Noted Southern author Rheta Grimsley Johnson joins an annual community party in a German village, where the vineyard harvests are cause for an unusual type of celebration.
Nobody does it better. Except maybe … little Freinsheim near Mannheim, Germany, in the Southwest region called the Palatinate.
I recently visited relatives in the town of 4,800 just after grape harvest. Freinsheim is at the center of seven wine-making villages. How’s that for convenient geography? So it’s a big deal when the grapes are picked and the new crop sampled.
Let me tell you about the party.
I don’t speak a lick of German, so it was as if I’d slipped from Stage Left onto an elaborate theater set in a beautiful musical. I didn’t know my lines but figured out the basic steps and sang and danced my way by following the others. Think Lucy Ricardo slipping into one of Ricky’s nightclub production numbers.
One Saturday afternoon on cue thousands of people wound their way through the endless grape vineyards and walked for miles into the sunset. But this was no sweaty, non-stop marathon in the name of exercise. Oh, no.
We had only just entered the orchard when appeared the first kiosk selling tall glasses of new wine. The glasses were dimpled, the better to hold them, and the general idea was to throw back refreshment as you made your way forward to the next wine filling station.
A man sat on a stool and played a barely-recognizable “When the Saints Go Marching In” on an old accordion. People bought sandwiches made from a cow whose stripped-clean bones were still spinning on a spit. Neighbor greeted neighbor as if it had been decades since they’d met.
Thus refreshed, we tramped on for another few hundred yards and then did it all again. You could sip or chugalug, didn’t matter. You knew where your next drink was coming from.
Not everyone walked the entire course. Some cheated. A few families set up picnic tables between the vineyard rows and ate and drank at their leisure. Some lounged on cushioned chairs provided, I suppose, by the various wineries.
Those ugly portable toilets that must be universal were the necessary evil, a scratch on a canvas that could have been painted by Monet. Men, as usual, had the advantage and simply wandered off down the rows to water the crop.
I kept walking and drinking, which is a lot easier than you might imagine. The new wine had about a six percent alcohol content, roughly a beer’s worth. I’ve done the same thing getting to the far end of Ship Island while lugging a cooler.
The most amazing thing was that nobody in the wine-swilling crowd of thousands appeared drunk. There were no fistfights or loud words. The only music was the occasional accordion, yet it seemed as if our lubed conversation was orchestrated.
As the sun got lower and the crowd higher, I kept waiting for the down side of such a frolic, a sick teenager, passed out geriatric or an angry boyfriend. It never came. Now I didn’t stay into the wee hours and the scene might have changed, but somehow I doubt it.
Theirs is an old and grape-fueled civilization.
Almost before I knew it, my group had reached a vineyard hilltop that looked down on the red-roofed medieval village of Freinsheim. We rested. And drank some more.
We didn’t so much walk as float home. I kept thinking wistfully of a similar production along the edge of the Mississippi Sound, but I don’t think it would translate.