Grape Harvest

I

WARM weather lingers late in the sheltered valley of the Ahr. ‘Old Wives’ Summer’ the autumn is often called here. But by the end of October there is frost in the air from the Eifel every night after sunset, and when I first came to visit in the home of Wolfgang and Anna Bender, in early November, 1934, even the tardiest of the plants had joined the more prudent in drawing down their precious green chlorophyll. Leafed in reds and gold, the trees and vines and grasses filled the valley with such beauty as sets the heart to dancing in delight.

Anna met me at the foot of the path that leads through terraced vines to her door. I saw her standing there before I got down from the postal bus — a slender woman in a fresh print dress, her brown hair worn in a coronet braid round her head, with eyes that are cornflower blue. When we were in her house, my wraps and valise put away, we had coffee seated by a broad window. Then she fetched her work, the ripping of her husband’s overcoat. Supplied with a ripper, I helped.

Below us to the river sloped the vineyard of her dowry. Through an orchard on the west we could just see the roof of her parents’ dwelling, which is set in a dell. Some distance beyond rose the steeple of the village church. The gray stone cottage in which we sat, with the grape terraces on three of its sides and a wood lot over the hill, is Wolfgang’s inheritance from his father.

Anna led me to an east window to point out a sunny ridge, saying: ‘My man has chosen the best of all his land for a new vineyard. Our eldest daughter, Anna-Marie, is sixteen. The grapes are ready to bear next season. The harvest from these young vines will be hers to fill her hope chest, and when she weds the vineyard deeds go with her to her new home.’

We took up our ripping again while Anna talked on about her children: ‘After us, the homestead wall go to Hans, our second son. Ernst, our first-born, does not want a vineyard. Not all children born to farm families belong to the land. It is best for those who are not the land’s own to follow the call which bids them be away. Ernst would be a physician. He has gone to learn. A vineyard keeper has gentle skill in his hands, endurance, intuition, and the power of quick decision. A vine-keeping ancestry may help our Ernst to be a wise physician.’

Hans and his father came in from the wood lot, where they had been cutting grape supports. Greetings over, Wolfgang noticed our work.

‘I am repairing this coat for the last time,’ Anna told him. ‘After next harvest you must buy a new one.’

‘It has been a good coat,’ he answered. ‘There is no weaving now like the wool cloth made before the war.’

‘The best of cloth does not last forever,’ she reminded him. ‘This is the third time I have turned this coat. The collar and cuffs are so worn that I must cut new ones from the length. Very short it will be!’

‘Well — after next season’s picking I’ll get a coat,’ he promised.

Anna-Marie returned from helping with her grandmother’s baking day, bringing a warm, fragrant currant loaf; and her mother promptly made her a witness to this overcoat agreement. Born in that dark winter of despair, 1918, she is her father’s pride. ‘My sunshine’ and ‘my light’ he calls her in his sentimental German way.

‘If you find any fault in her you must not blame her,’ Wolfgang will often say. ‘If she is spoiled, then I am at fault for spoiling her.’

Soft of voice and quick of wit, yet with no barb in her words to hurt those against whom her humor is directed, she has inherited her mother’s lithe figure and her father’s red-gold hair.

Suse and Otto, aged nine and ten, slipped in. They had loitered on the way from school. Each gave me a grubby hand and made me a deep bow. They were scolded and kissed by both mother and father and sent to wash. They soon returned, shiny-clean, to stand leaning against their big brother Hans, one on either side of his chair.

Everyone in the Bender family has his or her duties. There is no discussion as to who shall do what in the daily tasks. On the evening of my first arrival, before the family scattered to tend the animals, gather the eggs, milk the cows, and prepare a bountiful supper, Wolfgang played Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony on his gramophone.

‘Some day I hope to own the Ninth,’ he declared as he put the records carefully away in their case.

During my visit Anna cleaned and pressed the cloth of his overcoat, and puzzled out its remaking to the best advantage. Sewing on the buttons, the morning of my departure, she assured everyone within hearing, ‘This is the last winter he can wear this coat.’ And as he tried it on, thrice turned and now shortened by the necessity of replacing its frayed collar and cuffs from the length, Wolfgang affirmed, ‘Yes — next autumn, if there is profit in the harvest, I ’ll get a new coat.’

