The carcasses of a deer and a wild boar are hanging up in a cold locker in my backyard right now. The former is roadkill, recovered by my landlord; the latter a prize from hunting the night before. It’s clear we’re not in Kansas anymore… The views here are spectacular but I’m realizing that there’s much more to Alsace than the picture-perfect images of mountains, quaint houses and vines absolutely everywhere. What is certain is that any romanticized expectations I may have previously harboured about working in the vines are well and truly dashed. My arms and legs are covered in fly, mosquito, spider and even horsefly bites, not to mention thistle spines, bruises and sunburn (the latter thankfully camouflages the worst of it). It actually reminds me a lot of my camino experience – physically demanding and exhausting but mentally exhilarating and rewarding. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

New digs, and the neighbour checks us out. On the street where I live, you can see the clouds up in the vines.

Our new digs, and the neighbour checks us out suspiciously. On the street where I live, you can see the clouds up in the vines.

The vineyard has kindly provided us with bicycles, and the house I share with my fellow Bordeaux intern is only 5 minutes away on wheels. On Day 1 we start with a 10 minute tour of the facilities before we’re assigned to a team and sent off for the day. I’m sent to work in the Brand Grand Cru parcels, just behind the town of Turckheim. Here in Alsace, Grand Crus are associated with the land, not with the winery, the way they are in Bordeaux. The name comes from the word for fire, which doubly makes sense: the soil is red granite and very warm, and there’s also a local legend of a dragon living on the mountain who once fought the sun (and lost, much like I’m about to this summer). All the Zind-Humbrecht parcels in the Brand Grand Cru are planted with Riesling.

Brand Grand Cru marker. Some of the vines are tied straight up so they can be used for wedding photos later in the year. The hills overlook the town of Turckheim, where I live. Pull the ficelles too hard, and you break the stëcke (?), and double -knotting at the end of the row.

Brand Grand Cru marker. Some of the vines are tied straight up so they can be used for wedding photos later in the year. The hills overlook the town of Turckheim, where I live. Pull the ficelles too hard, and you break the stëcke, and double-knotting at the end of the row.

I’m starting to get into the rhythm of work here. Every day we show up at 6:45 for the debrief on who will be doing what for the day, although with the heat, it’s rapidly becoming a 5:45 start. Within 15 minutes we’re hopping into little white vans in groups of 2-6, zooming around to address the parcels which require our particular expertise. There’s a 15 minute pause at 9:30, and then a one hour lunch at noon. They are 10 hour days, so we wrap up at 4 or 5 PM, depending on when we started. We are completely exhausted by then, and the evening ritual is becoming like clockwork: shower, wash clothes, make dinner as well as lunch for the following day, check the weather forecast (followed immediately by the assumption that it will rain anyways) and then go to bed early so we can get up and do it all over again in a few hours.

Counterclockwise from upper left: Don't panic, it's organic! Copper sulfate mixed with a biodynamic tisane is applied; though organic, it's still best not to inhale too deeply right away! That's not how we left it...sabotage on our ficelles, probably by jealous neighbours. Grasses and weeds (and frustratingly poignant thistles, the current bane of my existence) grow vigorously between the vines. Wild strawberries and little Jiminy Cricket are a few examples of the local biodiversity. Hark - the storm cometh.

Counterclockwise from upper left: Don’t panic, it’s organic! Copper sulfate mixed with a biodynamic tisane is applied; though organic, it’s still best not to inhale too deeply right away. That’s not how we left it…sabotage on our ficelles, probably by jealous neighbours. Grasses and weeds (and frustratingly poignant thistles, the current bane of my existence) grow vigorously between the vines. Wild strawberries and little Jiminy Cricket are a few examples of the local biodiversity. Hark – the rainstorm cometh.

The first two days see me putting up the ficelles, or the twine that goes up to support the growing vines. The longer the vines are, the heavier they become, so we’ll have to redo this exercise in a month, but higher up to support the vines’ tall summer growth. For now, it’s important that we make sure the vines are picked up off the ground, where they risk breakage and excess mildew growth (especially with the rain). We’re on what I (or at least my legs) think are steep slopes, but preliminary research indicates that these are only considered to be average. Oh dear…

floraison2

All the while the vines are going through floraison, or flowering. The brown caps on the little buds are starting to fall off, and little white barely-there flowers are appearing. It smells lovely!

Also, the sun is so strong on the first two days that I’m already sunburnt and starting to peel… I’m going to have a spectacular farmer’s tan by the end of the summer.

The latter half of the first week, and the ENTIRE second week are characterized by rain. Lots of rain, across much of France. Apparently the neighbourhoods around Paris are flooding, as is the Bas-Rhin, or the north of Alsace, around Strasbourg. Living in the mountains has some advantage, as we are quite safe from any potential flooding. Which doesn’t mean that we are high and dry; as of now, I’ve gone through three raincoats (rather, the rain has gone through three of my raincoats) and I’ve had to adopt a layering strategy so I can remain relatively dry. Meanwhile, my tasks have transitioned from fichage (putting up the twine) to palissage (tucking the vines in so they grow straight up). This is an important activity in biodynamics as we do not do summer hedging of the vines until later.

The bikes have a nice view while we work all day. A lovely day, there's just this little hill to climb. A few photos of the palissageurs during the breaks. And finally, is that more rain? Yes, yes it is.

The bikes have a nice view while we work all day. A lovely view, there’s just this little hill in the way…don’t strain your neck looking up. A few photos of the palisseurs during the breaks. And finally, is that more rain? Yes, yes it is.

Betwixt and between the days at the vineyard, I’m enjoying a visit from a few family members, including my filleul/neveu, or godson/nephew who is barely 7 months old. It’s a good chance to catch-up in person especially as I won’t return to Canada until the end of 2017. We spend the first weekend in Reims, a city in the Champagne region.

