Can a wine express human suffering?
Does what a winemaker is feeling at the time he makes the wine somehow enter into the wine, through some mysterious process of emotional osmosis? I don’t mean to get all metaphysical, but this question arose, rather powerfully, during my recent visit to Santa Barbara, and I’ve been thinking about it.
I was tasting with a well-regarded producer. We were reviewing a range of his Chardonnays, dating back to the 2001, which was remarkably fresh. He remarked that he had crushed the wine on a date he would never forget, one that had made him profoundly sad at the time, and still affected him to the point of bringing tears to his eyes.
Sept. 11, 2001.
As his eyes welled, I replied, somewhat insensitively, “Well, I’m sure we won’t taste your feelings in the wine.” What I meant was that I assumed that what I would taste in the wine — in any wine — was the product of all the objective factors that physically made it what it was: variety, viticulture, enology, terroir, vintage, acidity, alcohol, tannins, age, storage condition, and so forth.
As soon as I spoke, I could tell I shouldn’t have. The room (there were four of us present) fell into an uncomfortable silence. The winemaker seemed at a loss for words. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want him to think that I had discounted his experience, since I hadn’t, or hadn’t meant to; I’d merely expressed the view that it didn’t seem likely that his emotions had transferred themselves into the wine, unless they had resulted in him performing acts of omission or commission that were the direct results of those emotions.
So I told him that a day or two after 9/11, I was at a consumer wine event in Monterey. There were 40 or 50 people present, who had paid some pretty good money to do a wine-and-food thing. They were laughing and drinking and partying, which made me feel horrible, considering the trauma our country had just gone through. So I asked a friend of mine, a local winemaker, to ding his glass and request a moment of silence. (Today, I would do it by myself, but nine years ago I didn’t have the self-confidence.) The reason I related this to the Santa Barbara winemaker was to reassure him that I, too, had been devastated by 9/11.
Well, it didn’t do much good, because I felt like an ass for the rest of the day. I still do. I have a tendency to run my mouth off before my brain can think. But I’ve also been wondering if the winemaker’s feelings really did go into the wine, somehow or other.
I don’t know quite how that would work. It doesn’t make logical sense. It would seem that everything the winemaker did must have been something he would have done regardless of what he was feeling. But the winemaker himself believes it, and he is a profound winemaker whose sensitivity is such that every critic who has ever written about him notes it. He is also an intellect who thinks long and deep about philosophy. So his views are not to be dismissed.
That 2001 Chardonnay was quite a wine. It was pristine, the way his Chardonnays always are, and reflected the minerals and acidity of Santa Rita Hills in a transparent way. I should mention that it was unoaked. It also seemed timeless. Not that it didn’t show its age; it did. But it was still sleek and toned.
Of course, once I understood how much that wine and the date of its crush meant to the winemaker, I took the time, out of respect for him, to look for extra qualities in it. Was it clearer, more focused, sparer than his other Chardonnays? His Chards always are minimalist; was the 2001 austere to the point of a haiku, or a Japanese sand garden in which a few strokes of the rake express more than all the flowers in an English garden?
I won’t go so far as to say I detected sadness in the wine. That would be carrying poetic license too far. But that 2001 Chardonnay was so transparent, like spring water from a Sierra stream, so mute and mysterious, like an obelisk or (something I thought of later) a Rothko painting, so neutral, in the sense that it was like a mirror held back to your own eyes, that at one point I likened it to a Rorschach test. I told the winemaker that it was a wine in which a person would find, not what the wine said, but what was happening inside the person’s own heart. I think the winemaker liked that. At our most profound moments, silence is really the overriding value. There was in fact a profound silence emanating from that wine.
I don’t know if that quality of silence came from the winemaker’s state of mind on 9/11, or from my imagination. I don’t know if I would have found it had I drank the wine from a paper bag in a flight of older Chardonnays at home in Oakland. But I do know the experience made me think about things in great wine that will never be defined. They say some winemakers pour their heart and soul into a wine. Maybe it’s true in more than just a metaphorical way.