Marius by Michel CHAPOUTIER. France

1878, Cherry picking

The ladder was perched against the fruit tree. The young boy had sat his bottom down on the first rung. He was breathing hard, worn out by his frenetic running back and forth between the cherry trees and the hand cart piled high with wicker baskets. His heart was pounding. Taking off his short-sleeve shirt, the tenacious lad punched his abdomen that seemed to merge with his ribs because he was so skinny.

He gobbled down three cherries at a time and spat out the pits a good two metres away, exactly where he aimed, like an elite sniper, as the Americans used to say during the War of Independence. The sun beat down relentlessly on the back of his neck. The sky was of a blinding blue colour, almost white. The heat, at the end of June, had everyone wincing.

- What’s your name littl’un? Asked a labourer, his hands on his hips. The man was topless and his skin was deeply lined from the sun. He had wrapped his vest, which was full of sweat, around his head. He was missing half of his teeth; he was a handsome beast!

- My name is Marius, Marius Chapoutier,

- Its damn hot! cursed the hired labourer, kneeling down and wiping his brow with the back of his hand, not unhappy to take a little break to chew a bit of tobacco.

- I'm ten, if you really want to know, added Marius, making himself three years older.

The labourer handed him the bottle of water wrapped in some cloth to try to keep it a bit cool.

- I'm from around here, Marius told him, just the other side of hill, from Tain, his breath cut off by the swig of water he had swallowed.

- Well you’re pretty courageous, a good little worker, but you’re about knee high to a grasshopper, stammered the man whose accent hinted that he was from somewhere south.

The two workers got up to return to their task, climbing the trees to pick the most beautiful “Noires de Meched” cherries: “very ripe, and with the stalks attached” the owner had ordered, “These ones are for Paris”

- I’ve come to give my mother a hand, Marius went on, I prefer it to school….and besides, I get paid….I get nothing out of school….the teacher makes us sit down for hours on end to tell us how we cut off Louis XVI’s head to obtain freedom….He tells us that God performing miracles was all twaddle, and that we must believe him! “I’m atheist, thank God” he says… We just don’t understand any of it….

The terrain was on a slope, coming down onto the top of another hill, one straddling the other. This valley was full of apricot and peach trees set out only a few metres apart. On the ground, the grass, burnt by the heat, as yellow as hay, waved around in the few small gusts of wind at odds with the stifling 40 degrees. A few bushes of lavender, where clouds of bumblebees were putting on a show, lined the edges of the dry stone walls. One on top of the other, some insects were drunk from copulating. Slightly higher up, the steepest slopes, lying at an angle that took the sun full on, were lacerated by rows of vines. Man had re-arranged the landscape to create terraces and avoid ravines. The smallest of clouds cast a shadow on these vineyard plots.

- Now I’m seven, I can work like a big boy, and even with my father, he told me so, he makes wine….My father is as big as a wardrobe, Marius told his workmate, both perched in a lovely 20 year old cherry tree.

The labourer smiled slightly then a loud noise, like that of a prehistoric beast or fire-eater, broke the heavy summer silence. This time it was the cherry tree valley that was covered by a large shadow shaped like a ball or a very round face pulled down into a square chin. All the pickers looked up as if the sky was falling in. Blinded, they admired the hot air balloon and waved to the people inside the gondola basket before it disappeared over a vineyard hillside. Each flight created a flurry of local pride; the Montgolfier brothers, who carried out their feats in the 18th century, were local boys, from Annonay. The balloon, now hidden behind another slope, was no longer visible but its noise was still perceptible.

When the workmate, balanced between two branches, turned back to Marius, he had gone.

Marius had seen his father coming and, with the agility of a monkey, the boy had jumped from the tree and into Polydore’s cart, beside his mother, Marie. They were returning to the village. Polydore traded a few litres of wine for baskets of cherries with Terrasson, the orchard-owner. He then whipped the pack mules forward so that they bumped the cart along the stony road. The cherry mulch was churning around in Marius’ stomach.

