One of the perks of having connections with the wine trade is that it’s generally not hard for me to sort out a vineyard tour. Fresh from my stint at Domaine de Chevalier, I decided that my current trip around the States would be lacking without a quick trip to Napa to sample some of the Valley’s most celebrated wine. I was even able to stick to my Bordeaux roots, securing tours at Araujo Estate (recently acquired by François Pinault of Chateau Latour) and Opus One (co-founded in 1980 by Baron Philippe of Mouton Rothschild). The issue with going the “don’t you know who I am?” route though is that the wineries did know who I was, so I couldn’t use my thus far successful alter ego of Julian from Dulwich to convince them I was 21. At the tender age of 18, it is illegal for me to drink alcohol in the state of California and so as not to implicate the wineries in the serving of a minor, let me make it clear that any tasting notes in this blog are merely wild suppositions on my part on what I imagine the wine would taste like, however specific and empirical they seem.
The chai was eerily quiet as I started my final week at Domaine de Chevalier.
Picking and vinification of the Merlot started this week here at Chevalier. Whilst some might think that this would simply entail same shit, different colour grape (as I naively did), I was surprised to see how different the winemaking process is between red wine and white wine. The complexity, colour and tannins of red wine all come from the grape itself rather than just the juice.
After much anticipation, the vendange finally began this week. While it has been fun being photographed wrapping corks and cleaning barrels by Chinese tourists – although I feel that I somewhat spoilt the rustic atmosphere they were looking for by wearing my Palace shirt and blasting out Arctic Monkeys on my headphones as I did it – it couldn’t have come sooner.
I've been to a few parties throughout my teenage years but before now have only worked at one; I was the photographer at my friend’s Mum’s 50th. However no amount of taking pictures of middle aged couples dancing to Kool & The Gang could have prepared me for working at the Ban des Vendanges. Everything was on a grander scale; at the former I would photograph couples as they arrived a few minutes apart while at the latter I was directing throngs of cars into parking spaces in broken French with such urgency that I had no time to worry about so many people driving to a wine dinner. This time, instead of nicking the odd glass of Sainsbury’s Chablis, I was skimming the top off bottles of La Mission Haut Brion to “check they weren’t corked” before being sent out to the 1000 guests who attended the event.
When most 18 year olds set off on their gap year, the first port of call is typically Thailand in which they will tell you they hope to find themselves by embarking on a trip of sexual discovery, casual drug use and perhaps getting a tattoo that says "hope" in Thai as a manifestation of their multicultural experience and thus development as a person. Indeed, the first thing I did on my gap year is called effeuillage and a quick Google search will tell you that it’s the French for striptease. However, in oenological terms it is also the name for the much less salacious process of leaf removal. So instead of deflowering, I was instead deleafing which allows sunlight to reach the grapes on the many vines of Domaine de Chevalier. I was told that this is the worst job of the vendage, partly due to the diminutive size of the Chevalier vines. Our group spent the entire 9 hour day going from row to row with a short break in between each one that conveniently, for those who smoked (apparently everyone in France), lasted exactly the length of a cigarette. The next day, I woke up at 7am to begin my second day of work with an aching back and tired eyes. As we drank our coffees, my roommate Damien taught me a French phrase I have gotten a lot of use out of already: “J’ai la flemme”, which wordreference.com tells me translates as “I can’t be arsed”.