Welcome, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
Last month’s article, Metta’s Fuller Circles, explored various ways in which my summer of sustainable living volunteering on organic farms was proving unsustainable. In contrast to the feeling that this free-range experiment was coming full circle, this month felt more like two steps forward one step back at this small family-run vineyard where I’m still volunteering, as the focus shifted from ripening grapes to taking wine produced in previous years to market.
While there’s a lot of romance attached to winemaking and open markets, in reality both involve much hard work, science, and selling. Small vineyards often can’t afford their own wine-making equipment, and instead rely on bigger facilities to make their actual wine once grapes are harvested. It was a real eye-opener to accompany our host to one of Europe’s largest commercial fruit growers—which started in their local area—to pick up the latest bottles ready to label, store, and sell ourselves.
I was half-expecting to find the stereotypical wooden barrels and bare feet pressing grapes, and was surprised to discover the facility had 20,000-liter sterile metallic tanks and computerized filtration devices. In reality, wine fermentation is more of a nod to NASA than any Michelin guide.
As pallet after pallet of various varieties and vintages were loaded onto our host’s trailer by forklift, my mind boggled at just how many steps went into brining a bottle of wine to the dinner table, and at how we were going to tow everything back to the vineyard for labelling, boxing, and sale, or storage. The flat tire that occurred later that day on our second trip to pick more bottles up was hardly surprising, and the sight of our host leaning their forehead on the steering wheel in utter exhaustion was the first indication of many of just how tired they were feeling after nearly two decades of trying to run a household, an estate, and a business simultaneously.
Knowing that various family members who normally help at this time of year would be gone, and that the current live-in volunteers were away at weekends, I offered my support for the upcoming farmers’ markets and food festivals.
The first outing was to one of the UK’s longest-running monthly open-air farmers’ markets, outside a pub in the next valley over from the vineyard. We arrived as early as possible to secure a spot with some shade amid the heatwave temperatures. As it was a little too early for most visitors to consider tasting wine, I had time to visit all the other stalls before lunch. What charmed this newcomer was the total lack of competition or underselling as there was only one local vendor for each type of product, be it honey or candles or cosmetics or wool or bread or meat or coffee.
As I chatted to “bee man” or “wool lady,” it became clear that Brexit was not only affecting larger commercial growers—such as the one producing my host’s wine—who could only hire Bulgarian workers to pick fruit this summer. Smaller producers were also struggling with the price increases in exporting their goods to Europe or continuing to import the raw materials they needed from Europe.
As I washed glasses for the wine tastings, I listened to my host inviting visitors to open their minds and tastebuds to English wines. Being located just past the northerly latitude where grapes may not receive enough sunshine to fully sweeten for winemaking, English vineyards often grow northern French or German varieties adapted to cooler climes. This makes for drier tastes and lighter colors than most European wine-lovers are accustomed to consuming.
Listening to my host’s experienced patter a few times, and knowing from my own experience just how much effort had gone into weeding, mulching, strimming, pruning, tucking, and stripping the vines this summer, I wondered how many visitors to the stall truly appreciated what went into each bottle before expressing their opinions on the finished wine.
Some were pleasantly surprised by the new tastes on offer, while others were very vocal about how much they disliked them for not being what they expected or for the prices being higher than supermarket wines.
The contrast between our local-economy surroundings and their global-economy comments brought to mind E. F. Schumacher, a German-British economist who championed decentralized and human-scale technologies. As a young man during World War II, Schumacher was interned on an English farm. In his spare time, he wrote a paper that caught the interest of John Maynard Keynes, who subsequently arranged for his release and sent him to Oxford University!
In the 1950s, Schumacher developed the principles of what he called “Buddhist economics,” which encouraged local governments to stay self-reliant by using local resources for local needs. His most famous book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (Blond & Briggs), was first published in 1973. It is still considered one of the 100 most influential books published since World War II.
Back at the farmers’ market, criticisms appeared to fall like water off my host’s back. Yet remembering their flat tire and forehead on the steering wheel earlier that week, metta often nudged me to chime in with field reports of how it was produced or all that could go wrong or the medals that the producer had won at the most recent WineGB Awards. Sometimes they backpedaled on their thoughtless comments, although, more importantly, I hope it reminded my host that all their efforts weren’t going unnoticed.
