A few years ago, I was asked to review a book entitled “Une Année dans La Vigne” – a slim paperback volume composed of the letters and photos of artist Afred Gaspart. Gaspart spent much of 1935 and 1936 around the town of Beaune, painting watercolours from the black and white photos he took. His subjects were not the great and good of Burgundy’s wine capital, but rather the local inhabitants and vineyard workers. He managed, through regular contact, to earn their trust, to the point where he became, as photographers often aspire to be, invisible.
It was these paintings that planted the seed of my own interest in the people and work I encountered in the vineyard. What enabled the seed to grow were the different seasons I spent in the vines. Becoming aware of the arduous, repetitive tasks that must be undertaken with care in all weather conditions made me realise, in the parlance of 2020, the importance of “frontline workers”, many of whom are families. By way of comparison, over the years, I have seen neophyte winemakers arrive, almost succeed and, in some cases, even achieve great success. It is a rarer thing, though, for winemakers to put down roots and raise their children here.
Starting my project of shooting Burgundy’s Corton hill throughout the year immediately introduced me to these frontline workers whom, I realised, were fundamental to a domaine’s success. I came to the conclusion that those I encountered in the vines, who spend hours bent double in hard conditions, only survive and succeed because they are genetically suited to such work. For their part, some, perhaps most, doubted I would last very long. Photographers turn up with the sun and the harvest – less so when the slopes are slippery with rain and wind and playing out solely to menial work.
To earn the cooperation of your subject takes time, consideration and respect, for both them and their work, but the pay-off is the new dimension it brings to your appreciation of wine.