PERCEPTION OF PERFECTION
Terroir in the Bionic Age
“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man… Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
That overly optimistic, iconically kitsch seventies show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” revealed our nation’s love affair with technology as a magic fix-all. And why not? We were the first to land a man on the moon and our science was the most advanced on earth. We, as a nation, believed we could do anything - not only “fix” our problems, but improve on nature!
Ah, wouldn’t that be nice if all problems were so easily solved with a six million dollar investment? Better, stronger, faster! We could arrest global warming and provide fresh water to the world. Eradicate illness or design bionic limbs that work better than the real thing. But what about the unintended consequences of technology? We, as a people, tend to only look forward. Fix a problem, move on, then fix the next problem. But every once in a while, even a good “fix” can still destroy the essence of something by removing the random and the unknown, making it too perfect or too easily replicable. Sometimes, the perceived flaws or weaknesses are what made it unique and distinctive in the first place.
We had one desire when we started this endeavor: to make a world class wine. So, we embraced state of the art cellar technology and looked to science to help us deal with our problems, figuring that was the answer to making a wine that tasted like it was world class. But the further we wandered down that path, the more unsatisfied we became. Though the wines were technically correct, something was missing.
We all have had that experience of tasting a wine and identifying it with a place. It could be an earthy or herbal character, maybe a level of acidity or a minerality. It might be technically flawed, based on some critic’s point of view of what a great wine should be, but it also does not taste like every other wine.
I used to have these discussions with my father. He is a man of science and, based on his experience in the medical world, technology was salvation. He pioneered ultrasound and lasers for eye surgery when they were still considered experimental techniques. This quantum leap in med tech reduced suffering and improved quality of life. No one would argue that removing cataracts the old way was actually better. But wine is not about perfection, it is about distinctiveness, and sometimes making something too perfect is less than exciting.
Bordeaux is an example of how technology can create high scoring wines that taste more alike, resembling beverages from other regions. Some Bordelaise vintners have embraced consultants who advocate the use of high-tech winemaking like micro-oxygenation that softens tannin to make a wine drinkable younger. But the big homogenizer of wine has been the sorting tables that allow a vintner to select grapes for ripeness which, based on old benchmarks, should have been a good thing. Instead, the grapes that were deemed less than ideal no longer offer up the herbal, green note characteristics that once defined the region and provided a counterpoint to the ripe, sweet fruit… now, the all super-ripe grapes result in powerful, high alcohol wines that taste as though they could be from California, Australia, Italy or Spain.
Ironically, the quest to make world class wines caused us to look inward. Instead of basing quality on external forces, like a critic’s opinion or the wines from other parts of the world, we look to our own land for inspiration and rely less on the “tricks” of the trade. In our opinion, a world class wine is distinctive, unique, and tastes as though it came from somewhere… and the only way to do that is to put away the chemistry set and the toys and make real wine.
Tribulations of the Non-Conformist!
I’ve been accused of being a bull-headed, non-conformist with a bad habit of shooting myself in the foot by not playing the media game. We all desire some sort of affirmation, but at what cost? We’ve found that once you go down the accolade trail, you have no choice but to set aside your good, natural instincts in exchange for technique driven mediocrity and, although you may achieve short term success, you risk making yourself, and those who care, very unhappy.
About twenty five years ago, when I was fresh out of school and enjoying our coming out party in the wine industry, I had three distinct experiences with the wine media. One very powerful critic claimed to have tasted a barrel sample of one of our wines and proceeded to trash it in print, yet he had never been in our cellar. He then went on to rave about our Russian River Pinot Noir, yet we had never made a wine from that region. Not long after, a very powerful wine magazine assured me the advertising department was next door to the editorial department and went on to imply that an ad would just about guarantee a good score. I felt as though I had just lost my innocence, but I also came away feeling we needed to go it alone and not “grow-up” in public by chasing someone else’s ideal of wine style. Instead, we needed to define our own place in wine.
So we took our toys and went home by refusing to send samples to the evil empire of wine critics. But there was one wine writer—a writer as opposed to a critic—who did not seem to mind our anti-social ways. In one of our early wine events, I sat next to Dan Berger who I believe was then writing for the LA Times. He proceeded to tell me that our wine would not be very popular, but then encouraged me to not change a thing because, eventually, the market would find us. It was all I needed to give me permission to chart our own course.
