Tags Posts tagged with "philosophy"

philosophy

14

The Challenges of Natural Wine

One of the criticisms regularly leveraged against the so-called Natural wine movement is its lack of definition. Critics of the phenomenon repeat the point as a central proof of the movement’s lack of legitimacy.

Some writers, however, have also asserted that lack of definition could be an advantage. Eric Asimov takes up the subject through an article in 2012 and describes the lack of definition as “one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans” as they “refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument.” Part of the advantage means they can pursue what techniques best suit their motivations within the reality of what’s available to them.

In her book, Naked Wine, Alice Feiring considers a key trouble with Natural wine lacking definition. There she says, “The danger lurks in the word’s being legislature resistant and therefore easily commandeered by commercial wineries looking to keep their market share” (2011 31). Such an event would work against the roots of the Natural wine movement, which places itself against such commercial wineries.

Definitive to the origins of the Natural wine movement rests a defense against pollutants associated with large scale farming, and additives used in the cellar.

While organic and less-interventionist wines have been made for centuries, Natural wine as a movement took form precisely at the point industrialized farming and winemaking began to dominate entire regions. As Feiring describes, chemical farming took hold in France from the 1960s, with serious changes seen in the health of the land by the 1970s (2011 38). By the end of the 1970s, winegrowers in France were beginning to assert a position in viticultural politics. By 1982, the political position had expanded from producers to sales with Natural wine bars appearing.

Natural wine as a project moves outside France as well. It takes similar form in Italy, for example, where, like France, Natural winemakers tend to also grow their own grapes.

In the New World, it becomes more difficult to carry forward a comparable model of Natural wine. In California, for example, of those that assert themselves as Natural wine producers, few also control their own farming, though there are exceptions. It is simply a different sort of grape market. In such cases, an implicit gap between cellar and vineyard changes the politics of the movement, but also the reality of what winemaking activities a producer controls. While winemakers that source fruit may retain control of their fermentation, élevage, and bottling, many enjoy limited input on viticultural choices that produce their fruit. When possible, they can of course choose to work with farmers they trust.

Motivations and needs differ between origins as well.

Influential in the difference is a contrast in regulatory board. In France, regional control groups demand particular farming practices, rather than just claims of origin, as in the United States. For producers in France, then, a Natural wine movement arises from very real need to protect against what proponents see as legally enforced ecological damage. There Natural wine proves an actual fight, with producers facing court battles, and substantial fines.

In the United States, ecological damage also stands as a real concern but without such direct legislative weight. That said, Natural wine doesn’t belong to a particular region. It’s a global phenomenon that happens to take strong form in some areas thanks to specific laws and regulations.

At the same time such politics take place, many other producers have continued to make wine through essentially organic and less interventionist means without claiming to be part of a movement. The range of wines that eschew industrialized technologies proves, then, to be broader than those claiming membership in a cause.

It appears, then, difficult to find a cohesive idea of what Natural wine is.

Still, Feiring finds the word useful for how it gives the public “a general word to indicate the kind of wine it is looking for” pointing out that while there may be issues with natural as a concept it “is good enough” (2011 13).

While many critics of Natural wine would target Feiring at exactly this point, seeing such hand waving as exactly where the illegitimacy they keep repeating shows up, her point here, I take it, is precisely made. Natural gives us a general word to get at an idea. For any of us discussing the issue, whether we’re for or against or agnostic for Natural wine, referencing Natural wine as an idea is good enough. We all basically know what we’re talking about, even if not precisely. When we want and actually need to be more careful, we can do that.

What Being More Careful Looks Like

In truth, any definition of Natural wine does have a certain vagueness to it. The point, however, is that such ambiguity is not inappropriate to the subject, nor a lack of legitimacy. Further, we can do more to resolve it.

Winegrowers farming organically and then using less interventionist cellar techniques; winemakers reducing cellar input but purchasing grapes; and producers refusing the subject while using methods appropriate to the title of Natural wine — they’re all relevant to the discussion.

(In grape buying markets, there are also organic and/or biodynamic grape growers but the discussion of Natural wine seems defined by its product — wine. So, while these growers are crucial, they’re a different piece of the puzzle. Strictly speaking, I’m not excluding them. My point is only that organic grape growers not making wine are precisely that — growing grapes but not making wine. We need and want them. However, winemakers can purchase organically farmed grapes and then chapitalize or acidify, as examples, thus not making natural wines. When we discuss Natural wine, we’re discussing what’s in the bottle, even if also what got us there. So, I am not excluding the growers but in a grape sourcing market, the winemakers choose to use such grapes or not and they can clarify that for us in discussing their wines.)

Which of these you’re getting at, and how you’re considering their activities depends on what motivates your point to begin with. That is, what is your purpose or focus? The specifics, in other words, are provided by you.

Let me explain. There are various types of definitions. (For the sake of clarity, I do need to address what might seem like a purely lexical point, but I’ll be brief.)

For example, in discussing wine, located as I am in California, I often reference wines from this state. In doing so, it’s (basically) easy to understand what I mean as the boundaries of California itself provide my definition. I mean wines made from within the state of California, and let’s assume from grapes within the state as well.

In cases where an Arizona winery, for example, is making wine from California fruit trucked across state lines it doesn’t really make sense anymore to call such wine simply as “from Arizona”, nor only as “from California.” Boundaries have gotten mixed. The wine comes from California fruit made into wine by an Arizona winery. We have a specific idea when we say “from California.”

As an example of a different sort, I might refer to Napa Cabernet. In one sense, such an idea is rather straightforward as I could simply point to every example of a wine made by a California winery using and bottling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Any one of them would count.

However, it is common these days for people in wine to refer to Napa Cabernet as a stylistic point referencing the riper, big boned, more extracted styles associated with the 1990s. Not all Cabernet made from Napa Valley during the 1990s fits this genre. However, whether we’re for or against this type of wine, we all basically know what we’re talking about when we refer to Napa Cabernet in this way, even if the edges of the category get a little smudgy.

In which of these two ways we intend to use the idea of Napa Cabernet usually gets cleared up by the context of our conversation. When it doesn’t, our point might get confused. That’s when it’s our job simply to clarify.

In the case of Natural wine, something else is happening. To sum up before I illustrate my point: we do generally know what we’re talking about when we talk about Natural wine; that is, there is a definition already. We just haven’t quite recognized it, partially because it’s just not the same sort as either of the previous examples.