II

While the vine sleeps the toil of the vineyard keeper goes on. ’Grape growers who would prosper must water their vines with sweat every month in the year,’ according to Anna’s father.

Men of prudence firm their terraces as soon as the harvest is cut, putting back any stones that have fallen from the walls which hold them to the hill, and replace rotted vine supports with new posts. Their womenfolk go through the vineyards lifting each vine that has been pulled down by the weight of fruit and retying it securely to its supporting post with binders of reed.

Time is then taken from the care of the vineyards to make the homesteads and the places of community meeting snug against the coming cold. Roofs are mended and storm doors put up on house and stable. The kitchen shed is filled with fuel. Tender garden plants are bedded with leaves and mats. Men join in tightening their churches, neighborhood halls, and schoolhouses. Indoors the women make ready for winter by closing every crack that might let frost into the cellars where food is laid by for the season when nothing grows, looking over the family’s warm clothing, airing the feather quilts, and refilling with fresh earth the pots of ivy geranium, begonia, and oxalis that bloom by the windows.

‘Men should be ready for their woodlot work when the leaves turn,’ young Suse informed me.

‘When the leaves yellow, the trees are drawing their life fluid down into their roots for winter storage,’ Wolfgang explained. ‘Vine supports are strongest if hewn when this life fluid is passing through the tree’s trunk.’

Wood should season a year before it is set in the earth, so the vineyard keeper hews his vine posts the autumn before he needs them. Oak is best. Oak properly cured will hold a vine through all weathers for twenty years. Therefore in his wood lot it is the oaks that Wolfgang pampers by clearing out other growth to give them plenty of air and light. Helping the acorns to sprout abundantly, he picks up handfuls that have fallen in the shade and scatters them in open glades. Often he transplants oak saplings to better places than those where they have started. Hewing his vine supports, he bears in mind the generations to come after him, and takes no more than he must each year.

The Benders stack their roughly hewn posts in an open-ended shed, leaving the trimming and shaping to be done on days when weather makes it impossible to work out of doors. The posts hauled in, the next job of the year is the carrying up of manure from the cow stables to enrich the terraced earth. This is the hardest of all a vine keeper’s work. It occupies much of the winter. Hods are used, similar in shape to those masons have, but larger, and Hans says there is no way to carry them but on a man’s back. A man in the prime of his strength can make fifteen trips a day to a height of six hundred feet, carrying a hundredweight each time.

I enjoyed my first visit in Anna’s house, and as I left she bid me come again freely whenever I wanted to. I have gone often, finding peace there from the stress of my own city life.

While the vines are dormant it is the women’s task to prune them back, leaving only one branch of last season’s growth, which is to bear next summer’s grapes, and to clean all twigs and grippers from the stalk. Trimmed while they sleep, the vines do not bleed. In open weather Anna and Anna-Marie kept at this job, as it takes many months to attend to all their vineyards. On rough days they were occupied inside, preparing the coils of rye straw and reed twine used for binding the grapes to their supports. Both the straw and the reeds are soaked in water, then worked until pliable.

Snow fell on Christmas Eve. All through January the valley of the Ahr was mantled in white. There were three days of vacation for Christ’s Feast. Then the Benders went on with their work. Except when there was rough wind or blinding snowfall, Wolfgang and Hans continued to carry their hods up into the vineyards. The grape growers of this place unload their fertilizer in evenly spaced heaps and do not spread it until certain there is enough for all the vines. Otherwise a vine keeper might find that he had none for the last terrace.

When they are doing this work Anna will not let her menfolk into the house until they have washed and changed. She puts warm water and fresh clothes in the shed for them.

III

In February we enjoyed a false spring in a sudden thaw and a spell of weather so warm that it was comfortable without a coat. The air was laden with the promise of summer. I went down to Anna’s to find young Otto sunning himself on the doorstep in company with Tiger, the cat.

‘Liegt die Katze im Februar in der Sonne, liegt sie im März hintern Ofen mit Wonne,’ the boy sang out as I approached.

The others were all up in the vineyards. He had been left to tend the home chores and was sitting with Tiger until milking time. On one of the terraces I found Anna, Anna-Marie, and Suse busy with their pruning shears. They all agreed that the weather was lovely, but hoped that the mildness would soon end, lest the vines be wakened.