We still don’t send wine samples to critics, but Dan has taken it upon himself to stay in touch with what we do by visiting the winery, talking to RSV winemaker Jeff Virnig and tasting through all the wines. The following from Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences Volume XVI, Issue 47, January 24, 2013, gives me all the positive reinforcement I need.
A Winery Synthesis
by Dan Berger
People usually decide to start a winery because they have a vision of what they want to do. But visions vary. A recent wave of interest seems to be with people who want to make the best Pinot Noir in the history of the world. So a lot of cool-climate land was planted with Pinot Noir, including marginal places.
Two decades earlier, any place in Napa Valley (and I mean any) became home to those who wanted to make a wine better than Château Latour. But instead some people ended up making a wine that was merely half as pricey…
Sure, young wineries often get high praise from glossy rags or number based prognosticators, but mostly that’s for the shock value.
It’s hyperbole such as this: “Hey,bro, I just found this fantastic, tiny property you never heard of that makes roughly no wine at all. Well, I tasted it, and believe you me, it was absolutely fantastic. But sorry, you’ll never get a chance to try even so much as a thimbleful because after the score I give it, the price will rise so fast that only the stupidly rich will be able to afford it and they will buy all of it, so just drool and slather. Nyah.”
One visionary concept guaranteed not to gain klieg-light attention is to make wines defined by terroir that speak directly of the soil and which are specifically designed to pair with what comes directly from the kitchen.
Such projects rarely start with the goal of exalted wine. The idea is to focus intently on what nature permits from an area, and to craft wines with exceeding precision.
I can name many U.S. wineries who get this notion clearly. Decade after decade these wine makers hew to a house style that’s reliable and give loyal consumers a taste of the vision.
Most are small wineries who are not saddled with a marketing strategy that demands the wine maker soften all the wines for a broader market. They make wines for a more savvy consumer and in fact some of these projects make wines that are edgy, delicate, and atypical of the huge 95-pointers intended to impress with power.
Those who craft wines with a deft hand lift my spirits. Amid a flood of too-soft wines, these backers of crisp offer those of us who like balance much hope.
A vision of varietal identity and balance usually connects a wine maker with his vineyard manager. But at organically farmed Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa Valley, this synthesis includes the founder, Dr. Robert Sinskey his son, Rob, Rob’s wife, Maria, wine maker Jeff Virnig, and the vineyards they own…
What’s special about all of this is that, were it not for all of the parties involved, the wines would not be so singularly exciting to those who get what food-and-wine pairings are really all about. It starts with varietal authenticity and ends with a crisp finish so the food synthesizes with the wine.
It really started with Dr. Sinskey, an eye surgeon, inventor, and one of the world’s most respected ocular experts. He also is a long-time wine collector who relishes opening old, perfectly stored wines and pairing them with great food. Much of which comes from Maria Helm Sinskey, his daughter-in-law, superb chef and cookbook author.
The person who keeps it focused on the table, and on balanced wine is, Rob, who was well trained in the classic wines of the world and who requires no compromise in the house style.
Thus lots of new oak or modest acid levels aren’t in the game here. As a result, it wasn’t an accident that the Sinskeys ended up with Virnig as their wine maker—a guy who not only gets the balance thing, but whose hatred for flabby wines has had him far too vocal on the subject for his own good.
This sort of Sinskey synthesis leads to a structural integrity for all the wines but doesn’t come without a price. One of which is how low such wines are likely to score with some reviewers. That’s because no Sinskey wine is plush, simple, or easy to quantify, and certainly not as simplistically as what a numerical shorthand tries to do. Here it’s about complexity… These wines are unlike so many others we find that are boringly mainstream. Virnig’s vision includes his ability to bring an edginess into a wine that others would gladly (and happily) compromise.
What I love about these wines is that they’re distinctive. It shows best in most of Jeff’s reds, almost all of which are uncompromising in their structural balance—almost to the point of absurdity.
Take for instance any vintage of Marcien, a blend that is tart and lean, yet a perfect vision of the best reds of the 1970s, before the compromisers got their hands on the double oak, potassium carbonate, and micro-ox machines.
Marcien, as with other Sinskey wines, are built to stand up to time and food and display the grape variety and the soil.
The only question is: how much of these wines must a dedicated wine lover have to be assured that the boringness of a 95 can be avoided when the victuals demand. For me, it’s never enough. White, red, or rosé, they are all A+.
A Rose to Get
by Dan Berger
One of wine’s inside stories is the popularity of dry rosés and how fast they sell in winery tasting rooms.
