Through the Grapevine Working on a Vineyard Taught Me to Slow Down and Pay Attention
We had no sense of “ecological time,” the cadence of the natural environment. Mostly, I experienced the natural world as lack.
This is Through the Grapevine , a column by Meg Bernhard about wine and power.
I first saw L’Albera at night. I’d traveled north by train from Barcelona to Figueres, Salvador Dalí’s hometown, and then by bus to Sant Climent Sescebes, a village of about six hundred people near the French border. It was dark when I boarded the bus, and I could only make out vague silhouettes in the dim landscape around me. We wound through quiet neighborhoods, their stone buildings illuminated by weak streetlights. Passengers left the bus one by one. At the second-to-last stop, a man in army fatigues got out and disappeared into the darkness. There was, I’d been told, a military base just outside of town, and on some days artillery practice could be heard across the foothills. I was headed to the last stop, farther north and east, to a forested nature reserve in L’Albera. It was strange, I thought—a nature reserve next to a military base: preservation and destruction adjacent.
Barbara, one of the winemakers I’d be staying with for a few months, picked me up in a blue van. She had a wide smile and feathery eyebrows that reminded me of an owl’s tufts, and she spoke to me in Italian-accented Spanish, a holdover from her three decades in Milan. She drove us ten minutes down a dirt road, toward the mountains. The massif of L’Albera was the easternmost extension of the Pyrenees and eventually tapered off into the Mediterranean; just beyond was France. Sweeping south from the mountains was an alluvial plain, called Empordá; dispersed across the plain were Roman-era footpaths and megalithic stone monuments called dolmens, which dated back some seven thousand years. In the foothills, one could sense the antiquity of the land, Barbara told me.
Joan Carles, Barbara’s husband, was sitting in the farmhouse kitchen when we arrived. It was cavernous and drafty, with a massive hearth in one corner and a gas stove next to a worn wooden table. Carles, as Barbara called him, had a low, gruff voice, his Spanish inflected with a northern Catalan accent that required my full attention to comprehend. After a few minutes chatting—about missiles the army had accidentally lobbed into a nearby forest several years before—Barbara showed me to my room upstairs. It was spartan, with a small desk and chair and a double bed facing a set of glass doors. The doors led to a terrace that looked out onto farmland. Settling onto the mattress, I watched the night deepen until I fell asleep.
L’Albera was just the name of the mountain range, but I came to think of it as a region unto itself.
During the springtime, the season I’d come to live there, Carles and Barbara spent much of the day working in the vines for their winery, called Celler La Gutina. They had eighty hectares of land, a patchwork of vineyard, oak and chestnut forest, and olive groves interspersed with scrubland, meadows, and ponds that existed only during years of good rainfall. The river Anyet threaded through the foothills, and trails connected the region’s villages. The landscape brimmed with life: A diversity of plants—wild asparagus, thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage—flourished alongside javelinas, turtles, eagles, and owls. On the property lived a number of farm animals too: five chickens, two horses, two dogs, and two donkeys.
The vines themselves amounted to some fifteen hectares, scattered in small parcels around the property, and needed attention year-round. Working with them required a profound knowledge of place. The orientation of the vineyard—whether it faced north, south, east, or west—affected the vines’ growth, as did elevation, humidity, wind patterns, and strength of sunlight. All of these factors played a subtle role in how the wine tasted.
L’Albera was just the name of the mountain range, but I came to think of it as a region unto itself.
I wanted to know everything about L’Albera. About its hills. Its medicinal plants. The northerly wind that blew every afternoon and the easterly wind that brought rain from the sea. There was so much to learn, and I only had a few short months before the weather turned, the grasses dried up, and I left the vineyard for the summer.
