The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love as the core of Life and Wine: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas, Donelan Wines

This summer I had the privilege of meeting winemaker Tyler Thomas. We talked for several hours about the intersections of science and faith, winemaking as art versus craft, as well as philosophy and what it means to be human. It’s a conversation I’ve returned to again and again in mind since. Tyler Thomas is head winemaker at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, California, producing high quality Rhone and Burgundy varieties from Sonoma County. Previously, he also served as assistant winemaker alongside Stéphane Vivier at HdV.

After continued conversations with Tyler about minerality and plant health, making Chardonnay, and the 2012 vintage, I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post to share here. I am grateful to share two. The first, is Tyler Thomas’s reflection on faith in winemaking; the second, tomorrow, elucidates his winemaking philosophy.

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Tyler JN Pic (2)

Tyler Thomas (photo courtesy of Donelan Wines)

One of the elements of winemaking I enjoy is how its production employs our humanness.  This topic is difficult and very broad so I’ll try to remain on task.  We could start by discussing wine’s transcendence.  Wine transcends its original material.  It points to – no – engages the imbiber into an experience of enjoying flavors other than what would be expected from tasting its original components.  Cherry wine tastes like cherries, but grape wine doesn’t taste of grapes.  And while I think, just as NYU President John Sexton argues, that baseball implies a larger transcendence and the same could be said of wine, here we’ll leave that windy path for someone else to travel.  But there are plenty of other reasons beside wine’s transcendental nature that invoke our human experience, not the least of which is the way it draws our pleasure and gladness of heart.

Wine is incredibly complex yet simple, regal yet rustic, crushed for goodness, real and ethereal (at times), known and mysterious, physical and transformed.  Its purpose seems primarily set toward pleasure.  For me, wine is analog for life…and Life; and not only in wine’s final state but in its production too.  “Analog for life,” you might think, “did he just write that?”  Yes!  One of the reasons is because my worldview has led me to feel that faith, hope, and love are core elements of life.  And in wine production we exhibit elements of faith, hope, and love; and we do so frequently.  I’d like to examine how wine can help one gain an understanding of the faith elements of life.  To do this I’ll presume that faith, hope, and love are indeed integral to our humanness.  I’ll also assume winemakers care about wine, and just as we live life as if our decisions have meaning, we interact with our grapes with a similar passion and verve for their meaningful outcome: yummy vino.

Certainly faith has strong religious connotations.  So much so that many people consider the word faith synonymous with the qualifier blind faith.  Perhaps some have already stopped reading as a result!  I like this definition: a confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.  Do we employ faith when definitive explanations fail us and quality and artisan greatness beckon us?  Not blind faith, blind to historical experience and science, but real faith that incorporates experience and science.

For a winemaker like me the scientific knowledge we’ve gained over time is critical in that it gives us a confident trust in a specific cellar or vineyard practice.  However there is also an interesting narrative that leads many to refer to winegrowing as art, and us as artists.  Empirical knowledge provides confident trust, but there are also quite a few creative gut calls that I believe require faith, or the confidence in knowledge beyond ourselves.  Winemakers don’t often admit this but – here’s the news flash – we don’t know everything about producing inimitable wine, yet we hope our decisions have tremendous importance.

It’s true!  While we may not know things exhaustively, we can still “know” even amidst the mystery.  We strive to obtain more knowledge about winegrowing so we can use it to optimize our viticulture and enology and ensure we make the best wine possible each vintage.  But without a complete road map to how this flavor in that concentration responds to an 83 degree (not 86!) ferment with 3 punch downs a day and then bounces into another compound to produce a given sensory effect…you can see it gets complicated.  Without knowing all that definitively, producers often hope in their intuition and then examine the result asking: “do I like this?”  This often leads wine producers to rely more on faith developed over time.  Or can I say we employ a confident trust in the truth of a particular practice to give us the desired result?

