind-expanded. This great tree, and his kin who dot the property were probably planted in the early 1800’s.  Someone told me it was the fashion then to import exotic cedars from the mountains of Lebanon and Morocco to lend a noble allure to the landscape.  200 years on, we – and all our neighbors – are the beneficiaries.  Their summits rise above the early morning mist of the Dordogne and evoke a Chinese silk drawing of the entire valley. Every […]

Liberating the Walnut Trees (and a recipe for Walnut Pumpkin Pie) 3

When the last sheep disappeared from the pasture below stone ridge, the briars invaded. In just a generation, they suffocated almost everything of value. Here’s what was left: Clearing the pasture has been like peeling a gigantic and stubborn onion. First come the scythes. Then clippers. Then the big guns. As we drag off the thorny branches, uncovering years of broken bottles, pipes, tubes, old boots… we do a lot of grumbling. Wildlife appreciate the bramble fruit, but the feeble root system doesn’t even help prevent erosion.  I want to weep each time we uncover a stunted oak. But as […]

Sentinels of Stone Ridge 1

The forested north and east perimeters of the vineyard have always been something of a no mans’ land.  Long ago a mass of thorny briars took root below the cliff and created a minefield of rusty barbed wire tangled up in the dumping ground of previous residents.  It would take years to clear out the broken glass, tin cans, tires and tossed-out tools by dragging the detritus up the stone ridge, one bucket at a time. Everyone knows that the inaccessible woods rising near the briars are a haven for owls, hawks, deer…  But recently, someone began to suspect that […]

All Hallows’ Eve in the Winery 5

Halloween and Pressing Day: costumes, pitchforks, bloody red stains, spooky stories. It’s not my favorite wine making activity. People are always reminding you of someone they knew who died from asphyxiation clearing out a vat. Plus the person who tried to rescue them.  And it’s always something extra horrible like a father and his devoted son. The first part, raking mounds of grape skins out of the vat – is just hard work. But it always catches me in the solar plexus when John folds himself like a circus contortionist to crawl through the tiny tank door.  Then the drama […]

Kitchen Herb Garden – Spiral in Stone

Many years ago a family employee set out to defend the vegetable garden.  He was a handy man philosopher who engaged in occasional ponderings about ends justifying means.  But he was also a self-avowed Anarchist who spent a lot of time in the Foreign Legion, so I can’t pretend to understand much about his solipsistic ruminations. Certainly it was tiresome to find that the rabbits had gotten into the carrots again.  How he came to the decision to install an electric fence is a bit of a mystery; sadly I was not around at the time.  Perhaps it was kin […]

Valiant Cabernet Sauvignon 3

Day and night for the past week, the harvesters have resounded through the valley; the entire region mobilized to vendange before another rain. No time for a second cup of coffee, our harvester started before dawn. A day of sunshine. Good cheer. Beautiful, juicy grapes. Improvisation and perpetual motion at the chai. And when we say “artisanal” sometimes it means running into the field and finding an old post and some rope to hold the whole thing together. All in, we close up the brimming tank and get to work. Post script: Et voila, the valiant Cabs just “before.’ And […]

Merlots 2013 3

The whole village didn’t show up, it just seemed that way. In the middle of a season that local newspapers are pronouncing catastrophique, neighbors dropped by to check in, swap stories, lend a hand. Wilfrid from Carbonneau loaned us his pompe à marc and his characteristic serenity.  Alfred from Roberterie offered philosophy and the wisdom of choosing a benevolent insurance agent.  Laurent from Haut Redon came with the latest in machinery.  When the tractor and wagon pulled up, out popped the village Mayor, his father and our driver of grapes. 8 tons of Merlot. With the grapes safely inside the […]

It’s Time: Harvest Tomorrow 5

After a sunny week the balance tipped.   Labour starts tomorrow at dawn. You can hear the tremor in some neighbor’s voices; worry about the weather, scare stories.  A scramble to get the Merlots in as fast as possible.  We spend this weekend quietly preparing the winery, controlling what we can.  Not a tube or tank is left un-scoured. Suddenly, a black cloud passes overhead.  We put down our brushes to watch it move on, thinking we’ve been spared.  But then rain and hail fall from a sky bright with sunlight just a kilometer to the west. Holding our breath we […]

Teeth Gnashing at Harvest Eve

In a good year it’s easy to talk about terroir as a place where Nature and Human work together and bring forth a measure of bounty. What to say in a difficult year? It was the coldest, wettest spring in decades.  We lost about 30% of the Merlots.  The survivors suffer from uneven grape maturity.  But we escaped the devastation of the July hailstorms.  The late blooming Cabernets are doing fine. After many decent years, the local collective mind now gingerly recalls the catastrophic ones. The winter of ’59 when the long freeze destroyed harvests for two successive vintages.  The […]

