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.
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.
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.