Talk about an awkward ele-vader encounter.

Talk about an awkward ele-vader encounter.

Although I like to tell myself that I am the soul of wit and easy repartee in English (constantly…validation is so comforting!), it’s becoming painfully obvious that I’m nowhere close in French. Generously, I’m about the level of awkward elevator dialogue: my conversational one-two punch is 1) the weather and 2) how’s it going..? – with the hope that the answer is a simple ‘fine’, or ‘ça va’ as, with nothing left in my verbal arsenal, my follow up usually reverts back to 1) the weather. Fortunately, I am somewhat less terrible at hearing and understanding French, more so in person than, for example, over the phone. I’ve made much more progress here, but I need to focus very hard to pick up on facial and vocal cues to understand the words and context. Were I to be less forgiving, I might admit that it probably looks suspiciously like staring. So: awkward elevator encounter with someone who says next to nothing and stares, probably stands too close, and that’s French me in a nutshell. (I’m a hoot. We should totally hang out some time.) …This is why I prefer to communicate via email.

Exactly like this, except that café is my stage.

Exactly like this, except that café is my stage.

But now you can appreciate some of the challenges associated with applying for a stage in another language. I spent a whole Sunday, a few weekends back, submitting resumes and cover letters to a series of wine estates in Alsace, after getting some help from classmates on both the language and contacts. The culture of this application process is quite specific, and ; frankly, my skills are a little rusty; it’s been a while since I’ve had to apply for a job as a complete unknown (let alone unknowing). The particularities to capture include following a formal letter structure, which starts with my academic credentials, then the request for a candidature spontanée (spontaneous candidacy; basically you ask for a job when there’s no job posting. This is very common here.) and only then can I start selling myself. For one small paragraph, while inserting a certain je ne sais quoi (maybe too much in my case). And then a floral sign-off to convey both courtesy and sincerity. It’s a learning exercise starting this process from scratch, but it’s also unnerving to wonder (aka. over-think) how much nuance (aka. opportunity to mess it up) there is still to overcome in email exchanges and interviews.

I’ve chosen to apply only in Alsace, a region in the north-east of France, bordering Germany and Switzerland. That Prussian proximity is significant to the history of this region, having been fought over by, and even part of, Germany during the Franco-Prussian War and both World Wars. The language – Alsatian is a Franco-Germanic dialect – and the food, customs and style are also uniquely influenced by this cultural exchange.

Alsace is full of little villages set in the mountains along the Rhine. The food looks amazing and everything pairs perfectly with Riesling. The famous storks of Alsace. This place is even beautiful in winter.

Alsace is full of little villages set in the mountains along the Rhine. The food looks amazing and everything pairs perfectly with Riesling. The famous storks of Alsace. This area of France is even more picturesque in winter (is that possible?).

From a viticultural perspective, I want to be here for three reasons:

  1. This is a cold climate region, which means it’s more like Ontario, and I expect the vineyard practices, timing of activities, grape varietals and possibly even some of the challenges will be more similar to what I’ll need to know when I return home.
  2. Alsace produces amazing Rieslings: hugely complex and cellar-worthy. This is what I want to make. And drink. And make more…. you see where this is going. They also produce amazing Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and several other grapes (mostly white) that I’d like to understand better, but if I only learn one thing, I want it to be how to make a fabulous Riesling.
  3. There is a much higher-than-average number of sustainably-farmed wineries in this region than most others, whether organic or biodynamic (but especially the latter), and I want to learn more about these farming practices up close. It’s one thing to read about them, or discuss them on the château visits, but it’s completely another thing to have this as part of the daily routine.
I might be going a little inSeine right about now.

I might be going a little inSeine right about now.

The interview: although my colleagues promise me it’s just a confirmation process, I can’t help but get nervous about this interview. It’s in French! My interviewer, and owner of the estate, sounds quite laid back from what I’ve read about him, and the interviews I’ve seen by him. I try to call him at our pre-determined time and it seems he’s just stepped out of the office for a few minutes. While this is most likely a symptom of the aforementioned laid-backness, panic is starting to set in. I have very carefully prepared a string of sentences that, laid end to end, sound half-decently like I’m both comfortable speaking French and have a lot to offer this winery. Each minute that goes by, that careful construct is deteriorating a little more until soon I’ll be left with a series of discombobulated words (still French, but useless to me by then).

Oh dear. Please let him return to the office soon.

I call back half an hour later, just in case, and manage to catch him just as he’s returned. He immediately takes pity on me when I stumble while trying to casually riff off my premeditated conversation phrases, not having planned for this exact situation. Lesson learned: try not to deviate from the script (for now). And after all that, the interview is in English. (Phew!)

