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A Working Holiday
Chapter 1: We Leave for France
Chapter 10: Looking for Mr. Goodstone
Chapter 11: A mission to la Clape
Chapter 12: Dinner at Château de Lignan
Chapter 13: Antiques and plunder
Chapter 14: The vintner next door
Chapter 15: The rooftops of Nézignan-l'Évêque
Chapter 2: Comes the crusade
Chapter 3: The 13 colonies
Chapter 4: Our curtains are dreadful
Chapter 5: Naked beaches
Chapter 6: A visit to Château des Estanilles
Chapter 7: A pilgrimage to Toulouse
Chapter 8: Remembering Collioure
Chapter 9: The priest and the mayor
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A Working Holiday
Chapter 6: A visit to Château des Estanilles
I don't ask the most obvious question: Where did the name come from? I am too busy smiling and nodding praise. Murmuring appreciatively Oui, oui. Château des Estanilles? Zesta-knee. The name? A large dog sniffs around, disappointed that his mistress has welcomed us into the pillared villa, still under construction a year after our first visit. The Louisons live upstairs. The husband, with the daughter's help, makes wine below, in the large concrete vaults: a highly esteemed red Faugères and a beautiful, transparent white that is like sticking your nose into a bouquet. Madame Louison conducts the tasting.

Vineyards on the stony slopes near Faugéres.
It is the verdange, harvest season, the busiest time of the year, dawn to beyond midnight for weeks. Everything has to get done at once. Picking, pressing, fermentation, into barrels or bottles. Château des Estanilles is only open by appointment. The winemaker, Michel Louison, has a fearsome reputation. A demanding perfectionist. The wines here are handmade. By his hands, and now his daughter's, too. Her name is Sophie. She's 26. She looks quite as fierce and determined as her papa. Father and daughter are already clashing over ideas, according to Madame. There are three versions of the red. Madame pours the cheapest first. She calls it "traditional." My palate shrugs. This wine is a brick beside polished marble. We move quickly to her husband's 1998 Faugères. A smile unbends my face. The flavor's so good I laugh. Madame has seen this reaction many times. Simone confirms in French that this is the wine I remembered. It is a Syrah. On my tongue, I taste a leather strap. Some chocolate. It's the color of stained glass. How well will it age? Madame says it will cellar for 10 years. But she prefers it younger than five. After five, the Syrah develops a taste she describes as "boar intestine," which she doesn't like. The schist soil gives the wine its distinct pepper. The road here to Lenthéric snakes up and around the tumbling hills. We pass a bicycle club, serious men on serious bikes. In the road cuts, cascades of shale glitter like dragon scales. Faugères vines grow in stone. And that geology is in the Syrah. We talk about the Louison's new grandchild. Madame - Monique - shares her views of the European Union, which she despises because it over-regulates everything. We buy six cases. One case is the white. I am not a huge white wine fan. Madame insists I try it anyway. This white is the kiss of an angel. Or your first human kiss, tentative lips on tentative lips. Clean, dry, fragrant with flowers. Magic. Madame is pleased that I'm pleased.

Oz Clarke deems this Syrah-dominated Estanilles blend "glorious" and calls Michel Louison "a hugely gifted winemaker [who] complains that he is slowing down with age, but his wines have lost none of their flair and brilliance."
The other five cases are all Faugères, quite a haul. The Louisons send out a mailer in the spring allowing buyers to reserve cases at a special price. We tried to reserve an allotment, but communications between France and the States broke down. Madame remembered faxing a reservation form. We never received it. Simone called from the States and left a phone message. We never heard back. But Madame graciously sells us all we want anyway, at the discounted reservation price. It comes to about US$12 a bottle. Which in France makes it damn expensive. Only very good restaurants offer Château des Estanilles. By American standards, it's a steal. We follow Madame down onto the processing floor. Her husband, Michel, is raking brilliant magenta skins from the bottom of a two-story stainless steel tank. He's around 60, I guess. Bare from the waist up. With flying wings of white hair. Sophie is there, too. Both father and daughter wear rubber boots. We all shake hands. Madame makes some comment to Simone, and everyone laughs. Simone translates, "She said the levels of carbon dioxide in that tank are so high they will kill you instantly. She said that if she ever wants to get rid of her husband, she needs only to push him into the tank." Ah.

Simone and I have a book of hikes we want to break in. A half hour after leaving the Louisons, we're parking behind the Mairie, the town hall, in Colombières-sur-Orb, in the Monts de Espinouse. The Orb river, which eventually washes the feet of Béziers, flashes in the narrow valley, between trees. We're on the outskirts of the Upper Languedoc Regional Nature Park, an immense, sparsely settled collection of mountains. The parking lot is half full. We step out of the car and change into hiking clothes, then follow a ravine to a trailhead. We're a few miles from the watershed that separates Atlantic-bound streams from those headed for the Mediterranean. A rugged mountain river, the town's water supply, splashes beside the trail. According to the map, there's a rock-climbing school ahead. The classrooms are scrubby, sharply vertical cliffs rising hundreds of meters. We're here to exercise, and our hike is a Stairmaster, rising quickly through relatively young reforestations: beech, holm-oak and chestnut trees. People are gathering chestnuts for roasting. We do what we usually do, hike for an hour then turn around. There are even some thrills: one stretch of trail consists of stone steps cemented across the face of a sheer, bare ledge. This is an area we realize we need to explore a lot more. On the Michelin map, nearly every road is lined with green, which means "scenic." On the way home to Valros, we pass Lamalou-les-Bains, a hot springs famous for its operetta festival, and turn at the bell-casting town of Hérepian. I feel the good weight of a car trunk full of my favorite wine. Having so much of it makes me blissfully happy. The glutton in me warms his hands over one thought: now, no matter what, I can drink as much of the good stuff as I like. With Alain's arrival in a few days, I'm expecting the work to begin and the fun to dwindle to a glass. Thank the gods, there's always drinking.
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