Wolfgang and Hans were hastily hoeing the manure into the thawed ground to save it from the winds which might blow it away in March. The soil here is filled with slate. They all believe that the slate gives their grapes an iron which builds up strength in those who drink the wine such as is not found in the juice of fruit grown elsewhere. Slate makes the earth hard to till. Wolfgang and Hans were tearing the ground open with hoes resembling miners’ picks, digging the fertilizer well in. The more the earth is tilled, the better vines thrive. All the year, whenever they can find time from other tasks and the ground is not frozen, they work through their vineyards terrace by terrace. The end reached, they turn back to start again where they commenced to hoe.

‘Twenty times round each vine is the least number of hocings any sensible tiller gives,’ according to Hans. Otto is too young yet to do a day’s work with the hoe, but he is often made to do a hand’s turn that he may grow into understanding of the patience that a man needs.

The weather did soon turn colder, as the Benders wished, but with a greater fierceness than they desired. Otto’s prophecy, quoted from his grandfather, came true. March arrived with a blast that drove the cat behind the stove. The earth was frozen hard, and cracked open. The heaving frosts split vineyards asunder. Stones from the supporting walls were tumbled from terrace to terrace. Ragged gashes were torn across the ground — looking into them, one could see the exposed vine roots. Men hastened into the bitter weather to mend as best they could the damage done by the cruel strength of the cold, stuffing sacking, newspapers, and old quilts in to cover the roots.

The changeable weather brought the valley an epidemic of influenza. Anna’s own hardy family escaped the sickness. She joined a corps of neighborhood women quickly organized to nurse the suffering. The local doctor was away when the epidemic began, answering a summons for having turned a radio off when Adolf Hitler was speaking. When he returned he praised the women highly for having used just the right remedies in his absence.

There was great rejoicing at his return. Reported by a malicious person as disrespectful to the Führer, he had taken his case directly to Berlin. He had turned the radio off because while it was on he could not hear the heartbeat of a sick child whom he was tending. Pleading his own case, without a lawyer’s aid, he had won release and pardon. He had been away less than a fortnight.

‘There is justice in our Fatherland,’ he told patients as he went his rounds.

The true spring came with Easter. The Eifel whitened as with drifted snow under the blossoms of the wild cherry and the blackthorn. Grass sprang up. Primroses unfolded their petals. Violets lifted their heads. Iris thrust clean blades through the soil in Anna’s garden. Yet the grapevines slept on, heedless of the perfumed call of growing things.

After April’s second gentle rain, Anna’s Cousin Bcckhaus, a near neighbor, set out a new vineyard, moving his plants before they wakened. Each little vine was shaded with a slate to keep the sun from pulling too hard on it during its first summer on the terrace. Vines are started from slips, usually in the kitchen garden, as his were. For three years after transplanting they are pruned back to drive their growth into the root, and in the fourth year vines are allowed to bear their first grapes. The crop comes strong and healthy.

There is a Portuguese grape grown here sometimes which bears for a hundred years, but unfortunately its taste is not a favorite. People of the Ahr prefer varieties of red and white French grapes which have to be replanted about every twenty years. The roots go down forty feet and more, and they must be pulled out with chains when the vineyard ceases to bear. The land has then to rest for three or four years while the soil is cleaned by growing vegetables in it. The clever among experienced vineyard keepers are wise concerning the crops that are best for reviving the ground so that vines will thrive in it again.

In the Ahr a man may not plant just what he will in his land. He has to carry every slip he desires to grow to a communal examination before he can put it in the earth. There are many grape diseases and this common law is a safeguard for the valley. If disease does get into a vineyard, the vines are destroyed and the plot fenced and sealed by the mayor until the earth is cured. The American wild grape has been found marvelously free from the danger of root trouble and Ahr growers like to use it as a stock grafting on their favorite variety.

In recent years government regulations forbidding the sending of money out of Germany have made it difficult to secure these roots, but some families have a relative living in the States who will express them and wait for payment until international economics are untangled. Wolfgang got American roots for Anna-Marie’s vineyard, and the vines for Cousin Beckhaus’s planting were grown from slips which she gave him.

