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Finding the perfect context for wine appreciation

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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.

  1. Having been to a few vineyards and walked them with the people who own them, work them year round and have them tell me intimate details about how the grapes were grown, how the birds/bears/deer ate these rows of these blocks — you are absolutely spot on in that it does give you a deeper appreciation and context of what’s in the glass.

    I’d spent most of the day with the husbnd and wife owners of a medium-sized winery in central Oregon during harvest in 2008. My hosts were gracious enough to take time from their hectic day to give me “the tour” and we ended up on the patio for lunch. When discussing the in& outs of pinot noir, I gushed a bit about how some of my favorites came from Bien Nacido vineyards. The husband looked at the wife and said, “Bring one out.” She disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a bottle, which turned out to be a pinot he had produced while still in CA. The fruit? Bien Nacido and the vintage was 1986.

    It was one of those “light bulb” moments and was the perfect book end to my experiences of that day in their vineyard in OR. It reflected not only his style as a winemaker but showed the differences and similarities in wines produced by the same man, but from different locations.

    The context surely has much to show us about the wines, but also the people who produce them.

  2. Steve,

    Your comments bring to mind what Terry Theise expounds in his book “Reading Between the Wines.” There’s more to a wine than is in the glass. And if my memory isn’t failing me, isn’t that reason that RMP ran into difficulties in Burgundy?

  3. John Roberts says:

    I too was reminded of Terry’s book, which I recently read. He takes us through the Mosel and all-around German wine country as we meet the characters and wines that shaped Terry’s understanding. Since I too came to wine through the Russian River Valley, I’ve long wanted to read your book, Steve. I have close friends that work in the valley, and through them, have had my own experiences at Rochioli, Davis Bynum, Iron Horse, and others. Going to SSU then, it was an opportune time to discover wine.

    Far from many touting “natural wine,” I celebrate the fact that wine in many ways exists as the pinnacle of culture-man’s conquering, or tackling, of nature. Man’s taking the primitive and wild, tempering and taming it, and fashioning it into a drink of untold tales. To enjoy wine in the context you describe, brings to light the beauty and purity of man’s expression through this stewardship. I often tell guests that the best of the wines I own are not those with the steepest price tag, but those that came from vineyards I walked upon and felt in every sense. This isn’t easy to understand though, for those that have never had wine in that context.

  4. Understanding wine in its context is great. Tasting it in its context is a way to follow in love with context as much as the wine. That is why we taste in neutral sites and in blind tastings.

    Too much context skews our thinking. If we were story tellers and not comprehensive wine reviewers, that would be totally different. When Rod Smith and I shared the podium at the LA Times for several years, we could attend the same tastings and come way with very different stories to tell. Neither was more “important” than the other, but mine was necessarily constrained by context and his was enhanced by context.

    That said, our understandings of the wines we tasted are furthered in general by what we learn from visits to wineries. We taste young wines and see what they have. We get to know what to expect. It is all part of the learning process.

    But a great visit, with a wonderful host, in a magnificent setting does not change what is ultimately in the glass and that is why we taste without specific context informing our primary judgment. If we fail to do that, we become cheerleaders instead of independent, trusted sources.

  5. This is why many wine blogs will never go anywhere, because the authors don’t go anywhere (physically). Sometimes you have to see to understand, in good and bad ways.

  6. Wayne, most blogs were never going to go anywhere anyhow. But, there are only ever a handful of fully paid wine journalists and the thousands of bloggers are not auditioning to take their places.

    But, over time, some will emerge as the new voices of the wine world. They will have to because so many of the current crop are getting up in years and will pass the torch one way or the other.

  7. Well said Charlie.

    EVO

  8. I agree Charlie. All I am saying is, and I think you will agree, that the few who do get to rise through the ranks will be the ones who are getting their boots dirty in the field from time to time. The ones who are reviewing their Trader Joes and Super Market scores are going to lack the perspective Steve speaks of.

    You can never get too down on critics for this very reason, they atleast of done the work of getting a hands on experience and I respect that.

  9. Spot on, Wayne. Ultimately, the best writers are not only those with at least a modest gift for language but also the depth of understanding to give deeper meaning to their words than the ordinary punters.

    Very few winewriters are super-tasters, but most of us have paid our dues, gotten ourselves educated and bring the something extra by way of learned experience to our writings. I think we are seeing that happen with many bloggers today. But blogging will not be the only path to a career in wine-writing. Working in wineries, restaurants and retail all expand the knowledge base of those who pay attention.

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