COMMENTARY

Vine of the Mind

Musings on what wine should be before it is

By Ken Friedenreich

Guy Kawasaki achieved his fame as a self-anointed “software evangelist” for Apple Computer, beginning with “The Macintosh Way” in 1989, followed by a passel of other New Age business books. He took the crusading role seriously enough to enroll in a Billy Graham Ministries seminar to hone his raptures. He later said the key insight of that training was to invert the typical sales pitch from “You got to see it to believe it!” to “You have to believe it in order to see it.”

Recently, my friend and I visited Walla Walla, a city of tasting rooms that once was just a sleepy farm town. We stayed at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, an architectural period piece named after the missionary who led the first large party of wagon trains along the Oregon Trail to the West before his massacre by the Cayuse Indians — perhaps, the place was not so sleepy after all.

Insofar as we were on a commercial mission for his interest in a coastal restaurant insistent on pouring Northwest wines, we had our work cut out for us. At Cadaretta, the winemaker observed how blends, at least as much as individual varietals, involve some forethought extending past commerce and craft, even beyond growing grapes. It is the idea of wine itself, like the “inner game” of sport. My meditation owes as much to this winemaker as to Kawasaki.

Do winemakers realize their preconceptions of wines off the bottling line? Is there a kind of Platonic prediction of how far the vine will reach before even bud break? Not surprisingly, winemakers had plenty to say on this matter, a kind of shadow shimmer reflected off the walls of Plato’s cave.

One sound example of this kind of “imagineering” revealed itself at Winderlea Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. Proprietors Bill and Donna Sweat oversee one of the most functional, elegant tasting rooms on Worden Hill Road, a stretch of recently paved route I’d consider the Rodeo Drive of the upper Willamette Valley.

Bill explains his personal relationship to the grapes. “We begin to think about what the wine will become from a ‘rear view mirror.’” In other words, what the wine to follow might become owes much to recent vintages, especially, as he says, “when we have had a fairly consistent run of weather conditions.”

In fact, Bill follows the long-term weather trends with the kind of interest sailors pay to trade winds or pilots to the jet stream. He also follows “lag time” — that is, how long it takes after bud break until the clusters emerge under the canopy. Here, he admits, is the geeky consideration of yield based on “the lag” and what we might call “the drag” — the projection of yield per acre after dropping fruit to attain the greatest complexity.

His attitude appears less about aesthetics than farming, which makes sense, unless you’re seduced by wine postings that are more babble and puffery than prose with dirt under its fingernails.

This belief is what another Dundee habitué, Dick Erath, asserts.

Some years ago, over lunch, he said after closing a vineyard sale, the buyer wasn’t going to learn about producing wines so much as becoming a farmer. When I suggested winemaking may share something similar to writing music, Erath demurred. “It is more like conducting, getting all the players to put it together.” In a way, Erath was paraphrasing Sir Thomas Beecham parsing “Alice in Wonderland.”

“Gentleman, we will start at the beginning, and when we arrive at the end, we will stop.”

The musical anecdote refers to more than timing. It also combines intimacy with the patterns of the recent past, the “rear view mirror” of experience with a particular block in a vineyard, as Bill Sweat seems to say, that informs but also relies on applied knowledge.

This is where things get interesting. Bill and I envisioned the grapes as notes and indications of a musical score or chart. The sound of the markings occur in real time, like the natural, sometimes coddled, maturation of fruit on its journey to producing wine. “Here,” Bill said, “is where the technical knowledge common to musicians and winemakers alike open to the artisanal or interpretive response to the actual material.”

In other words, the idea of music played or wine made hinges on experience and intuition.

As Dave Rasmussen of Purple Cow and Vintyr concludes, “You have to walk around the vines a lot.” This statement seems hardly surprising since he often oversees 31 different varietals. The inspirations stem from the variables intrinsic to the whole business of farming grapes.

“When we first started, we would walk through the vineyard dreaming of the exact wine we were going to make out of best grapes ever grown by mankind,” Rasmussen said. “Oh, how silly we were! Over the years, you come to terms with reality.” On second thought, he concludes, “I am the Borg of wine.” Master of the galaxy? A cog? Who knows?

Vineyard management takes on the guise of a head coach assessing the team’s potential based on the drill and regimen of individual players. This isn’t high-stepping, halftime, rah-rah, pom-pom waving, but, instead, sprains, sweat and probably some paranoia. Consider it Earth’s farming — not glitz, but informed work.

Elk Cove first planted vines in 1974 at their Gaston estate. Like Erath, Joe and Pat Campbell are considered Oregon wine pioneers. Son Adam Campbell is now majordomo and winemaker. Do you think Adam has formulated a vision of what’s to come? Does the Statue of Liberty tire of holding that heavy torch?

“I spend a good deal of time walking the rows,” Adam said. “Our properties are within a 20-mile radius, and each poses its own challenges and expresses particular potential. So, my idea of wine not quite made yet surely relates to my getting into those rows, managing canopies, sampling the fruit and getting down into the dirt. It is a cumulative impression created over the course of the season.”

And so we glance into Plato’s Cave. This is a meager suggestion of wine as foretold and imagined. Of course, Plato had some good insights to land management in his shopworn “Republic.” Zounds! His ideal society banned poets and wine from the place — maybe he was eighty-sixed from a tavern and wished to even the score.

In the late Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye’s “The Great Code: The Bible and Literature,”  he introduces recurrent ritual to the Jungian idea of shared myths uncovered in dreams, recalled as shadow memory. It is somehow there, but we’re not exactly sure.

Few things in the world we know — or assume we know — tease us with recurrence, ritual, dream and memory like wine, both as we drink the moment and as it forges our taste memories.  I want readers to imagine the ideal of Cabernet blend or single-varietal bottle as often occurs in the musings of those making wines.

We need not ask what the winemaker is attempting. He or she has done it: made the wine. Rather, we encounter the wine not only as its expression of consumer preference or its geography, but the principle in that attempt. Wine, after all, is food — food for the soul.

We’re right back at Winderlea, looking through Bill Sweat’s rearview mirror.

I write about wine to figure out how to write about wine.

Vineyards produce grapes and insights that ballast technical data and insouciant, even perverse, artisanal fancies.

As the Buddhist proverb cajoles us, “the work will show you how to  do it.”

As for self-appointed critics, I like the Mexican metaphor: “Porque la boca muere el pez.” “Because the fish dies by the mouth.”

Forewarned, be ready for the story the wine tells.

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