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Pinot Noir NZ 2017

Every four years winemakers from across New Zealand put together a three day event celebrating Pinot Noir. This year, Pinot Noir NZ 2017 took place in its host city of Wellington bringing together around 1000 guests total from 20 countries, including top wine professionals from each of those 20 countries, the best winemakers from around New Zealand and eager wine lovers from all over the world as well. Morning sessions focused on a series of talks and seminars, and after lunch (each designed by one of the top chefs of New Zealand or Australia), afternoons brought well-focused regional walk around tastings. By the end of the three days we’d heard from speakers that included some of the brightest in the New Zealand wine industry and a number of the world’s top wine professionals as well. In the evenings top chefs from New Zealand and Australia would serve dinner.

Pinot Noir NZ was truly one of the best wine events I have ever attended. It was impressively designed around a central theme that allowed for both focused and dynamic discussion considering the value of wine from multiple angles. There were technical seminars as well as more philosophical ones; tasting panels meant to make us reconsider how we experience wine and others that asked us to explore our own views of wine quality. The three days were designed around the Maori notion of Tūrangawaewae, a concept that captures the importance of place in how we gain, recognize, and gather our strength. Each of the three days then took a different theme for better understanding the value of Tūrangawaewae. I’ll be writing more about Tūrangawaewae later this week.

Day 1 revolved around the theme of Explore and opened with a Maori welcoming ceremony. International speakers for Pinot Noir NZ were asked to be part of the group being received by the local Maori tribes, and so to also participate in the ceremony on stage with the Maori elders and other tribes people. I was a speaker in this year’s Pinot Noir NZ, and so was asked to be part of the opening ceremony, to be a delegate received and greeted by the local Maori. It was an overwhelming and special experience. It was hard to believe the honor, that I was being asked to be part of such a sacred ceremony. The rest of the first day focused on speeches about the meaning, import and relevance to our thinking of wine in Tūrangawaewae, and then turned to understanding the value of each of the country’s growing regions before we then went to the regional tastings.

Day 2 considered the notion of Embrace and focused on tasting panels that gave us the chance to continue the conversation with wines there to help deepen the conversation. An international panel of wine experts selected wines and shared their views of greatness. The diversity of perspectives thanks to the international nature of the panel was inspiring. We were then put to a sound tasting by Jo Burzynska where Pinot noir was matched to different types of music as we explored how the varying sound types had very real impact on our tasting ability.

On Day 3 the focus was on how to Evolve and included a series of talks that asked where we are headed as not only as members of the wine community but also more broadly (wine lovers are always also part of the world at large after all), and so with that in mind, how to move forward. I was asked to give the closing speech for day 3 speaking to the question of future communication while also tying together threads from across the three days.

A number of people asked that once it was available I share my speech and its transcript here. So, now that I have both I am posting them as requested. Thank you to all of you that asked for this. I very much appreciate it.

As I mentioned, my speech refers to the conversations from across all three days of the event. Much of what is referenced will make sense in context. But to clarify a few things – the speech names a number of speakers from earlier in day 3 and references points they raised – Maynard James Keenan, Sam Neill, and Jancis Robinson are all mentioned. A few of them had also been joking about the relevance of their astrological signs, which is why I begin with explaining mine. I also mention Marcel Giesen, who spoke as part of the panel on greatness on day 2, and Nick Mills who spoke as part of the opening consideration of Tūrangawaewae on day 1. Also, on day 1, Rachel Tualelei, Ropata Taylor, and Dame Anne Salmond spoke on the history of the Maori, which is referenced near the beginning of my speech without naming them. In the beginning I refer to First Nations peoples. I am using that phrase to address the idea of first people to any particular region more generally. Such people are often referred to as indigenous (which I do also say here) but in some cases, such as the Maori of New Zealand, the people are not indigenous to that land but nevertheless were the first people of that land. I am using the phrase in that sense. In Canada, for example, the term First Nations has a more specific reference to a particular group there in Canada so I mention that here to clarify I am using the phrase more broadly. It is apparent in the context of the speech.

The other speeches shared online are also worth watching. The people named above whose speeches are available online I have linked to  – click on their name and it will take you to the video of their talk. The link to all available speeches (including regional overview videos from the event) are available here: https://vimeo.com/pinotnoirnz 

Thank you most especially to the board of Pinot Noir NZ for inviting me to speak, and to Rachael Fletcher for so seamlessly guiding everything, to Mike Bennie for suggesting me, and to David Strada for inviting me to New Zealand. Thank you to James Tidwell and David Keck for so patiently letting me talk through aspects of my talk before hand. Your friendship makes all the difference.