Literally dozens of wineries around California make superb dry pink wines and sell them direct to visitors—most of whom taste them and then must have a bottle, or a case.
Robert Sinskey’s greatness in this area is a sub-story that’s hard to believe. The winery’s dry Pinot Noir Rosé from Carneros is among the best made anywhere in the world.
It always has such vibrant fruit and balance that it sells out every year…
I had a pre-bottling sample at the winery late last week and found it as good as the best rosés I have ever had. The wine will be on strict allocation, and I suggest orders be placed with the winery. At about $28, it should be tried by every serious wine lover.
Little Bottles of Joy!
Every vintage, the order came down: “Make ten cases of half-bottles of each and every wine!” Never mind that we only had the regular, full-sized labels that made the little bottles look like children dressed up in their parents clothes… my father wanted them, so we made them.
Though my father could have had access to any full size bottle of wine at any time, he was averse to waste - an aversion that I assumed at the time was a lingering artifact of youth during wartime. However, the reality was simpler - he just didn’t want to drink a whole bottle of wine on a work night and, by opening a half bottle, it became less about self regulation and more about the quantity in front of him… a very early Bloombergian solution to a practical problem.
It wasn’t until later, when Maria and I started having children, that I began to appreciate the half bottle. I no longer had my hedonistic partner to share a bottle or two with and I had to learn how to imbibe at dinner with an observer instead of a participant. The solution was not as easy as one might imagine. Most wine by the glass programs were pretty dismal in those days and were either selections of mass produced plonk, close-out deals or worse yet, wines that had been open too long. Wine by the glass was not an option except at the most wine savvy restaurants.
The half-bottle selections, if they had any at all, weren’t much better. Usually a cluster of the most popular varieties and labels of the day - big oaky Chardonnay, Cabernet and the occasional Zin… depressing! I vowed that we would no longer be a part of the problem by always producing a few half-bottles of more interesting varieties.
I now love half-bottles. My hedonistic partner is back to imbibing with me, but we like a progression of flavors at the table and two full-sized bottles are too much for a school night. So whenever we go out to dine, I scan the half-bottle list first and, if I find something good in at least two categories, white or rosé and red, we go for it.
Years ago, my father wanted to grow Pinot Noir because he felt the American diet would evolve to embrace cuisines from non-wine cultures and Pinot Noir would be the ideal wine for these new sensibilities. His prescient revelation has come to be, but not only is Pinot Noir ideal for the new eclectic culinary sensibilities, half-bottles are even more apropos, enhancing the experience by allowing a progression to fit the eccentricities of the modern American menu where Middle East, West and Far East come together at one sitting.. something like: a half bottle of bright white (preferably our Pinot Blanc) with an hors d’oeuvre of Dukkah Dip, first course of Queso Fresco & Pickled Jalapeño Quesadillas, followed by a half-bottle of Pinot Noir with Tea Smoked Duck. Mini-me conquers the world!
LPs in the Digital Age!
“Wow, these cabs remind me of the classic Napa cabs of the 70’s. I love ’em!” exclaimed my friend as he reacted to a vertical tasting of our SLD cabs. This simple statement, while making my day, caught me off guard. Not just any old friend, this was a winemaker who’s achieved considerable acclaim making wine in the “new” Napa style. Thus the quandary… Do we make classically elegant wines we love or wines that are more acceptable to the media and the marketplace? We chose love.
It is sad to think that many people don’t know what a classic wine is supposed to be. I’ve been in a fortunate position lately to not only taste our wines of the past 25 years, but also many older wines of California, Australia and Europe. The ones that age successfully all have a common thread - an understated elegance, a quiet power that allows them to not just survive but to gain complexity over time. Rarely does an over-ripe wine improve with age. However, a young Cabernet with underlying green notes can often become more elegant with age as those notes evolve into complex aromas of dried herb and chocolate - an elegant complement to understated fruit.
A classic wine needs to have a triad of basic qualities… a good core of fruit, bright acid to balance the fruit, and firm, yet fully ripe, tannin for structure. If any one tilts the equation in its favor, it lessens the chance the wine will improve with age.
