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Modern Wine Fables – Loire: Offering

Grégory Triste had always been supremely odd. To begin with there was his look, all flyaway hair and an intensely disconcerting stare he adopted when listening to someone.

There was also his habit of using a lead-lined sleeping bag to ward off harmful gamma rays given off by mobile phones and satellites and his cryptic pronouncements on man’s place in the natural world. He didn’t mingle much with his fellow winemakers in the little Loire appellation of Gujon and they in turn were somewhat scared of him.

Why he was so odd exercised everybody greatly. Dropped on his head as a baby? Drinking too much of the herbal tea he gave his vines? Too much time talking to his vines perhaps? And Grégrory really did talk to his vines, often referring to them as if they were people – the children he and his wife, Nadine, had never had.

There was no denying that his methods were effective though. His vines flourished, and so did his orchard which hummed with bees while butterflies alighted on the wisteria that covered the honeyed stone of the farmhouse where he lived. To add to the vision of pastoral harmony, a flock of sheep wandered around as incidental lawn mowers and ambulatory fertilisers – they became as much of an attraction as the wines.

And what wines they were. Made with as little intervention as possible, sommeliers and disturbingly keen bloggers, all self-avowed lovers of, ‘pure, mineral, wines that really express their terroir’, would purr over them on their pilgrimages to the domaine.

Most prized of all was the ‘Cuvée Cronos’, made from a pocket of red clay and renowned for its intensely oily, fleshy, almost meaty texture as if it had been aged on its skins and lees or in amphora. No wine could taste like that without some sort of unusual vinification but Grégory always denied it was the case. Even so, long-standing fans and visitors could never quite believe him when he shook his head at their questions and replied in his broken English, ‘that is the terroir’.

He became the poster boy of the natural winemaking movement. A man of relatively few words but strong convictions his far-out proclamations caused many, with perfect Anglo-Saxon scepticism, to call him a fraud who couldn’t possibly believe a word of his own tripe. To many more he was a guru, while to the media he was a boon and always gave good copy guaranteed to spark a testy, largely incoherent argument in the comments section.

Wine critics and the press came from far and wide to ask him what biodynamics had done to transform his vineyards, the quality of the wine, the health of the soil, the biodiversity and so on. Just how had he made it all work? Grégory would shrug and, looking benign, say that it was simple really; if one listened to the vines.

This seemed to please everyone immensely and they would nod a vigorous, understanding nod, note it down and then ask for a photograph. He’d been photographed among the verdant foliage of his vineyards or with a lump of bone white tufa clutched in his red-soiled hands more often than he cared to remember – when visitors weren’t trying to photograph the sheep of course.

None of this interest or scorn really bothered Grégory. To try and categorise him as a ‘biodynamic’ or ‘natural’ winemaker rather missed the point as Grégory was neither certified biodynamic nor cared whether or not his wine was deemed ‘natural’ by trendies or squares seeking to pin a label on everything. He looked after his vineyards and made his wine as he saw fit. He saw no need for labels and paid no attention to the bickering his methods invited.

But if outsiders viewed him as a holistic Brahmin of wine, his neighbours viewed his methods with suspicion, even fear. After the pilgrims were long gone and the Sun went down the Cuvée Cronos plot in particular took on a much more unsettling feel. For the locals, it was a strange, alien place where stones were known to move and the plants to speak, their whispers hanging in the air calling to passers-by. It was widely said that strange shrieks would emanate from the vines during the full moon.

‘His vines are too healthy,’ they whispered among themselves, ‘and they grow so fast. You can’t tell me he does it all with tea and cow shit?’

‘What then? Black magic? Animal sacrifices?’

‘Devil worship.’

Ta guele, don’t talk that way.’ And they would shiver, return to their drinks and try not to think about it.