Here is the video of the speech. It’s transcript immediately follows it.

Day 3 Elaine Chukan Brown from Pinot Noir NZ on Vimeo.

Future Communication: Pinot Noir NZ
Elaine Chukan Brown

So I want to get out of the way right away that I am a Tiger in the Chinese zodiac. That’s the terrestrial parallel to Maynard’s Dragon – totally tenacious, claws the shit out of everything to get where it’s going, full commitment, looks good in stripes. Right?

I’m also a double Virgo. Virgos are known for devotion. They’re defined by love, and most especially service. So, whatever they do, they do out of love, and total commitment to excellence. But then I have a Sagittarius moon, which means that whatever I do, I do with my hair on my fire, and I thank my daughter for making sure that it looks like it is.

It is an incredible honor to be part of an event that so completely honors and speaks from the position of the First Nations people of the country that’s hosting it. As some of you know, I am Inuit from Alaska, and the terrible truth is that First Nations in the United States are barely even recognized for still existing. And so I live my daily life interacting with people unable to see who I am. And so to be here, and to have been asked to be part of the opening ceremony, finding connection, communion, companionship between the First Nations people of New Zealand and all of us that are here to speak about Pinot noir, and all of the other wonderful things we’ve been speaking about, was completely overwhelming.

But in acknowledgement of that, I wish to introduce myself to you as I would if I was speaking with my Native community in Alaska. I actually called my mother yesterday to ask for permission to speak today, and for permission to say my Native name, which in Alaskan communities is private, as a way of sort of preserving what’s most valued for us. Obviously, I’m not going to worry about it if I’m crying, so you’ll just all have to deal with it.

My maternal great-grandparents are Paul and Anna Chukan of Bristol Bay, Alaska. My grandparents are Gordon and Anisha McCormick. My paternal great-grandparents are Stephen and Amelia Ivanoff, of Norton Sound, Alaska. My grandmother is Emily Ivanoff Ticasuk Brown. My parents are Mel and Katherine Brown. I am Unangan and Iñupiaq. That is Aleut and Inuit from Alaska. My name is Elaine Chukan Arnaqiaq Brown. My daughter is Rachel Marie Williams.

For indigenous peoples across the planet, our ancestors, our people, define who we are. I am my ancestors. But also for indigenous peoples across the planet, what are ancestors are is our land, the place from which we come. So to speak with you today is overwhelming because I bring them with me.

My great-grandfather, I was lucky enough to know growing up, and he was born at a time, in a place so remote, that he saw the first waves of outside people enter his region. And he would tell me stories about the first time he saw someone from China, the first time he saw a black person, the first time he heard a radio, the first time electricity appeared in the region. When the wars came. His region was part of the front lines of World War II, which of course brought more outsiders.

As an indigenous person in Alaska, he was denied the rights of citizenship until the second half of the last century, when Alaska finally became a state. And especially in light of Jancis’s insight about recent global politics, what I would like to offer – I hadn’t expected to – but what I would like to offer is the recognition of the strength, the resilience, and the incredible transforming power that he took to every aspect of his life. And if you could imagine a life lived, to survive such radical transformation as I just mentioned …

As a quick side note, to get across how bad-ass this man I grew up with was – he actually killed a bear with a spruce tree that he cut down, cut the bows off, and made a sharp tip on because he lived in Alaska at a time before guns. Totally hardcore.

But anyway, my point being – imagine a person that could remain utterly true to himself, utterly clear in his values, utterly persistent and determined that in all of that change of which he had no control of, he would be the best version of himself, and he would do it for the sake of his people and his family, and generations of people he would never meet.

I want to speak briefly about a kind of indigenous ethics that’s implied in what I’m saying, because I think it really ties in to a lot of the values that have been expressed here: notions of sustainability; the wonderful talk we heard here on the first day from Nick at Rippon and that experience of trying to honor the land and instill value across generations. For indigenous peoples, for myself being here today, my most central project, regardless of anything else I am doing, my most central project is to act in a way that loves people I will never meet so that I may honor those that made my life possible.