In his 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein puts forth a now famous account of what he calls family resemblance. He’d actually begun developing the idea decades prior, but it is in Investigations that it becomes well-known. The basic idea is simple. One of the key implications of Wittgenstein’s ideas is relevant here. It is this.

Wittgenstein pointed out that sometimes we expect things of the same type or definition to be joined by one common feature, all from California, for example, or, all of the same style, for another.

However, in many instances, a group of things or an idea are instead defined by overlapping similarities without one single feature common to all. Even so, however, we do still recognize and understand these overlapping similarities as a connected group. In such cases, asserting the group has no definition is a misunderstanding, rather than a genuine assertion of illegitimacy.

Here’s how it works.

Game Playing with Wittgenstein and My Family

When Wittgenstein discussed his idea he would often refer to the notion of similarity in families.

For example, my parents, my sisters, and I are all of the same family. My sisters and I have in common that we are each a daughter of our two parents. But my parents don’t share that similarity. They have in common that they are both parents of their three girls. My sisters and my dad share the trait of being obstinate, while my mom and I have in common often being right. (Just kidding. I thought we could use a laugh at this point.) There is no one common element that all five of us have in common, yet it is quite clear we are all from the same group.

As another of Wittgenstein’s famous examples, he looked at the notion of games. His point here was similar. That is, different games have a lot in common, but there is not one feature shared by all games. Wittgenstein describes games as a type of family.

We can take Wittgenstein up on this idea (as the entirety of Western thought has since) and consider too types of games, or parts of a family as a notion of subgroups.

Certain types of games might share more in common than another type of game. Card games are played with cards, while board games require a playing surface, for example. Similarly, my sisters and I have in common being the children of the family, while my parents share their being the parents.

In other words, there can be subgroups that share a resemblance not shared by all of the larger group, yet the subgroups together are parts of the larger group. Card games and board games are still both games, just not the same type. The children, and the parents are both part of the same family.

We can apply this idea to Natural wines.

Types of Natural Wine

As already discussed, there are different types of Natural wines.

(1) There are Natural wines made by grape growers that practice organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices, that then go on to practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives.

(2) There are winemakers that practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but that purchase their grapes.

(2a) We might want to add that they purchase organically and/or biodynamically farmed grapes but of those producers that have been included in the Natural wine community so far this is not true in every case. There we’ve been willing to allow Natural winemakers less defined by viticulture. It might be this forms two subgroups.

(2b) Some will likely want to exclude any wine made without essentially organic and/or biodynamic grapes all together.

(3) Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine.

Natural wine as a category includes each of the three types of wine. There is no one element shared by every single instance of Natural wine. However, that does not mean there is no definition, nor does it mean we do not know what we are talking about when we refer to the concept. We do. When we need more clarity, we can simply be more specific.

“I would like a grower-Natural wine,” for example, that is, like a grower Champagne, one made by the person that grew the grapes. “Let’s make a list of California’s Natural winemakers,” as another, that is, a list of Natural winemakers (of whatever subgroup) that make their wine in and from California. “Who is making Natural wine but not touting it as such?” as a third. In each case, we’re using that general term Feiring explains that gives us an idea of what we’re looking for, while also being just a bit more specific because we have a more specific need or sense of what we want.

Within these types of Natural wine we can also get more rule driven, when desired or appropriate. For example, organic and biodynamic viticulture have specific guidelines that are generally followed on principle for those that believe in such views, and must be followed for certification. In the cellar, Natural wine using few additives generally means nothing added to the grapes but sulfur, and being less interventionist doesn’t mean doing nothing, but does often include approaches like no invasive filtering, as examples.

For some critics, here is precisely where more rules should be drawn. It is not clear, however, that Natural wine is a rule driven category in that sense. It is in rules, rather than just definitions that the lawyerly argument takes hold, to reference Asimov’s point. There are ways to defend a demand for rules, but those are more case by case than general so I’m not going to get into it here. Further, there are many categories in wine and elsewhere simply assumed as legitimate without being subject to precise rules. It’s not clear rules are strictly necessary, in other words. Instead, I’ll point out that there are already some implicit guidelines in place in Natural wine, and guidelines are likely good enough. We do know what we mean when we say something like no additives besides sulfur, for example.

As an example, Jenny & Francois offer a list of general guidelines on their website that they believe help steer Natural winemaking. They then offer the following point that seems relevant to the spirit of Natural wine, and so is relevant here in relation to the question of rules.

For the pedants out there, it should be noted that all of these aspects are ideals. We accept that some may be on the path to these ideals and not quite there yet. We work with their wines because they share the spirit of these ideas and a desire to get as close to them as they possibly can. The road to healthy organic soils and wines is not a quick and easy path.

The point is this. What we have, and in fact have already had for a long while, is a definition of Natural wine, even if the edges get a little smudgy. It is one that we can better recognize thanks to the idea of family resemblence we get from Wittgenstein. This definition of Natural wine is good enough, as Feiring says, and avoids the lawyerly argument that worries Asimov too. In this discussion, we’ve all been talking for a long time like there is only one way to arrive at definitions, and Natural wine doesn’t have it. For a long time, that simply hasn’t been true.

Remaining Controversies

For critics of Natural wine, showing we already have a definition of the category doesn’t undo other problems. It does remove the commonly made claim that the category is illegitimate because it lacks a definition, but other issues still remain. Some of those are problems for proponents as well.

Many critics will still have issue with how Natural wine is marketed. In some cases, that depends on the marketers. In others, misunderstanding.

Implicit to many discussions around Natural wine there will still likely be hard dichotomies placed, with Natural wines on the one hand, and Industrial wines on the other. Looking at fights like those occurring in portions of France, such a view begins to make sense. In other regions, more fine-tuned accounts are better suited.

The idea of Natural wine is still not legislated. In parts of Europe, that has proven a legal problem for wine shops that know we know what we’re talking about but whose relevant legal systems don’t think we know it well enough.

The lack of legislation around the concept could put more work on the side of the consumer, but it should put more work on the part of the retailer and restauranteur to know what they’re selling and serving. The consumer’s job is to recognize whose views they trust.

People that don’t like use of the word natural itself have likely already lost the battle. In relation to wine, the category seems to have already chosen its name.

Problematic uses of the word reach back at least to the early local food movements, and health crazes of the last century. None of the claims that the word is misleading have too much weight when the truth is we all have to chose words to make our point, and the point is really made in the rest of the conversation, not just one name.

