Eulogy for a Bordelais winemaker: 1958 – 2012.

Duke, the Winemaker's dog

WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about the winemaker who owned the small vineyard I visited the past two years were his calloused hands and fingernails blackened by the soil in which his vines grew.

He was a man of few words, going about his business in the winery while we, the English and Canadian tourists, indulged in bike rides through the vineyards and trips to local wine merchants.

But by night, he came alive. He would cook great feasts in his modest kitchen from ingredients that seemed to come from nowhere. We would eat meals that came in waves, each course being given more care and attention than we Brits or Canadians could muster.

On those warm summer nights we would eat and drink late into the night until we started to talk philosophy, then drink more wine until we couldn’t talk at all.

After one of our more memorable celebrations, he clutched my hand and read my palm, his eyes wide open and his words emphatic. We later found him lying on the patio, half passed out and clinging to several of his dogs.

Most of all, he was also a great winemaker who learned the craft just like his father and his father’s father.

I didn’t know what to expect when my friend Trev invited me (along with our friend Tim) to spend two weeks at the Winemaker’s vineyard just outside St Emilion. Visions of grand stone chateaux and long, tree-lined driveways came to mind.

The reality of the vineyard was much more modest. When we pulled up to his humble stucco house surrounded by weathered tractors and ageing cars, it occurred to me the wine trade was not all glamour. He was not making a fortune from the family business, but he made a living and was happy.

If you could measure a man’s wealth by his circle of friends, he was the richest man I ever met. He was a son, a brother, a father and a friend. He was a musician, a performer, an animal lover, a conservationist and, I’m told, a petanque champion.

His house was full of aquariums where he raised fish. He performed in a drumming and dancing troupe and instruments from all over the world lines his walls. He had dogs, chickens, peafowl, pigeons and three donkeys, one of them unruly.

The Winemaker was always an enigma. He could be taciturn and distant. But that’s just how he was. At other times he was generous and cheerful, full of wit and charm.

We heard very little from him during his final eight months. We were at his vineyard when he became ill, complaining of pain in his gut and clearly unable to stand or work some days. He told us his doctors had found spots on his pancreas and liver, but more tests were to come.

And so he would sleep long and often during the day, rising for meals and to do the work that needed to be done.

Back in the UK, we heard nothing. Emails went unanswered for weeks. Those weeks turned into months. And then some news came. On 29 April he had passed away. Pancreatic cancer.

The Winemaker: 1958 – 2012

Photos: Tim James