Some of you have heard this in terms of thinking in seven generations. We thank seven generations back whose lives brought us here, by acting for the sake of seven generations forward, many of whom we’ll never know.

When I asked my mom permission to speak with you today, she emphasized the point that she can’t help but think of my great-grandfather, who raised her, and that there’s a sense in which I’ve brought him here – a man who grew up so differently than everyone here. He’s come to New Zealand now. And speaking to Sam’s point about the unlikely, how incredibly unlikely is it for all of you to have to listen to an Inuit woman from Alaska talk about her great-grandfather in the middle of a Pinot noir conference.

But the unlikelihood runs far deeper than that. It’s unlikely that he even lived long enough to make my life possible. We heard on the first day about the struggles of the Maori people. It’s a struggle that is utterly consistent with indigenous peoples all over the planet. And the idea that any First Nations are still alive and vibrantly breathing and clearly present here with all of you is a miracle. And so for me, in thinking how do I love my future descendants and honor those who came before me, that’s what I carry in everything I do. It is a miracle that I am here, and it is no thanks to me that that is true, and it is little thanks to me that anything I have done might have significance. It is totally, absolutely, because of the miracle of people that worked so hard to be resilient.

And what I want to offer is that this is a gift that any of us can have. I am profoundly aware of it because of my particular heritage and background and the way that I was raised, but part of what we’ve been talking about and part of what this whole program has so intensely tried to instill in each of us is that we have to fucking care about what we do, right? And what’s to come. And again, it’s because of caring for people that we will never meet. And the way that we can do that is to seek in every single step excellence in what we do.

Just like Marcel said yesterday, “Quality comes slowly over time, a step at a time.” And this morning we heard – I can’t remember now who said it – but the idea that perfection is a lot of little steps done well. That’s what I’m speaking to. We all have that opportunity.

In terms of how that shows up, I want to speak briefly – some of you heard yesterday, I apologize, but I am a recovering philosopher, and again, like alcoholism you deal with it every day. So, I wanted to use that as a background that I have to just very briefly speak about the idea of expertise because part of the struggle, I think, we face now in a world that is so full of uncertainty is this grief for the loss of the expert. Any of us in this room, because we’re of drinking age, were born into a time where the expert guided how the world moved, and decisions were made very much in a top-down model. People devoted themselves to intricate, thorough-going study, and that information would trickle out to the rest of us. So it was very much a top-down, triangular model.

And what’s happened now is the proliferation of information, thanks to the Internet and Jancis is largely to blame for us wine-lovers, right, through so many brilliant reference books. With that proliferation of information, that triangle has flattened and spread. And we’ve created a kind of horizontaling of information sharing. And, with that, it becomes very difficult to see where the expert remains.

This will tie back to the bear hunting and things like that, by the way, just so you know …

So in this grief of loss of the expert, it’s unclear what the expert’s role is anymore. And so briefly, I just wanted to ask – what is an expert? Clearly the accessed information, even the creation of information as we study the world and learn more about it is paramount there. But with this proliferation of information, there’s a way in which that’s kind of the part we’ve lost. Everyone has access to a database, so a lot of the questions you hear about the loss of the expert come back to, “Well why do I need that person? I can look it up on Google.”

But what remains is an intimacy with the information, an understanding – how do I interpret this? How do I recognize what’s valuable? How do I know it’s pertinent to now, to what I need to know now? And so that sense of intimacy we still desperately need from experts; we see all sorts of political bad decisions happening and it’s because people don’t know how to interpret properly the kind of information that they are being inundated with. We still need that kind of help. But part of what goes along with this – the way people become experts that are relevant is that we trust them. They’re reliable. We believe them. What they say makes sense. We feel a connection.

Now studies of Millennial consumer groups done recently have shown interesting buying patterns. And I’m actually not interested in talking about Millennials, except that I think because of when they were born, they come onto the scene as this shift from triangle to horizontal is happening. And so they’re, in a way, the purest expression of the impact of that change in information society.

So what we’ve seen studying Millennials’ consumer habits and interests is that advertising has almost no effect. Millennial populations, again, in these surveys, have said only one percent of the respondents actually make a purchase based on advertising that they see, whether it’s on television, or in print, or online. Instead, what they’re doing is turning to companions, to actual people around. And they’re doing this very much online, through various online sources – blogs, and various types of social media.