OK skeptics call it intuition mixed with science if the word faith sends shivers down your spine and your eyes rolling.  But if you have an aversion to a word because it conjures too much religious context (which would be a guilt by association fallacy), I encourage you to take what you know from your production techniques and reexamine what it means to employ faith.  Can we admit we make decisions without full knowledge of how our desired outcome is achieved?  Can we admit that we deeply hope those decisions have meaning?  “No Tyler,” you might say, “you are talking about intuition.”  Fair enough.  I admit it is difficult to separate faith from intuition in the discussion of wine.  But I would maintain that there is something about the passion with which we pour ourselves into the process, something more personal and emotive about it, some part of our sincere desire for this decision to be right and true that takes these decisions beyond mere intuition.  Intuition is visceral and doesn’t involve the same hope.  Intuition is not as supremely pleased when right or devastated when wrong.  If we were to consult the Bible (don’t hate me for it!), it offers an alternative definition of faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.  Do we not often feel assured in the hope we have that the decisions we make improve our wines?

When we are enjoying a wine 5 years removed from its production and pat ourselves on the back for handling a challenging situation for which we had yet to have a reference and glow in the pleasure of the sips.  When we do that, do we simply say “nice gut call”?  Isn’t there something more?  More of an expectation, more hope, more risk, more reward, more meaning?

Clearly my presumption is that faith and hope are core human elements.  Perhaps you disagree.  But if you grant me that presumption I think it difficult to deny that winemaking employs elements of our humanness and this should be recognized and embraced.  The challenge is to distill what is really true, what really worked, from an anecdote associated with success.  How do we wade through knowledge and embrace the mystery?  Is faith, the confident trust in the trust worthiness of a practice the answer?  The goal of any lifelong pursuer of peerless wine should be to find good answers.  And this takes time, effort, and…a little faith.  I submit that those who can embrace the science and the mystery will have the greatest opportunity to make the best wine.  Those who love and understand empirical knowledge and belief have – I believe – the best chance to discover something great and be a part of producing an inimitable wine.  It requires faith in certain actions that transcend your current understanding of the winemaking world to provide meaning to your final goal: a wine that produces a glad heart.

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Thank you to Tyler Thomas.

To read more about Tyler’s work with Donelan Wines: http://senelwine.com/wine-interviews/tyler-thomas-of-donelan-wines/

Donelan Wine Website: http://www.donelanwines.com/index2.html

Tomorrow will host another guest post by Tyler Thomas on his winemaking philosophy.

Comments

12 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Tyler, great post.

    I think you’re hitting on something really important to the process of making wine, which involves both faith and intuition (since I agree with you that they’re different): no matter how much a winemaker learns about wine through experience and education, no matter how up-to-date the science is or how inscrutable each step of making the wine, the grapes have a life of their own that the winemaker has only a little bit of control over. The winemaker has to put faith in the grapes and in his/her knowledge of them, as well as his/her ability to manipulate, gently, and coax the grapes on the vine and off it. Intuition can help a winemaker to know what is happening; how the recent weather will affect the grapes or how many more hours to keep the wine on the skins for the perfect tannic structure in a difficult year. Faith, on the other hand, is that ‘confident belief’, as you put it, that you, the winemaker, can produce heart-gladdening wine even in tough seasons.

    This post makes me think about Red Hook winery, and their work right now to salvage the wine from 2012 after the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. They have hope, and faith that they can persevere, and love for the project of making wine. They also have expertise, experience, and intuition on their side. I think they’ll end up with heart-gladdening wine, even if it doesn’t taste like other wine they’ve made, because it will be a testament to the hope and the faith, the work and love, the devastation and joy, that they put into the wine. It will most definitely reflect their humanity.

    • Thanks for the comment. Knowing something and knowing it for sure is tricky. As I wrote, it is hard to know a thing exhaustively. There was a moment when people believed knowledge would some day be known exhaustively. That likely ended with the theory of relativity. However it faded, winemakers probably ought to be sure not to dismiss secure knowledge altogether, nor dismiss what a more mystical colleague can bring to the table.