I had never known such abundance. I grew up in a midsize suburb sixty miles northeast of San Diego, on the edge of the desert. It’s a dry place that, on average, receives about twelve inches of rain a year, and it’s also an increasingly hot one, with summer temperatures regularly exceeding one hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
The heat was a basic fact of life when I was a child. The hot months were, roughly, April through November. The less-hot months were December through March. Afternoons in the hot months were meant for lying on cold tile, under the air-conditioning vent. At nighttime, my mother would turn on portable fans and give me a wet washcloth. We slept on top of our sheets, sweating through the night. October was still hot, the Santa Ana winds kicking up dust and smoke from distant wildfires. Finally, in December, temperatures were low enough to take walks outside without fear of heat illness. We had snowfall just once, when I was nine. When I looked out the window that morning, I saw bits of white flutter in the air, like confetti, then melt on the driveway.
My home seemed a place estranged from the natural world. We were so close to rich and varied landscapes—the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the Mojave, the kelp forests off the San Diego coast—and yet I spent most of my time in man-made spaces: soccer fields, swimming pools, malls, and movie theaters. My father, a commuter, spent hours each day stuck in Orange County traffic. While my mother worked locally, she still spent most of her waking hours at the office, in front of a computer screen. And though we lived in the country’s breadbasket—I was born in Fallbrook, California, self-proclaimed Avocado Capital of the World—we purchased prepackaged, all-season meals from garish supermarkets. We lived in what the British a nthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard calls “structural time,” its rhythms derived from the social world. We had no sense of “ecological time,” the cadence of the natural environment. Mostly, I experienced the natural world as lack—of water, of trees, of any color other than brown.
Barbara and Carles had met at a weeklong African dance class in La Jonquera, a Catalan border town best known as home to one of Europe’s largest brothels. Barbara traveled there from Milan, where she’d studied architecture. Carles was a firefighter from Figueres. As Carles tells it, they fell for each other immediately. But they could barely communicate: Barbara didn’t know Spanish or Catalan, and Carles only spoke a bit of her language, which he learned from Italians who hunted birds in the area. Carles was also married—unhappily—with four children. But after he met Barbara, he divorced his wife, and the unlikely couple began a whirlwind romance. Barbara rode her motorcycle ten hours from Milan to visit him. She took Spanish classes in Italy, then moved first to Barcelona and then, in 2006, to the farmhouse in the foothills where I was staying.
In the mornings, I’d wake up at six and make coffee on the stove top. We’d sit at the kitchen table, sipping and picking at bread and discussing the day’s tasks. Spring was a vulnerable season for the grapevine, the time when the plant emerged from its winter dormancy to grow shoots and buds, and the work was constant—fertilizing, pruning, spraying copper to protect against mildew. Once, Carles instructed me to stand on a tractor cart, ankle-deep in manure and compost, and shovel the mixture onto young vines so they’d grow stronger. He drove fast, and I had to shovel quickly. “Do you surf?” Carles asked. He jolted the tractor forward and I fell hands-first into the pile. “I thought you were from California.”
Theirs was the kind of home where the presence of dirt was unavoidable. Windows were flung open, beckoning rain, dust, and wind. Birds darted through the cellar and nested in the rafters. Once, after Carles’s son killed the family rooster out of spite—it had crowed at all hours of the day—I found its carcass dangling upside down from the laundry room ceiling, blood dripping into a bucket. In the evenings, I’d find dirt in my ears and under my fingernails.
Dirt, the couple told me, is essential for winemaking. The type of soil changes the way grapevines grow. La Gutina’s soil was sauló—a sandy granite—and quartz slate. I learned that, counterintuitively, nutrient-poor soils result in high-quality grapes by forcing roots to work hard and branch off to absorb minerals. This process, known as “ramifying,” increases the roots’ surface area and regulates water consumption; too much water can dilute grapes and weaken their flavor.
When rain fell, as it often did that spring, wild grasses and plants sprouted between the rows of vines. Winemakers were fond of telling me that there was no such thing as a mala hierba—“a bad plant,” or weed—though they did tear up the purple-blossomed malva, whose leaves provided refuge for pests and viruses. Other plants, however, could help prevent erosion, aerate the soil, or give nitrogen to the millions of microorganisms dwelling in the dirt. In other vineyards I’d visited, winemakers planted trees and herbs to force vines to compete for nutrients and, in turn, grow stronger. But nature needn’t any prodding in L’Albera; the vineyards were already plentiful.