It never Reims, but it pours. Some views of the magnificent cathedral at Reims, my nephew decides he really likes croissants. And the caves at Maison Taittinger house three million bottles of wine as well as old cave artwork.

It never Reims, but it pours. Some views of the magnificent cathedral at Reims, My nephew decides he really likes croissants. And the caves at Maison Taittinger house three million bottles of wine as well as old cave artwork. The pupitres or bottle stands in the upper right corner are shaped like that so the bottles can age and be turned easily while pointed downward to gather the dead yeast cells in the neck for later removal.

Our second weekend together takes us to a farmhouse in the Alps, near Bern, Switzerland.

Swiss HQ in the Alps, complete with fresh eggs and milk delivered to our door. (Is that more rain?? Dammit Switzerland... you had ONE JOB!!) Our first view of snow-capped peaks on the way to the waterfall under the mountain in the St Beatus caves. This little waterfall outside the mountains is a teeny tiny, if picturesque teaser for the real deal. Nephew adjusts pretty well to Switzerland, even if he's no good at goatherding, the sink-bathtub is fun for everybody, and a Joyce family photo.

Our temporary Swiss base in the Alps, complete with fresh eggs and milk delivered to our door. Is that more rain?? (Dammit Switzerland… you had ONE JOB!!) Our first view of snow-capped peaks on the way to the waterfall under the mountain in the St Beatus caves. This little waterfall outside the mountains is a teeny tiny, yet picturesque teaser for the real deal. Nephew adjusts pretty well to Switzerland, even if he’s not overly impressed with the view; bathtime in the sink is fun for everybody, and a Joyce family photo.

And it’s back to Zind-Humbrecht for the third week of the stage. This week is a little different – though the palissage is still going on, they’ve decided to mix up our activities a little. The chef de culture, or vineyard manager, takes me to shear the sheep. I’ve seen a few demonstrations on sheep-shearing… so… 2-3 minutes per animal, and this should be an hour’s work, tops, right?  WRONG! These sheep are terrified, and I get the unglamourous job of (trying to) hold down legs and dodging the… err.. involuntary fertilizer… so their wool can be shorn. It takes three of us all morning to clip and inspect 7ish sheep plus the two lambs too small to shear.

The change of activities continues all week – on the Tuesday and Wednesday I’m helping to spray 501 (a biodynamic preparation of finely ground quartz crystal, or silica, which has been previously buried in a cow horn for 6 months). If I thought the hills were steep before, they certainly feel significantly steeper with 12 kilos of solution on my back, plus needing my arms to pump and spray the 501 above my head while climbing up and down the slopes. They tell me that the second day of spraying will be easier. It’s completely flat, they promise with straight faces… les bâtards! Of course they’re lying: I’m introduced to the Sommerberg Grand Cru, with a 45° slope. It’s the steepest parcel I’ve come across yet, though apparently still nowhere close to the steepest parcel at Zind-Humbrecht.

A change of pace: shearing and inspecting the sheep - the lambs are terrified at first, but they escape unscathed. Finally, NO rain! staking out the new Riesling plot in Hengst. Donning our raingear to spray 501 (a biodynamic silica preparation) while the guys get the tractors ready. Scenes from the vineyards - flowers, wheat and new vine cuttings are not too far away.

A change of pace: shearing and inspecting the sheep – the lambs are terrified at first, but they escape unscathed. Finally, NO rain! Staking out the new Riesling plot in Hengst with the chef de cave, or cellar manager. Donning our raingear to spray 501 (a biodynamic silica preparation) while the guys get the tractors ready. Scenes from the vineyards – flowers, wheat and new vine grafts are not too far away.

Thankfully this is only an early morning activity so it’s over quickly and I have a moment to catch my breath and mop my brow daintily before I’m off to Clos Windsbuhl, near the village of Hunawihr, to work with the horses for three days. We’re doing the décavaillonage, or tilling under the rows with a special plough. It takes a little finesse at first, maneuvering the plough to catch the dirt without cutting the vine trunks, but as long as the horses go slowly, I can get the hang of it. (In other words….not really.)

The view from Clos Windsbuhl, where we've got an early morning start to try and beat the heat. Nikita pulls the décavailloneur while Quidonc takes a nap in the shade. And the end game is in sight!

The view from Clos Windsbuhl, where we’ve got an early start to try and beat the heat. Nikita pulls the décavailloneur while Quidonc takes a nap in the shade. And…oh this is what it’s all about!

It’s interesting working with the horses – the strict schedule of the day I’ve become used to is thrown out the window as our priority is the horses’ wellbeing. They are both big Ardennes horses, built for hardiness, mental fortitude and working in the mountains. The horses are only used to work the Grand Cru areas (5 hectares or ~12 acres in total), and to do the work well, we need to be really in tune with them. In the three days, I’ve seen them monkeying around – perhaps due to some combination of the heat and the electricity in the air with the (of course!) pending rainstorm, being calm and being panicked. I come close to killing Nikita because she chokes on the carrot I feed her. I am worried she’ll remember this, and repay her debt to me Game of Thrones-style, but we’re best friends now. On my last day with her, she has a severe allergic reaction which means her eyes are swollen shut. During the three hours we wait for the vet, and for her to calm down enough to get back into her trailer (still blind), I get a little pent-up singing out of my system; mostly lullabye versions of every single song I know….but what a way to end the week!

And there you have it… practical life in the vineyard isn’t exactly the same as what we are learning in the classroom, but it’s proving to be rich in new and enlightening experiences. I’m enjoying the weekend here and resting up for week four!

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