The students of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Program operate a Spring speaker series course, attended by upper level undergrads, and graduate students, as well as some professors. The course is run by students themselves, with a group selecting the speakers, arranging schedules, and invitations.
I was lucky enough to be included for the series this Spring, and gave my talk yesterday, after receiving a tour from Dr. Boulton. Seeing the facilities, and what they offer in terms of research potentials for the community of UC Davis is truly inspiring. The design of the newer buildings offer an international class marker for sustainability as well.
I am inspired too to witness the passion and openness of the current students through conversations had after the talk, and questions asked during. The legacy of the UC Davis program is unmatched. The future of these young people is exciting.
Several people asked if I would share the talk here. It was not recorded. The talk was delivered without notes by simply moving through the ideas with the group. However, in order to prepare I pre-wrote a paper as though I was speaking with the group. What I delivered in person followed the form written here, as well as the points made, even if without reading it. What is lost here is the interaction with the group.
The talk was designed to be 45 minutes, with time for questions after, and discussion along the way. Because of the length I have split it here into three parts. Following is the first part.
Freedom, Expression, and Love: An Exploration of Choice in Winemaking
By Elaine Chukan Brown, aka. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka
a photo taken of me by a student on the first day of Epistemology class when I was still teaching full-time
Let me begin in a way that is not typical here, but is integral to my understanding of who I am, and is the foundation of anything and everything I have accomplished in my life.
My maternal great grandparents are Paul and Anna Chukan, from the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. My grandparents are Gordon and Anisha McCormick. My grandmother on my father’s side is Emily Ivanoff Ticasuk Brown, from the Norton Sound Region of Alaska. My parents are Melvin and Katherine Brown. I am the youngest of three daughters. My name is Elaine Chukan Brown.
Within the Native communities of Alaska, and elsewhere, recognition of each other is based, not only in the choices we have made on how to live our life, but also primarily in the family, the ancestors, from whom we come, and also the land from which we rise. It is understood that only through these connections, through the history of our place in the world could we be who we are today. Our life depends on the people that have raised us. Their life depends on the land from which we come. This is true for everyone in any community, and yet it is highlighted as foundational within Indigenous communities.
In talking with you today, I want to keep this perspective hovering in the background, while we go on to discuss the theme I have developed. But before I admit to what that theme is I have to confess something.
I have struggled to understand why I am here. I am deeply grateful to be invited. I am honored by the invitation. The idea that I am here meeting with this wealth of talent, with all of you, the future of the wine industry, is overwhelming. I am humbled and grateful.
As I believe you know, I am not a winemaker. I have no substantial vineyard experience. I have never owned a winery, or a wine business. I am a writer, and a philosopher. The most honest explanation I can give you for what I do is that I write about people in wine because I must.
In preparing for this talk, I spoke with a number of winemakers, and members of the wine industry asking for their insights for our discussion. My talk is a fusion, in a sense, of a wealth of conversations and suggestions for your good fortune. By the end, I had to ask what I uniquely offer in being here with you.
I cannot tell you how to make wine, or how to manage your vineyard. Hopefully your other courses have helped with that. I cannot relate how I transitioned from this program, or another like it, into my wine career. I believe others in this series will offer that. So, instead I must speak to you as a writer-philosopher that works very hard at listening to people.
As some of you know, I am lucky enough to spend my time traveling around, tasting and drinking, speaking with people in wine. At the core of these experiences, I find a common theme; a philosophical question that I believe drives the very best winemakers, as well as the most astute tasters, and is the topic I want to focus on with you today. It is the simple question, what does it mean to make wine.
To tease out the answer, I am going to move through three parts, each arising out of consideration of one quotation. The parts, to give you a preview, will sound overly metaphysical at first, or perhaps commonplace, but I will name them for you anyway, and then we will work through what each one of them is. Here they are: (1) freedom, (2) expression, and (3) love.
Part 1: Freedom: Paul Draper and Camus
A. Paul Draper
Paul Draper, from my first visit to Ridge Monte Bello, October 2012
Here is the quotation. In a recent conversation I had with winemaker Paul Draper he made the following statement, “I am not an oenologist. I am a winemaker.”
Let me point out that when each of you finishes this program, you will take with you more formal training on viticulture and/or oenology than Paul Draper. He has never gone through a certified education program on the subject. Consider this. Paul Draper is arguably one of the best, and most historically significant winemakers of North America. If you really think about that, the reality of your training should be very exciting to you. What it means is that you have the opportunity to accomplish something truly significant in your career.
At exactly the same time, if you are really paying attention, the reality of what I’ve just pointed out should intimidate you. Here’s why: one of the best, and most historically important winemakers of the United States has accomplished all he has without any of the formal training that you are receiving here at UC Davis. What that means is that whatever it takes to achieve the kind of brilliance and success Draper has does not depend on anything Davis is giving you. It comes from something else. That does not mean you cannot find it here. It does mean Davis cannot in itself give it to you. It is that something else that we are here to discuss. To do this, I want to consider what Draper’s comment really means.
Let’s start simply, what, do you think, is an oenologist?
Students’s suggestions from yesterday:
- someone trained in the science of winemaking
- a lab chemist
- by Draper’s explanation, an oenologist is someone trained to solve problems with wine
- surely someone could also be an oenologist AND a winemaker
What, then, is a winemaker?