Carles knew the land’s every hill and depression. He knew which trails led to medieval ruins and which olive trees were centuries old. He had spent his childhood visiting the property, which his great-grandfather had bought in the late 1800s. Years after that purchase, Carles’s father had planted vines to sell wine in bulk. But he abandoned the project when the business was no longer profitable, tearing up vineyards and selling grapes from whatever was left over to other wineries. Carles moved there in 2006 to recuperate the vines.
His relationship with the land was intimate. I wanted that intimacy for myself. One day, I found Carles steering the tractor toward the river, planning to dig up soil from the banks. He was looking for good dirt to grow new vines. Another time, when we were walking back to the farmhouse, he told me of a woman he’d met years ago, who smelled like soil. He fell in love with her briefly because of that—because she reminded him of the earth.
In April, a blistering wind blew. It rocked the house, howling down the chimney. Outdoors, the wind screamed. The wind was called the Tramuntana, Catalan for “across the mountains,” and it blew south from France, over the Pyrenees, at random intervals throughout the year. The Tramuntana was so powerful it reshaped the landscape. Thin pines growing on seaside cliffs bent so far south they were nearly horizontal, making coastal cities appear permanently windswept. In the sky, clouds elongated into the shape of serpents. Cows, Carles told me, sometimes fell into the river and disappeared during the Tramuntana. He said people went mad when it blew.
At night, I walked through the vineyards, hair whipping across my face, and felt like I had enough power to stay awake for days. I remembered California’s Santa Ana winds, which marked the start of fire season when I was growing up. When I was eleven, the Rice Fire scorched the hills outside of town. The sky turned black with smoke, and school was shuttered for several days.
With the Tramuntana, vineyard work became more strenuous and methodical. When she saw the forecast, Barbara, worried about the budding vines, decided that our next task was urgent. One morning, we rushed through the vineyards with string to tie the plants’ limbs together, hopefully shielding them from the wind’s destruction. The vines were just weeks away from flowering, and good weather was essential to the survival of future grapes.
I’d never noticed such changes before, but being outside every day in L’Albera, it was as though time slowed.
Carles, meanwhile, wanted to plant a new vineyard. We were to graft four hundred garnacha vines to American rootstock, while the Tramuntana blew dust and debris at our faces. There were six of us: Carles and Barbara; José and Antonio, seventy-year-old Andalucían brothers; Idreesa, a worker from The Gambia; and me. Carles called me the enterradora, the digger; I was responsible for covering the newly grafted vines with fresh soil so they wouldn’t wither. The winds, however, had dried the dirt into hard earth, requiring me to muster force from my whole body. My bones prickled each time the shovel’s blade struck. My hands ached.
José taught me how to dig. How to stand with my feet planted behind the root and scrape the dry earth in a circular motion, how to drag the pile of loose dirt inward toward the plant. “You shouldn’t dig so close to the root; otherwise, you’ll damage it. Don’t bend over so much.” His instructions were mortifying, a reminder of my estrangement from the earth, but I was there to learn. He took the shovel from my hands and showed me.
As spring stretched longer and warmer, I saw the landscape change—slowly at first and then quickly, the progression of time manifest in the world around me. Grain fields turned a tropical green. Mountains became indigo. Hills transformed to electric yellow, carpeted in fleeting wildflowers. I’d never noticed such changes before, but being outside every day in L’Albera, it was as though time slowed, accentuating even the subtlest shifts in the environment.
It rained often, and the evenings were humid. On sleepless nights, I could feel every mattress coil dig into my back. Once, I dragged a blanket and pillow to the terrace and slept in the moonlight. In the morning I found leaves in my hair. Then, for a few weeks, a mosquito droned in my ear. I’d battle the mosquito, the insect circling closer, me swatting. The next morning, I would wake with swollen eyelids from where the mosquito had bitten me. At the breakfast table, Carles rolled cigarettes and laughed. Barbara told me to go into the fields and find wild thyme, make an infusion, and press a damp cloth against my eyelids. The herb, she said, was anti-inflammatory. It worked.
