The drive to Gigondas is green and bronze, the hard summer having relaxed in to Autumn. As I enter Rhone wine country, white letters on the slopes spell out 'VACQUEYRAS ET SES VINS', in an unapologetic mockery of the Hollywood sign. A smaller announcement on the road et the start of the village asks us to please take care at harvest time. 'Prudence s'il vous plaÃ®t. Vendange.' Presumably it means of the slow moving trucks piled high with grapes, but then I realize there is an emptiness to the request and I can't tell what is missing.
When I coast up the stony drive of the chateau and park amidst the harvest paraphenalia I am thinking L has been in a good mood of late. Though he says he will not really be able to tell until spring, he is ecstatic about this year's harvest. In fact, last week he said to me 'This is my year'. I am touched that, even at the busiest time in a wine maker's calender, L still makes room for our hour together.
We are working on a Beethoven clarinet trio he is playing with his son and a friend. Like a painter having worked on cast drawing alone, after almost two years working on form, we agree it is exciting to be contemplating the palette at last. One of L's weaknesses, and he knows it, is that he does not listen well. He takes in information, agrees with it passionately and is so convinced that he is applying it that he does not hear that the idea has perhaps not gone further than his brain. I am talking about clay. (As usual we are mixing metaphors like children baking a cake with salt instead of flour and rice instead of sugar.) He plays the opening phrase of the Adagio with the upbeat on a down bow. I suggest otherwise and he starts again. When I have something to respond to I add in the accompaniment the cello gives later to the clarinet. I watch the crescents of Chateauneuf du Pape that are his fingernails lifting, pulling, pushing, spelling out the notes. Our lines touch. The vibrations meld, and then the unison disintegrates as my line falls away. When we stop playing something has changed in his face. The whole of him is listening to Beethoven ringing in the air, and he is loving it.
'Now I see' he says after the pause. 'How music is not like painting, but it IS like wine making. Unlike the painter, we, you and I, are given this great raw material. For the musician it is the score. For me...Well, anyone can chuck me a parcel of great old chateuneuf vines....It's about what you do with it. How you learn about it and listen to it...'
'How, with your hands, you mold it into something people can understand...?' I say.
'And possibly even something great.' he says.
Later, when I am lunching with friends at Domaine de Mourchon, we are talking about the grape picking machines. Ninety percent of wine makers in the area, says H, are using it.
'With its huge rubbery lips.' I say
'And its ability to tickle and tease the fruit from the vine...' says H. 'But seriously, it is simply much much more cost efficient and noone can prove there is a difference in quality'.
'And if you had just, as I have' says his wife, K , 'spent three hours at five in the morning filling in five pages of forms for each one of the twenty pickers who have just worked for you for three hours....'
What was missing in the landscape, I realize, was hands. Also, hats bobbing in and out of the vines. Pickers' picnics at midday at the side of the road.... But is that all just silly romance? Is being sentimental about the season of people crouched down for hours doing back breaking work like saying I will not play off a score that has been printed out by a computer programmer and not written by a musician's hand? I guess the new vintage will tell. Meanwhile, I am glad that cellists have not quite yet been replaced by rubbery lipped machines.