Last of the Reine Claudes 2

When I told my farm-raised aunt I’d been canning summer vegetables she exclaimed,  “I thought putting up the beans had gone the way of party-line telephones! A shame she wasn’t on hand when I was facing a bumper crop a few years ago.  Her house maker’s DNA registered everything a country survivor needed, including pie crust recipes that still used solid Crisco. Alone amidst the plenty, there was no option but to teach myself how to can.  I found it scary (kill the family if you don’t sterilize properly) painful (forging through scalding water to that last jar at the […]

Bottling Day Vintage 2012 2

There’s something satisfying about putting up 18,577 bottles of freshly corked wine in your garage. Bottling Day, Vintage 2012.  Small scale but super organized. Team in place to man the line. The joy of friends come to help. Christian and Sonia, partners in a small bottling and labeling business, bring machinery and muscle. We always thought that strong and competent Sonia looked young for her age. Found out yesterday was her birthday – no wonder she looks young, she just turned 23! Henri is in all places at once, from front loading to pallet-cages to the pump in the winery. […]

The Peach Lady’s Daughter 5

When I first came to France as a new bride, I overheard snatches of Friday night conversation – “… early rising tomorrow…  seeing the Duchess…” The next morning the old bell in the courtyard (used in emergencies such as a suspected drowning or for urgent rallying causes, like dinner) sent wake-up shards through the entire house. No pity for latecomers, they were left mercilessly behind to fight over a few stale croissants in an empty larder. In a packed car, lurching along the sinuous road that borders the Dordogne, we were the fidele en route to the holy land – the […]

Honey Bees in the Attic

Photos by Michele Marechal

In the days when the children were children it was the perfect secret hideout.  Secluded, silent, untrammeled. A place for scary stories and hatching plots among menacing gargoyles and doors nailed shut for decades.

Tower Gargoyle

Honey Bees in the Tower Attic

But no one goes up into the tower much anymore.   Perhaps that’s why the honey bees took over.

Bee hive inside the tower, between window and shutter

The colony had multiplied quickly by the time the beekeeper arrived.  We were expecting armored suits and masks from ghostbusters, but were greeted instead by the gentle and wiry Monsieur Labaye (yes, pronounced just like “abeille” – honey bee) who brought only his smoking device and a little mobile home.

Monsieur Labaye and his Bee Smoker

Labaye lit up his smoking can – just rosemary, thyme and grass cuttings – saying the smoke is intended to distract the bees, not to make them drowsy.  The intrusion is a threat, but rather than become aggressive, they get busy making more honey (storing up for the imminent emergency) and thus pay less attention to the new beekeeper.

honeycomb, wax visible

This wasn’t the first time honey bees had taken refuge here.  A few years ago a swarm took up residence under a picnic table and a local beekeeper transported the swarm to our woods – we relished their rare “oak honey” with its faintly smoky taste.

honey seeping from the honeycomb

Monsieur Labaye said it’s hard to know why a colony suddenly moves.  Usually, their home has been disturbed; always to follow and protect their queen.

Hive at open window

Since the bees will follow their honeycomb, Labaye began cutting it away to fit into a shelf in the mobile home.

placing honeycomb pieces into shelf for temporary home

He placed the home on the windowsill.

Placing the mobile home

Then he made a little bridge to facilitate their passage.

Bridge to the mobile home

With some gentle encouragement.

Bare hands, bare ankles

No gloves, no mask, no socks.   Imagine the Pied Piper vibrations.

Moving the bees

And all this time he was looking for the queen.  He said she must be a virgin queen since the honeycomb had no larvae yet.  He picked up handful after handful of bees and gently brushed them, searching.

looking for the queen, brushing gently

He found a couple of large male fertilizing bees, but still no queen as the process went on.

found a male fertilizing bee

Suddenly there came a shriek from down below – a visitor almost stepped on a clump of bees.  Labaye picked up the furry, humming mound and began gently brushing.  There in the middle he found the queen. She had fallen out of the hive and been immediately surrounded by her protectors.  He placed her most delicately in the waiting carriage and off they went.

Bees flying

We sighed as Monsieur Labaye drove away with our refugees, and talked about colony collapse and the profits generated by pesticides.  Someone quoted Einstein –  “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Perfect Honeycomb

We’ll go visit Monsieur Labaye soon to see the honeybees in their new home  – set among thousands of buzzing companions in a field of sunflowers.

La Fête du Village 2

It carried me back to childhood days at my grandparent’s farming town in Michigan. Local farmers purveying their wares, in this case vignerons showing off their wines, and the villagers grazing from stand to stand, comparing, (secretly of course) greeting neighbors, exchanging news. On the square in front of the Mairie (Town Hall) tables heaved under sausages, frites and brochettes of grilled duck. Children tilted somersaults on the lawn and a 10 piece blues band wailed American oldies – imagine “Mustang Sally” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” with saxophone sexiness and an endearing French accent.  We leapt to […]