Mid-afternoon, Jacob and Maddie led David, Maria and Rachel up the switchbacks to the ridge top, then they paused on the stone seats to catch their breaths and take in the view. Below them, to their left lay Jacob and Maddie's Meierhof, surrounded by its vineyards. To their right lay Sonnenhang, the Frisch estate, and spread out across the southern horizon, were the peaks of the Alps rising above the rolling hills.
David sighed as he looked at the scene. "Very difficult to think of leaving this." He pulled Maria closer to his side. "So very difficult."
The path down had fewer switchbacks as it led them through the terraces of the vineyards. Jacob yodelled as they approached, and Greta walked into the courtyard to wave and then watch. After introductions, they sat at the dining table with tea and biscuits.
At a lull in the conversation, David turned to Greta. "We saw the for sale sign at the lane as we drove past. Our aunt is looking to move from Erzingen and resettle in Switzerland. This place might be of interest to her."
"It's a large property, and it takes a lot of work... Now needs a lot of work, I'm afraid. We've allowed it to fall these last years as Franz ailed. With the children gone, it became too much for us."
"Might you show us around? Rachel and Maria understand vineyards and winemaking from their estate on the Rhein."
"You make wine?" Greta's face lit up as she looked at the women. "What do you grow?"
"Riesling and Gewürztraminer, on the Kaiserstuhl to the west of Freiburg. We left it behind three weeks ago to escape from Germany."
Greta rose and looked around. "Let me get the winery keys. We'll do a tour. Most of the vines are a mess. I managed to prune only the best two plots this spring. Some of the vines haven't been pruned in three years and have gone wild."
They started in the vineyards, Rachel frequently bending to pick up samples of soil. "Looks like the same calcareous marl that Tante Bethia has in her vineyards."
"An ancient layer of seabed chalk undulates through here," Jacob said. "It nears the surface from the ridge to just across the border. We have a bit of it on our western slopes, and the vines there make our best wines."
After Greta had taken them through the winery, she showed them the workshop, the carriage shed and the stables. "We had to sell the draught horses two years ago. Became too much. Besides, they weren't earning their keep working the vineyards. Only the carriage horse left."
She gave them a tour of the house. "Most of the rooms have been closed since the children left. Go in every few weeks to open the windows and air them out." She clicked her tongue. "Naughty me. I haven't cleaned or dusted them in years."
Back at the dining table with a fresh pot of tea and a reloaded biscuit plate, Maria and Rachel continued to ask Greta questions on details of both the winery and the vineyard. When their probing stopped, David asked, "Have you a price in mind?"
"We started at two hundred and twenty thousand Francs, but had no interest." She looked into his eyes. "Well, one offer of a hundred and forty. Franz got mad and kicked the people out. After the short harvest last year, Franz lowered the price to one ninety. We've had a few interested, but no further offers. I don't know what to think."
"I have no idea of property values here. Is there a property registry for the region; a place I could get historical sales data?"
Jacob nodded. "Yes, the central office in Unterhallau maintains the records, including details of all land transactions in the municipalities of the region."
"Is there a bank there also? In the town. I need to open an account."
"There's a small branch of the Union Bank." He looked at Maddie. "That's where we do our banking."
David glanced at his watch. "Past five now, everything will be closed by the time we got there. I can walk in tomorrow. God knows, I need the exercise. Haven't done much the past week. How far is it?"
"Not an hour's walk, just over four kilometres. But we can take the carriage in — we need supplies, anyway."
"We could use the lorry," Maria suggested.
"Weren't you heading back to Erzingen this evening?"
"Yes we are, but before we proceed any further, Bethia must come see this place. We'll bring her across tomorrow." She laughed. "It's her purchase, her decision, not ours."
Jacob rose from the table. "We should be going. I still have a few chores, and the ladies need to drive back before the border posts close."
Greta stood and walked them to the door. "Thank you for your visit and for your interest. I hope your aunt likes it as much as you seem to."
As they climbed the hill, they discussed the property, touching on the good aspects and the bad. "We've allowed emotions to carry us," David said. "It's time for sober logic, though I do love the place."
"I think we all love it," Maria said. "I'm quite sure Tante will also."
"Yes, but we must ensure we don't influence her." He held up his hand. "We need to allow her to decide. When you tell her of it this evening, point out all the repairs and maintenance required. All the work in the vineyards, all the cleaning, the replacement of equipment. Paint the picture as it is."
"Can we also tell her how beautiful the setting is, how idyllic it is?" Rachel asked. "Can we tell her of the great vineyard soil and the sturdy old vines?"
"Most certainly, but balance the good with the bad. This must be her decision."
They sat again on the rock seats at the top of the ridge. Jacob raised his arm toward the east. "You can see Unterhallau in that hollow." He swung around and pointed west. "And there's Erzingen."
"I can make out Bethia's." David shaded his eyes from the low sun, then turned to Jacob. "It's the large walled courtyard with the circular tower. That's her smoker. Can't determine her vineyards precisely... but perhaps I can. Those two tool huts appear to be hers."
"That's close to the border."
"Actually, her property straddles it," Rachel said. "Half in Switzerland, half in Germany and all of the vines standing in the streak of calcareous marl. Superb wine."
"I'm now looking even more forward to meeting her."
YOU ARE READING
In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...