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Vineyard fisticuffs trigger change of scenery

 Posted: 2:00 AM July 17, 2012

The fight was over almost as soon as it began.

My newfound friend, Ian, a 6-foot-plus Scotsman and Oxford scholar who was trained as a semi-pro boxer, had dispatched four migrant vineyard workers in short order by blocking their pathetic swings with wicked, balanced punches. They'd challenged him after he saved a young woman from their friend's physical abuse in a Beaujolais vineyard, where I was part of a work-study program to learn the wine industry from the ground up.

Looking back now nearly 45 years later, I must have appeared ludicrous, standing ready to defend Ian by posturing with my fists. I was about as tough as a glass cookie jar, though I wasn't about to admit it. Nevertheless, Ian thanked me for backing him up as I did. I gave him my best John Wayne nod as we watched a car come racing up the vineyard row. It was the chateau owner. It seemed clear to me we were cooked and off to pack our bags.

Instead of kicking Ian and me out, the owner admonished all of us for wasting time while the grapes were hanging from the vine, ready and waiting to be picked. Every moment, he told us, was crucial and that personal issues must be put aside for the sake of the wine. He ordered us to line up and shake hands. Ian whispered to me to look directly into their eyes and to watch out for a sucker punch.

I did as I was told. But the workers' eyes were boring nuclear rods into Ian, not me. The owner pursed his lips, then grabbed my elbow, motioning for us to follow him a few meters away from the scene. This would be our last day picking, he said. In the evening, he was going to lend us out to two small wineries a few kilometers away owned by very dear friends of his.

The workers who had confronted us had been with the family for years, he said, and he needed them very much. He explained they were hard workers but very proud North Africans who would not let us get away with the humiliation of defeat.

After a dinner of scrumptious grilled lamb, wonderful, soft, Beaujolais wine and dessert, we were stuffed into a tiny Citroen (Ian was hanging out of every portal, much to my amusement) and shipped off to two charming wineries run by elderly folks who needed us very badly.

After a few days, Ian took some time off to catch up with his sister and his girlfriend on the French coast, very close to Normandy. He handed me an address where they would be staying for a week or so. Sadly, I told him I had no way to get out there and I felt honor-bound to help my new hosts. He promised he would return with the ladies in a week and looked forward to some heavy French craziness.

The elderly couple I was assigned to were simply wonderful on every level. I worked alongside them in the vineyards, in the garden, among the chickens and while herding their goats from one weedy field to another. The goats followed me everywhere. The vineyard owners thought this was hilarious, especially when the goats brayed at me under the windows during dinner. Twice, while getting supplies in the village, I turned around and found this little white male following me into every shop. I simply could not shake him.

I told the couple I wished I could join my friend and the girls at the coast. We had just finished the harvest, and they told me I could leave for a few days if I promised to come back for another two weeks or so and finish up. Absolutely! But how, I asked, could I get there?

They had no car, but they suggested buses, trains and maybe a ride with friends of theirs who might be going that way. Almost as an afterthought, they told me I could go immediately if I didn't mind a possibly cold and wet ride.

They took me to a shed and under a tarp stood a BMW R69S motorcycle equipped with saddlebags. It had belonged to one of their workers who had fled the region in some haste about a month earlier (it appears that a very angry woman was urgently looking for him). I was familiar with motorcycles, but this would be a challenge. I saddled up in the morning after checking the oil and tire pressure, and to my delight I was handed a box with gloves, helmet and goggles. With my pea coat and cowboy boots, I was off to the coast.

I never, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined what lay ahead.

Lorn Razzano is the semi-retired owner of the Ashland Wine Cellar, where he works part time. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.


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