We discuss a few details – what kind of activities I can expect, in the vineyard and in the cellar, and where I’ll live for the summer. Because it’s a cooler climate, the harvest could be later, and may not even finish by the time I return to my studies in November. But the 2014 vintage is still aging in barrels, and I’ll arrive in time to bottle those. Honestly, just the fact that I get to spend my entire summer outside sounds heavenly. I suspect there will be a lot of canopy management activities keeping me busy for June and July, and then we’ll be getting ready for the harvest some time in September. My lodging will be in the town of Eguisheim, and the vineyard is 20-minutes walking distance, between Eguisheim and Turckheim, at the south end of Alsace.  Though it’s to the south, this area is known as the Haut-Rhin or Upper Rhine because of its mountains. Basically I’m going to be Heidi for the summer, except I’ll have vines and storks instead of goats. And hopefully I will learn how to yodel!

My home four months from now in the little town (it's a quiet village, every day like the one before...) of Eguisheim.

My home four months from now in the little town (it’s a quiet village, every day like the one before…) of Eguisheim.

So now you know about as much as I do about my upcoming internship, so we’re all caught up. It is otherwise an academically quiet week. It’s the last week of the semester, so the only formal activities on the schedule are a feedback session with the administration to talk about how the program is going for us, and whether we have any suggestions for the program before the next class comes in September, and an economics exam.

With all the free days, my parrain (the godfather) has set up a few visits to estates and other wine businesses. The first day we go to a few châteaus in the Graves region, and the second day is to a wine distributor. I’m going to let the pictures tell the story from here.

The first stop is Château Haut-Bailly, a Grand Cru in Pessac-Leognon. A view of the old vines of Cabernet Sauvignon. The barrel room. A unique tasting: instead of showing us the finished wines, the technical director shares samples of each individual grape, and explains the blending process.

The first stop is Château Haut-Bailly, a Grand Cru in Pessac-Leognon. A view of the old vines of Cabernet Sauvignon. The barrel room. A unique tasting: instead of showing us the finished wines, the technical director shares samples of each individual grape, and explains the blending process.

A brief pitstop at the new restaurant at Château de Leognon to check out the who's who, and the what's-in-the-parking lot.

A brief pitstop at the new restaurant at Château de Leognon to check out the who’s who, and the what’s-in-the-parking-lot.

We wrap up at Château Guiraud in Sauternes, an area known for sweet white wines. After a long drive in from the road, human visitors are greeted by the sight of the château, and insect visitors get a hotel of their own. The bottling truck is set up and filling. We finish with a tasting - my parrain, his wife, and me.

We wrap up at Château Guiraud in Sauternes, an area known for sweet white wines. After a long drive in from the road, human visitors are greeted by the sight of the château, and insect visitors get a hotel of their own. The bottling truck is set up and filling. We finish with a tasting – my parrain, his wife, and me.

Tucked away behind this cast-iron fence lies a veritable wonderland of wine. Wooden cases are piled high in one of the main rooms, while the magnums chill out in a room of their own. VIC (Very Important Cow) keeps watch over the whole operation.

Tucked away behind this cast-iron fence lies the Millesima warehouse: a veritable wonderland of wine. Wooden cases are piled high in one of the main rooms, while the magnums chill out in a room of their own. VIC (Very Important Cow) keeps watch over the whole operation.

If you’re still reading, I know you’re probably convinced that I don’t actually spend time in class. That is true of this week; as I write this, it feels a little nuts to me, too. There’s one more visit with the class scheduled for this week, this time to Château Haut-Brion, a Premier Cru Classé estate (one of the few in the highest qualification possible in Bordeaux).

It's a little foggy, (I promise we're all sober!). The tanks are an interesting design: alcoholic fermentation (sugars are converted by yeast into alcohol) takes place in the top half, then the must drops below to complete malolactic fermentation (tast-tasting malic acid is converted into more buttery lactic acid). The tasting room shows off their three châteaus: Haut Brion, La Misson Haut Brion and Château Quintus in St. Emilion.

It’s a little foggy, (I promise we’re all sober!). The tanks are an interesting design: alcoholic fermentation (sugars are converted by yeast into alcohol) takes place in the top half, then the must drops below to complete malolactic fermentation (tast-tasting malic acid is converted into more buttery lactic acid). The tasting room shows off the wines from their three châteaus: Haut Brion, La Misson Haut Brion across the street and Château Quintus in St. Emilion.

...and all the men and women merely players.

…and all the men and women merely players.

So – as you can see, it’s been a busy week. Weeks with this much free time are unusual, so I’m glad for the experiences, but I’m also looking forward to being back in the classroom this week. It’s Sunday night now, so I’m getting to get up and do it all over again (a little more school and a little less tasting this time around). Cheers!

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2 thoughts on “all the world’s a stage

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