A herd of wild cows began occupying the hills to the northeast. “Do you see them?” Carles asked, pointing, when we were working in one vineyard. I squinted. I’d thought the black-and-white shapes on the hill were boulders, but now I could see they were moving ever so slightly. A quarter of a century ago, Carles told me, a farmer set his cattle free in the hills. Now, some fifty of them roamed the region untethered, devouring crops and sowing general chaos. If the cows came to the valley, Carles said, he’d shoot one, carve it up, and freeze its meat. “There’s nothing like a strong, untreated bull,” he told me.
One Saturday, Barbara announced that Carles had killed a bull. He’d spotted it grazing, returned to the house for a rifle, and shot it in the head. I hurried to the meadow, where the black bull’s body lay stiff in a field of grass and white blossoms. Its legs were stick straight, and around its neck was a bright ribbon of blood. Carles, his son, and two friends—an Argentinian butcher and a Catalan chef—were gathered around the carcass, strategizing. The butcher, who wore red rain boots, bent over the bull holding a knife. With swift movements, he skinned the creature and sliced its belly open. Foul-smelling fluids and blood spilled onto the grass. Next, he cut out the organs: the stomach, liver, lungs, and heart, which was the size of a soccer ball. He cut off the cow’s lower legs and hooves, and, with a saw, the head. Using a tree branch, the butcher devised a pulley system to lift the carcass into the back of a truck. He drove the carcass to the house, where he continued cutting and cleaning for the rest of the afternoon. As he worked, Perla, an elegant, blue-eyed Pyrenean sheepdog, gnawed on a hoof. A few days later, we ate bull burgers with a side of french fries for dinner.
One Friday in June, the work was finished. The couple flew to Cuba for vacation. I left the farmhouse and returned in August for harvest. Unlike the spring, the summer was hot and dry. Waiting for the perfect moment to begin cutting grapes, Barbara was anxious. While she’d managed to fend off mildew, grape maturation, which Barbara measured every few days, was precarious : The grapes’ acidity was quickly dropping, but the potential alcohol content, measured in sugars, remained stubbornly low. Ideally, the acid and alcohol would complement each other, resulting in what winemakers call a “balanced” wine—higher acid with lower alcohol, and vice versa. But such balance was uncertain this year.
At daybreak, we collected grapes and mashed them into a pulp. Barbara smeared the juice onto a refractometer, an instrument for measuring sugar levels, and, putting the eyepiece to her face, frowned. She’d already tested for acid using a pH meter, and the two factors remained out of sync. Also worrisome: Heavy rain had recently fallen, threatening to waterlog the grapes.
Still, we cut. We cut tempranillo and cariñena, red and white garnacha, bunches of grapes piling up in heavy crates. We didn’t wash the grapes before pressing them, so as to preserve the natural yeast on their skins. Sediment from the vineyard—dirt, leaves, stones—found its way into the grape must. I’d sliced open a toe on a cinderblock the week prior, and, despite my objections, Carles and Barbara asked me to stomp barefoot on the grapes. “Fermentation kills everything,” Carles told me, grinning, as I lowered myself into the tub of fruit, sugary juice stinging my small wound.
I left their vineyard a few days later. I moved to Barcelona, the built environment a jarring contrast to the pastoral life I’d lived that spring. In the coming months, Carles and Barbara would bottle their wine. In the coming years, I wouldn’t stick around any place very long. But I’d often think back to L’Albera, how the land slowed me down, demanding I pay attention. Eventually, I’d return home to Southern California and, walking through hills I once thought were barren, notice blooming buckwheat and fragrant white sage. Even in the summertime, the season I’d understood only as relentlessly hot, I’d observe temperature shifts between night and day, the result of Pacific fog rolling in through a gap in the mountains. In Spain, I’d visit bars selling the wine I helped make. Despite the worrisome weather, it turned out well. Sometimes, I’d catch myself remembering the last days in L’Albera. I pictured fresh-cut grapes stewing in their juices, the region’s detritus mixing with traces of my own blood.