A few weeks later, we packed for the evening-before set-up at one of the UK’s oldest annual food-and-drink festivals held within the walls of a medieval castle. We arrived in good time for our one-hour slot, only to find the entrance to the castle blocked by an organic pizza food truck whose driver had misjudged its width! Vendors trying to enter and leave waited patiently and not-so-patiently as the organizers dealt with a problem the original stonemasons preparing for Norman invaders could never have anticipated!
Having exhibited at this particular festival for nearly two decades, and being the only vendor offering wine, our host was knocked back to discover our stall would be tucked away in a corner, next to the portaloos and baby-changing area for the next three days. Luckily, the next stall over was selling locally-produced cheddar cheeses, which proved a better wine pairing.
We hurried in to set up the fridge and freezer—to keep the tasting wines cool—along with the wine rack, display, banners, and stock, before driving back to the vineyard for a good night’s sleep before the sales-marathon-to-come.
The festival opened to public at 10.00 the next morning, which meant that vendors had to have their stalls ready long before the doors opened. I am that annoying morning person, wide awake when most are still struggling to open their eyes or form full sentences, and so volunteered to source coffee, pastries, and water for later in the day when we probably would be unable to take a break.
Dear readers, you’d be amazed at how hard it is to find a stall at a food festival willing to start trading ahead of the doors opening—either through competition on day one, or exhaustion by day three. After two coffee stalls turned me down, I explained to a third the stress my boss was feeling and that they’d asked for a double double espresso. They showed such compassion that they made one on the house, claiming their cash register wasn’t operating yet. The same happened at the water stall.
When I found the right moment to tell my host of those two random acts of kindness later in the day, they sent me back to those stalls with wine samples. Exhausted eyes lit up at being remembered and the coffee stall went one metta-step further with a fresh slice of pear frangipane tart.
Considering how annoyed my host was feeling on that first day at our tucked-away position, that sweet gesture prompted them to give me the already-open sparkling wine taster bottles and some biodegradable flutes to toast all our neighbors on a successful opening. More exhausted eyes lit up at being recognized at the end of a long first day, and it set a much friendlier tone for the remaining days with the occasional food and drink samples offered when time and supply allowed.
The farmers’ market I described earlier had attracted hundreds of local visitors on a sunny Sunday. This festival attracted several thousands from across the UK over a long weekend. The same ratio applied to the heckling, and I sometimes had to bite my tongue at the thoughtless remarks people could make tasting the different wines without fully understanding who the person filling their glasses was, or all that had gone into producing what they were sampling—whether or not they liked the taste.
Some hours the stall was so busy, I’m not sure an octopus could have handled the demand or whether any of us were speaking in coherent sentences. And so I did what I could to bolster my sometimes-flagging host with a compliment or reminder of their awards, or explain part of the growing process to someone who clearly thought that wine bottles were simply pulled out of thin air.
As the days and the camaraderie between vendors progressed, so did the exhaustion. It was certainly a steep learning curve for me about all that goes into locally sourced, artisanal food production. Basically, you have to love what you do and what you make enough to see all stages through, as well as to withstand the slings and arrows from a public accustomed to supermarket shopping.
In our final hour, our host handed me two glasses of award-winning wine to give away to anyone I felt was deserving. Remembering how those first-day sparkling wine giveaways had helped to break down walls between otherwise competitive vendors, and how jaded I was feeling with my fellow volunteers’ lack of support for our host, I awarded a glass of wine to the doggy crèche volunteer who was looking after visitor’s dogs in aid of a dog rescue charity, and to a wildflower charity volunteer promoting the rewilding of areas of the UK. Both were thrilled at the unexpected recognition, and later made the effort as we were all packing up to find my host to thank and compliment them on their surprise gifts.
And so, dear readers, however exhausted, unappreciated, or overstretched any of us may be feeling at the moment, never underestimate what a little metta can do to remind us to carbonate our own or another’s half-empty glass until it feels half-full again.
Or, to metta-morphose Natalie Merchant’s anthem to appreciation “Kind and Generous”:
I don’t know how you keep on giving
For your kindness I’m in debt to you
For your selflessness, my admiration
And for everything you’ve done
Metta, you know I’m bound . . .
I’m bound to thank you for it