At quarter-past five this evening I rounded up a couple of my colleagues and ostentatiously left the office early. Together we climbed up the sidewalks and flights of stone steps that lead from our office building to the garden of the Château de Saint-Germain. Leaving the leafy suburb of Le Pecq behind, we slid back three centuries to the time of Louis XIV. My boss, still leaning over his computer, didn't notice or care we were gone.
There isn't much left of the garden built by Le Nôtre, the master gardener and genius of Versailles, but the main terrace he created still stretches out from the former site of the Château Neuf before knotting itself neatly into a small circle of trees and disappearing into the forest two and a half kilometers away. The gardens no longer stairstep down to the river, and modern apartment buildings, a supermarket and our office building clutter the view from above. Yet something of the majesty remains in the unique view of Paris, draped with a green mantle of trees between the meanders of the Seine.
Today was the fête du vendange, the grape harvest festival. A small parcel of grapevines is tucked between the terrace wall and the town below, and every year the municipalities of le Pecq and Saint-Germain-en-Laye harvest the grapes to make wine. The practice is a nod to a local winemaking tradition that disappeared, as in many French regions, in the early 20th century, a victim of the Phyloxera epidemic.
We leaned against the iron balustrade and watched local schoolchildren gather grapes below us. They were dressed in blue aprons and brandished wicker baskets and pruning shears. Their progress was painfully slow, and as many grapes were eaten as were contributed to the cuvée 2008. We shivered in the cool September evening air. After a half an hour of waiting, one of my colleagues abandoned us and went home.
Eventually things started to get animated. A crowd of retirees, parents, children and local politicians started to amass around a grouping of white tents. We pushed our way over to a tent and grabbed handfuls of grapes from a basket. As we munched, the mayors took turns giving speeches. We tried to ignore our growling stomachs and the tables laden with hors d'oeuvres.
A few minutes later, I lifted a plastic goblet to my lips and tasted not the grape juice I expected but a respectable, if unremarkable, Pinot Noir. In the two years since I'd last attended, they'd made a lot of progress.
We haunted the tents until we'd surreptiously snagged enough mini sandwiches to stifle our hunger, then drifted away to enjoy the view. This is what I love most about France, I thought. A sunny terrace and an ounce of history is an excuse to plant vines. The renaissance of a vineyard is an excuse to make wine. And wine is an excuse to hold a party in Louis XIV's garden on a sunny September day.