by André Lurton with Gilles Berdin
Bordeaux : Elytis, c2010.
“ANDRÉ LURTON, born 1924, is a French winemaker and winery owner,” states the English-language Wikipedia. Curiously there seems to be no page for him at French-language Wikipedia, and this little book, nicely edited from seven conversations between Lurton and the French wine journalist Gilles Berdin (b. 1962), indicates that there certainly should be.
Before turning to Lurton himself, a few words on Berdin’s intentions are in order. This is one of a series of eleven such books introducing significant personalities in the world of French winemaking to their audience. (So far only one has appeared in English: Conversations Over a Bottle With Denis Dubourdieu.) Berdin describes his intent:
“These conversations, which are not biographies, result from the observation that there are extraordinary people in our landscape of French wine; a most diverse, amazing, exciting group: the owners, winemakers, cellar masters, and tasters. It seemed urgent to collect their words, especially if, as some fear, the vignoble is increasingly passing into the hands of what we call “les institutionnels: " banks, insurance companies, multinationals, investment companies.
I want all these enthusiasts to share their passion and experience, and transmit some of their memory to future generations: their knowledge, their skills, their emotions ...
As the charm of conversation lies in its imperfections, digressions, repetitions, silences, contradictions, onomatopoeia, paradoxes, laughter ... I'll open their words as is, without settling, aeration or dressing them up in a decanter. ”
So the book, while short, is charmingly discursive. It does have a logical structure, though, basically chronological; and it begins, notwithstanding Berdin’s apology, with a bit of biography.
Lurton’s mother, née Denise Recapet, died in 1934 when Lurton was only nine years old. His father, who worked for a British commercial group, never remarried, and it was his mother’s parents who were apparently most influential in the boy’s upbringing. The grandfather, Léonce Recapet (1858-1943), must have been an imposing presence in the boy’s life. Léonce took up his own father’s distilling business after his four years of military service — he must have seen the Franco-Prussian War — and built it into a considerable success; then went on into the wine industry, buying his own Château Bonnet in 1897, later adding other properties.
Lurton saw service himself, of course, during World War II and the German occupation; some of the most moving pages in this book describe the difficulty of those days, and then of the actual battle he saw after the return of the Free French, when he fought the retreating Germans in eastern France.
The first fifty pages bring us from these biographical accounts — scanty but suggestive of the influences that molded the man — to the years after demobilization, lean years of returning to normal. The grandfather was gone, and he worked alongside his father until an uncle helped him take own his place in the vignoble, at Château Bonnet. He learned to be not only a vineyardist but a farmer as well, raising corn and potatoes, providing for a young family, as he’d married shortly after the war.
Succeeding conversations provide insight into the Bordeaux vinification methods as they slowly evolved in the years after the war, from relatively haphazard production to much more carefully calculated techniques. There are marvelous pages on the complex regulations concerning real estate, appellations controllées acreages, and financing: French readers will follow these pages more closely, but we Americans find here hints at the baroque intricacies of the French bureaucratic mind, which trains the French to master subtlety and patience.
Lurton discusses degustation, the tasting of wine; its vocabulary; its variability from one expert to the next. He discusses screw-caps, which he favors for white wines. He discusses the problems of press reviews. There are a couple of delicious pages on the subject of Robert Parker, the American writer whose ratings have so greatly influenced the production and marketing of wine in its international market. Berdin asks if Lurton thinks Parker has truly influenced methods of wine-production:
Lurton: Oh yes! Everybody wanted to make Parker’s wine. Where it had the most influence, though, was on the techniques of sampling. (He laughs.) … Each time he comes [to the vignoble], a couple of weeks or a month before there’s a tripotage in the cellars to prepare the samples. There’s a visit to this cave, that barrique… he knows about it, but there’s nothing he can do.
Lurton has things to say about regulation: he has little patience for the labeling laws, or for the current concern for safety and security in general. “The media are partly responsible for this propensity to fear everything.” And then there are his observations of journalists: “I’ve rarely met an informed or an objective journalist… it’s extraordinary how inept they can be, what stupidities and errors they can write… there are many who know nothing at all about a probem and who want to try to discuss it.”
Lurton emerges as an opinionated, hands-on veteran of the long and fascinating transition from the last decades of traditional winemaking, through the interruption of World War II, through the emergence of scholarly and theoretical approaches to the art, through the political and corporate domination of its industrialization, always with a pragmatic and, it must be said, often surprisingly patient long view of his metier.
He’s unhappy with the world as he finds it now, globalized and regulated by bureaucrats; but then what reasonable man over sixty is not. “France is a unique country which can do fantastic things,” he summarizes, on the closing page, “but which always criticizes itself, destroying itself. That’s what worries me for my children and grandchildren. But I hope they’ve had a minimum of training not to go too far wrong and to dare to act, to have some dynamism…
"A rich laborer, feeling his death coming on, gathered his children together, and said to them…”
[He laughs…] “Work; take pains; that’s the approach that misses least!” (Travaillez, prenez de la peine: c'est le fonds qui manque le moins! )
Ultimately these conversations over a bottle with André Lurton suggest the possibility there will always be a few wise old men (and women too), who have known hunger and hard work, who aren't fooled by fashion; and that that's enough to get humanity through a rough patch and back to basics. I'll lift a glass to that!