Margaret and Dick   


September 2014: When bad things happen to good people

We had been looking forward to our annual visit to artisan winemaker Frédéric Palacios at his winery Le Mas de Mon Père (roughly “my father’s farmhouse”) in the Malepère near Carcassonne.  Our last visit was at the end of his lean 2013 harvest.  Circumstances last year (timing of the bud-break, humidity, temperature, you name it) had combined to reduce his yield by 40%.  Cash flow is tight for small winemakers, and we remembered Frédéric saying he really needed a good harvest in 2014.  Rumors for this year have spanned the range of crummy to pretty good, so we were eager to learn what kind of year it has been at Le Mas de Mon Père.  We also wanted to taste what he had produced with the 2013 grapes.  He’s the kind of guy who can rise to a challenge.

We pulled up to the house and greeted Frédéric.  “How’s the harvest coming along?” Richard asked.
“I’m not harvesting.”
A pregnant pause.
“The hailstorm destroyed my grapes.  In ten minutes, I lost everything.  I’ve probably lost next year too, because the wood of the vines was severely damaged.”

We were speechless.  We knew that a severe hailstorm had hit the Aude in July and had affected 30% of the vineyards, but we had missed the front-page story that pictured Palacios in his devastated vineyard.  I tried to imagine him walking around his five-hectare (twelve-acre) property, examining the vines that he's been tending by hand for the last ten years, and finding that nothing remained.

We sat down at a table on the porch with bottles, glasses, and wine spittoon.  This discussion definitely called for a drink.
“In fact, it was a tornado.  I was at the epicenter.”
“I thought you didn’t have tornados in France.”
He took out his iPad and showed us a picture of the storm.
“Wow.” That sure looked like a tornado.
Palacios had four very good wines to offer that day:  two from 2012, two from 2013.  He tends to vinify single varieties of grapes, but his 2013 wines include blends.  “I worked with what I was able to harvest.”  We told him that back home at lunch that day we had sampled two of his wines from 2009, C comme Ça (it's like that), a carignan, and L’Insolite (unusual), a malbec.  They were so rich in minerals that we could taste the salt.

“Oof! 2009 was the very beginning.”  He had worked for years to bring the soil into the organic, chemical-free state he requires.  His first bottling was 2005, and 2009 was the first year he declared the soil healthy.  “When you can taste the salt, it means the soil is clean.  Since 2009, which was a very hot year, the salty taste has been gradually tapering off, but you can still taste it.  Wine growers always focus on the vines, but that’s not where it starts.  First you have to develop the soil.  Only when you have a good soil can you start concentrating on the plant.”
We went into the winery and tasted his 2012 Partez pour le Rêve (off to dreamland, Malepère AOP) that will be bottled in November and the 2013 version that has just been put into casks.  Consistent with the name, those are going to be dreamy wines.  We also sniffed some of the “solidarity” juice (read on) that has just started to ferment.

Government disaster funds will help cover his losses for 2014, but what about the disastrous 2015 that he anticipates as his vines begin to recover?  Was he discouraged?  Au contraire, his mood was as upbeat as we have always found him.  How is that possible?

  “Many of my colleagues in the Aude – organic growers who share my philosophy – have helped by giving me some of their grapes.  I know their methods, so I can work with their grapes with full confidence.  We’re selling futures on those wines, which will be released in the spring.  That brings me the capital to buy other grapes that I’ll be able to vinify this year.”

He pointed us to the Facebook page Solidarité pour Frédéric Palacios that has been set up by his supporters.  He’s calling the spring wine La Part de l’Orage (The Storm’s Share) and it’s offered at €60 ($78) for six bottles.  He has hundreds of orders in hand, now plus one.  We left with a heavy car and heavy hearts that were lifted somewhat by Frédéric’s optimism.

We’re really sorry we won’t be in France next spring when La Part de l’Orage is released.  That’s a party we really hate to miss.

Photo credits: Judi Wallner.

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