Wine Column: Grape farmers are anything but dumb

05/24/2011 4:33 AM |

Philippe Brun from Champagne Roger Brun in Ay, France.

In a current television ad for Ocean Spray cranberry juice, a young man standing in a cranberry bog in rubber waders plays out the stereotype of a hick farmer as he witlessly dumps a bag of sugar into the “sugarless” cranberries. Images like this of farmers as nitwits has rankled me since, in 1973, I began growing grapes and someone asked me, “Now that you’re a farmer, what will you do with your mind?”

Even as I took on the chores of planting, tending and harvesting a large vineyard, I myself worried that those hours of hoeing weeds and tying vines might limit me. Wasn’t I wasting all those years spent in college, learning chemistry, history and foreign languages, while I toiled through mud, sleet or broiling sun just to get a silent vine to push out a few clusters of recalcitrant grapes?

Over the next 27 years, as I trudged out into the field or down into the cellar (usually in the company of a bounding dog), I came to realize that farming is as challenging to the intellect as it is to the body.

Still, the stereotype of the dumb peasant farmer persists. It is not limited to the United States, as I learned on a recent jaunt to the Champagne region of France. There I stayed for three nights in the village of Aÿ, in a B&B called “Le Logis des Pressureurs” (lodging for press workers) owned by Philippe and Sophie Brun. Philippe is a burly, outspoken vigneron, easily mistaken for a village peasant, though his family owns several grand cru vineyards, and the wines he makes, Champagne Roger Brun, have won accolades including Best Sparkling Wine in Decanter Magazine.

Philippe gave me an insider’s view of his family’s vineyards, pointing out nearby plots owned by the likes of Roederer, Bollinger and Krug. Speaking with irony of the trend to “go bio,” he said, “I farm organically 355 days a year. The other 10 days, I’m spraying.”

Pointing out a horse pulling a plow in an adjacent plot, he said, “Using a horse respects the soil, but not the horse. It may maintain tradition, but the soil here is too hard for the poor horse.”

At a tasting of six vintages of his spectacular champagne, Philippe told me of his own path back to making wine after initially leaving the family business to work as an engineer: “I’ve made plastic windows, ski clothes and rockets, but now I make wine. What I like is the uncertainty, the surprises, the discoveries, the changes over time.”

Brun described playing the part of the local peasant for the British TV crews that come to film the beginning of harvest every year: “The crews who want an aristocrat find the manager from Taittinger, who has never had dust on his shoes, and stands next to the vineyard in his yellow tie with bubbles on it, talking about magic. For the crews who want the pirate — that’s me. I go out in my beret, with four days’ growth of beard, spitting, and say the same thing.”

Here on Long Island, similar scenes play out as visitors seeking atmosphere prod the local vintners to go yokel. I’ll never forget the network newscaster who visited my winery and, looking at the immaculate cellar with stainless steel fermenters, cried, “Where are the cobwebs? Where is the romance?”

At Harbes Family Vineyard, the association with the farm is clearly emphasized, and the wines bear images of the family’s historic barns and equipment, explicitly intended to bear witness to this family’s 12 generations in farming. As much as the conversation about wine today emphasizes “terroir,” Ed Harbes points out that “a sophisticated customer is reluctant to associate wine with agriculture.”

The fact of the matter is, whether in Champagne, Napa or New York, wine is an agricultural product. But grape farmers — however much they may have dirt under their nails (or wine-stained hands), whether they wear silk ties or berets — need to be sophisticated businesspeople, too. Besides dealing with the unpredictable factors of weather, they must grow their crops, make their wines, market both wholesale and retail, and greet visitors as peasants or aristocrats, as the situation requires.

When Philippe Brun demonstrated how he doffs his beret to the TV crews while pouring me a second (OK, fifth) taste of Champagne Roger Brun “La Pelle Extra Brut,” alongside a slice of Sophie Brun’s homemade foie gras (served on gold-rimmed bone china), the image of the “dumb farmer” forever vanished.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.