Polydore was in a sombre mood. He frowned as he explained to his wife that something awful had happened to his friend Eugene Fruneau, who he had instructed in the art of cooperage. Marius gathered that while on a hunting outing, on the banks of the Rhone River, Fruneau had shot himself in the head over an unhappy love affair.

From the road, pot-holed because of the rain in spring, near the Hermitage chapel, one could now see Tain, skirted by the meandering river, dominated by the church bell tower of Saint-Vincent’s, named after the winemakers’ patron saint. The Adrets tower in the north of the village, as well as the Counts of Tournon’s old château on the other side of the Rhone, could also be made out. On one of the château’s towers, the Virgin Mary seemed to be keeping an eye on things. At the entrance to the village, in the Rue de l’Hermitage , the cart woke up a cat, which bolted under an old wooden door, to then re-emerge looking intrigued behind a window pane. There were few people in the narrow streets overcome by the heat. All the shutters were three quarters closed. Only the bars showed a bit of life. Marius knew everyone in them having delivered wine for his father: the Café de la Bascule, the Jeune France….as well as the café Buisson, where the owner’s daughter was as lovely as a spring flower. She had caught Marius’ eye and he always blushed heavily each time the young belle came into view. Mature for his age, he already had a taste for pretty girls. Maybe it was because of the beauty of his mother, who had always turned heads, that the young lad had developed this appetite as soon as he was of an age to appreciate such things.

Polydore stopped in front of the Café de la Bascule. He wanted to find out more about what had happened to Fruneau. In the back of the establishment, where it was cooler, four men sat playing cards around a card mat printed with the Calvet brand, drinking cheap rosé from plain glasses. At the end of the bar, people were discussing local politics. Slightly more primed than the others, Vincent, a wine merchant who worked for the Vogelgesang wine trading house, was likening Fernand Monier de la Sizeranne to a “Sedan Candidate” – Marius didn’t understand the expression. The attention seeker was saying that at the last elections, when they were counting the vote, they found a ballot on which someone had written: “Dear Monier, I predict your downfall and feel sorry that you address women having declared yourself a man without a (party) member(ship)”. Everyone burst out laughing. Vincent together with his buddy Delépine, who would arrive any second and who also worked at Vobgelgesang, never attempted to mask their republican leanings.

Polydore brought the discussion round to his friend. The wine merchant suddenly became serious and told him “it happened yesterday morning”: Eugène Fruneau went hunting with Sébert. Fruneau asked him to go hunting small birds and said that he was going to follow the dyke and, since he had two lead shots, he was going to shoot doves. As he parted company with Sébert, he said “adieu my friend, take news of my death to the folks in Tournon!” “Then it was all over, a good man that Fruneau but sad as a mule”. After finishing the story, Vincent raised a small glass of red wine to his lips. Then, as if this event had let the village ghosts out of the closet, everyone was talking of tragedies past. Listening to it all sent shivers down Marius’ spine.

- Do you remember back in May last year, interjected a customer, when that fellow Xavier Cros, you know, landowner in Mercurol, struck his wife with an axe seven times then stabbed her in the chest three times, all in a fit of jealousy, a bit much that… then thinking she was dead, threw himself down a well, poor son of a bitch, that story made quite a stir…

- Boy do I remember that, replied the wine merchant, I saw him the night before, just like I’m looking at you right now!

Marie and Marius were sipping some lemonade. Polydore did his rounds as
usual, not really wanting to get involved in this dissection of local news, shaken by Fruneau’s tragic end “another who will no longer enjoy all that life has to offer”

- Remember the rabid dog that bit three children, Vincent started up again,
in the lower side of town? “Luckily Barthélémy Habrard shot him stone dead!” responded another drinker joining the conversation.

- Was that already ten years ago??

- Sun made you crazy, has it? At least fifteen?

- Now we’re showing our age…

The hefty Polydore downed the contents of his glass and bid an impassive fairwell to his cohorts, who were set to discuss the various tragedies that had occurred in and around Tain for many hours yet. The owner of the bar yelled out “remember to bring me some more white wine!” just before Polydore disappeared through the wood bead curtain that hung at the entrance to the café.

