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October 27, 2013

GRAPE SENSE: A great wine buy and an even better story of goodwill

A great story has long been an awesome ingredient to generating sales and goodwill. Often, we Midwesterners think we have the market cornered on those feel-good, helping-the-neighbor-out stories that move people — if not product.

But the more you see the world, you come to realize most of us are alike whether we’re from Illinois, Michigan, France, Spain or even Indiana. The story shared here has been repeated throughout the wine world but probably is new to most outside that geeky little corner of the universe.

A tremendous hail storm hit Southern France July 1, 2012. The ferocity of the storm destroyed 62 acres of vines at Chateau de Roquefort, owned by Raimond de Villeneuve. The storm lasted just seven minutes but devastated his 2012 crop and is expected to cut his 2013 harvest by nearly half.

Hail insurance is pretty rare in grape growing country, particularly in Provence near the Mediterranean Sea. Local growers called the storm a once in every-50-years event.

“It all began at about 7 o’clock in the evening with an unexpected hailstorm of barbaric violence,” Villeneuve is widely reported detaling. “In a mere 7 minutes this wall of ice completely devastated everything growing in the vineyard … not a leaf or a single bunch remained; nothing survived the bombardment. I can still see myself running backwards and forwards through the vines, up to my knees at times in streams of hailstones, petrified, blue with cold. Shrouds of white mist were rising from the tons of ice lying on the still warm ground. When I had completed the tour of our 24 hectare of vines, I knew there wouldn’t be the faintest chance of harvesting anything. I knew that time would be required for the vines to recover from such a severe onslaught; I felt like somebody shipwrecked in the middle of nowhere!”

But then, much like any Midwestern farm field, Villeneuve’s neighbors arrived. Or more accurately, friends and neighbors from across Provence came to his rescue. Owners from 35 different estates, including some of the smallest and most prominent, offered up fruit so Chateau de Roquefort would have a 2012 production.

So Villeneuve, with the help, decided to make three wines — a red, white and rosé which they would call a “special anti-hail solidarity” cuvée. And they decided to call the wines GRÊLE, which in English means “hail.”

Even more impressive than the solidarity of the winemakers, was the notoriously strict French winemaking governing bodies allowing the wine to be made. France has more legislation detailing what you can grow, where you can grow it and how it goes into the bottle than most other countries combined. The Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Syrah, Cabernet, Cinsault and more came from all over Provence and different appelations. That’s why the wine is simply called a cuvee.

Many others pitched in and provided needed help such as refrigeration trucks to move the donated grapes.

“This adventure still seems almost surreal today, and I think it will take me quite a while to appreciate what has actually happened over these last few months,” Villeneuve recently told the French press.

And by the way, the rosé is pretty terrific. The unique label with the names of the Domaines is distinctive as the wine. As a huge Provence fan, I was skeptical until the first taste. It’s a bit less crisp or acidic than many Rosé wines but has a very rich mouth feel. At $14-$16, it is a great wine buy and an even better story.

Howard Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about value wine every other week for 23 Midwestern newspapers. Read his wine blog at: www.howardhewitt.net.

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