But when you dig deeper into this, and this links back to the other points I’ve been making – when you dig deeper into this, what you find is that what they’re searching for is intimacy and connection. And it is that that makes people respond. And it is from that that leads to people changing their minds, finding what they care about, learning to recognize who they are, and making purchases as well.

This obviously is relevant to a lot of the people in the room who are vintners, and are interested in figuring out how the heck to get people to buy a bottle of their wine. Well, it’s not advertising, which respondents said feels as if they’re being sold something. It’s too pat. It’s too formulaic. And it feels like being tricked or manipulated. And so instead what they’re responding to is someone they feel a connection to, that they can trust and believe, and think, “Oh, I recognize something of myself in them; if they like it, I must too.”

And so what’s happened is that we’ve come into a very peculiar time, where our own individual particularity, our very specific commitments, the exact thing we care about, and the ways that we express those things, are the most relevant in terms of how we recognize who we want to believe, what we want to buy, how we want to communicate.

Duncan actually asked me to speak on future communication. There is no one in this room that knows what this means, and so I worked through it in this way: what I want to suggest is that the future of communication starts in what I’m describing. We desperately still need people to risk the life of the expert; to commit so thoroughly to what they do that their life and its legacy, as Maynard referenced, reverberates beyond them to people they will never meet. Some currently alive now, and others that simply come down the road, generations away. We desperately need that.

But what I’m suggesting is that we all have the opportunity to do that now. Everyone in this room can choose that life. Nick is so fortunate, as he expressed on Tuesday, to have been born into a circumstance like his at Rippon, and he’s doing an incredible job at honoring that, and carrying that forward. And that is fantastic to see. But very many of us don’t have that situation, right. So what do we do? How do we translate that model into something we can claim?

And what I’m saying is that if we recognize that we’re all looking, now, in the midst of this chaotic world, with this mass proliferation of information that we all struggle to interpret, we recognize that we’re looking for communication, connection, and intimacy. And we seek to act in excellence, to cultivate that in very small ways, in every little moment that we do – and share that openly. We can’t expect that benefits of the old top-down model anymore; reverence doesn’t come in the way it used to, for those of us who give ourselves to lifelong projects. Many people get attention very quickly, right? But connection and intimacy is greater than that. And the satisfaction instead comes from knowing that in committing to that excellence and acting from service, our effect can reverberate out in ways we cannot even predict.

With that in mind, I really want to thank David Strada for inviting me to New Zealand. It’s been a remarkable trip. I know Mike Bennie was kind enough to kind of pester Duncan and Ben about me, and I really appreciate that, too. But most of all, I thank Duncan and Ben for inviting me to speak today.

You have allowed me to bring my family here, and to make real something that my great-grandfather was open enough to know not in any specific way could happen, but that if he did well by his family, by his people, and in every act he took, that those that came after him could surpass anything he imagined, and arrive eventually, on a country he barely knew was real.

What I’m describing might seem a little alien, perhaps. But I just want to ask each of us to consider very simple questions, and to ask them of ourselves again and again and again, and even sometimes every step: what do you want to love? How can you be of service today? How will you exemplify excellence in any small thing you do?

Thank you.

Copyright 2017 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.

***

The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

For the second half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/28/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-2/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

The Essence of Wine: A Book by Alder Yarrow

The Essence of Wine

image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow’s book, The Essence of Wine, brings together striking photographs of 46 iconic wine notes — cherry, lime, honey, paraffin, among others — with alluring prose of the same element — photographs of strawberry coupled with writing on the same, for example.

While the series at the core of the book appeared originally on Alder’s highly regarded wine blog, Vinography.com, holding the coffee table book in hand changes the experience for the reader.

Side-by-side the photographic representation of the note with Alder’s writing offer the reader an opportunity to feel the visceral impact of the writing and imagery more directly. That visceral experience is at the heart of the book’s strength. Together, the thought of tasting notes becomes a sensual experience unexpected from mere print.

The Essence of Wine offers the reader a unique opportunity to enliven their experience with wine. Ultimately, it’s a chance to become a better taster. For the connoisseur, reflecting so singularly on one wine element at a time brings greater clarity. For the newer wine lover, understanding.

To read more on, or purchase The Essence of Wine here is the link on Alder’s site: http://www.vinography.com/essence_of_wine.htm

I asked Alder if he’d be willing to meet to discuss ideas implicit in the book more throughly. The transcript from our conversation is below.