To make that last point another way (and borrowing from the late Leslie Feinberg), we can care about what word is used, but we can treat the subject (and each other) with respect using the wrong word, and we can be disrespectful using the right one. What matters is if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

18

A Day with Tyler Thomas, Winemaker Star Lane + Dierberg

Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas, January 2014

Winemaker Tyler Thomas stepped into leadership of the wine program at Star Lane and Dierberg in Santa Barbara County during Summer 2013. Prior to his new position he headed winemaking at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, after having assisted winemaker Stéphane Vivier at HdV in Napa.

During his tenure at Donelan, Thomas and I were able to taste and interview on multiple occasions. I have been impressed by his thoughtfulness as a winemaker, and his attention to vine physiology as the root of his winemaking. His background in botany under girds his thinking. One of my interests, then, in visiting Santa Barbara County was in returning to Star Lane to see it under Thomas’s leadership, and to speak with Thomas about his work in the new-to-him vineyards and winery.

After tasting extensively through the cellar with Thomas and assistant winemaker, Jeff Connick, I am excited to keep following their development. Thomas spoke gratefully about his work with Connick. As Thomas explained, Connick’s knowledge of and attention to the wine program at Dierberg and Star Lane significantly advanced the process of getting to know the unique expression of the vineyards for Thomas as the new winemaker.

Thomas and I were also able to taste some older vintages of wines from the Dierberg and Star Lane vineyards. While the winemaking style was different from that expressed through the barrel tasting with Thomas and Connick, a distinctiveness and age-ability showed through. Thomas credits that sense of site expression with age worthiness as part of what convinced him there was something well-worth investing his time in at the Dierberg and Star Lane properties.

After touring the Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, and Star Lane Vineyard sites, we spent several hours in the cellar tasting through wines from both locations, as well as the Dierberg Santa Maria vineyard. Thomas and I spoke extensively about how he’s approaching his new position. Following is an excerpt from our conversation considering how Thomas thinks about and explores ideas of site expression in the context of various varieties, and also the controversial topic of ripeness levels.

Tyler Thomas

near the top of the mid-slope of Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, with Tyler Thomas discussing block expression, January 2014

“Part of our focus is on capturing opportunity by capturing variability. For example, how do we make a Cabernet Franc that is representative of Cabernet Franc of Star Lane, and then find a way to work with that. We work a little harder to capture variability in the vineyard so that we can add a little more nuance and complexity to the wine.” Thomas and Connick vinify small vineyard sections separately as a way of getting to know particular site expression. “We want to make Cabernet Franc as Cab Franc, rather than as the Cabernet Sauvignon version of Cab Franc so that we can see what Cab Franc from here is all about, while also recognizing it might later add to the complexity of our Cab Sauvignon. I don’t mind embracing ripe, rich flavors, but I don’t believe in doing it artificially by picking late and then adding water back.”

We taste through a wide range of Cabernet and Cab Franc from a range of picking times, and vineyard sections and then begin talking about what the unique character of Cabernet at Star Lane is about. “There are some ultra early picks on Cab from here that still don’t show pyrazines [green pepper notes], so I think the conversation, at least in this area, around Cab expression is on texture and mouthfeel rather than on pyrazine level.”

Thomas explains that we are tasting through the range of barrel samples around the cellar to show off the diversity of Star Lane that he is excited about. “This is all to show off the diversity of Star Lane. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a conversation you and I had before [referencing a conversation Thomas and I had previously about asking yourself what you want to love in your life through how you choose to spend your time].

“I’ve been thinking about how we can ask, what do you want to love in wine? There is a question of how elements play out in a wine, rather than if wines taste of terroir or not. There is a lot of conversation around how a wine best expresses terroir. The truth is, riper wines can still show terroir or site expression. Of course Chardonnay raisins and Cabernet raisins still taste like raisins so one must admit there is a limit. Conversely, underripe grapes all taste like green apples so you can pick too far that way too.

“I don’t know if I can elaborate on it more than that. Sometimes you’re standing in a site and you feel like trying something but you don’t know if it’s just because you think you can or if there is something about the site that asks you to. But other times you can taste something there in the wine that you can’t explain, but at the same time can’t deny.

“In thinking about overly ripe wine, just because something is veiled doesn’t mean you can’t know what it is. On a good site, a riper style winemaker can still show site expression, the winemaking won’t completely obscure the site, even if it veils it some. Sometimes things are more veiled in a wine than others. Sometimes our role as winemaker ends up being unveiling the terroir.

“To put it another way, if everyone was picking at the same level of ripeness shouldn’t site be the difference that shows? Ripeness doesn’t necessarily obscure site, it just changes our access to it. In the end, it becomes a matter of what we value, of what we want to love in wine.”

***

To read guest posts from Tyler Thomas that consider his winemaking philosophy, and views of wine further:

A Winemaking Philosophy: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/29/a-winemaking-philosophy-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/28/the-humanness-of-winemaking-faith-hope-and-love-as-the-core-of-life-and-wine-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

***

Thank you most especially to Tyler Thomas.

Thank you to Jeff Connick. Thank you to Sao Anash.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

10

Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.” -Charles Baudelaire

Last night in the midst of a Paris Popup dinner at Penrose in Oakland I unexpectedly found my nose in a glass of Domaine Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre Chablis. The profundity of the experience proved quite simple. In the grapefruit, forest musk of the glass I smelled only joy.

A particular explanation of philosophy remarks that the philosopher’s work is to notice the strangeness of the ordinary. Such a view forms a sort of paradox. That is, the ordinary is in its nature strange, in other words, not really ordinary at all.

In what are known as the Kallias Letters, German poet-historian-philosopher Friedrich Schiller gives an account of beauty. “A form is beautiful, one might say, if it demands no explanation, or if it explains itself without a concept.” Within Schiller’s idea of the beautiful is the point that it transcends us — what is truly beautiful is not a matter of our own personal preferences (our preferences are fickle), but instead a characteristic of the beautiful thing itself. In saying that the beautiful needs no explanation, Schiller is pointing out that what is beautiful is simply complete — it needs no supplement. It is beautiful. A kind of straightforward aesthetic truth.

Schiller’s account of the beautiful seems to present an example of the very thing it works to define. It too needs no further explanation. That is, for any of us that have encountered moments of beauty in wine, his definition of beauty feels right. In the nose of Raveneau, there was nothing to say. I could try to describe aromas for the wine but the truer point was that the wine smelled of joy. It had no other explanation.

