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It was a bottle of Domaine de la Grand Cour Fleurie 2016 that sent me down the rabbit hole. For the first time, I wondered about what I was drinking. Which grapes were used to make this wine? From where? By whom? Why was 2016 different from any other year?

What ultimately goes in the bottle is the expression of a particular place and a particular time: the sun, the wind, the frost, the rain, the hail, the soil. A moment in time is captured and bottled. And then given to time, left in the cellar to change and evolve. When opened, the bottle is an invitation to return to a specific time – a vintage.

Pop enough corks and the adage that “great winemaking is great farming” will soon trickle out of the bottle. I quickly concluded that I needed to find an opportunity to farm grapes if I were to begin to peer behind the curtain. So, in the Spring of 2022, I wrote to winemakers across France inquiring about opportunities to work alongside them. The responses soon came back, “Nous sommes au complet pour cette période.” In other words, “Thanks for your interest. But, no thanks.” And, then, a breakthrough: “Figure out your visa situation and the job’s yours,” wrote Michele Smith-Chapel at Domaine Chapel in Beaujolais. I was thrilled.

Michele and her husband David farm several plots, including the vineyard Charbonnières in the cru Fleurie. This plot is so steep that the top of the slope is invisible from the base of several sections of the vineyard. Because of its gradient, the land cannot be farmed mechanically. Instead, it is worked manually with a pioche, or garden hoe, or occasionally with the help of a horse. I was to use a pioche to clear out thick grasses and acacia trees that wrap themselves around the vine. To pioche (in French, the word is both noun and verb) is an immensely physical act that is time intensive. My arms raised the hoe above my head and then swung it down, cracking into the earth and prying weeds loose from the vines. To pioche is to water the vines with blood, sweat and tears – the sharp thorns of bramble bushes cutting into my arms as I wrestled them away, sweat dripping down my furrowed brow as the day swelled with oppressive heat, and tears welling at the sides of my eyes as they filled with dust. Ten minutes into the day, I shouted over to David, “All done with this one.” He replied, with a wide grin, “Great, two thousand more to go.”

For weeks, the physical nature of the work left me battered and bruised. There were nights when I went to sleep dreading what the next day would bring, hours of grueling toil under the blazing sun. There were mornings where I struggled to get myself out of a bed and into a pickup truck before sunrise. There is a romanticism about wine that one encounters at a restaurant table but which disappears in the vineyard. When back-breaking labour consumes each day, the reality of winemaking as farming hits squarely in the face, an uppercut to the jaw.

At some point, the exhaustion prompted me to ask, “Why make wine at all?” Perhaps sensing my disillusionment, the vineyard offered a reply. After two months in Charbonnières, it whispered feedback and encouragement as a single ploughed and primed row became two, then three, then an entire plateau; as flowers transformed into swollen grapes, ripening amidst sheltering foliage. It also offered insight, namely that a vigneron sees wine as the means to a bigger end. For me, working in the vineyard eventually stopped being about the end product. Perhaps it was because Michele and David’s generosity meant there was always plenty of wine to go around (though I imbibed each sip with respect and reverence, understanding it as a literal labour of love). Or because Beaujolais is often described as one long apéro, the evening happy hours where the day’s travails were washed away with glasses of wine shared with friends. Instead, what the work began to be about was process and the corollary it invited was a sense of wonder.

Process is an exercise in faith. Faith is hoping a hailstorm leaves a vineyard untouched or that mildew doesn’t claim a crop for its own, all while trusting the process – working the soil, pioching the weeds, planting cover crops and tying unruly foliage together. Over and over, again and again. This week, next week. This month, next month. This vintage, next vintage. Perhaps, then, process is not an exercise in faith but an exercise fuelled by faith. Spend enough time on process and, eventually, you unlock a sense of wonder that births a world of possibility. That wonder feeds on the sight of green caterpillars snuggling comfortably in the mud, of butterflies dancing in wind currents between rows of vines, of a snake disturbed by our daily work. It is nourished as I looked at gnarled vines, 60 years of age, and realized the vineyard was there long before me and will be there long after. And it is strengthened by the understanding that something bigger than you is unfolding, that you are just passing through, that you are never fully in control. The resulting world of possibility is birthed in that “aha” moment where it becomes clear that the process has always been about fighting the good fight, about tending to the land that others have cared for and that others will care for.

Wine is a vessel for time. And the vignerons are the timekeepers. They are stewards of the land. The bottle of wine whose cork is pulled months or years later is simply a brief exhale on a long journey, a way for the winemaker to say, “I made it. I’m still here.”

On our last evening together, I sat with Michele and David, reflecting on the summer that had snuck by. From their perfect balcony, I stared out at Mont Brouilly in the distance. I thought about farming as the soul of winemaking. I felt a sore muscle quiver. And I considered who might eventually open the bottles that sat in the cellar, waiting to be shipped. Would a bottle touch them? Would it stop them, if only for a minute, and prompt them to ask, “Oh, this wine comes from Beaujolais? Where is that exactly? Who makes this? What kind of food do they eat there?”

Then, I poured myself a glass of wine and watched the sun dip behind the mountains.

Aditya Rau lives in Boston.

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