Together, we discuss how the book took shape, the role that visual representations — photographs and illustrations — of wine notes have in understanding wine, and the experience at the core of wine appreciation.

Imagery and text blocks from The Essence of Wine appearing below are all courtesy of Alder Yarrow.

Tasting the Visual: A Conversation with Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna, April 2013, image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Elaine: Can you tell me about how the three of you – the photographer, Leigh Beisch, the food stylist, Sara Slavin, and yourself – worked together for your book, The Essence of Wine?

Alder: I approached Leigh with the idea. I would run across people, as I am sure you do too, that say, I read these tasting notes, and I have never tasted something like, you know, lychee. Is that some kind of metaphor, or do they really mean that they taste lychee in the glass? And I’m like, no, really! there are wines that taste like that! So, that is something that I wanted to help people with.

Early in my wine tasting and appreciation that was something I wanted and needed. I’d see these tasting notes that talked about wines that taste like chocolate but I’d never had a wine that tastes like chocolate, and I wouldn’t have known where to start if I wanted to. So that was the idea. And Leigh was great. She said, I have an art director that I think would be perfect for this. She works with Sara on her more commercial shoots.

Elaine: Yeah, I was looking through her site, and it looked like they work together a bunch.

Alder: Yeah, and Sara was on board with it. So, she said, give us a list. What should we shoot? So I made a list. I wasn’t sure how many of these they were going to be willing to do, so, I started with some core flavors and aromas, and I squished some together. So, rather than do raspberries and pomegranates and strawberries separately, I decided, okay, well, we’ll just do red berries.

E: Right. Or, like, tropical fruits I saw you put together.

A: Yeah. Exactly. And so they would just come up with a vision and one of two things would happen. At first I was in the studio frequently with them just sort of watching them do their thing, and, when they wanted an opinion, offering it. Occasionally, they would ask for clarification. They would say, okay, Alder, you gave us raspberry, pomegranate, cranberries, red currants… is one more important than the other? And I’d say, oh yeah, raspberry is the more important here, focus on that. Then they would shoot, and I would get 3 or 4 candidates from Leigh’s shoot, and I would select the one I wanted. Often there would be only minor variations. With the lemon shot, the variations I got were, like, one drop of lemon juice, or, two drops of lemon juice on the mirror. I can remember the green bell pepper I was like, these all look like the same images? And Sara’s all, oh no! One of them definitely has more water drops than the other!

Green Bell Pepper without water dropletsGreen Bell Pepper with water droplets

two examples of Green Bell Pepper images chosen between for use in The Essence of Wine
(Alder selected the image with water drops)
courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: That’s so funny. Really specific and subtle.

A: Yeah!

So, most of the time they needed very little direction from me. And I was content, as a beggar that can’t be a chooser, to let them express themselves. And they understood from the beginning that the idea was to create an archetypal image of this fruit, or foodstuff, or flavor that was not clichéd.

E: The thing that struck me about the book is how well the two work together – the language and the imagery.

A: The imagery always came first. They would create the image. They had a long list of flavors and aromas, and I never knew what they would be shooting on a weekly or biweekly basis. It was just a matter of what Sara found at the market or whatever.

E: Right. They did it seasonally, and the writing was inspired by the image?

A: Yeah. Basically, that week the image would be strawberry, and I would ask myself, well, what have I got to say about strawberries? Sometimes I would take cues off the image. A lot of times it was just trying to get myself into a particular mindset. When we say something tastes like strawberry, what does it really taste like without using the word strawberry? Or, what are the associations or connotation that these fruits, and flavors, or foodstuffs have for us? And then, where did they come from? How do we have limes, and where do they come from, and how long have they been around, and do they have meaning beyond their flavors? Then other things were just research. Like, is there cultural significance to mint? and where did that come from? and that sort of thing.

E: I really like that in both the photography and the writing there are a lot of textural elements. The one that comes to mind is blueberry, and cherry too. In both you talk about the feeling of the skin, but then as you pop through that, that creates this flavor. Then, immediately, there is the flavor of the meat, the fruit inside, and that’s a different flavor. There is this real visceral feeling to the writing rather than just flavor notes.

