I had never worked closely with a woman, especially a drop-dead gorgeous woman with a sultry accent and a can-do attitude.
It was 1968 and I was 19 years old working in the French wine industry. To say I was innocent and naive as well as unworldly would be an understatement. Looking back at that time I shudder at how little I knew, not only of the world, but of myself. I was constantly adjusting my view and feelings about what was going on around me and found it prudent to simply be quiet, listen and work harder than the next person.
Helene was the epitome of the phrase "women wanted to be her and men wanted to be with her." I was assigned to her for two days as her "helper" which meant to do whatever she told me to do at work. I found that this was her fourth harvest at this very out-of-the-way winery-vineyard, and she knew the ropes better than anyone. I also found that she was as hardworking as she was beautiful — Grace Kelly beautiful.
I knew nothing about women but was transfixed by her strength, beauty and willingness to show me what it took to be a good worker at the winery. Not only had she admonished the workers for trying to sabotage me, but the reaction of the workers was profound; I would not be messed with again at this winery. I was, to put it bluntly, completely under her umbrella (and her spell) and I loved it completely. Like every other man who came in contact with her, I was tumbling out of control in love.
Our working hours started at 6 a.m. with breakfast, then we broke from 1 until 2:30, then went out again until about 7 p.m. When we broke for lunch I went my own way and sat with Ian, my Scottish friend, to tell him about what I had done in the vineyard. All he wanted to know was how my day went with Helene. I shrugged, not wanting him to talk about or think about being with her, and told him that it was "nothing special, but nice girl."
He just looked at me. I could tell he just wasn't buying it and was, like every guy there, trying to get close to her. It was at that point that Helene walked into the room, took a tray of food and sat by herself. It was, I thought, good to leave her alone. After all, I was assigned to her for the rest of the day and did not, on any level, want her to tire of me. It wasn't meant to be. After putting her tray down, she made her way to our table and asked me if I wouldn't mind "so much" eating lunch with her.
I gave Ian a "knowing," manly nod, trying to act like the coolest and made my way to her table. Helene was very gracious and told me that I had done a "terrific" job gathering the heavy grape bins and wanted me to work with her "hand-in-hand" until the harvest was over. In fact, she told me, she had fixed it with the foreman.
I just sat there, nodding, mouth full of food, stupidly grinning and said absolutely nothing. Helene smiled and nodded. "Good," she said. "That would be just great. I also love your American accent." Really? Then, of course, I said something very bright like, "Yeah, I do too!" (I would have agreed to anything she had said) which made her laugh pretty hard. I think she liked being with a complete, dopey nerd. Of course, men were coming up to our table trying to make their "acquaintance" during lunch which she handled with a wonderfully, elegant brush-off which, frankly, added greatly to her charm. It wasn't long before I was to meet the real Helene.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about his adventures as a winery intern in France in 1968, visit www.dailytidings.com/razzano.