It must be said too, that for those of us that haven’t witnessed a moment like this of the beautiful (whether through wine or anywhere else), there is nothing to understand in Schiller’s point either. He can give no explanation because there isn’t one. You’ve either seen beauty, and so recognize the simplicity of it, or you haven’t.

Schiller’s account of beauty forms a sort of paradox as well. In his account, he shows that beauty is not a matter of personal preference. There is nothing fickle about the beautiful. Our tastes may change, but a beautiful form is in itself a beautiful form. Our recognition of it (or not) does not impact the truth of the object. Yet, there is a kind of problem.

The idea of beauty is an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is, by definition, a study of the principles behind beauty, but it is also a study of our sensory experiences, or that which we can witness about the world. The point is that, something like Raveneau may be beautiful in itself, but it can only be recognized or exist as beautiful because as humans we have the capacity to witness it. This point is tricky, and almost circular, so let me restate it.

Because beauty is an aesthetic concept, it is necessarily subjective — we are the sensual creatures that seek it — and yet, the beautiful thing exists in and of itself as beautiful, whether we recognize its beauty or not. We are the creatures that generate the very concept (beauty) that we then find in the world regardless of us.

It is here, then, that we discover the gift and strangeness of encountering beauty. We are struck dumb by the beautiful. In encountering beauty, we in a sense escape ourselves. Yet, we are always implicated in its form. Precisely because beauty is an aesthetic notion, it links necessarily to our senses. The experience of sensing something beyond ourselves at the same time gives us strength — we have the capacity to access, witness, and experience something beyond our own limits. Here, the intertwined nature of beauty — that it transcends us and yet we are implicated in it — reveals part of its power. The thing that transcends us roots us more fully in ourselves, precisely by its pulling us beyond ourselves, another paradox. In doing so, beauty reveals to us how much more is possible. It becomes a kind of motivation for us to be more than we thought we were.

Beauty reminds us how much more is the world than any of our self-involved analysis of it, and also of our ability to live more fully in it. In his book, The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller goes on to develop an account in which he treats the beautiful as an example for improving ourselves as people. There he tells us that we can strive to achieve in ourselves a sense of the completeness we witness through the beautiful. That is, when we are good there is no explanation, we simply are good. Yet, for us as humans, such goodness feels more tenuous than those moments with the beautiful, precisely because goodness for us must be an ongoing process. We must always strive for such balance without an ability to permanently arrive at it. In its parallel to goodness, beauty becomes a motivator to find comfort in our own uncertainty.

In smelling my Raveneau last night, I had no words and only smiling. The wine changed remarkably over the course of the evening, yet always carried that initial experience of my being struck. In as much as I gave myself to the wine, there was little I could say about it. To write any sense of typical wine description, I would have had to take a stance of analysis that necessarily would remove me from the very thing I sought to describe. As a result, what I find to say is this. (It is both utterly inadequate, and in itself complete. Forgive me. I can only hope the people for whom it’s meant will recognize the statement for its intended truth.)

Last night I drank Raveneau. All I can say emphatically is, Thank you.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Tasting Place with Mac Forbes

Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes, Woori Yallock Vineyard, Yarra Valley, Australia

Mike Bennie and Mac Forbes, in the Woori Yallock Vineyard, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, February 2013

It’s February the first time Mac Forbes and I meet. Wine writer Mike Bennie has generously included me on a trip around Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, and we’re spending the second half of a day with Forbes, and his vineyard partner, Dylan Grigg.

We focus the visit on a favorite site of Grigg and Forbes in the Woori Yallock area walking a South facing slope to see the changes of Pinot at various parts of the hill. They’ve worked with the site for several years now. Forbes tells me when they started, the deep siltstone soils created grapes so tannic the fruit couldn’t stand up to the structure. The vines now reach around twenty years old and their expression has seemed to find itself — the fruit-tannin balance gives more easily. Later, we taste several vintages of the wine. It carries a lithe tension and energy that renews my previously challenged faith in Pinot Noir.

Departing from Australia, Forbes’ wines keep returning to mind so I decide to contact him. After several re-tastings, and emails back and forth, we’re able finally to talk in early November on, what I find out later, is Forbes birthday. He’s just returning from a visit to Austria, where he spent several years as a winemaking and vineyard consultant. The trip allowed him time with long-term friends.

When I ask Forbes how his Australian winter has been, he surprises me. “Since I’ve seen you I feel like I’ve grown enormously in a humbling way,” he responds. Forbes’ wines are already well-regarded among his winemaking peers, and his experience with heritage wineries in Australia, Dirk Niepoort in Portugal, and consulting in Austria, are impressive, not to mention harvest work through France and elsewhere. I ask Forbes to explain. Eventually, his answer humbles me.

The Vineyard as an Educative Force
Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes, February 2013

Forbes begins speaking about his vineyard sites, all (small) sections of land with unique soil conditions throughout the Yarra Valley. He describes a previously abandoned collection of vines in the Wesburn region that was almost pulled until the current owner asked if Forbes and Grigg wanted to try and restore it. The project demanded several years of wrestling blackberry bushes, and tackling trees before it gave any grapes, that first fruit mainly various whites. More recently they were also able to make Pinot.

I ask Forbes what about his vineyards challenged his way of thinking. “Wesburn definitely precipitated this school of thought evolving,” he tells me. “The big thing that dawned on me in the last twelve months,” he starts, then pauses, and starts again. “So much of what I was doing has been to be outcome focused, yet I was committed to making wines of place.”

Winemakers around the world recite these days how they make wines focused on site expression. Many such examples, however, are winemakers with little contact with the site itself, simply buying fruit at the end of the season. Considering what little interaction with a location such a model affords, how they could be making terroir driven wines remains unclear. Recognizing something more in Forbes’ claim, I push him to explain. Instead of naming site features, he describes the vineyard itself as an educative force.

Looking at his example, Forbes makes wine from the Wesburn site (among others), but perhaps more importantly, he works with other winemakers that also purchase fruit from he and Grigg. The community that’s arisen from the experience has changed him.

“Wesburn fruit has a unique structure totally at odds with other sites we’ve got,” he explains. “It’s quite humbling to watch. People put on a hat ready to taste Pinot, then something else happens.” The collection of winemakers that work with Wesburn fruit come from varied schools of thought. One is more inclined towards conventional uses of apparent oak, and sulfur regimes. Another tends to push on reducing (or eliminating) sulfur additions while increasing skin contact. Over a few years, however, winemaking from Wesburn fruit put in sharp relief for all of them the impact of technique.