A: That was me really trying to think about actually experiencing one of these fruits. But there is also an analog to that experience in the world of wine. For me, plum is a great one. There is such a distinct difference between the flavor of the skin, and of the fruit for me, and wine somehow manages to capture both. There is that really distinct sour flavor of the skin, and that sort of snap to it as your teeth go through, and, then, the rushes of sugar and sweetness, but also acidity as you get the flesh and the juice in your mouth. That experience, I think that is why fruit appears so many times in tasting notes. The experience of eating fruit like that and the texture, and flavoral journey that you go through just in taking that first bite, wine does the same thing on our palate. You get astringency at a certain point, and you get sweetness at another point, and you get that kick of acidity inside your mouth at another point.

E: Yes, that makes sense. I feel like the more you read the book the better taster you can become. Elin McCoy’s review said it was the perfect gift for a connoisseur or a newbie. I really agree with that. There is such a crisp clarity to each note that I found myself better understanding what it means for me to claim I taste or smell that in a wine. It was this really nice opportunity to really take in the imagery and the writing, but also to more deeply understand what it means to talk about wine in this kind of way.

A: That’s great. I take that as a huge compliment. I think the book for me was a little bit of a journey in trying to tease apart, to puzzle out my own sensory appreciation for wine. Why it’s so magical to me.

It’s not just that this wine tastes like these individual flavors. It is that this wine also evokes cherry. I mean, there is a difference between perception and evocation, and there is a difference between pure sensation and the meaning that that sensation has for us. As you saw, I had a great deal of fun with some of the nostalgic aspects of some of these flavors, like, watermelon. For anyone growing up in the United States watermelon is summer, and the freedom of childhood. It is just unabashed pleasure. For many of us, that is as much what watermelon tastes like as the greenness of the rind that moves to the bright berry sweetness of the flesh, and all that stuff.

Graphite for The Essence of Wine

Perhaps if you were well-behaved or maybe just lucky, your teacher sent you to the edge of the classroom with a tightly clasped fist of yellow, where you had the pleasure of producing those wavy ribbon-like curls of beige and gray that litter many a school day memory. There may come a time when, like the clack of a typewriter or the stutter of a rotary phone, children do not recognize the smell of a freshly sharpened #2 Ticonderoga or FaberCastell. But for now, the scent of shaved or pulverized graphite brings instant recognition.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: Your book helped me think more too on something that I do – the difference between writing about versus drawing about wine, because it parallels in some ways the presentation of your book with photographing a flavor note and writing about that same note. For wine lovers reading about wine can be so alienating. There is an immediacy to tasting wine that reading about the same wine just doesn’t have.

A: Right. Writing about wine is never better than the real thing. You can never write anything about wine that surpasses the experience of the wine itself.

E: Yes, I so agree. I would love to hear your thoughts on the challenge of writing about wine. My thought is that wine lives in the senses, so to speak. The experience of drinking a glass of wine is visceral, and immediate, all about flavors, aromas, texture, and even the color of the wine. But when you are just focusing on the writing side of it, you take wine out of the senses, so to speak. Philosopher Merleau-Ponty talked about how analyzing something alienates you from it. Writing about wine alienates it from the senses. I think that is part of the challenge of writing about wine. That you have this visceral, lived, sensory thing, and now we are pulling it into the abstract to write about it, trying to make it live there in abstraction, but it doesn’t.

Something people tell me about my illustrated tasting notes …I bring them up just to reflect on the experience of your book’s photographs… I have had people say, when I see one of your drawings I know if I’ll like the wine or not. When I read a tasting note I can’t tell. I think that because drawings are visual, or, our reception of drawings is visual, there is an immediacy to them that parallels the immediacy of the nose and mouth when we taste wine. So there is a way in which a visual representation of the notes of wine keeps wine in the place wine belongs – immediate sensory tactile experience. Does that make sense?

A: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that operates probably in a number of levels. I am just speculating here. I think as organisms we are still triggered by things in our external environment that are matters of survival for us, or used to be. Like, when you are learning to appreciate wine, figuring out what you taste is very difficult, and there is a physiological reason for that. When we smell, that sensory stimulus bypasses the language centers of your brain. So when you smell something, it goes right to your amygdala. When we were apes roaming the savannah we needed to be able to smell something and know instantly if we were going to die because we ate that meat, or be fine because we ate that meat. There are lots of other environmental cues for that too, and those sorts of cues are encoded in the physical structures of our brain and our physiology.