Most vocal in his criticisms was Jean-Paul Argot, whose vines neighboured Grégory’s. A pompous, humourless man with yellowish eyes he regarded Grégory’s methods as a lot of mumbo-jumbo voodoo rubbish. Yet, he was also paradoxically jealous of the vigour of the vines, the quality of the wines they produced and the fame this brought to Grégory. The two fought an incessant low intensity conflict on their borders. Grégory was constantly nursing back to health vines exposed to the pesticides Jean-Paul deliberately doused them with as he sprayed his own and Jean-Paul ruthlessly set about stamping out any signs of encroaching ‘naturalness’ and dreamed of destroying his neighbour’s ‘new age cabbage patch’ as he called it.

So it was with pleasure, one spring day, that he heard the Ministry of Agriculture had issued an order for all producers in the area to spray their vines to stem an outbreak of flavesence dorée. Knowing how devastating the disease could be but more importantly not wanting to incur a fine, the producers shrugged and complied – all that is except Grégory.

As the clouds of green-tinged vapour began to rise from vineyards all around like a gas attack, Grégory steadfastly refused to conform to the directive. Naturally this led to a showdown with Jean-Paul.

One day Grégory was standing in his own vineyard, sipping the same, hemlock-bitter tea he used to treat his sick plants when Jean-Paul pulled up in his tractor and leaped out.

He marched up to Grégory and waved a finger in his face. ‘You’re putting us all at risk!’ he accused him. ‘If you don’t spray I shall be forced to report you to the authorities.’

‘Then report me,’ said Grégory still sipping his tea. ‘My vines are strong and I certainly will not violate them with pesticides and poison.’

So Jean-Paul reported him and a week later a silver-grey Renault Vel Satis turned up at the farmhouse and a thin, equally grey bureaucratic figure stepped out of it accompanied by Jean-Paul. He informed Grégory in no uncertain terms that if he continued to defy the Ministry of Agriculture he could expect at least a fine and perhaps even a prison sentence.

Grégory shrugged and there followed a heated argument between the three of them after which Jean-Paul and the bureaucrat drove off again.

Despite repeated and ever more blatant threats from the ministry, Grégory still wouldn’t yield; so he received a court summons and throughout the much publicised court case continued to refuse carry out the ministry’s orders, becoming a cause célèbre in the process.

‘I will never contradict my principles!’ was his only obstinate response to all questions at the procedure until the exasperated judge finally asked him

‘Do you absolutely refuse to obey the instructions of the ministry?’

Je refuse!

Cue ringing cheers from the gallery.

Amid scenes reminiscent of a civil rights struggle, Grégory, a clenched fist raised defiantly, was dragged off for a week in jail as fans battered the local gendarmerie with signs emblazoned with well-meaning slogans about peace and love and cried, ‘Je refuse!

Jean-Paul volunteered himself for the job of spraying Grégory’s vines while he was behind bars, only too happy to destroy that which scared him so. After a week the poor vines had been sprayed so often with every herbicide, pesticide, insecticide and any other ‘-cide’ Jean-Paul could find, that they were brown and burnt and dead.

When Grégory was released he got Nadine to drive him directly to the vineyards. He leapt out before the car had even stopped and rushed in trailing his hands over the remaining leaves, calling softly like a farmer lowing to his cattle. But they didn’t respond. Shrivelled and drooping tendrils pawed pathetically at his hands and face. Grégory sank to his knees and wept.

Nadine stood by him for a while as he sat in catatonic silence. At dusk, despite her entreaties he still hadn’t moved and she left him there, knowing it was useless to persuade him to move. Grégory stayed in the vineyard all night. At dawn he left, stony faced and resolute. The vineyard had spoken to him at last and it demanded something much stronger than tea and shit and he was going to give it what it asked for.

Nadine found him at the kitchen table sharpening a wicked looking pruning knife.

‘Is it that serious?’ Nadine asked.

‘Yes,’ replied Grégory not taking his eyes away from the knife on the whetstone.

Jean-Paul was chosen by the ministry to check on all the vines for signs of infection. A job he relished especially when the time came to call upon Grégory, a pleasure he saved for his last visit.

Grégory arranged to meet him by the Cuvée Cronos vineyard, which had been the object of Jean-Paul’s most sadistic attentions.

It was early evening when Jean-Paul arrived and the light was fading fast. He picked his way gingerly through the freshly turned sod towards Grégory and they greeted each other brusquely, the air between them like ice. Jean-Paul shivered involuntarily.

