When God was handing out the ability to make snap decisions, I was standing at the front of the queue (which must be why I never made it to the “Follow a career path” queue). I´ve never been sure if this was a good thing or not. All I know is that it has taken me all over the world, introduced me to very many wonderful people (and a few deeply unpleasant ones) and caused me not a few headaches. It started in my teens: “Well Charlotte, what are you going to study at University?”. Realizing that “I haven´t the first idea” was not an acceptable answer, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: “Archaeology”, said with conviction, and so it was that I went off to study archaeology. I quickly came to realize however that archaeology was most definitely not my bag, so I made another split decision to leave university, amid howls of disapproval from my family, and went off to find my “mission”. Thankfully this did not take long in presenting itself – an invitation to a wine-tasting opened up a whole new world of history, culture, cuisine, travel…. Knowing what you want to do is one of the greatest gifts life can bring you. The obsession which often comes with this knowledge can also be a curse, especially when you are young, with no experience and in the middle of an economic recession.
After months as an over-worked, under-paid minor manager in a provincial hotel, one Monday morning saw me bored and dissatisfied with a copy of The Lady in my hand. In the space of two weeks I was living in Paris, working as a nanny for the Count and Countess de la Rochefoucauld, a delightful if rather other-worldly young couple with two boys. I knew nothing about children and was not greatly imbued with maternal instincts, but it seemed like a good way to improve my French and hence my chances of finding gainful vinous employment back in England.
I returned from Paris with only a slightly better grasp of the Gallic language, the temptations of a Parisian Spring being too great to remain cooped up in a stuffy classroom. With nothing else on the horizon I slipped back into the restaurant world, where, by a curious quirk of fate, I met a governor from my old school who put me in touch with Roy Richards, unbeknownst to me one of the country´s leading wine importers. During our first telephone conversation I made the unfortunate mistake of calling him Mr. Rodgers and it is a surprise to this day that he ever agreed to see me. Notwithstanding my gaff he offered me a job and I spent the next seven years working with, and drinking the wines of some of the greatest winemakers in the world. It was an invaluable experience and one for which I shall forever be grateful.
Slowly, however, the realization came to me that I needed to make my own way in the world. Much like the astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, who turned to drink knowing that he could never top walking on the moon, I was at a loss to know which way to turn. Working for another importer would at best have been a sideways move. The only other area which really inspired was right back at the beginning, at the point of production. My first harvest in the Loire Valley with Noël Pinguet at Domaine Huet, Vouvray, resembles a biblical tale of revelation and suffering. Noël had been running the estate using biodynamic agriculture for some years and this was my first introduction to a whole new philosophy. He took me under his wing and let me hang around with him in the cellar in the evenings, where I was able to see a master winemaker in action. The down side of the experience was that physically I was totally unprepared for grape-picking and after three days the only part of my body which didn´t hurt were my eyelashes!
With the seeds of an idea nestling deep inside my brain I did further harvests in South Africa and Italy, giving up my holiday for the chance to learn more about the most miraculous of transformations. When, finally, I plucked up the courage (and had saved up enough money) to spread my wings, I headed back to South Africa, working for amongst others Martin Meinert, a troubled genius constantly striving for perfection. My various stints exposed me to a more technical form of winemaking, very different from my experiences in the pokey underground cellars of France´s elderly vignerons. I learnt the chemistry of vinification, but nothing about what happens at the very beginning, in the vineyard.
This hole in my knowledge led me back to France. 2002 found me living in a small village in the Southern Rhône in the shadow of the beautiful Mont Ventoux. Feeling confident about my winemaking skills but without the first idea how to prune a vine, I went off to study viticulture and coupled my studies with practical experience in the vineyards of the various chums I made in the area. Following this up with a French winemaking qualification I then spent the next few years working as an itinerant vineyard hand and winemaker, with a view to setting up my own domaine in France.
Coming back to my original theme, the flip-side of split-decision making is an inability to make forced decisions, and so it was that I continued talking about my dream without actually putting anything in motion. A visit to Spain on behalf of a Swedish company took me to Rueda, where I stopped off to see a French acquaintance whose wines I had sold on the UK market many years previously. I had no idea that my meeting with Didier Belondrade would turn my life on its head.
Discussing the project I was hoping to set up, Didier roundly berated the French bureaucratic system, the terrifying level of taxation and the general difficulty in getting anything accomplished, all with good reason, and he suggested that I should set up my estate in Spain, where life was apparently much easier and less costly. He spoke to me of an as yet “undiscovered” area about two hours west of Rueda, Los Arribes del Duero, on the border with Portugal. My interest was pricked and two months later, following a visit to the Douro in Portugal I forwent the motorway and followed the winding road up the valley until I reached the Spanish border.
I was overwhelmed by the savage beauty of the region: the deep gorges cut by the Duero, the steep terraces covered with ancient vines and even older olive trees, the way man had adapted himself to the landscape rather than bending it under his will. Another spur-of-the-moment decision and eight months later (having had the good fortune to find the financing I needed) I arrived with my dogs stuffed in the boot of my car and a furniture van following on behind.
Within two months I had twelve hectares of land and a wonderful old cellar, which were the only things that stopped me from immediately high-tailing it back to France. The first few years here were awful and not a day passed when I did not bemoan my stupidity. The problem with not speaking Spanish, both on a daily and on a bureaucratic level, the antipathy and the constant criticism of the locals, the swindling… Despite all my travels, life had not prepared me for living in Fermoselle.
It is an old adage that one adapts to one´s environment, one dies or one leaves. I went for the former. I learnt – slowly – to adapt to living in a small, provincial Spanish town where life is best described as a cross between “A Year in Provence” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Divesting myself of my typical British correctness I learnt to tell people in a very categorical way to leave me in peace and generally they have done. With time the villagers have learnt that “because we don´t do it that way” is not a sufficiently technical argument to persuade me to change my way of doing things, and amazingly I have even gained the respect of some,
through sheer hard work if nothing else. Either way, I have made a space for myself here with my young son, and whilst I will never get used to the bull-fighting, the stewed pig´s ears, or the very irritating habit the Spanish have of asking extremely personal questions, I am finally at home here.