I think we have archetypal information in the structures of our brain about food. Like, a ripe piece of fruit triggers us in a way that is non-verbal, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if representations – photographs or drawings or otherwise – did the same thing for us. If being able to see in one of your visual tasting notes thyme, and tobacco, and graphite, and cherry, and licorice root didn’t conveniently, and helpfully bypass conscious narrative thought, and reinforce whatever else we may be doing in the process of appreciating those aromas and flavors in wine in ways that are very helpful to us as organisms. That’s my way of agreeing with you. That I think there is probably real power there that is very different than the spoken and written word.

E: Your book helped me think through that, but it also made me realize that by putting your writing and the photographs side-by-side it changes the power of the writing, and the imagery too. In your book, there is such a marked relationship between the imagery and the writing that together they become something more than they are on their own. The writing is lovely on its own, and the photographs are beautiful on their own, but there is a way in which something else happens when you put them side-by-side. You have the book open and there is this full page, full-blown image, and, like I said, the imagery is very textural because of how they’ve treated the materials that they’re photographing. Then, on the other side there is your writing, talking about the visceral feeling of breaking through the skin, and the bitter taste that comes to the mouth, and then a wash of flavor and juice. There is an immediacy in the imagery that then somehow, makes the writing feel not so abstract. It kind of allows the two to live together in a relationship that enriches both. The photographs, that already have a life of their own, take on more life, and the writing pulls you in even more. It feels more visceral too. The combination, it’s a way of bringing life back to wine.

Cherry from The Essence of Wine
Biting into a perfectly ripe cherry represents one of life’s perfections of flavor and sensation. The firm skin parts under a modicum of pressure, and a gorgeous melody unfolds on the tongue — high notes of juicy acidity, rich baritones of velvety sweet red fruit, an earthy alto bitterness of skin, and a tangy tenor quality burst in the mouth in a way that makes it all too easy to overindulge.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow & Leigh Beisch

A: For 20 years I have had this quote on my personal website by one of my favorite photographers named Frederick Sommer. The quote is, “Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones that put life into the stones and pebbles.” I guess I thought of that because what I hear you saying is that the image on its own… I mean, it’s over simplifying to say the text tells us what to look for in the image. I know that’s not what you’re saying, and I wouldn’t say that either. There is something more dynamic going on there, but I guess maybe one way of thinking about what you’re describing is that what the text does is force you to look not just at the image, but to look at the image in your mind’s eye of that thing. It makes a connection between those very real visual stimuli, which is like, look there are some cherries there, but then it also asks you to use that image as a jumping off point for your own memories, sensations, and appreciation for that thing. For me, the question would be, how does that work when there is a fruit or flavor you have never experienced? Like if you’d never had a lychee before would that additive quality still be there or does that only happen when you are accessing your own sense memories of the thing?

E: There is such a richness to the images in your book, and I think that is why the number of water drops, or the number of lemon drops are so important. It is aesthetic, but it is also about, how ripe do you want this to seem? Like, you can feel that even if you don’t exactly know the flavors.

Have you gotten comments or feedback from newer wine lovers, from people that are taking the book up as a first foray to learning about wine?

A: Yeah. I know people in the wine industry that have given it to their spouses, and I have subsequently run into their spouse and had their spouse say, thank you! I finally fucking understand what he or she is talking about! I get it now. That’s been really gratifying. And I have people I know from my day job that have said, I am really enjoying this. I am understanding better where these flavors come from.

E: That’s great. It’s an interesting way to approach it too. Focusing in on just a specific taste, and expanding how we think about each individual one, it’s a flip from how we normally think about this sort of thing. In the wine industry, we tend to start from the wine, and then come up with a list of notes about that, but your book reverses that, and says, no, let’s start with this single note, just cherry, just chocolate.

A: Honestly, isn’t that how we all start wine appreciation? If somebody hands you a glass of pink wine for the first time you’re like, uh, okay, and you taste it and you’re like, this is really good, it kind of tastes like strawberries. That’s always first I think. But we don’t often do enough to honor that aspect of wine appreciation. I mean, it’s funny how in the world of wine we very, very quickly leave that very sensorial world of flavor and aroma, and move into the idea that now you have to know something about who made it, and where does it come from, and what grape is it, all that stuff, when really most people are just like, oh! It’s dark and rich. I like that.

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Vinography: http://www.vinography.com/

Alder Yarrow’s The Essence of Winehttp://www.vinography.com/essence_of_wine.html

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