Outside the sun began to break camp but the stones of the town walls continued to give off heat.

- I have to stop off at the cellars….mumbled Polydore through his beard.

The mules raised their heads at the sight of their master. With the neck of a pack animal and the hands of chain gang worker, Polydore gently lifted Marius and placed him in the cart. He then greeted Rodolphe Delépine who disappeared into the café followed by two strangers, probably pilgrims visiting the Teppe Asylum in Tain, in search of gallium, a plant used to treat epilepsy that used to grow in the middle of the vineyards. The nuns of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, who ran this establishment, saw many people come and go.

When the family came into the building, four streets down from the La Bascule Café, young André Passat stuck his little old man’s face to the window – not unlike the cat in the street earlier. He was cloistered in the little cubby-hole that served as an office, with chalk etched calculations on the walls and some labels and bung cloth on a shelf. At school, Marius told everyone “André Passat is papa’s wine partner!” and he was right, Passat had became Polydore Chapoutier’s partner on 8th of July 1879; nearly one year previously. The Passat & Chapoutier Company sold wines, spirits and liqueurs to wholesalers and retailers. They had each brought 20,000 francs to the table, envisaging a 6 year partnership.

André was a good businessman, quick with numbers and good with paperwork; Polydore, more manually inclined, was at ease with the producers, as well as in the wine cellars ageing the wines and physically handling the wine equipment. He was a jack of all trades. Coming from a family of coopers certainly helped! His father, Jean, and his grandfather, Mathieu, had both been barrel makers in the Ardeche region, near their home grounds of Saint-Félicien and Saint-Victor. It was the father, Jean, who had first come down to the valley to set up as a cooper in Tain. At 78 years old he was still hovering around his son’s business to offer advice. As in biblical times, like Joseph and Jesus, both carpenters, trade was handed down from father to son. Polydore always felt a swell of pride when he thought about the Ardèche…. He enjoyed telling Marius stories about the famous people who had come from this region, such as the Montgolfier brothers who had received a peerage from Louis XVI (yes he for whom the school teacher extolled the virtues the guillotine), Olivier de Serres, who revolutionized agricultural techniques, or Pierre and Marie Durand, martyrs of the religious wars. Polydore used to say “the battle between the Catholics and the Protestants is still raging up above!” Once, while his father was relating these tales, Marius said to himself “one day I’ll be famous and people will comment that the Chapoutiers came from the Ardèche region.”

Inside the building, Marie withdrew from the conversation - wine was a man’s business. André and Polydore went round the barrels, putting their nose to them from time to time. Because of the incessant heat in June and despite the cool nights, they had to be particularly vigilant. Marius followed his father around, listening to all the comments on vinification, fermentation, oxydation etc. In the eyes of his son, Polydore could carry any of the barrels in front of him, one on each shoulder.

“This heat shouldn’t be allowed!” exclaimed a workman from the north of France, busy cleaning a vat. His face was crimson and stained with dirt.

Here we say it’s “a quarter to noon”, now you understand why, replied Polydore patting the workman on the shoulder.

Marius had experienced his first grape harvest the previous year, his first vintage. In the corner of the building, harvest baskets were stacked on top of each other. They would be used again this year to bring in the harvest. They would also serve to transport soil that had been washed down the hillsides by the rain back up the slopes, or to carry fertilizer to the rootstock. The terrain was so steep that carts could not do the work. Everything had to be done on the backs of men. The vineyards were always teeming with labourers. But the harvest itself had a particular flavour already etched into Marius’ young mind. Still two months to go before the next harvest and he was again picturing men and women coming down the slopes to empty their baskets into carts that, for the harvest, were pulled by oxen– since oxen were stronger than pack mules. The harvested grapes were brought down into the village to the reception bays of the wineries, bunches of small and large Syrahs, Marsannes and Roussannes that the workers squashed with their hands then crushed with their bare legs and feet. This activity could go on for a month! Marius and his pals would also run after the mobile wine presses, called omnibuses, which travelled between the properties of those who had no such equipment.

