by Irene Steh

Mid-life crisis? Pilgrimage? Passion for Pinot? Who knows… Let’s just say that while I would like to complain about the life of less money, living out of a suitcase in damp, cellar-like conditions, there are very few sympathy wishes rolling in. In truth, I think I was growing tired of the urban approach to wine, and ‘over-pontification’ of what is going on in a glass. I just really wanted to roll around in the dirt and hangout with cowboy winemakers. And perhaps, take a personal crack at it down the line.

So…In 2008’s harvest in Oregon, at St. Innocent winery, I accepted a position. But not until I worked two other vintages making Pinot, one in Victoria, Australia and the other in Volnay, Burgundy.

I have much to say about Australia and of course, Oregon.. but for all the ADD’s out there, I thought I would limit this to my Burgundian experience.

Getting ready to leave for France, one would think was exciting. I found it daunting. You see.. Burgundy has always been a romantic notion and so much La Référence for Pinot and Chardonnay for me, personally. I’d seen Ratatouille three times and knew it accurately, tho’ animated, captured the French culture of food and wine. And, you know, no Mac translator could help me out with the language I would need in the vineyard. I was going to a Domaine that was completely non-English speaking. Merde!

For the first couple of days alone in Beaune, I decided to overindulge in all dishes Burgundian; For me, the inherent vibe of a wine area, it’s people, the local fare.. are as much a part of terroir as the dirt it’s vines are planted in. I sat down with several glasses of Burgundy and La Salade Paysanne, Escargot en Ail, Confit et Gésiers de Canard and Époisse. So frick’n good.

I had been told that the Winemaker where I was going to work, is regarded as the Regis of Burgundy, a cross between a teddy-bear and Shrek. I sensed his trepidation when he picked me up, as he grabbed my suitcase, gave me a sideways glance and said, “La Canadienne, La grande catastrophe de 2009.”

Once we arrived in Volnay, and toured the Premier Cru vineyards, we proceeded to taste through all their wines. Deferring to what I knew and did as a sommelier, and in very pathetic French, I offered up my very understated observations. After about 8 wines, JP articulated en francais, in a pace that I would comprehend, “ Irene, these vineyards were designated 100s of years ago, by kings and nobility. And my winemaking efforts are consistent and balanced from one vineyard to the next. So if you judge a wine as being less than another, you are judging the land from which those grapes came from–not me.” From that point on I referred to JP as Mon Patron.

Every morning, I would wake up to the church bells fifty steps from my window, then walk to the house of the Patriarch of the Domaine. In the cavern of this 13th century home, 50 of us would gather for bowls of café au lait and baguette. In the tradition of vendage in Burgundy,  40 or so porters and pickers are brought in for a week to help with harvest. I would spend a good portion of the day sorting at the fields, then working in fermentation.  Around nine a.m. we would regather for baguette, pork rillette, coffee and wine.  I had the privilege of eating lunch everyday with the Chef de Cave and his closest friends; This meal always consisted of 4 courses, which always included a Burgundian cheese course, and the occasional ’90, ’83, or ’59 Volnay… much like dinner. I have no idea how people get stuff done, but it does get done.

And since my ass was starting to take the same shape as a wheel of cheese.. I felt that evening runs were desperately in order. So at midnight… I would lace up my shoes, walk out… look left, look right.. and decide whether to run  through the hills to Pommard with the Big Dipper on my left or on my right heading into Monthelie. And sometimes,  after a night of too much époisse, I would lie out on one of the supporting walls of a vineyard, and think.. ‘Life just doesn’t get better’.

I felt the benefit of a Winemaker who taught oenology at the Lycée de Beaune for twenty years. Not every Winemaker is willing to be straight on the personalities of the region, but if I asked a question, I got the unequivocal truth. And it was educational to find out which Winemakers authentically embraced tradition and which Winemaker’s took the media trail.  I was fortunate to have worked with someone who didn’t claim to be part of any movement, but instead made wines with integrity, balance and very little intervention. Un paysan.

While JP did not stray from my nickname of ‘La Catastrophe’, the truth was inescapable:      Pretty balanced fruit, thick, interesting skins, and no rot… 2009, C’est un grand millésime. Une coincidence? Je ne pense pas ainsi!

Though my five French weeks were coming to an end, I felt proud that mes fracaises had improved enough that I could hold a debate related to wine, or respond with sarcasm after  so many weeks of being the victim of French mockery.

My time was coming to a close and I was jumping full-on from one of the most beautiful places in the Old World of Pinot to a place of equal charm in the New World of Oregon. But not until I spent some time post-harvest tilling the fields and taking a birdseye tour of the Côte d’Or.

When I flew out, I was reminded of a phone conversation I had with Thomas from Le Clos Jordanne.

“Just remember, Irene, like many special events in life, there will only be one ‘first’ Burgundy experience.” Mine was better than I could have imagined it.

And tho’ I’ve made the big shift, relinquishing all urban trappings and designer clothes (I’ve kept a few staples)… I have to say, I’ve been drinking some pretty fine Pinot.

Irene Steh was born into a Foodie family, with a mother who was a Chef and a father somewhat obsessed with womens’ perfume and farming orchard fruit.

She has worked the last 13 years with Oliver and Bonacini Group, split between Jump and Canoe and wearing several hats as Server, Assistant Somm and Wine Educator. After being involved with a personal blend of riesling through Cave Springs a few years back, she went on to pursue other wine-related stints in Niagara and beyond, forging great relationships in the world of wine in Canada and internationally. Finally in 2008, Irene took the plunge, both feet in, and worked a harvest in Oregon at St. Innocent Winery. At it’s end, she was offered a position. With no regrets, 2009 was a year of harvests, Austrailia, Burgundy, bookended with Oregon…” currently, my favourite place in the world of wine.”