“Zut alors!” my host mother sighed, exasperated, as I admitted that afternoon’s encounter with her respected, renowned winemaking neighbor. In typical “who… me?” fashion, I had managed to achieve local infamy in less than five days.
At sixteen, I was as ignorant of their language as of their wine culture when I alighted upon the cherished terroir de la France. And, if life wasn’t already terrifying enough at that tender point, thanks to crippling isolation and loneliness, I almost got myself killed learning about “The Almighty French Grape.”
In those hot, final days of August I wandered the dusty roads for hours with my new best friend, a slab of sweet cream salted butter between thick, shiny slices of brioche (It’s still my dearest French friend). But after a while, even the most devoted ami gets thirsty — I did, anyway – and lo and behold, to my left I found relief in a field of grapes. I probably didn’t even know enough to call it a vineyard.
The air smelled thick and pungent as I approached through a hazy veil of sun. Bees buzzed about the berries oozing their succulent juice. The sun beat down, my dark hair trapping and reflecting heat like a tarmac in the Sahara, if there are any there. My lips cracked and sweat dripped down my ever-plumper cheeks. I sat down in the dirt and grabbed a bulging bunch of berries and began to shove them in my mouth.
They defied every notion I’d ever had of a grape.
They were so good. And they had seeds, which was a new thing for me, so I spit those out. It reminded me of summer picnics with watermelons and friends. I was actually having fun for the first time since I’d arrived in France. But the ridiculous amounts of flavor kept me coming back for more; they were nothing like the Thompson’s seedless back home. I couldn’t stop. I snapped off another colorful bunch and continued inhaling them. Their sweet aroma and flavor caressed me and left me breathless.
In the distance I heard a dog barking but in my raisined delirium thought nothing of it. Soon, the shouting fell hard upon my ears, along with more vicious barking. It grew louder and louder until it finally interrupted my first real love session with grapes. I looked up, and then stood to see what was going on between the rows. It must be bad, I thought. Then I realized the ‘bad’ was I. This man and his dog were running straight down the vine path towards me.
Now, I wasn’t normally afraid of dogs or grown men, but let me tell you: these two were butchers and I was the meat. The man was running with shears flailing over his head and all his anger was directed furiously at yours truly. As they approached I noticed both man and dog had spittle flying from their lips as they accosted me with their scathing yelps. I understood but one lone word, and fortunately it communicated the critical message.
“Blanh, blahn rachtechte seerah LA POLICE! Racheteatay!!”
That was the only time I ever abandoned a buttered brioche. I dropped everything I held dear and ran for my life. The worn Discman containing Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr.’s debut album “Doggystyle” was, appropriately, my only offering of apology.
This encounter traumatized me, compounded by my host mom’s apathy for her neighbor’s blatant abuse of me. To make matters worse, she insisted that I return to the scene of the brutal, nearly fatal attack and apologize (she knew exactly who the bastard was as soon as I told her). She arranged the meeting by phone. I paced the floor, incredulous. “Apologize to HIM?” I thought. “Fat chance.”
She read my mind and promptly taught me a word I’d use more frequently during that year than I had in all my prior years combined: desolee. Sorry.
It ended up being worth it because he returned my Discman, albeit with a giant frown, clearly appalled. He said something to my host mother and handed it back to me as if it were a used thong. But god bless him. That damn Discman was all I had. It was my sanity, my only connection to home and the old me, and it was 100% worth it. But, I was still just a contentious 16 year-old, so I hated them both for the whole scenario. Teenage Megan did not make peace. It didn’t even occur to me that I’d been the one at fault.
Eventually, many years later, I reflected on that scene and appreciated it in a new light. French culture, and likewise its economy, is largely defined by their passionate devotion to their land and what they can coax from it, most of which is edible and absolutely delicious. Fresh fruit and vegetables, raw cheeses, butter, bread and wine being at the top of my list.
This man taught me that grapes are not just great for shoving in your upper lip and making bunny faces at your friends in the cafeteria until someone laughs so hard he chokes or pees in his pants. They serve, in fact, a much higher purpose: wine. Wine to the French is bottled poetry. It’s a year of each producer’s life preserved under cork. It is a country’s worth of tradition expressed in the terms of that one fleeting year on that one small plot of land. It was a part of him, and I ate it.
This man was angry because I had nonchalantly ripped from the vine his career, his livelihood, and his wealth: grapes. By trellising the vine canes in a specific direction and encouraging certain buds to blossom, he was a wine grower, a vigneron. That is what the French call them — grape growers, not winemakers. How down-to-earth, unassuming and, well, shockingly un-French. But anyway, he painstakingly coaxed these berries through three seasons worth of weather and pests until they were ripe, glorious and ready for harvest… and then I ripped them off the vine and ate them. Then he attacked me. And then, I learned that grapes are serious business; and perhaps more importantly, don’t touch Cru grapes, you stupid American or I’ll show you my knife, and my dog, and the inside of a jail cell if I can catch you. And your host mom will just shrug her shoulders and say “Zut alors, I lost another one.” Oh, and that ghetto noise you call rap music will be your downfall. Keep listening.
It turns out that French grapes are Almighty and very important, indeed. And not just in France. The grapes we know and love as Americans are all indigenous to France: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah… the list goes on. So, once I understood the nature of my appalling ignorance on that sweaty summer day in the vineyard, I chose to dedicate the rest of my life to passionately defending France’s remarkable gastronomic resources in every creative, entertaining, and educational way possible. This was just the beginning.
Illustration by Faye Bradley