During the fair days of spring the men hoed diligently in their vineyards, letting air and light in round the grape roots. Anna and Anna-Marie bent the single branch which they had left on each vine, when they pruned, into a hoop, binding it into shape with the rye-straw twine; then fastened the hoop to the vine’s post with a knot of reed.

Through a diligent bustle and stir all down the valley the vines continued quiet. The swallows had long returned; the blackbird had finished his courting song; the larks were nesting before the grapes cautiously stretched out leaf buds clad in mittens of fuzzy wool.

IV

‘Bodenständig should only be used in reference to folk who stand firmly on the earth,’ spoke Anna, correcting me. ‘Like the noun “farmer,”it is a word that no family has a right to until it has proved its steadiness by more than one generation of successful living on the land.’

A vineyard keeper worthy of this title has his wood lot for poles, his field for potatoes, his orchard of fruit trees, his stabled cows, his dwelling house, and his vines. He eats bread of his wife’s making which is baked in the village oven, where each family has its allotted day and the fire is banked over Sunday. His laundry is rubbed clean at home, rinsed in the clear waters of the Ahr, and bleached on the grass. He walks without arrogance but with self-respecting dignity. And, Protestant or Catholic, he brings his children up to earn their keep, pay their debts, revere God, and love the Fatherland.

When such a man marries, in the valley of the Ahr, he needs four thousand vines to support himself and his wife in decency. As his family increases he requires more. A healthy man and his wife can tend up to eight thousand vines without undue strain, but if they increase their vineyards beyond this number they should employ help — unless they have grown sons and daughters. Casual labor does nothing except harm in a vineyard. Vines thrive best when tended by persons who have grown up in the vineyards. It is the custom here for young folk who do not yet own enough grapes to occupy them entirely to hire themselves out to neighbors; and it is the recognized duty of a son, or a son-in-law, to tend the vineyards of parents who have lost their strength.

Along the lovely green waters of the Ahr, since Napoleon passed, the vines have been the property of working Vineyarders. This arrangement differs from conditions on the banks of the Rhine and the Moselle, where many of the vineyards are owned by absentee landlords and a goodly number of the best terraces are held by the Prussian State. Charlemagne planted the first grapes to grow in German soil. According to legend, he sent his servant Kunrat to Orleans for tHe vines and set them in the earth with his own hand. When the first wine harvest was ready he journeyed from Aix-la-Chapelle, in regal procession, to taste the beverage. Draining his golden goblet, he declared the German wine to be a drink which gave back his youth.

After this success, many vineyards were planted along the Rhine and the Rhine’s tributaries. Graf von Hochstaden, Count of Altenahr, who held the land on both banks of the Ahr by feudal right, ordered it terraced and set with vines. When he died, his valley of vineyards was inherited by his brother, a Catholic bishop. The bishop bequeathed it to the Cathedral of Cologne.

When Napoleon came he took the valley of the Ahr from the Church and sold it out in small lots. Many families here speak with pride of their deed from Napoleon. Folk who stand firmly on the earth, they have held to the opportunity which the Corsican gave them through all the decades since.

V

Under the hot sun of May the woolly knobs on the grapevines pushed out farther and farther. Now that the vines were waking, the vineyard keepers feared a frost. May the eleventh, the thirteenth, and the fifteenth are called ‘The Three Ice Holies.’

‘This is the time when icebergs floating down from the far North bring cold to Germany,’ the village cobbler told me when I took my country shoes to be soled.

Visiting at Anna’s, I found the family saying prayers daily in church, as their neighbors were. Thermometers had been hung in all the vineyards and men kept guard at night, reading the temperature every half hour. The ‘Holies’ passed safely, but the watchmen stayed on, neighbors taking turns, as the air held frost.

On the night of the sixteenth an alarm was given which set the church bells ringing from village to village, calling out the vineyard keepers and their families. Cannons barked the order for fires to be lit. The people knew where to set their fires and how many to put alight by the way the cannons were fired. They worked in corps, each with a leader whom they obeyed without question or delay.

The village was wrapped in a blanket of protecting smoke made by burning coal tar. The greatest danger is on the clearest nights, and the lower parts of the vineyards are in gravest peril because the cold intensifies by its own weight. The peril is in the sudden thawing under the morning sun, when the life drips out of fruit buds. Wrapping them in smoke prevents this thawing.