While the Stags Leap District has the potential to produce elegantly structured and age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon, many wines are either made in a too-ripe, early-drinking style or are consumed too young. At RSV we strive for that elegant, classic style that we love, even though it sometimes takes years for the wine to realize its potential. With this release, we did the aging for you with two of our Stags Leap District library wines. Now all you have to do for a classic, timeless evening is dust off the old LP’s, dig out one of Maria’s elegant recipes and pop some corks…
So Bad It’s Good…
Some things are so bad they’re good - think blue cheese. Imagine the first desperate person who actually put the blue/green moldy cheese in their mouth… and the smile when it didn’t kill ‘em. Hey Mikey, he likes it!
There are many things in the culinary world we just enjoy… and we prefer to do so without thinking about origins! When I was a kid, it took years before I had the courage to try caviar. To this day, even though I now enjoy those little fish eggs, I still have to ignore where they come from. But cured fish eggs, extracted from the ugly sturgeon, is relatively tame… it is the moldy, rotten things that truly amaze me.
Dry aged beef becomes tender under a crust of mold that, in combination with the natural enzymes in the meat, removes moisture, concentrates flavor, and tenderizes. Soy bean paste and soy sauce exist because of the Koji mold. The Italian antipasta course of salami and prosciutto come to us by way of Penicillium nalgiovense… and the list goes on. Today, we look at these moldy foodstuffs as artisanal crafts, but at one time these items were created by happy accident. Though the first refrigerated coil was invented in the 11th century, it wasn’t until after WWII that the refrigerator was mass produced. I can only imagine that most of these moldy foodstuffs were created by mistake… and perfected through trial and error as the lack of refrigeration had people socking away their agrarian excess in cellars and caves with surprising results. If the food didn’t kill them, then it became part of their preservation repertoire. But what would accidental cheese be without an accidental wine to go with it?
As I continue to play this fantasy game of “imagine the first to try something disgusting,” I can only assume someone, somewhere found some lost, unkempt vines with clusters of raisiny grapes, grey with rot… and, in their desperation to make some “jesus juice” for the long, dark winter months fast approaching, they picked the nasty looking grapes, pressed out the meager liquid and let nature take its course. Then, once the fermentation stopped, they probably were gobsmacked that the wine from those nasty looking grapes had taken on an amber patina with an aroma of honeysuckle and a taste reminiscent of the finest honey. It truly was the nectar of the gods, but then came the dilemma of recreating the happy accident.
The Noble Rot, Botrytis cinerea, does not happen every year or, if it does, it doesn’t always happen when you want it. Many times it shows up in the spring when it’s about as welcome as a locust swarm in a corn field. When it comes too early, it will just destroy the fruit… but when it comes late, it’s a whole different story. The weather patterns have to be just so… a little moisture early on during bloom, a warm, but not too hot summer and a relatively dry fall, become the ideal incubator for spores to take hold in ripe clusters of grapes. The mold feeds off the moisture inside the grapes, slowly using it up, shrinking the grapes while leaving the sugar behind. When the grapes look really rotten and ugly, it’s time to pick.
I have to say, watching your grapes rot on the vine will either strike fear in your heart or elicit euphoria… maybe a little of both. You just need to know when to let the good rot roll.
Reluctant Red… a blackbird singing in the dead of night!
It wasn’t the wine they wanted, but it showed up anyway. About a quarter century ago, Merlot crashed the party with as much subtlety as Bluto Blutarsky in a toga. It came out of nowhere while other wines, like Pinot Noir, were still finding their New World footing. Oh, there were a few people making a wine called Merlot, but no one anticipated it would soon alter the wine landscape and, for better or worse, define a prototypical American wine style.
Prior to the 90’s, American taste in wine veered between extremes. At one end the masochistic, tannin-laden Cabernet Sauvignon reigned supreme amongst macho, male-dominated wine collecting clans, who stood around comparing size while trading the adjectives: “massive”, “powerful” and “hard.” We were told that these wines were designed for the ages - yet many remained “hard” and surly into old age. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the sugary, sweet, white Zinfandel dominated the top of the charts, driving growth and profits for many wineries, forcing them to transition from mom and pop operations into large, national corporations. The masses loved the soda pop-like wines even though they didn’t pair well with anything but bubble gum.
People grew dissatisfied with their limited choices and looked for something more elegant and balanced… a softer wine that could be consumed younger than the massive Cabs, yet without the sugar of the mass-produced White Zins. What they really wanted was Pinot Noir, but since most didn’t know how to confidently pronounce it and there weren’t yet many well made ones from the New World, Merlot stepped into the spotlight.
