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Can a wine express human suffering?

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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.

  1. James McCann says:

    A very moving and honest post. Wine sits in a very awkward position between artistic expression and brutal business realities. While it is so often the human story that separates a wine from others when marketing it to consumers, these poignant personal stories are often lost amongst the “millionaire owner spares no expense” tales.

  2. Great post, Steve, complex, provocative, made me think also of this new book The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel (Aimee Bender).

  3. Thank you for sharing that touching story.

  4. Since wine is a living organism, with all things touching it, I believe that 9/11 had an impact… period.

    I am one degree of separation from 9/11. My name was once Jalbert. Bob Jalbert (first cousin to Bert Jalbert, my ex-husband) was in the second plane to hit the second tower. (I knew Bob well, his family and mine went to school together.) I shall never be the same, as quiet as that fact is, it remains part of my tapestry. What was being crushed that day had tears in it. It had the joy of harvest stolen from it, but harvest, as all things, went on.

  5. Carlos Toledo says:

    Answer to your question: no it can’t. The final product (wine) is the end of a line of events that start 1 year before the next harvest and all the exogenous factors play a huge part on (in?) its taste, flavour, aroma, body, acidity, etc etc.

    You can be the Da Vinci among all winemakers, but your superpower is somewhat limited.

    I also doubt the wine that represents complete nirvana can be altered to fit the winemaker’s mood, low or high spirits.

    Ironically, the best wine years in France comprise (as well) 39 and 45. Neither joy nor sadness. Sheer chance.

  6. “But tonight is all mine, alone by choice, under a harvest moon, with the crickets chirping, content to be in a place I love”. <<< See I love this comment you made Steve at the end of the article. Good job

  7. All Americans were sad that day.
    He was upset that he was getting all this credit for the wonderful wine. While his devoted and passinate cellar crew were sweating it out on the crush pad while he and all the other office people were playing 18 holes.

  8. A very insightful post. You may, or may not, know the work of Japanese scientist Emoto who claims that our feelings and thoughts impact water. He shows the intentionality of folks looking at the water to effect how the ice crystals form. In many ways, it sounds like a lot of new age mumbo jumbo…. However for my wine book I asked Heidi Barrett the question you are asking does the winemaker’s feelngs go into the wine. Her answer was of course. The cover of my book shows her ‘feelings’ as expressed in her wine.

    I once worked with a winemaker who was angry a lot of the time, his wine showed daggers. (through the microscope).

    and just last week, always questioning the possibility is wine like chocolate or cooking, do our feelings affect it. A small group of us sent love and gratitude, beauty into the wine. It tasted so much better than the ‘unloved’ bottle – didn’t SEE any evidence in the microscope but then if I’m not a believer maybe I wouldn’t.

    Maybe it is us that changes, our feelings from 9/11 or being angry or loving, changes our experience of wine, food, and each other.

    So perhaps what we do need to do is take that moment of silence before we open the wine to offer gratitude to the grapes, the winemaker and all that goes into the bottle. It couldn’t hurt.

  9. Sondra, thank you. It’s interesting your quote about Heidi Barrett, which raises enormous questions.

  10. Earl, that is a nasty, mean and untrue comment. I am approving it, but just barely. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  11. One of the underlying principles of quantum physics is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which (in short) states that the act of observation, in and of itself, changes the relationship between the observer and the thing being observed. On a quantum level, it changes things to such an extent that you can’t be certain of states of being like distance, velocity and location.

    Now while we’re talking sub-atomic particles here, it still seems to be an underlying principle that we involve ourselves with the world around us on fundamental levels that few of us can directly perceive.

    As strong as emotions can be, I can see that there could conceivably be some influencing connection between the grapes, the wine and the people involved in wine making (especially over a period of time). Perhaps this is the unseen connection that underlies the purported benefits of Biodynamic practices?

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Seems Mr. Shakespeare had it pretty well covered, eh?

  12. >>Earl, that is a nasty, mean and untrue comment. I am approving it, but just barely. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    well I can tell you never worked crush before….Seen it happen for twenty five years

  13. Sherman, I agree with you, but it makes me uneasy. Lots of slippery slopes that potentially go off the cliff.

  14. Great post. Definitely made me slow down and think for a bit.

  15. Erica Brown says:

    A profound post Steve, on many levels. Just as wine can help to express joy and bring people together, . . . much as i remember feeling the week before having just returned from france and earnestly tasting champagnes along with my budding sommelier classmates in windows (on the world). we were blessed not only to be jointly sampling such great wines but also to be embarking on a new career based solely on spreading warmth and joy while fulfilling basic human needs for sustenance. It was also a bright sunny blue sky-filled day as in the background we could see more benign smaller aircraft flying past.

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