Such a frost is a nuisance to the German housewife, who likes her house kept spotlessly clean, but for the sake of the vines, which are the valley’s livelihood, the valley must be filled with coal-tar smoke. Black gets in everywhere. Still, everyone is glad to have the grapes saved.

After dawn the buds were officially examined and in every village along the Ahr the Bürgermeister pronounced the grapes unhurt. Bells and cannon carried the glad tidings. Laughing and singing in their relief, the people of the Ahr filed into their churches to thank God for His mercy.

Then the women hurried home. By noon the smoke had settled. At suppertime Anna had fresh curtains up, snowy linen on the beds, the doorsteps scoured, and the garden flowers rinsed off. Rain at the end of the week washed the valley, cleaning away the last traces of tar smoke.

The vines put forth branches. The leaf buds broke their sheaths and slowly unfolded their tucks, spreading their greenness shiny and moist to the sun. Under the protection of the leaves the flower buds opened their tiny petals, and the bright June weather was sweet with the blossoming of the grape.

I sat by the river bank watching swallows teach their young to feed on the wing. Four round little birds, steel-blue, squatted on the swaying branches of a riverside willow. Scolding and coaxing, turning and twisting in flights of easy grace, the mother and father, their cheeks pouched with insects, circled over their children. One by one the birdlings would venture out to have their mouths filled, then flutter back to a perch.

But Wolfgang and Anna, hurrying by, gave no heed to this, in June the attention of vineyard keepers centres on their vines. She carried her scissors. He had a spraying tank swung over his shoulder.

Bright June weather brings on the first real surety of harvest — the tiny green grapes, a few days after the blossoms fall. It also brings on the danger of mildew and hatches out the hay moth. Wolfgang fights mildew with sprays of sulphur and copper vitriol thinned with chalk milk. Every leaf on every vine must be noticed; those on which the spray is blown take on a gray-blue color. Mildew must be watched out for so long as the leaves are growing, well into September.

Anna’s concern was with the hay moth. The first had been seen fluttering over the house arbor. She was on her way to the village hall, where women were gathering to make the hay-moth banners. So I went along. These banners consist of a light stick with an oblong framework at one end over which white muslin is tacked. At the time of use, the muslin is smeared with a sticky substance prepared by the village committee and distributed at cost.

After school the children were sent into the vineyards with the banners. The catcher was cleaned and freshly smeared each day. Suse and Otto and their young neighbors had to carry on this chase every evening until the last hay moth had disappeared from the valley.

‘My children, I thank you,’ Wolfgang said on the last evening of the moth chase as Otto and Suse, reluctant to leave the twilight, came in to bed at Anna’s call. ’You have saved my winter overcoat.’

He spoke too soon. In August, after a long spell of hot dry weather, came the wasps, a plague of them, endangering a vintage which promised to be exceptionally good in both quality and quantity. The insects settled on the half-grown grapes, sucking the juice and bringing in their wake flies and earwigs.

Working in groups with a leader, as in the smoke column, the vineyard keepers fought the wasps. They sought out nests, burned sulphur under them, and, when the wasps were stupefied, poured on boiling water. They hung bottles of sweetened water in the vines throughout the vineyards, emptying them systematically of drowned insects morning and evening. Still the menace persisted.

Finally the advice of the village cobbler was heeded. He contended that what the wasps needed was a drink, and that if trickles of fresh water were arranged, from slightly opened taps, at which the insects could quench their thirst, they would n’t destroy the grapes. This was done. The plague ceased.

On the last day of August, the schoolmaster’s eldest son, now an official in brown uniform, came to remind Hans that this year all men born in 1915 must do their Labor Service. Questioning him, Wolfgang asked if Hans’s work in the vineyards did not count as labor for his country. The man in brown explained that the purpose of the Labor Corps is not work in the ordinary sense, but a bringing together of all classes from different parts of Germany in the comradeship of activity.

‘You do not intend to object to your son going?’

‘Certainly not,’ Wolfgang replied. ‘We of Ahr are a peaceful, law-abiding people who obey new regulations as soon as explained to us.’

It was arranged that Hans should go into camp after harvest for his six months’ service.

