Tags Posts tagged with "philosophy"



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:

The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas:


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



Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine

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

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.

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.

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.


More later on Paris Popups.

Thank you to Anthony Lynch. Thank you to Laura Vidal.

Thank you to John of Penrose.

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

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


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:

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

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


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


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.”


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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.


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


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


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


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.


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.

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

for George, with gratefulness

Danger, and Excitement: Giving Time to Wine

Bobby Stuckey

Bobby Stuckey

“A new approach or trend in wine is not exciting right off.” Bobby Stuckey tells me, “first it’s dangerous.” Stuckey is a Master Sommelier with a wealth of experience in Northeastern Italy (and elsewhere), as well as co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, and the wine label Scarpetta. Stuckey’s idea of danger and excitement are meant to point out the challenge that a new discovery in wine carries with it.

The first introduction to a brand new style can offer such a break with previous expectations of wine that, as Ryme winemaker Ryan Glaab put it, the experience “is mind scrambling.” The feeling is dangerous when put up against old standards for judging wine that have grown inflexible. For those that remain malleable, however, an encounter with what’s new moves us past the danger zone into excitement–the first glimpses of new information giving charge to experience.

We’re discussing the idea of responsibility in the wine world when Stuckey touches on the role that knowledge and education plays. In order to make his point, Stuckey compares the oft discussed orange wine phenomenon to the surge in interest on Alsace that occurred in the mid-90s United States. When attention first turned to Alsace, a lot of sommeliers didn’t adequately understand the region–sweet wines? dry wines? what grapes? “It took a couple years for people to figure out what was going on,” he says. “We’re doing that right now with orange wines.”

The point behind Stuckey’s comparison, is that it takes time to genuinely understand new regions, or approaches to wine, let alone to simply gather basic knowledge. “Wine buyers need to take time to figure it out.” A mistake occurs, in other words, when people are quick to judge without having first put care into their study.

The time required to gain depth of understanding works against the pace of a world where it’s more common to quickly name drop wine styles, winemakers, or regions currently considered cool simply because trends too often equal street cred and attention. “We get buzz word trend focused, then go off the deep end.” Stuckey comments. “But,” when tasting wine, or trying something new we need to take the time and “ask, why did that work well there.” Stuckey characterizes this more in depth approach as “the craft of tasting a wine.” As he describes it, it’s a craft that develops with time and experience, and depends not just on sensory awareness, but intelligence and interest.

Answering Stuckey’s question “why did that work” depends too on recognizing the role of time for the winemaker. He points out that when it comes to exploring a new technique to making wine, “even great winemakers, 10 to 12 years before getting it, didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.” The best winemakers need multiple vintages to dial in their understanding of a new approach. In the process of trying out new techniques, there is also the risk of not knowing how the wine will be received.

In a U.S. context, Pax Mahle offers one such example. He began experimenting with using white wine maceration in 2003, but, as Mahle tells me, “it wasn’t until 2007 that one came to fruition.” Mahle was looking for texture and tannin without having to use oak or high alcohol, but wasn’t willing to bottle a wine until he was happy to put his name on it. Prior to that Mahle would find ways to blend his skin contact batches in to other wines. It was a way of allowing experimentation while mitigating the risk, maintaining credibility and quality.

Recognizing Responsibility and Hearing Voices

Levi Dalton

Levi Dalton

The responsibility piece kicks in in that it is generally wine professionals that are charged with greater access to a range of wines, as well as the position of representing the world of wine to consumers with less knowledge or experience. As proselytizers of the esoteric, wine professionals can slide into the more Catholic approach of acting as strict gatekeepers–a priest between the common and god–or take the more varied protestant approach of recognizing the people can talk to god directly. From the protestant view, anyone can learn about wine. As metaphorical spiritual leaders, we get to choose how we want to interact with that.

Levi Dalton takes the position of what I’m calling the more protestant aesthetic but counters it instead to an image of the Magician Sommelier. Dalton is a Sommelier in New York City, now working as the Wine Editor for Eater New York, and the voice of the interview podcast series, I’ll Drink to That. “Magician Sommeliers,” he tells me, “don’t want you to know the answers. They want to keep the illusion.” It’s a practice Dalton opposes. “You should want people to know things. You can’t stop them from googling stuff.”