Marius knew everybody because he had visited the other estate owners and wine merchants, the Bergers, the Calvets, the Monnier de la Sizerannes and the Jaboulets. The boy dreamed that one day it would be his name up on the big posters. In the village, people were saying that the wine of Hermitage would be used to bolster the Bordeaux wines of poorer vintages. They were proud of their local production! “Hermitage is worth the same as a Lafite!” wrote Bertall in a brochure that was deliberately left lying around on the bar counters of the Bascule and the Jeune France.

After the harvest, the wine went into two hectolitre vats before being transferred into barrels of around 200 litres. Marius was privileged to watch everything. “It’s just a bit of grape juice” joked Polydore. And then during the harvests, there were the never-ending meals with hearty laughter, where the pickers cured their back pain with wine.
In this region men only went hunting after the harvest.

In the small windowed office, a makeshift hut, waiting for better times, Passat and Chapoutier poured over the numbers. They couldn’t grumble about business; it was some time after June 1873, when the phylloxera pest had appeared in the country. It had destroyed everything despite Dr. Tournaire’s remedies. For Polydore and his father, these were meager times; the demand for barrels just withered away. Luckily for them, they had their vegetable patch and some livestock to help them through. Each person carried on their own meager existence. Following this disaster, mixed farming soon gained in popularity; apple and apricot orchards sprung up just about everywhere, as did livestock farming and the breeding of geldings. The vineyards were rebuilt little by little. Polydore found good grape quality. He had to negotiate hard and fast. These terrace vineyards demanded significant manpower. 1,000 francs per hectare per year for the best plots! What was more the Hermitage hillsides were starting to achieve world renown. It was true that the wine was worth the same as a Lafite!

Like a remembrance, Polydore had saved a newspaper clipping – written by a local leading figure – which was now pinned up in the office and which Marius had used as an exercise when he was learning to read:

“The death of Hermitage was a total disaster for many; for others it was even worse; it signified the disappearance of one of the most appreciated brands of our beloved France. Hermitage is also an old friend; we give it the best spot in the cellar: it is the wine stashed behind the bundles of kindling wood. It will lovingly be put away in some corner and we will not take it out for any old occasion. We will carefully hang on to a few old bottles that will only be opened for the most important occasions: the first born baby or a marriage. Hermitage is a personal wine that is only served to close family and friends.”

Through the window panes, Marius could be seen hanging from a bent, circular metal bar used to suspend a barrel. One glance from Polydore and Marius knew that he was being naughty. He jumped to the floor as if to salute. At the same moment grandfather Chapoutier showed up on the cellar doorstep. Only his silhouette could be made out against the light. Jean raised his walking stick like a rifle and pretended to take aim at the boy. Marius acted as if he had been shot in the heart and crumbled to the dirt floor. Polydore watched this spectacle and raised his eyebrow.

Night was falling. On the way home the clamour of the wheels on the road resonated. Marius found it hard to keep his eyes open. He snuggled up to his mother. The day was not over however. He still had his homework and daily reading to do. Marie and Polydore wanted to ensure that their children (Marius’ older sister was in boarding school) were well educated. “If they want to make something of themselves, they need knowledge”, insisted Polydore. “To develop wit and character” said their mother who read them the stories of Jules Verne, Alphonse Daudet and the tales of Hans Christian Anderson every evening. This was a welcomed change from the verses from the “songs of the soldier” that Marius had to recite at the town hall on public holidays. The young boy revelled in this imaginary universe but the smell of the wine cellars and vin de paille, the trundling of barrels, the walks through the vineyards, the harvests and the wine press, fascinated him even more. At least it was all real, he lived it, it was no fable, and it was worth all the books in the world. He definitely wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Later on at the end of the afternoon in the cart, Marius thought he saw two suns in the sky. He pondered a while, and then fell asleep.

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