Listening for the Voice of a Site

In circling around our discussion, Forbes speaks about the difference between what he quickly calls a shy versus a dull site. He means the names more descriptively than critically. A dull site, as he understands it, might give quality fruit but will readily take up whatever winemaking technique you ascribe to it. The fruit itself is dull when compared to the winemaking, which shows up more in comparison.

“A shy site,” on the other hand, “might just need some space to shine.” A shy vineyard, then, could have sophisticated character but need the room to show what it has without being suffocated. Such a subtle distinction emphasizes the need for a winemaker to listen.

In offering the example, what Forbes wants to discuss is how the contrast changes the attention from outcome to place. When a winemaker’s focus is on listening, he or she has turned away from an outcome question that could otherwise seem as basic as what kind of wine to make–Pinot, for example–instead to asking how he or she will make the wine. In working with vineyards in the Yarra Valley, “I used to be looking for Pinot sites. Now I’m looking for great sites. Variety has to factor in, but it is secondary,” he says.

Education from the vineyard turns the attention away from the goal of a particular wine style or type, to the process of how to approach it, driven by what the site itself needs or wants. “Making wine in relation to benchmark examples of wine,” like Burgundy for Pinot Noir, for example, Forbes explains, “can make lovely wine, but likely suffocates the fruit a little bit.” That is, with such an approach, your attention is focused on somewhere, or something else, rather than the grapes you have.

When dealing with a shy site, “you end up having to ask how to best capture the character of the vineyard and help it come to the surface,” he tells me. “With Wesburn, we were confronted with the edge of going too far in technique.” Part of what is remarkable about the example is that it brought winemaker’s with hugely different philosophies on winemaking much closer in understanding. “This site brought people together, beyond being dogmatic, to a more similar place in approach. We all found the site wanted less sulfur, and less skin contact both. It’s been fascinating to watch.”

Fascinated by Wesburn

Forbes 2012 Pinots

Tasting early release samples with Forbes

Fascinated, by Forbes point, I ask him to talk through details. The vines at Wesburn were originally planted in 1981. The site rides the edge of potential for the Yarra Valley, as one of the team’s most expensive to run, giving incredibly low vigor from compacted mudstone and clay. Five years ago, Forbes planted Blaufrankisch believing the variety would suit the characteristics of the area. It has still to produce fruit for wine. Everything moves slowly at Wesburn. There is, in other words, low incentive for growing in the location but Forbes sees something valuable and so persists.

Moving slowly “is part of the site. It doesn’t help to push it,” Forbes explains. Trying to rush the vines won’t actually grow the fruit faster. The Pinot Noir of Wesburn, even from established vines, also took time to come back from neglect he reminds me. “I believed it would get there. I didn’t realize it would take so long.” The site is unique in Yarra Valley, protected from hot North winds blowing down from the desert, and as far East as one can go in the Yarra. It receives long morning shade, and cool air, so it shows a very specific side of the Valley. It’s the specificity of the site that has Forbes engaged.

Forbes History with the Yarra Valley

Dedicated to winemaking, Forbes spent years working in wine internationally. In 2004, however, he spent a summer with Dirk Niepoort studying vineyard sites first in Portugal, then in Austria. As Forbes explains, Niepoort tends towards vineyards other winemakers overlook as too barren, or neglected for production. The wines Niepoort makes, however, are vibrantly expressive and elegant. The experience with Niepoort made Forbes reconsider the potential of his home region.

What Yarra Valley has in abundance is ready fruit assertion. By trusting the region will give fruit character, winemakers can turn away from concerns of ripeness to search instead for what will make that fruit interesting. For Forbes, the focus falls on texture, and site expression.

After his experience with Niepoort, then, Forbes returned to Yarra Valley with a thirst for studying sub-regionality, to explore the unique, and multiple voices of the Yarra Valley. “If I am going to stay in this caper, it’s got to be to get to know what is unique about our little patch of dirt,” he explains. “If you can’t find out what is unique about your dirt, then why are you doing it?” Forbes asks. It is in this question that the humility Forbes exudes becomes clear.

Mac Forbes winemaking project is not about fulfilling or showcasing his own goals in wine as much as it is based in trying to find (with his winemaking community too) a voice that is bigger than his own to contribute to. Forbes’ wines do renew my faith in Pinot Noir, but interestingly they shed light on the grape itself less than they do the character of the Yarra Valley, and what it means to make wines of place.

***
Thank you to Mac Forbes.

Thank you to Mike Bennie, Jay Latham, and Lisa McGovern.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

8

Interpreting Doctor Schoener: A Video by cdsavoia

Earlier this week I got an email from Miguel de la Torre. He helps generate the cdsavoia video project, which creates short films presenting the work and personality of creative individuals in five fields — music, fashion, fine art, wine, and design.

As many of you already know, winemaker Abe Schoener and I have kept a sort of on going conversation. Both of us originate as professors of philosophy that somehow left that world to enter the world of wine. The trouble and promise of philosophy, however, is that it never leaves you. The on going conversation, then, has been based partially in Schoener and I sharing the compulsion of purposefully choosing sensual (that is, bodily) life with thought, of educated pleasure, of unbridled but directed curiosity.

Because of previous write-ups I’ve done on Abe, Miguel wrote to share the new video cdsavoia has just produced on the work and world of Abe Schoener, and offered me the chance to release the video here on my site as well. I took a watch before accepting, but it’s worth the view — charming, smart, well made, and a bit irreverent (the combination I look for in anything I do).

Check out the video here:

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Or, you can watch it directly over at cdsavoia here:

http://www.cdsavoia.com/#/artists/abe-schoener/play

If you’ve got time, take a look at their other video interviews too. They’ve got another recent one on winemaker Matt Dees of Jonata, the Hilt, and Goodland Wines too.

***

Thank you to Miguel de la Torre.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

A Conversation with Sergio Hormazábal

Traveling in Chile we were able to share lunch with the President of the Chilean Association of Winemakers, Asociación de Ingenieros Agrónomos Enólogos de Chile, and winemaker for Viña Ventisquero, Sergio Hormazábal. Working for Viña Ventisquero, Hormazábal is responsible specifically for their Root: 1 brand. Hormazábal advocates for the quality of Chilean wine, noting that the goal rests in encouraging consumer desire as quality is there and continues to grow. We asked him to express his views on the idea of making wines for the consumer. Following are some of the thoughts Hormazábal had to share.