Merlot sounded elegant - it sounded French - and it was not intimidating to ask for a glass at the bar. Who cared that its name means “young blackbird?” It sounded sophisticated, cool, and sexy as it rolled off the tongue.
Besides the unintended marketing advantage of a pronounceable name, why did this wine take off? Merlot is an early ripening grape, which means it performs better in cooler climates than other Bordeaux varieties. Not only does it ripen sooner, it has softer tannin. Traditionally, Merlot was blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to tame its harder tannins. However, in cool climates like the Right Bank of Bordeaux or the Carneros, Merlot can take the lead as a varietal wine because it has the ripening time to develop flavor and structure in the cooler hinterlands.
As Merlot became more popular, growers started planting it in warmer climes. This accelerated its popularity as warmer regions not only decreased acidity and amplified softness, but the grapes got riper, allowing for residual sugar and/or high alcohols that fattened the mouthfeel of the finished wine with sweetness. So even though Merlot started out on the “razor’s edge” in fringe areas that made a more elegant, food friendly wine, its success encouraged plantings in less than optimal locations, managing to turn it into a hybrid wine with both big and sweet characteristics. Merlot went from being the niche jazz act, playing gigs in obscure underground French dinner clubs, to become a “hair” band with the power to sell out Madison Square Garden!
Fashion has a way of correcting itself. Once Merlot turned it up to “11”, it became a self parody. All it took to initiate a correction was one “F’ing” line in a movie. Now Merlot is back in the small clubs, working in obscurity as it finds its voice of elegance, balance and finesse in the cooler growing regions where it belongs.
When Gray is Green…
Can an industrial wasteland preserve Napa agriculture?
Growth happens. Like gravity’s effect on an aging body, you can only try to mitigate its impact but eventually the laws of nature will prevail. Napa is a desirable place to live and work so no matter what you do to regulate growth, people will find a way to live here.
I consider myself an environmentalist and conservationist. My knee jerk reaction is to say “no” to all housing developments… but that’s not a realistic stance. Saying “no” can mean not taking responsibility, often deferring and compounding the problem by allowing “under the radar” development to occur by default. The trick is to say “yes” to intelligent growth, growth that won’t consume limited agrarian land, growth that concentrates populations near easy access to major roads or, better yet, creates a diverse mixed use community that can walk or bike to shop, work and play.
As you enter Napa Valley from the south, there is an abandoned industrial park. Once, not too long ago, this was the home of Basalt Rock, a WWII era ship manufacturing plant that later sold to Kaiser Steel and then became Napa Pipe – the company that made the pipes that funnel the water from Lake Hennessy to Napa homes and businesses. It was felled by the same pressure destroying most heavy manufacturing in the US – it’s just too expensive to compete with overseas factories.
I recently taught a photography class to my daughter and her friend at Napa Pipe that provided an up close and personal look at this controversial piece of Napa. Though it happens to reside along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Napa River, it is a paved-over, industrial wasteland consisting of abandoned warehouses, cranes, docks and other industrial detritus. It can no longer serve agriculture (unless someone wants to attempt an aquaculture operation raising catfish!) but the cost of the land alone is prohibitive, never mind the cost of rehabilitation - and it’s already been proven that it’s not a cost effective location for heavy industry. So it remains, an industrial badlands, deserted and rotting upon a beautiful shore.
Along comes a developer who proposes a solution – a mix use of homes, commercial and light industry. It is a sizable development, so much so that the sheer number of homes scares people and conjures a NIMBY attitude. However, this project appears to be intelligently scaled to create a critical mass whereas local businesses can be supported by a nearby population able to arrive via a network of bike paths or, heaven forbid, a short stroll. But the most appealing aspect of this project is the conversion of the docks into communal recreational areas, taking advantage of the Napa River.
I’m not going to argue the individual merits of this project, but I am going to argue one point: The more homes built in this industrial wasteland will mean fewer homes that need to be built in prime agricultural land… and that will serve the agrarian interest of this valley for years to come. Sometimes being an environmentalist means delving into the gray area of the real world that, at first glance, might seem counter to a conservationist philosophy - but in this case gray is green.
Rules for Wine
From Our Point of View
Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Fine wine needs to evolve from a distinct point of view - a self imposed discipline to navigate the siren song of temptation. Otherwise, you may wake up one day to find yourself fabricating a wine to placate a critic or fill a market segment, and discover your craft has devolved into just another recipe for soulless wine.