  2. Anna S.,

    Wow, a super interesting read, I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  3. Hardy Wallace,

    Amazing post., Tyler.
    “A wine that produces a glad heart”- Love it.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  4. Zeke,

    I kind of agree, but I wouldn’t call it faith. I’d say what you are describing is bravado. Unjustified confidence in oneself that plays out in my head like: “I’m fairly certain I’m right, but even if I’m wrong I’m fairly certain I can dig myself out of the hole I’m just about to put myself into.” Other than that, I agree with your thoughts on “wine’s transcendence”, though I wouldn’t have the guts to say that phrase out loud.

    • Hi Zeke, the kind of faith that Tyler describes seems integral to much of winemaking, rather than something like bravado, which implies intentionally impressive or intimidating behavior. I take it that behind Tyler’s account is the point that with making wine one has no choice but to wait. There is a lot that simply can’t be done. The wine must ferment. The wine must then age. The wine must rest after it is bottled. You go in with a sense that it will get there. And with experience you can make a good guess as to what it will be like later, but you still have to wait to find out. In and of itself that kind of behavior has nothing to do with bravado, though some individuals could choose to express that too.

      As for wine’s transcendence, do a web search. You’ll find it uttered by others too, of ten quite appropriately to their point.

    • Katherine,

      It seems like bravado is circular in a sense it is always a projection of oneself for oneself. Whereas faith aims outward towards the unknown. In which case, since wine is outside of oneself, and something to be shared in community (or communion) bravado doesn’t seem to work.
      On another note, I’m curious about the role of love and faith, is the wine an expression of faith in part because of the love a winemaker may feel towards it?

      • Katherine, thanks for your points. Interesting question regarding love. Certainly I think it a part of our humanness and a part of our winemaking, but I don’t know that it is as directly involved in defining faith. Perhaps we do act in faith because of our love for the wine we make? I think hope and faith are certainly linked, love less obviously so.

    • Zeke, I had not consider that it could be bravado. Interesting point. Certainly there is bravado for some. But I find that winemaking is so humbling, and can be approached with humility, that this kind of winemaking would contain less bravado. I also don’t think the confidence always unjustified, just complete knowledge of the task is not always in possession. But even if the confidence was unjustified, wouldn’t bravado be totally unaware of that? Wouldn’t bravado involve a certain amount of unwillingness to be wrong? A lack of humility? Faith is assurance in what you hope for, not necessarily overconfidence because you may good reasons to hope.

      • Zeke,

        Tyler,
        You have assurance in what you hope for? I could use me some of that.
        lilyelainehawkwakawaka,
        Bravado isn’t exactly the word I was looking for, but it looked good in the sentence. I was reaching for something more along the lines of optimistic self-delusion.
        I have no doubt people refer to “wine’s transcendence” all the time. I even believe it and don’t blame Tyler for using it. It is just the sort of phrase that, when uttered out loud, has a sort of earnestness that cynical souls (e.g. me) find cringe-worthy.

        • Thanks, Zeke. I can appreciate cynicism when it’s honest (when people are honest about it, and recognize that in themselves). I have it sometimes too. I’m still skeptical of your idea of optimistic self-delusion too–what is a word for what you’re saying? huh…–that’s seems too strong a claim to make of winemaking, doesn’t it? What do you think? I’m curious why you’d want to attach such an idea to the winemaking process and the winemaker’s willingness to wait.

        • Zeke, indeed you are a cynic’s cynic. I appreciate your consistency and for such a cynic you are quite a quality person. How is this so!?! Ultimately I think we have very different presuppositions that clearly impact how we view the world. In your world, hope probably seems delusional, or – more kindly – a necessary figment of our minds to keep us from being totally depressed? But don’t you hope anyway? Hope in good people, hope for your kids, hope that your wines are good? Are you satisfied with that simply being optimistic delusion? Cause that seems hopeless to me.

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