Of course I knew that vendange was coming, the season of grape-harvesting. If nothing else, new signs had begun to appear on the local roads, warning drivers to be extra alert. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the number and variety of grape-harvesting trucks tooling down the road. Some of the trucks are small, the ones that putter along at the pace of a horse-drawn cart, carrying a payload of grapes on their way to becoming wine. Those aren’t the trucks that startled me.
I was driving along one day, minding my own business, when around the bend came a giant beast of machinery. It was tall, oddly shaped, and slightly menacing. It was moving slowly and ever so deliberately, with focus and purpose. I kid you not, I completely expected to see Jeff Goldblum (Buckaroo Banzai) jump out of the cab. These are the grape harvesting machines, and they’re shaped the way they are so that they can move down a row of vines and harvest grapes from both sides.
The color of wine
There are wine-related names for colors, such as burgundy, bordeaux, marsala and raisin. In French, in this nation of wine, there is also lie-de-vin. I first learned of this phrase when my friends Maryse and Claude took me to see the nearby town Assignan, much of which is decorated in shades of pink-to-red-to-burgundy-to-purple.
The word “lees” (lie in French, pronounced “lee”) refers to the dregs—yeast and plant particulates—that are left over from the fermentation and initial aging process. The lees remain at the bottom of the barrel, while the wine is removed to another container in a process called “racking.” Sometimes wines are bottled directly without being racked, and sometimes wines are further aged “on lees,” imparting a distinctive flavor (such as is done with Montrachet Chardonnay or Champagne). In French, this is called “sur lie.”
Lie-de-vin, then, takes those sometimes-tasty dregs and moves into the wonderful world of color. Lees tend to be what I would describe as a musky (musty? dusty?) mauve color, but the full range spans from a rich raspberry-hued burgundy to a color with definite purple tones. Small wonder, then, that in days gone by, lees were commonly used as dyes. And that in this nation of wines, a color called lie-de-vin is well-known.
Recently I drove an hour with a friend to go buy onions, because I had heard these onions were worth the trip. I was told they were quite sweet and easily edible raw (something I don’t usually do). I was also told that they’re especially good keepers. When I bought my 10-kilo (22-pound) sack of onions, I was told how to store them. I had been picturing the back of my garage, where it’s relatively dark and cool. No, said the nice cashier, the onions want some light and some air, and they should be spread out in a single flat layer (not piled on top of each other). Well, with that many onions, it’s a bit of a trick, but I’ve also been eating them at a good clip. They are definitely sweet and delicious, and I may never find out if they’re good keepers.
My dear friend Mel
I’ve often spoken of the gifts I was blessed to receive from my parents, one of which was the gift of writing that I received from my father. I have not spoken as freely as I could have of the teachers who teased out those abilities and helped me improve upon them. A gift in the hands of a child is more often raw material than a polished gem, and rare is the person who can do her own polishing. Every one of us needs good teachers, and I am here today to speak of one who has been among the best.
I had the blessing of attending a darn good high school, and our English department was second to none. Mrs. Sullivan, Mr. Walker, and the great Margaret Muth were among my favorite teachers. But the one I remained in touch with throughout my life was Mr. Shields.
Mr. Shields was an artist who spent his life surrounded by other artists. He was a gifted and creative teacher, and he also wrote an entertainment column for our local newspaper (and other publications). Because “local” meant Reno, Nevada, Mr. Shields got to meet the stars in the entertainment galaxy because those stars rotated through Reno on a regular basis. The walls of his classroom were papered floor-to-ceiling with black-and-white glamour photos—autographed—of any star you could name.
As a teacher, Mr. Shields was a shrewd and demanding taskmaster. He was also terrifically entertaining, and he was one of those great teachers who make learning fun. If you can say that about someone who includes Greek and Latin in his coursework, then he must have been good. We read Edgar Alan Poe, and then wrote essays in Poe’s style (or tried to). We had a weekly vocabulary quiz based on the columns of William F. Buckley, a man who liked big words. We watched “The Great Race,” and pretended to understand all the nuances of one utterly splendid song: “He Shouldn’t-A, Hadn’t-A, Oughtn’t-A Swang on Me.” (As soon as you’re done here, go watch it on YouTube.) How many high school English teachers relish that ? —Mr. Shields absolutely adored that song.
After I was a high school student, and after I was a college student, I got to switch from calling him “Mr. Shields.” He became “Mel.”
As a friend, Mel was also terrifically entertaining. Through years and through decades, nearly every time I visited Reno, Mel and I would meet for breakfast or for lunch and even a few times for dinner, at his choice of eatery. We spoke of the olden days, of classmates, of friends who had left us. We spoke of politics. In large part, I was there to soak up his stories of the people he had known, some of them famous, many of them not so much. Mel could weave a good story, and I loved hearing him speak. He was always witty and funny, and his sardonic observations often descended right into sarcasm, still funny and always spot-on.
Whenever I wrote, no, whenever I write, I think of Mel. He has been with me from my teenage days with my dad’s early-1950s typewriter through this moment with a laptop. I picture him reading my words; I try to anticipate his questions. Am I ever truly ready for his occasionally-uttered “What is this? What are you trying to say?” Or more devastating: “This is boring.” I’m still chasing good grades and still hopeful that my end result would meet with his approval.
Recently the world lost Mel, and the world is a far poorer place for its loss. I will never write another word without thinking of him.
Mel, I wish you great peace. I wish you joy. I wish you freedom. And I wish you a universe filled with the most delicious literature, film, comedy, music, and personalities like Liberace to fill your days and nights.
The grocery store is not a place I generally think of when I think of businesses with a sense of humor, so I had a nice surprise the other day when I saw the little sign below, advertising the store’s promotion for cooking knives. I adore the typographic treatment. Trembling carrots, indeed.