Behind Dalton’s view is a similar consideration of time as that given by Stuckey.  “Engage with something or someone on a real level,” Dalton suggests, comparing the process of getting to know a wine as that of having a genuine conversation with someone. When encountering a new wine, Dalton suggests, “sit down, try to treat the wine right, and try to hear something.”

In hearing something from a wine, Dalton is pointing out too that the responsibility for recognizing what a wine might have to offer rests in the person drinking it, rather than simply in the wine itself being immediately likeable. Recognizing the important role of the taster allows that not every wine will speak to every person. “If I find this interesting,” Dalton points out, “maybe other people will find it interesting. Not everyone but some people.”

Dalton’s openness to differing experiences with wine pulls the compulsion away from trends and shifts value back to individual wines, and particular markets. If not everyone is going to “hear” a particular wine, the need for supporting variation in the wine world comes to the fore of importance. It also makes the embracing of differences not only important, but fundamental to the overall ethic, not to mention integral to providing good service. That is, I may not like a wine, but my satisfaction in helping you find one you like depends on me listening to where you might differ from me, and valuing that.

The Relevance of Orange Wines

Stuckey and Dalton are both known, at least partially, for their insights on what are now called orange wines, macerated ferments of white grapes. Throughout our conversation, Stuckey demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the vintages of Radikon, as well as producers from throughout Italy. Dalton carries thorough experience of Italy as well, and developed the wine program of two Italian focused New York restaurants with an emphasis on integrating accessibility, education, and lesser known wines through the design of the menu. In this way, Dalton helped introduce the U.S. market to the phenomenon. Though orange wines as an approach reach to the techniques preserved in Georgian culture, Italian producers that drew from Georgia’s heritage brought the wine style to the fore of attention.

Dalton considers the meaning of the differing structure and texture of orange wines. “Orange wines,” he tells me, “make people think about how wines are constructed. It breaks the illusion.” With the illusion lifted, suddenly the winemaker’s trick is revealed, it gives the wine drinker access to the wine in a new way. The wine drinker has a new opportunity to start asking questions.

For many winemakers, playing with macerated ferments is a parallel process of asking questions. Back again in the U.S. context, Sonja Magdevski, winemaker for the label Casa Dumetz, describes that exploration, “the more I do, the more I learn. There are so many ways to make wine.”

Magdevski understands herself as early in the winemaking learning process after starting her label in 2009. It’s a view of winemaking she seems likely to carry far into her career, being committed to the process of exploration. She has begun playing with skin contact trials on Gewurtztraminer, so far expecting to use them as integral to a Gewurtztraminer blend. For Magdevski, the barrel that was left on skins for 21 days through fermentation was fascinating, but she recognizes too the limit in getting pulled into a wine only because it’s intriguing. “I wanted to do the skin lot as a separate bottling because it’s interesting,” she tells me. “But I realized, if the wine is not also pretty, and attractive to others, what’s the point?”

As a winemaker, Magdevski sees her responsibility as bringing together her learning process with the desire to share the wine with others in a pleasurable way. Playing with the two versions of Gewurtztraminer barrel side, a blend of the two draws on the heightened aromatics and pleasing texture of the skin contact, with the lift and purity of flavors from the pressed lot, together each gaining greater dimensionality.

In considering again the role of the wine professional, Stuckey emphasizes the importance of recognizing the winemakers learning curve. As he puts it, “if you’re doing something different, it takes a minute.” The winemaker learns their craft over timel. But ultimately he brings the point back again to the wine professional and their ability to facilitate for a patron. “Our responsibility as a wine buyer is to learn, and know what is going on, not wild west it on the customer.”


To read previous installments of this series:

Part 1: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 1: Considering Recent History

Part 2: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 2: Variety, Terroir, and Mind Scrambling

To read last year’s series explaining Orange Wines beginning with how they’re made, then their presence in Georgia, Italy, and California, begin here: Understanding Orange Wines Part 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins Do To Our Saliva


The next installment will further consider the interplay of technique and terroir.

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