The shadows cast by the Vosges mountains were long across the vineyards as the sun set over Beblenheim, a village in Alsace.
Europe was on vacation for Pentecost weekend. And we were facing a night without lodging. “My daughter rents rooms, but her house is full. This is Pentecost weekend,” shrugged the ancient gentleman in high rubber boots closing his tractor gate for the night.
Then the light of pity bloomed in his eyes.
“I have some rooms in my barn where the pickers stay during the grape harvest. Only steel army cots, but I’ll find some bedding. There’s a toilet and showers. You don’t have to worry about privacy. There’s nobody else there.”
He shrugged apologetically, and I think he was truly surprised when we accepted. In the memorable ending to this tale, it turned out that our host, Alfred Wurtz, not only cultivated grapes but he was a winemaker. And our rude accommodations opened directly onto the stairs of his wine cave!
He welcomed us to wile away the evening down in the wine cave. Did Br’er rabbit make himself at home in the briar patch?
Monsieur Wurtz even showed us how to tap the “green” wine by easing a whittled plug out of the keg. A fine, glistening spray filled our goblet.
Make yourselves at home, he urged.
The goats were loose in the cabbage patch!
Next morning, Monsieur Wurtz seemed not to mind the dent we had put in it his wine supply. He would accept only thanks--no francs! And we left with a carload of the finest Alsatian vintages, much of it purchased but some he insisted on giving to us.
Now fast-forward 20 years. Monsieur Wurtz’s offspring run the winery. We know them well because we often stopped by when in the area to say bon jour and buy a few bottles of the Riesling that we came to know so intimately.
This year the proprieters of his vines told us of a recently built landmark modeled on our experiences two decades earlier. Beblenheim, our little Beblenheim, now has the very uptown castle-like Hotel Kanzel with half-timbered lodging units. And guess what else? Beneath the hotel bar is a majestically furnished and vaulted tasting room.
The cultural heritage of Alsace is tricky. Its citizens remain fiercely patriotic to France but continue to speak German. Over the years this state and its rich vineyards between the Rhine River and the Vosges mountains has gone back and forth like a ping pong ball between rulers based in Paris and Berlin.
A cafe owner in Strasbourg once attempted to help me understand Alsace's survival amid this history.
“This will explain everything,” he chortled while prying up a trapdoor and clambering into a dark vault that reeked of stale beer. He emerged with an ornately framed portrait of Georges Clemenceau, a French prime minister during the First World War. “This hung in an important place behind this bar for many years,” he explained. “My grandfather simply told us that it had been of some use during the Great War.”
Then he flipped the picture over. On the reverse side was an equally ornate portrait of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II.
No greater paean to Gallic nationalism exists than the “Chant de Guerre pour l’Armee du Rhin” written in Strasbourg in 1792. Volunteer militia from Marseille picked up the tune as a marching hymn from which point it was taken to France's heart as the “Marseillaise.”