They faced each other in silence, Jean-Paul with his hands in his pockets. Grégory, arms folded, glaring at him.

‘Well?’ said Jean-Paul finally. ‘Are you going to let me take a look or do I have to get another court order and have you locked up again?’

Grégory motioned for him to step forward. Jean-Paul squelched into a particularly muddy puddle as he manoeuvred past up into the row of vines, Grégory followed close behind.

‘How are they looking?’ asked Jean-Paul.

‘They’re sick.’

‘Have you seen any trace of flavesence?’ said Jean-Paul, suddenly alarmed.

‘No,’ intoned Grégory, ‘they’ve been poisoned by your pesticides.’

Jean-Paul grinned slyly. ‘Don’t know what you mean,’ he said. ‘The government ordered you to spray and you didn’t so it was done for you.’

He casually inspected a flaccid leaf, he was enjoying the results of his work and the lecture he was now able to give. ‘Your refusal to spray against the cicadelle could have put our vines at risk, mine in particular, as well as your own. You know how widely spread and how problematic the contagion is.’

‘My vines would have been strong enough to counter any disease,’ said Grégory. ‘You have made them weak by subjecting them to your poisons, just like you keep your own vines with your constant use of them.’

Jean-Paul spun round and practically spat in Grégory’s face. ‘At least I don’t make use of potions and sorcery! And cover my vines in shit and ashes and dance around them at midnight! It was right to put a stop to it and I’m glad I was the one to do it.’

Grégory hated him then, truly hated him. ‘You’ve never understood what I’m trying to do,’ he answered.

Jean-Paul gave a small, derisive snort but made no direct reply. ‘Have you seen any sign of flavesence?’ he asked ripping another dead leaf from a nearby plant.

‘None,’ said Grégory and then, seeming to relent, ‘well, maybe something isn’t right with one plant.’


‘A little further up,’ said Grégory slipping the knife from his pocket.

Jean-Paul continued to advance up the row and in the failing light failed to see the gaping pit beneath him. A piercing shriek rang out from the vineyard.

A little while later, Grégory sat down at his kitchen table, hair plastered to his scalp with perspiration. Nadine put a steaming bowl of hot chocolate in front of him.

‘Did you do what you had to do?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ he replied taking a careful sip of the chocolate.

The next morning, Grégory noted happily bright green shoots on several plants and he cast an approving eye at the dark red patch of freshly turned clay at the centre of the vineyard.



Grégory was at ‘Unfinished’ in Borough Market, London’s leading show for organic, biodynamic and natural wines. He was presenting his new vintage. He was very proud of it not least because it was the first he’d released since his vines were sprayed and they were flourishing once again.

His stand was attracting a lot of attention. A young couple, the man fashionably bearded, the woman pushing a baby in a pram strolled past. The woman spied the bottles and stopped. She tugged on her husband’s arm. He looked. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said. They drifted closer.

Bonjour,’ said Grégory with a nod and a smile.

‘Heeey,’ said the woman briefly flashing a smile at him before looking at the bottles again.

‘Can we try them?’ asked the lady.

‘Yes, which?’

Rachel scanned the labels with her eyes and finger, ‘ummm, the Cuvée Cronos?’

‘Yes, bîen sur,’ said Grégory pouring each of them a small measure.

‘Are you the winemaker?’ asked the man, as they accepted their glasses from Grégory.

Le vigneron? Oui, yes.’

‘Oh wow!’ said the girl after a quick sniff. ‘Do you smell that, Neil?’ she asked her companion. ‘Mmmh, mmh!’ Neil murmured with a vigorous nod. ‘Really, like…’ he took a sip and then began to rotate his arms in front of him like a combine harvester. ‘Textural.’

‘Yeah!’ said the woman. ‘Really, like, almost…meaty?’ She made a face as if she couldn’t quite realise she’d made such an outrageous observation that was quite clearly wrong.

But Grégory merely nodded and said, ‘yes, that is the terroir.’


©Rupert Millar
Hong Kong, March 2015

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