Sergio Hormazabal

Sergio Hormazabal, president, Asociación de Ingenieros Agrónomos Enólogos de Chile, and winemaker, Viña Ventisquero, climbing the steep slopes of Apalta in the back of a truck

“People talk about making the wine the consumer wants. To me talking about the consumer is like trying to capture the rainbow. Who are you talking about? If you want to talk about the consumer, show me faces and names.

“People like to look at statistics to predict the future. This is always a mistake. If you look at statistics you are always looking in the mirror to the past, to what is behind you.

“How to predict what will sell? What is the future? It is very complicated but I think the only way is not to look at the numbers but instead to be in places and talk with people. You do not experience the future through the numbers but by being in a place, by talking to people, by looking at the street to see what’s there. It is not scientific. It is a feeling. But you need time in the street, in a place to catch a hint of what is to come.

“We talk as if people know already what they want. People do not always know what they want. Instead, give them a taste of something. They like it? A moment before they had not had it. They did not know they would like it.”

***
Thank you to Sergio Hormazábal.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

5

Meeting Randall Grahm

Barrel tasting with Randall Grahm

The first time I met Randall Grahm, he began discussing chi within a few minutes of my arrival. We’d stepped into Bonny Doon‘s winery cellar in the Mission district of Santa Cruz. “The ability to tolerate oxygen is the chi of a wine.” He went on, “wine needs oxygen, but it is also affected by oxygen.”

We were standing next to the upright wooden tanks for the label’s signature red blend, Le Cigare Volant, and he wanted to explain the connection between a wine’s chi and it’s contact with lees. The puncheons Grahm uses for aging his blend contain multiple levels of shelving, creating what Grahm calls “a lees hotel.” The wine’s lees settle on different levels, giving “more surface area for the lees to get digested.” As the wine breaks down the lees, they produce savoriness, but the also give the wine a greater ability to withstand the negative effects of air.

But it isn’t lees that Grahm is focused on. The discussion is meant to raise a different point. “One of the main mysteries of wine,” Grahm tells me, “is why some wines live and some wines die. Like good Burgundy, that wine is good for a week.” Asking him to explain further what he means, Grahm refers to the liveliness of a wine after it’s been opened, the way some wines resist oxidation and stay beautiful for days after opening. “We should all be focusing on answering one question, what are things we can do to give wine life, to help wines live?” Grahm says.

The Life of a Wine: The Role of Minerality

DSC_0469

Half a year later, Grahm and I are talking over the phone for an article I wrote on the idea of minerality. In the article, I was able to reference Grahm’s point that a useful place to start would be to simply assay mineral levels in wines themselves. But his discussion went further. He offered a unique account of minerality I didn’t have the word count to share.

In the phone conversation, Grahm returns again to the question of oxidation. “What is the mechanism that leads some wines to resist oxidation?” Neither of us had referenced our previous conversation at this point. The question of a wine’s life is simply central for Grahm. “There are wines whose phenolics,” he tells me, “are not off the charts and yet they don’t oxidize.”

To put it another way, there are wines with obvious characteristics that we know resist oxidation–they are high in sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative; they are low in pH, or rich in tannin. “But subtract these factors out,” Grahm emphasizes, “and there is still a class of wines that do not oxidize, and that is not explained by those physical variables. What is at work there?” It’s the same question Grahm called wine’s greatest mystery as we tasted his signature blend.

Wine’s Mystery Class

Randall Grahm

For Grahm, the class of wine’s that do not oxidize and yet do not carry the understood mechanisms–excess sulfur dioxide, low pH, rich tannin (or perhaps have only one of them in a non-explanatory way)–are the mystery class. He lists examples that seem to produce a higher number of such wines–Haut-Brion, wines from the Saar or Mt. Etna, Chablis, many Rieslings, but his paradigm case is Lesona (an Italian wine incredibly hard to find information on). “Lesona,” he tells me, “you could leave those wines open for a month and they don’t oxidize.”

I ask Grahm if he finds anything in common between the wines he listed as examples, and he does. “Lesona wine, this appellation in Italy, is textbook mineral city.” For Grahm, it is a very particular account of minerality that the mystery class shares. In his experience, Grahm tells me, wines that stay alive after opening always also carry “a sort of experience on the palate.” He describes that experience for me.

“There is a persistence on the palate.” He says. “A savoriness, or saltiness, and,” he pauses to think. “What I call dimensionality to the wine.” He trails off for a second then returns. “Forgive the lapse into synthesia. The wine just seems to have some sort of multi-dimensionality, a non-linearity.” We discuss the shape of it for a while, and I recognize the sensation as a kind of echo on the palate.

“Yes,” he responds. “there is a doubling of the sensation, a kind of secondary aspect to it” as if you catch a scent or flavor in the wine “and then immediately after follows a relief, or accompaniment in the wine,” not another flavor exactly, but an echo of the initial flavoral experience.

The description from Grahm seems to resemble the French account of minerality from Master of Wine, John Atkinson, I discussed in the article. As Atkinson explains his understanding of the French notion, minerality operates as a kind of “organoleptic action of mineral-bitter-salts element” that hinges flavors and structure together. Minerality operates, then, in this account as not just a flavor but a link between taste and acid or tannin, as well as a physical response from the mouth itself. As Grahm describes it, the echo seems to correlate with a kind of overall tension on the palate, as if the wine is directed and the mouth must follow.

Soil and Vinification Correlation

Talking with Randall Grahm

Beyond the sensory commonality Grahm sees in his wines of interest, there is also a correlation with mineral rich ground. He recognizes that current science denies a direct line from the mineral ions in earth to literal mineral content in wine, but the point is moot. Even if the ions don’t literally appear in the wine itself, who cares if such ground so often does generate quality wines? The calcium rich marl of Colli Orientali del Friuli, and Collio I add to the list. He agrees, but he wants to discuss a more ready example in limestone.

What Grahm notices is that the kind of experience he described occurs very often with wines from limestone soils, but most especially in whites. “White wines from limestone soils are more transparent,” he explains. “It can be easier to blind limestone soils on whites because they’re simply less encumbered.” There are fewer elements, such as tannin or anthocyanins, to block the palate expression of the soil. But Grahm points something else out. With limestone soils, such wines “are often very closed when [the bottle is] first opened up, both in whites and reds.”

But the source of a wine’s life doesn’t rest only in its soils, the role of vineyard care, and the winemaker is also clear. I ask Grahm what he’d recommend to winemakers wanting to create wines full of minerality, that last after opening. The answer is straightforward. “Buy some land in a mineral rich area, find soils rich in minerals, then farm in a way that is maximally expressive of those qualities.” For Grahm much of what that means is inspired by the work of Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who emphasize the importance of micro fauna, and micro floral life in the earth. Supporting the longevity of old vines is also important.

