Finding the perfect context for wine appreciation
Of all the things I’ve done over the last 30 years to understand wine–reading countless books, tasting 100,000 wines, interviewing hundreds of winemakers and growers–nothing has so “filled me with the spirit” of wine as when I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, which was published in 2005 (but reissued, with a new introduction, last year by University of California Press).
That effort took the better part of two years. I saturated myself in wine, not literally, of course (I just had an image of me taking a bath in Pinot Noir), but in the sense that, for almost every day in 2003-2004, I awoke on a day that began precisely where the previous one had left off: immersed in this book. I thought about it constantly, edited myself all the time, dreamed about it at night, worked out the conceptual structure as I drove my car, came up with new ideas in the shower, and spent every minute I could traveling along the Russian River, by every conceivable mode of transportation, having adventures and meeting people, exploring vineyards, eating and drinking on the river, and even, on one unhappy but memorable occasion, almost drowning in water so cold in winter snowmelt, it gave me a case of hypothermia that permanently discombobulated my internal thermostat. I was trapped in whitewater rapids, hanging on for dear life to a “strainer,” a fallen tree whose gnarled limbs looked ominously like wizened fingers, clutched in a death grip to which I clung lest the angry current sweep me away.
In retrospect, it was the perfect metaphor for the way I conducted my research: when someone says they plunged themselves into their work, I can say I did it literally! One of the things I was proudest of in that book was that it contained no wine reviews. I might have filled it with formal notes, but decided not to, because I wanted to write a book that would stand the test of time and be interesting and relevant to future readers. And there’s nothing staler or duller than old wine reviews.
The culture of wine always has appealed to me at least as much as its science, or even as much as tasting. By “culture” I mean the places, the natural formations (rivers, cliffs, mountains, fields, marshes, streams, landslides, forests, wildflowers, gullies, estuaries) that are indigenous to every wine region. The animals too: snakes, deer, wildcats, winery dogs and cats. And the people! The wine industry is never devoid of characters, that’s for sure. There’s a context to every wine that’s important to comprehend, if you’re to fully experience a wine in its fullness. To drink a glass of Robert Mondavi Tokalon Fume Blanc in that vineyard, with Tim Mondavi: that’s context. To witness the Rochioli Vineyard, the source of so many great wines I’ve had over the years, at various times of the year–in the full bloom of harvest, completely underwater during a ferocious winter storm–to have climbed up its bank, as the gravelly dirt slid out from under my feet, is to have given my next experience of a Rochioli wine added depth and imagery. To have known the Rochiolis, Joe, Jr. and Tom, further compounds my appreciation of their wines. To have been present at the creation of Williams Selyem’s estate vineyard [formerly Litton Estate], as the bulldozers broke ground and pulled mountains of rocks out–to have been there the day an arborist warned Bob Cabral he’d better pull out some century-old trees before a storm blew them down on somebody’s head, only to have Bob decide that, No, he couldn’t do it, and instead to persuade his boss to save the trees, with all the expense that implied–and then, years later, to have tasted the Estate Pinot Noir and be able to give it 100 points–and, after that, to see the magnificent new winery building erected on the very spot that had been a wasteland of mud and stone, just seven years earlier–that is context. That is continuity. That is experiencing a wine in its fullness. I have griped before, and often, about how I wish certain winemakers would not insist on having me come to the winery to taste their wine (hello Dalla Valle, Alban, Staglin, Screaming Eagle and all you others!), instead of sending it to me at home, like most wineries do. But the truth is, I totally understand. They wish for me to know their wine in the very context I have described, and I can’t blame them for that. Were I a winemaker, I’d probably do the same thing.