Let’s set that question aside for a moment, and look first at a story from Camus. It will appear disconnected at first, but my reasoning will circle back in the end.
In the final essay of his text, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus gives his account of Sisyphus from Greek myth. Sisyphus tricked the gods again and again, avoiding death repeatedly, and thus acting as though he was cleverer than Zeus himself. When finally caught, the gods exacted their punishment. Sisyphus is consigned to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity—he is down there still right now. The boulder is right at the edge of Sisyphus’s strength. He can barely move it. But he must, all the way to the top of a particular hill. Then, just as he reaches the top with it, the boulder immediately rolls back down again. Without rest, Sisyphus is required to follow the rock back to the bottom of the hill and begin again. What is peculiar about the story is that according to Camus, we must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.
What I want to propose is this—to understand this claim, we have to assume that Camus is right. Sisyphus is happy. Then we have to assume it is our job to determine what it looks like for what Camus says to be true. The onus is on us.
This point—the onus is on us, I take into every conversation I ever have. It is my job to listen to you. It is my job to recognize the wine’s purpose. It is my job to be happy. I’ll admit, sometimes I get tired and fail in these tasks, but they are still my job.
Do people have ideas here? How can we understand Sisyphus as happy?
Students suggestions from yesterday:
- reveling in having tricked the gods before?
- hope he might escape again?
- appreciation for a worthy task
My suggestion is that Camus is offering us two views of freedom.
Here is the first. The rock is so massive that it demands absolutely everything Sisyphus is to move the rock up the hill. In those moments, Sisyphus exists only as a rock-pusher. He is so consumed by the task he is not even conscious of it. Strangely, in these moments the punishment is its own escape. The rock is so demanding he cannot waste energy or awareness on performing it. He simply must be the one that moves the rock. He is entirely directed at the exact task. He is free in these moments only in the sense that he exists without conscious awareness. For Camus though, lack of consciousness would be less a form of freedom, and more simply a form of escape.
What, then, is the second form of freedom? When Sisyphus has arrived at the top of the hill with the boulder, the rock runs away from him. It escapes his grasp and tumbles back down the hill. Sisyphus now must turn back, walk towards the boulder he will meet again at the bottom of the hill, and prepare himself to push it back up again.
In these moments, Sisyphus is free of the boulder in the sense that he is no longer pushing it. But what he must literally do is still defined by the boulder. The gods have taken the choice of his activity away. He has no choice but to walk down the hill to push the boulder again. But, even so, it is in these moments that Sisyphus is truly free. What Sisyphus can choose to do is determined for him by the gods, but how he can choose to do it is not. It is a subtle distinction here.
In any literal sense, he is required to walk to the bottom of the hill and repeat his task. But in these moments Sisyphus is conscious of his fate, and the way he will choose to face it in terms of his countenance is now up to him. If he walks down begrudgingly, the gods have won. They have truly punished him.
He is not free in the sense of being able to wildly choose any activity. He is free in terms of how he will be about the task he is required to do. The gods cannot decide for Sisyphus what his countenance will be, nor how he will feel. Camus contends that Sisyphus is happy.
This is what I want to suggest. The rock represents what any of us choose to do in our lives. At some point the rock becomes our required task—whether because we made a decision and now are following it through as our career path or relationship or other activity, or, because something outside our control now bears down on us to face. Camus is pointing out that if any of us are going to accomplish something significant with our lives we must accept the reality of what that means. Any life long project bears endless repetition. It also includes some breaks—an ebb and flow of accomplishment. The greatest accomplishments rest in choosing something with genuine substance almost beyond our capacity to handle, and a consistent form that we commit to fulfilling again and again. We must pick our rock and follow through with repeatedly pushing it up the hill.
Camus uses the metaphor of the rock also to point out that what we choose for our lives is in actuality rather arbitrary. Sisyphus’s task appears meaningless. The gods do not even care about the task except inasmuch as they gave it to him. From the distant view on top Mt Olympus, what we do is mostly irrelevant. But for us, the ones right there face hard against the rock, what we choose is intensely meaningful. What we choose matters because it will shape everything about our daily and long term lives. It is also only me that can push my rock. The rock any of us has belongs to us alone. Sisyphus is happy because the rock belongs to him. He has accepted his fate, but without giving up. He claims his rock. Each walk down the hill he gets to choose how he will face it. In this choice he finds his freedom.
But again, it is a very particular type of freedom we have to emphasize. It is not the freedom to wildly pursue any activity—Camus is also pointing out each of us actually faces a genuine limit to how thoroughly we can really choose our daily activities anyway. Now that I am here at Davis, I cannot choose to have dinner tonight in Paris (if any of you want to get me to Paris for tomorrow though, please talk to me after). Once we have selected what we want to do with our lives, we have also, in fact, chosen to limit ourselves. But without choosing to limit ourselves we have no opportunity to accomplish something. The freedom we find through our own commitment is the freedom of how we are going to express our choices.
Part 2: Expression: Pneumonia and Technique will follow tomorrow.
Thank you to Dr. Boulton. Thank you to Nick Antignano. Thank you to all of the students that attended, and especially to those that spoke with me after. I’m so grateful for our conversations.
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