VI

Through the summer, while the grapes grew, women were as busy in the vineyards with their pruning scissors as the men with their hoes. All barren growth, except shoots for next season’s bending, were kept snipped off. Every useless tendril on a vine takes of its strength, reducing the size of the grapes.

When the grapes took on color the vineyards were officially closed. The notice was given by a boy walking through the village ringing a bell. It was also printed in the local paper.

The Bürgermeister decided the day. (This is not a state law, but a custom.) Everyone had to close off his vineyards. Thorns and brush were piled up at the foot of the paths. Not even the owner could go in. This is the time of waiting for the harvest. The vine keepers have done all in their power to help the vines; now the vines are left in undisturbed peace to finish the grapes.

The men rested, loitering about the village or lounging through the sunny afternoons on the banks of the river. The women spent their freedom from outdoor work in making their homes fine. There was a tremendous scrubbing and cleaning; then a great cooking and baking. The shelves of storeroom and cellar were filled with pies, cakes, puddings, boiled hams, spiced sausages, roasted chickens, and a variety of pressed meats. Anna and Anna-Marie, who has a deft hand with yeast sponge, made innumerable loaves of bread, buns, and coffee twists.

The harvest is the crown of the vine keepers’ work. A good harvest is celebrated as a joyous festival. The schools were closed. Relatives and friends came from far and near. The women guests fetched hampers of their cooking, gifts to add to all the hostess had made ready. As the women arrived they fell in with the final preparations, turning a hand to the churn or the whipping of bowls of cream.

The Bürgermeister, himself a vine grower, proclaimed the grapes ripe. The boy crier ran through the village with his bell to spread the tidings, and the vine growers all gathered at their village hall. With ceremony and song the brush was thrown aside, and the harvesters went in with baskets and scissors.

As filled, the baskets were emptied into a wicker carrier. Each time this was full a strong man lifted it on to his back, carrying it down to a handcart below the vineyard. As loaded, the carts were taken to the owner’s cellar, or if the family were members, as Wolfgang and Anna are, to the WIizer-Verein.

Before this coöperative idea was established every man made his wine in his own cellar. But the best vintners are often the poorest salesmen. Buyers took advantage of this. Frequently they stirred growers to bid against each other so as to get the wine cheaply. As a result many vine keepers were continually poor, some actually in debt after a good harvest.

Some few, of course, were clever. So it came to be that the ability to bargain gave a man more reward than skill with vine and vat. This was wrong. Finally the vineyard keepers drew together, At Mayschoss in the Ahr, sixty years ago, the first Winzer-Verein in all Germany was formed.

To-day every grape-growing neighborhood in Germany has its coöperative society. Of course in each district some men stay independent. Under the Winzer-Verein system the members take their harvest directly from the vineyard to the society’s cellar. Here a machine picks the fruit from the branches and grinds it through a crusher. Then the pulp is weighed with an invention which measures the sugar content.

The result is written in an open book, into which any member can look whenever he likes. Each family has a credit according to what it has brought in. The wine is made together and the vats are under the care of the best wine makers. The selling is done by those who are best at business. By coöperation, Wolfgang believes, a neighborhood lives better than when every man’s hand is out just for his own house.

VII

The year had swung round in its circle. Frost, sharp in warning of winter’s approach, was in the air again. Wolfgang and Anna came up to Cologne to light candles in the Cathedral, and to buy Wolfgang’s overcoat. By letter we arranged that I should meet them in town, bringing t hem out to stay a night with us. At five o’clock we met at the appointed place, the Cathedral steps.

They had arrived before me and were waiting. A stiff wind blew across the Cathedral square. Seeking no shelter, they stood staunch against its blast, her hand in his. Under his arm he held a brown paper parcel.

Greetings over, I asked, ‘Did you get a nice coat?‘

‘We have spent our money,’ answered Anna, then added, her eyes twinkling, ‘I know what you will think. You will think, “Those crazy Huns!”’

‘No, no, Nanchen,’ admonished Wolfgang, tucking a wisp of her hair back under her hat with a gentle index finger. ‘No, no, my little dear. Our foreign friend is an American. The Americans are intelligent people. An American would know that there is more warmth in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony than in eleven overcoats.’