Having a distinct point of view can also be dangerous. It invites unwelcome criticism from those who make a career out of second guessing the methods or intent of others. Yes, dig deep enough and you can find inconsistencies or incomplete execution in anything, but this is a craftsman’s journey that will only improve with repetition and refinement. The following, gleaned from 30 years of winegrowing, are our rules for great wine from our point of view:
POV#1 - Fine wines have a sense of place.
A wine should taste like it came from a place, not a chemistry set. POV is a wine of place with bright acidity and vibrant flavors from the cool “Right Bank” of Napa Carneros region.
POV#2 - Know your vineyards.
The craft of fine wine is directly related to the accumulation of knowledge. It is difficult to make an elegant wine when vineyard sources change or grapes are grown by someone else.
POV#3 - Wine is not an athletic event.
Competitive blind tasting along with the scoring of wine has a built in bias toward power, extraction, sugar and/or alcohol over a wine of balance, finesse and elegance. Furthermore, wine scores tend toward an international, homogenous style while ignoring the diverse regionality that makes wine so exciting. Trust your own palate and just say no to wine competition.
POV#4 - Handcrafted!
Machines are wonderful for the heavy lifting jobs of mowing cover crops, cultivating or applying Biodynamic preps, but they can’t replace the eye or decision making of a real person for pruning or harvesting.
POV#5 - Fine wines don’t hurt, your palate or the planet.
A great wine needs to be not only elegant, balanced and understated, but also grown in a way that respects the land and the earth.
POV#6 - Work with, not against, the efficiencies of nature.
A farm is not nature, but it can emulate natural systems. A Biodynamic farm recognizes that human intervention damages natural systems and it is the responsibility of the farmer to heal the land by developing systems that encourage natural processes.
POV#7 - Everything is interconnected.
Accept responsibility and find balance where we can. For example, a tractor might be an effective mower time-wise, but it takes without giving back. A lamb will mow and enrich the soil while reducing the use of fossil fuels.
POV#8 - A biodiverse vineyard is a healthy vineyard.
Nature hates monoculture. By leaving trees where they are and developing habitat where they aren’t, a farm can better emulate natural systems where predators, such as hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes, thrive, to remove gophers, rabbits, and other “pests” without poisons. Planting cover crops and hedgerows also help support beneficial insect populations and vigorous soil micro-organisms for healthy soils that lead to healthy plants.
POV#9 - A barrel elevates a wine without dominating it.
Select fine French barrels for subtlety and their ability to enhance the natural flavors of the wine. Grapes that are well grown should be the primary focus, not the oak.
POV#10 - A fine wine is an honest wine.
In this technological age, a winemaker can repair a broken wine or manipulate a wine to fit a preconceived profile. A fine wine should be about the craft of growing an elegant, balanced wine that does not require remedial winemaking.
The Nature of Distinctiveness…
Embracing flaws in all their perfection!
I had a lucid dream last night. Even though I knew I was dreaming, it was too beautiful to interrupt, so I willed it to keep going… then I realized, I was resolving a ponderous problem.
My nocturnal movie of the mind projected a stunning image of a rocky landscape in glorious color. It could have been the Garden of the Gods, Yosemite or King’s Canyon - the place did not matter as much as the subject. The stone cliffs, illuminated by a brilliant golden light as the sun set, emphasized every remnant of mountain building: thick upturned layers of sedimentary rock formed patterns punctuated by glacially arranged igneous boulders, all set off by pools of eroded rubble. Together these lines, colors and shapes formed a majestic, natural mosaic.
In the foreground of this natural formation was the top of a man made structure, perhaps a hotel or lodge. It too was made of stone and beautifully set off in the golden light, and it was perfect … almost too perfect. Each stone was cut and placed to form exact rectangles with mortar defining the outline of each stone.
The contrast could not have been more apparent. The natural mountain structure had a randomness that could not be recreated in a manufactured structure… there were imperfections and danger in the cracks and teetering boulders. The sedimentary rocks had bands of color that a sane designer would never conceive. Though static, it was exciting. There was no real way to compare the two. The natural had an awe inspiring beauty that the detail oriented, perfect structure could never have.
Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, would have had fun with this dream. Perhaps he would have perceived the natural scene as the imperfections that define our distinctiveness as humans, and the building as the folly of pursuing an ideal to the detriment of uniqueness. The dogged pursuit of extremes causes us to miss the subtle shades that would otherwise create distinctions. Instead of accepting that there are degrees of beauty and ugliness or good and evil in everything, we have a tendency to move too far in one direction, inadvertently conjuring the other.
