Like a Rock...?

by Richard Harvey

Call it Savoie or Savoy, this French Alpine region makes some fascinating and delicious wines. A recent visit there was also a reminder of the hazards of life for a grape grower. The challenges don’t usually include a mountain falling on your head, but…

In 1248, the benign-looking Mont Granier shed 70,000 cubic metres of rock destroying a number of villages situated in its shadow. The last major rock fall, (2016) was much smaller, but the landslide still came within 300 metres of villages and vineyards.

Metrovino Granier.jpg

This beautiful shot of the mountain was taken in June 2019, a day after one of the most devastating “super-cell” thunderstorms dropped baseball-sized hail on the vineyards around the mountain, reminding us that the threats to life and earning a living are ever-present, as well as varied in their source.

As I was in the Savoie area on a buying trip, I found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of meeting growers at some of the hardest-hit estates the morning after this day of “Code Rouge” weather phenomena. While my hosts faces wore welcoming smiles, the effect of their morning spent touring their pummelled vineyards was obvious. Hail damage is insidious in that it can not only destroy the current year’s crop, but can negatively impact the following year’s crop. In extreme cases, the entire health of a vine is undermined to the extent that the vine dies, meaning a loss of at least the next 5 years of production. The loss of this years crop in the village of Apremont, located a couple of kilometres away from Mont Granier, is estimated to be between 50% and 100%. Hail is notoriously specific in its destructive path, pounding some vineyards but sparing the neighbouring ones.

While news reports of far away agricultural disaster may have little sense of reality for those of us shopping for wine in Calgary, in my years of travelling in the wine world, the risks run by these intrepid growers of this beautiful soft fruit known as grapes are manifestly apparent when one is so close to such an occurrence.

Metrovino Vine Hail 2.jpeg

We at Metrovino travel extensively (and usually on our own dime!) due to our desire to find the beautiful, the delicious, the different; real wines that deliver us real pleasure and real experiences. I like to put it this way: “we don’t buy wines from a catalogue”. We travel, taste and in many cases, bring to you wines that otherwise would not be seen in the Alberta market. We study, research and travel in quest of the wines we will invest our money in (and reputations on) well before we ask you to risk the price of a single bottle.

We work almost entirely with smaller, family-owned estates (not that big is necessarily bad, but I subscribe to poet Wendell Berry’s oft quoted view: “Small is beautiful.”). Being small and independent ourselves, we find a natural sharing of values and philosophies with producers of a similar scale. While we might not always know the names of the owner’s dogs or cats (we just might…), we maintain a strong bond with them and their efforts to excel.

Visiting wineries is certainly wonderful when the sun is shining and a healthy crop of wine is happily fermenting in the cellar, but our intimate relationship with our growers includes us in on their misfortunes and catastrophes as well. Some of our growers have been represented by Metrovino for decades, and as we watch families wonder about how to make a living for the next year, we feel their fear and suffering.

You see, despite the Hollywood illusions of the life of winemakers, it’s not all about elaborate and extensive displays of wealth and leisure. Real wine people are families who are trying to make their living off the land. They did not invest their riches made in selling Apple the latest app or selling fashion, frozen fish or a petroleum-fuelled fortune. They make wine, or at least try to, against all the odds that nature places against them.

Hailed out? No wine to sell? No income. Insurance? Always expensive, sometimes hard (or impossible) to get. Mountain fall on you? Really difficult to get insurance…

Metrovino Vigneron.jpeg

I truly wish that all of you can one day spend some time with a small estate such as we work with around the world. In addition to the seemingly endless list of risks of weather, pests, disease etc., there are simple things such as how to get pallets of wine out of 16th Century cellars to the semi-truck that has somehow shoe-horned itself into one of a village’s “wider” streets. All this to get the wine to Calgary!

My song of praise to winemakers around the world will always include celebration of their endless ability to McGyver and multitask. Drive that forklift! Repair that pump! Sell some wine! Plow the vineyards! Find someone knowledgable to help you look after your vines! Convince the kids they really want to work this hard for a living! Meet that importer the day after you’ve seen your 2018 income drop by 80%..!

It often astonishes me how inexpensive some of the wines we sell are relative to the risks and investments of work, money, thought, creativity, time and energy of all sorts that have gone into the creation of our producer’s wines. Metrovino’s direct involvement with our growers includes us in both celebration of success and commiseration in disaster. This is very crucial to our desire to import great wines and continue to put a human face on all aspects of wine, both in its production and Metrovino’s role as a “caviste”, the French word for a true, independent wine merchant as opposed to just anybody who sells wine…

The disasters and calamities aside, it is the incredible human effort implied in every form of small-scale agriculture for relatively modest financial returns that always inspire us to salute these amazing men and women of wine!