Peter Miller's reflections on his 1957 images of the Margaux, France wine harvest
In the spring of 1956 I received orders to ship out to Europe for a 2 and a half-year tour of duty as a US Army Signals Corps photographer stationed in downtown Paris. What luck!
I was a hick from Vermont with a university education. Paris became my graduate school. There I learned about a foreign culture, urban life, art, architecture, music, beauty, fashion, sex, fine food and of course wine. My interest in wine is what led me to take a train to Bordeaux and spend my leave in nearby Margaux, photographing the vendange, or wine harvest, in one of the most famous wine growing regions in the world.
This was during the fall of 1957 and I lived in a small room on the top floor of a simple hotel, and the only one in town, called the Hotel Margaux. I spent my time in the vineyards, sheds, and caves, watching the harvest of the grapes, the wine being pressed and put into large vats, and tasting older vintages. The wine harvest is hard work, but a festive time. Everyone turned out to help—children, teenagers, parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. Communal meals were served and the people were very friendly to this young photographer (I was 23) who shot so many photographs with a Rolleiflex and a Leica equipped with a 35mm lens.
What I recall is the easy way they accepted me and allowed me to photograph them. I was a novelty as was photography. They were curious, amused and pleased that I was taking their photograph. They, more than I, had a sense of place, and a sturdy understanding of their role in the history of their town.
I will never forget the smell of the caves with the big barrels of wine and the tapping and pouring and tasting of older vintages. Never have I tasted such elegance. A chateaux wine that has not traveled is the essence of the terroir and the people who shaped this wine through so many centuries.
I photographed mostly at Chateau Lascombes, at that time owned by Alexis Lichine, Chateau Tour des Mons, a small unknown vineyard, and at Chateau Margaux, a premier cru and the best known of the Bordeaux reds.
When I went to Chateau Margaux I was taken to a small but elegant garden that was empty save for a few tables and chairs. They asked me to sit and shortly a waiter in a white jacket brought a bottle of Margaux and a goblet. He opened the wine and poured a small portion and waited for my approval. When I smiled, he filled the goblet half way and left, leaving the bottle on the table.
I swirled the wine, scented a musty sensuality like I had never experienced. I sipped.
“My,” I said to myself, “this is good!”
I do not remember the year of the wine. I think it was from the early fifties. I had another sip. Relaxed in my chair and gazed at the garden. I floated in a reverie of wonder and contentment.
That’s the only time I every had a Margaux. I did not realize what a gift I was given. Chateau Margaux, 2009—one bottle of 750 ml—sells today for $1,300.
I understand the 2009 Chateau Margaux is one of the greatest vintages but is being surpassed by the 2010, say those critics who tapped into a barrel early this year.
The photographs Peter made in Margaux remained in a file for half a century and only recently have been scanned and exhibited.
The first of these exhibitions outside of Peter's own gallery took place at the Burlington VT Frog Hollow in August of 2011.