The role of reduction early in the winemaking process also seems relevant. By giving wine a shot of oxygen early on, it seems to become more resistant to its negative impacts later. In Grahm’s view such an approach also adds an additional layer of complexity ultimately to the wine. “The reduction aroma initially occludes things present in how you farm. But as it dissipates, it adds another dimension,” giving room too for the terroir to show again. This process of reduction is another way in which a wine closes, then opens up over time.

Atkinson too describes a correlation between this sort of reductive fermentation process in making champagne (though not in the sulfidic sense) and the experience of minerality in both the vin clair and final sparkling wine, as he has studied for years at the shoulder of Billecart-Salmon‘s Chef de Cave Francois Domi. Current thought suggests a likely correlation between this sense of reduction, and the later presentation of minerality in wine. Hildegaard Heymann, of UC Davis, and winemaker Clark Smith are both examples of people that have shared such an account in interviews, or written on it.

Finding the Life of Wine with Air

Bonny Doon wines

It is this point about certain wines beginning closed, then opening up with time that finally makes Grahm’s point. “These wines are changeable.” For Grahm, the idea gets to the heart of appeal for his mystery class. “They move. They start out closed, and then they move and change in the glass.” The description of wine’s movement circles us back finally to an idea Grahm shared when we first met. “A wine that lives,” he tells me, “is responsive to oxygen. It breathes.”

***

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

1

The following is part 3, the finish, of a talk I gave to UC Davis Viticulture & Enology students on Monday.

To read part 1: on Freedom, Paul Draper, and Camus: UCDavis Talk, Part 1: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking

To read part 2: UC Davis Talk, Part 2: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking

Here is part 3

***

Freedom, Expression, and Love: An Exploration of Choice in Winemaking
By Elaine Chukan Brown, aka. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka

Blind tasting trials of the 2011 blends

just after blind trials of Ridge Monte Bello (A), and Ridge Estate (B & C) blends

Part 3: Love: Paul Draper and Principles

The first time I interviewed Paul Draper he wanted to talk with me about philosophy. What he told me was this: philosophy was what got him, and Ridge Wine, the brand and the business, to where it is today. He considers it the basis of his success. We talked about what that statement meant, and by the end what I understood was that philosophy gave him the clarity of long term vision, long term commitment, and balance. Integral to Draper’s work with Ridge, is the goal that it surpasses him. It has done well for 50-years, he has developed it to last at least another 50. The team, and company seem well equipped to accomplish that goal.

I assume most of you don’t have thoroughgoing backgrounds in philosophy. I’m not trying to suggest you have to have one. Instead, I am pointing out that what Paul Draper has that UC Davis in itself cannot give you is his own long term vision, and the clarity to follow through—his own commitment to the kind of wine he believes is good, the care to plan for the sake of long term persistence as well as brilliance, and the willingness to experiment in a thoughtful manner to ensure he makes that wine. My view is that this combination—commitment, care, and willingness—amount to what must be understood as love. And it is love that defines Draper’s work and his success. I recognize this could sound too precious, so let me give you one last example. It will be brief.

Paul Draper began making Ridge wine at the end of the 1960s. The core portfolio has remained recognizably clear—quality soils, older vines, simple techniques, a focus on structure, American oak—even with the foray into White Zinfandel in the 1980s, or the occasional trouble with brett. I was able to blind taste the 2011 Monte Bello and Estate blends with Paul recently. He and his winemaking team had already selected their Monte Bello assemblage, but they were deciding between two possible assemblages for the final bottling of the Estate blend. One version resembled a blend with the lots that had traditionally been included for the Estate bottling. The other they just had a feeling about early on. It struck them as interesting, so they decided to keep it out and follow it through the year. By the end of the tasting they’d selected the second option—the assemblage that was less traditional showed better that vintage. By being open to something connected to what they made there—it was still a Bordeaux blend from the Monte Bello estate—but different than what they traditionally did—a blend from different lots than those used in previous years for that bottling—Draper was free to choose the wine he loved to make.

Conclusion

What I want to say finally is this. UC Davis offers you the very best tools of your industry. Knowing I am standing here among you and this quality of education you are receiving honestly makes me swell with pride. But what you have the chance to gain from UC Davis itself is not enough. You are free right now to ask yourself how are you going to exercise your strengths? How do you want to apply these tools? What is it you want to love?

Thank you.

***

Thank you to UC Davis for inviting, and hosting me.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

 

The following is part 2 of a talk I gave to UC Davis Viticulture & Enology students on Monday.

To read part 1: on Freedom, Paul Draper, and Camus: UCDavis Talk, Part 1: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking

Here is part 2

***

Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking
by Elaine Chukan Brown, aka. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka

Me

Part 2: Expression: Pneumonia and Technique

For the second part of my talk, I want to consider the idea of this expression, but I want to reflect on it by telling you a story from my own life that few people know. For all the personal confessions that exist in my writing about wine, this is a story I haven’t written. It’s how or why I left my academic career.

In 2010, I was awarded a research fellowship with Dartmouth College. I had already been teaching philosophy full-time in Northern Arizona for several years at that point. The fellowship I won is given to one person a year for someone whose research is seen as a positive resource for the Dartmouth community, and academia at large. The winner is funded to live on campus and simply do the work they were already doing. I arrived, then, in summer 2010 as a philosopher in residence working on questions of Indigenous Identity.

While there, I was also asked to give the response to a keynote address at a conference occurring in Montreal, Quebec, where I had also done graduate coursework at McGill. To prepare for the response, I’d of course thoroughly considered the article itself, but also read each of the books and articles written by the keynote speaker. The day I was to respond I woke up severely ill. I was used to toughing out sickness, however, and made plans to clear my schedule until the keynote that evening so I could rest until I needed to get up for my response. Two hours prior, I discovered I was still too sick to get out of bed. In the end, though, I had to be convinced by the conference organizer that it was acceptable for me to stay in bed and let someone else read my pre-written response.

The person who wrote the keynote was one of the leaders in my field, and the occasion had been designed partially to give us the chance to meet, so as to facilitate the possibility of her acting as an ongoing mentor—it is common for younger faculty to be guided by more experienced professors. It turned out I was sick the entire week and I never met her. Finally, by the weekend, a friend took me to the emergency room, as I was having trouble breathing. I was diagnosed with pneumonia that ultimately sent me to the emergency room three times over the course of almost two months, and demanded three rounds of antibiotics.

