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Joe's Neighborhood

On the mountain top in the south of France

10/30/2013

Going to the mountain top to seek wisdom isn’t exactly a new idea. Heck, Moses must have worn a path with his frequent up and down visits. I particularly like the notion that there is a wise man or wise woman ensconced in a cave at the top of a mountain. Just think about it. You merely have to make your way up the mountain, ask the right question of the guy or gal on top, and the scales will fall from your eyes. Wow. I’m all for it.

So, my wife and I headed up the mountain.

joes1Well, not immediately. You should know it is harvest time in the south of France. It’s running about three weeks late. We discovered this when a miniature tractor appeared in a small village we were visiting. I was a little disappointed when the driver failed to throw candy and wasn’t wearing a Shriner’s hat, but then I saw the trailer.

Yup, that would be grapes. A cart full of grapes. And it’s heading to France’s variation of the Iowa corn elevator, the winery, where the grapes will get weighed and sucked into vats. So, of course we had to visit several wineries to see if they were making wine correctly. It turns out they were.                 

joes2In this pursuit, we came across the small, sun-dazzled village of Seguret, found in the foothills around Mont Ventoux — yes, the same Mont Ventoux of Tour de France fame.

Luckily for me, my wife had done some reading and knew of a winery tucked behind this village. Somewhere up the mountain.                 

As a starter, you should know that I have a minor problem with driving up the side of a mountain. Sure, I know you love the wooden roller coaster at Arnolds Park. And, yes, you have a season pass to Adventureland. Great. But a cliff on one side of the road and a rock wall on the other is not my idea of a good time. Just think about it. All it takes is the driver to give a polite cough, correctly turning her face into the crook of her elbow for proper hygiene, and suddenly you’ve veered off the road, plummeted down the cliff and turned into liver pate at the bottom of the mountain. Not a good thing. Certainly a compelling and reasonable argument for any sane person to NOT go up the mountain.

So my wife drove us up the mountain.

A good decision, we both agreed. The mile we traveled in reverse gear because of a rogue grape combine coming down the single-lane mountain road could have happened to anyone. And, yes, I got a little vertigo from the winding back and forth, but it might have been from the excitement of being up so high without any guard rails. And the continuous narrowing of the narrow road as we drove higher? A wondrous increase in anticipation.

At the top, when I looked up from kissing the ground, there was Walter McKinlay. He was working the grapes just unloaded onto the conveyor belt by the tractor.

joes3McKinlay is an Englishman, who lived in Scotland, and now is the proud owner of Domain de Mourchon. He’s literally at the top of the mountain. No kidding. He harvests, produces and sells “grands vins des Cotes du Rhone” in the south of France.

“I am 80 years old. Born in 1933,” he says. “You don’t believe me? Here, look at my passport. What does it say? Yes, 1933.”

He smiles and works the wine counter like a pro. Pouring us glasses to taste, he tells his story.

“We needed to leave Scotland, you see,” he says. “We needed to live in warmer climate.” This after a highly successful career in information technology support for North Sea oil companies.

“So we said: ‘Why don’t we buy a vineyard in the south of France?’ ” he adds, laughing and dancing around the counter pouring wine.

“When we decided to do all this, it was a bit tough in the beginning,” he says. “We bought it when it was 17 hectares, 40 acres, just the vines. Not a weed to be seen. A lot of chemicals had been used. We don’t use chemicals. We are moving towards totally organic. We are year four of six to be organic. There was no winery here. The house was in ruins. And we didn’t really know what our wine was going to be.”

Now, his business is a grand success. Written up in multiple publications, and a must-see stop on the Rick Steves’ tours. Pretty amazing.

“My dad, a Scotsman, married an English gal,” he says. “I was called, you never heard of this word, a Sassenach. A Sassenac is a half-breed. And here I am in the south of France. My wife and I on one side of the valley, my daughter and son-in-law on the other.”

He smiles. A successful smile. This is a man who has reached all his dreams. He appears truly happy.

joes4And his marriage?

“My wife, I must tell you about my wife, we’ve been married 54 years,” he says.                 

Ah, at last we get to THE question. That question that will make all this worth it: “And what is the secret to such a long marriage?”

He pauses. Looks down. Harrumphs a little to himself. Then he says with a twinkle: “She puts up with me.”

He pours us another taste of another great wine.

OK, that’s it? “She puts up with me.” These are the words of wisdom from out of the cave at the top of the mountain? A 54-year marriage, and “she puts up with me?” Really? You put up with the flu, right? Or sometimes you might put up with a bad back. Or maybe you put up with a rock in your shoe. But put up with your husband?

My wife gently guided me back to the car, adjusted my seat belt and drove us down the mountain. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

Jokers