I actually suffered a poor reaction to the first set of antibiotics that included severe headaches lasting for several hours after taking the pills. The pain was intense enough I could not do anything for the hours they peaked besides meditate through them. It was unbearable but I had no choice but simply get through it. Fighting the headaches made them worse. Stopping the antibiotics would only make the pneumonia worse. The headaches were also severe enough I couldn’t do any other work. There was no way out. You might say the illness was my boulder during this period.

In the midst of this time I made a surprise discovery. At the best of it, I would clear my thoughts entirely. But often uncontrolled thoughts would come through mind. After a little while, I recognized that when I thought about something that lined up with my preferences, the pain would subside slightly, and I would feel better. If I thought about something that did not agree with me, I would feel worse.

When I recognized this pattern I decided to test it. I would intentionally think about things I already knew my preferences on: over extracted Australian Shiraz—immediately bad; over-oaked Chardonnay—even worse; champagne—ah, better; coffee—better still. I continued testing it until I was confident the pattern was consistent. Then, I began testing things I wasn’t so clear on to see if they made me feel better or worse. During my meditations through the headaches I would treat my body as a kind of i ching making small insights into aspects of my life I hadn’t been sure about before. Over time, what I came to recognize was that when I thought about anything relating to my career in academia, I felt immediately worse. The sensation was utterly consistent, and in fact became stronger through my headaches. By the time I finished that round of antibiotics, the idea of continuing in academia in the way I had been before immediately triggered migraines.

As I recovered my health, I decided I had to change my life. I had committed so completely to philosophy, and pursuing it through an academic career I had no idea what else I could do for work. Even so, the message of my health was too clear. So, I made a different commitment. I would give myself one year to extract myself from my career in academia. By the time I finished that year, I still had no idea what I would do instead. I only had images of what I wanted—I wanted to write. I wanted my life to be full of sunlight. I needed alone time. I liked listening to people that really meant what they were doing. I had no idea what it would look like to make all those elements come together. I only knew I’d made myself a promise, and I had to act on faith that my promise was worth something.

Around the time I had planned to give my resignation I worried that my decision was crazy. By this point I had returned to Arizona to complete my last year of teaching with an ongoing contract from the university. The same moment I questioned whether I should stick to my plan of leaving, or stay another year, I got asked to a meeting with my department chair and was told that due to severe budget cuts across the state I should expect my teaching load to increase one class per term without any raise in pay. It was the only confirmation I needed, and I submitted my formal resignation that same week. I understood that I was still a philosopher. But the success I’d cultivated in academia I left behind. Though I recognized myself as a philosopher still, there was no guarantee it would ever be recognized by anyone else outside a formal philosophy program. I walked away from any guarantee of being recognized for my work by others.

Here is what I want you to know about that story: everything in me knows that I made the right decision pursuing a career in philosophy. The personal clarity I gained from suffering through the rigorous demands of advanced training in careful thinking is irreplaceable. It has shaped who I am. I am endlessly grateful. Everything in me also knows I did the right thing in leaving my career in academia. This is not to deny the benefits of academic life. It is an excellent career to consider. It was simply not the right career for me to stay within. So while I am grateful I chose philosophy, I am also grateful I left academia.

My point, however, is this: advanced training in philosophy gave me decisive access to a wealth of tools. What it did not tell me was precisely how I must use those tools. It gave me a range of possible models I could follow, but it also did not expose me to others that were also possible. An academic career in the discipline is one framework through which I could exercise my training. But through faith, and a lot of luck, and now continued hard work, I bumbled my way into an entirely different form of expressing those same tools.

When I meet with people in wine, what I am doing is listening to what they say, as well as what they don’t, listening for their values, their beliefs, and their principles not only through how they overtly express them, but also through the implications of what they do and do not say. While listening, I track the form of their expression, to ask myself who it is in front of me. I ask questions to make sure I understand where someone is coming from. In a strange way, I do something parallel to this when tasting and drinking wine.

What I have learned from this approach is that the more willing, and more often I am willing to take people, and wine this seriously, the better at hearing what each has to offer I get. Then, once I am comfortable that I do recognize the actual person, or beverage in front of me, I write about them. What I am practicing, then, is another expression of my philosophical training. I chose to leave one form of philosophical practice to instead pursue another.

What I want to suggest is that each of you have a similar choice. Most likely, and hopefully, it won’t be as dramatic as headaches and pneumonia that helps you make your decision. But you are still in a similar situation as I just described for myself. This is true in two senses. First, it is up to you to decide how open, and how systematic you want to be in approaching your practice with wine, and with people. This point connects to the second.

Here at UC Davis what you have been given, or what you are gathering, is a collection of tools. If you do choose to continue in vineyard management, or in winemaking, eventually that choice will become the rock you are committed to, but you will still have the question of how you will apply the tools you have gained here. In what way do you want to express yourself as a vineyard manager, or winemaker? To put it more simply, you have an incredible opportunity to ask yourself, what kind of wine do you want to make.

In the world of wine, it can be easy to assume sometimes that we have been handed a preset model of what is good—that Burgundy is the model for terroir, as an example. It is one of the oldest. Sometimes we assume that most established is equal to the best. Or, we might think that over oaked Chardonnay is always bad. Today, common models of wine include the idea that natural wine is best, or that it is crap; or, that only low alcohol wines are balanced. But each of these approaches to wine are actually methods developed over time by a series of tasters, and winemakers, and, just like Sisyphus’s rock, these ideas are in a sense arbitrary.

We still have to choose our views. They are what give shape to our life. But if you recognize your own ideas here about what counts as the right kind of wine, I want to ask you to consider, what is the source of that opinion? Is it what you want to commit yourself to?

From the peak of Mt Olympus these distinctions in wine do not mean much. It is us, with our face right beside the boulder, that decide they are meaningful. We get to ask ourselves which approaches we want to invest our time in.

***

Tomorrow: Part 3: Love: Paul Draper and Principles

Part 3: UC Davis Talk, Part 3: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking

Thank you to Dr. Boulton. Thank you to all of the students that attended.

Thank you to Kate MacKay.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

10

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

Me Teaching

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.

Introduction

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 Monte Bello

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.

B. Camus

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.

Part 2: UC Davis Talk, Part 2: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking

Part 3: UC Davis Talk, Part 3: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking

Thank you to Dr. Boulton. 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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