“When we strive after the good or the beautiful, we thereby forget our own nature, which is distinctiveness … We labor to attain the good and the beautiful, yet at the same time we also lay hold of the evil and the ugly …”
Jung believed that by chasing an ideal, we blind ourselves to our true nature, which is distinctiveness - a complex array of contradictory notions. Ultimately, by denying our natural state, we dilute our effectiveness and succumb to bland sameness.
“Hence the natural striving of the creature goeth towards distinctiveness, fighteth against primeval, perilous sameness.”
Carl Jung wrote these words in 1916 in a piece he credited to the Gnostic philosopher Basilides, called Seven Sermons to the Dead. During this time he introduced the concept of Abraxas as the essence of everything.
“Hard to know is the deity of Abraxas. Its power is the greatest, because man perceiveth it not. From the sun he draweth the summum bonum; from the devil the infimum malum: but from Abraxas LIFE, altogether indefinite, the mother of good and evil.”
In Abraxas, beauty co-mingles with the repulsive in an attempt to illuminate the dichotomy that is within all living things.
“Wherefore is Abraxas terrible. It is splendid as the lion in the instant he striketh down his victim … To fear it, is wisdom. To resist it not, is redemption.”
Abraxas is our true nature that we have ineffectively tried to control. The beauty is in our natural state. It is neither wholly good nor bad, it just is and by embracing the contradictions, we find our way by accepting our distinctiveness… including flaws that make the living perfect in their imperfection.
“It is the delight of the earth and the cruelty of the heavens … It is the operation of distinctiveness.”
Blanc in the USA…
Bean Counters, White Wine and Rock ‘n Roll!
Years ago, my accountant told me that “ABC” didn’t stand for “Anything But Chardonnay,” but rather “Always Bet on Chardonnay!” Needless to say, he is no longer my accountant and we no longer grow Chardonnay.
Wine is a business of passion. Playing by the numbers might be safe, but “safe” is not always the right approach… at least when it comes to creating interesting wine.
This year at the SXSW music festival, “The Boss” gave an inspirational keynote speech geared toward young musicians, but its lessons can be applied to any craft, field or even life itself:
“Open your ears, open your hearts. Don’t take yourselves too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence, but doubt! It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart and head at all times. If it does not drive you crazy it will make you strong.”
This statement rang true to me. I always tell new employees that they must take their work seriously, but not themselves. But more than that, always question why something is considered the norm and be willing to contradict it to create something unique… but be prepared because sometimes, you will suck! Then again, you might rock the house!
If Chardonnay is the corporate rock band of wine, Pinot Blanc is the little indie band that could… it’s all in the numbers. The total 2011 Napa Valley harvest of Pinot Blanc was a whopping 56.3 tons. This number sounds like a lot until you compare it with the 21,015 tons of Chardonnay harvested from the same geographic region. Why? Quite simply, because of price, hype and the media.
A ton of Napa Valley Chardonnay commanded an average of $2,253 per ton last year. Pinot Blanc, on the other hand, sold for an average of $1,673. For the same effort, Chardonnay earned almost $600 more per ton. Any accountant looking at this report would say, plant Chardonnay!
But we don’t sell raw ingredients, we make wine; that is our performance! We aren’t held to the same metric as a grower who sells grapes or a corporation who needs a mass appeal wine to satisfy their stockholders. The grapes RSV grows cost the same regardless of variety. This liberates us to pursue passion instead of just bottom-line. It’s a DIY approach – we grow it and make it the way we like it and hope there will be an audience for it.
“We are living in a ‘post-authentic world,’ where ‘authenticity is a house of mirrors.’ … the hype, the methods… and the story are second to ‘what you bring when the lights go down.’” ~ Springsteen
How do you rank a performance? Do you assume that heavy metal is louder so it’s better? Do you believe the hype when someone tells you it’s great when your own ears know better? Major critics of wine have traditionally approached rankings with a varietal bias and tend to ignore subtlety and authenticity. Wines of power (Chardonnay) trump wines of finesse (Pinot Blanc). It would be like trying to rate Hardcore Metal against Americana – say Metallica against Wilco. Metallica plays louder and faster, so they win… but ultimately, which brings more pleasure? It all depends on how you roll. Personally, I’m a Wilco kind of guy – restraint with a quiet power that gets under your skin. You can play their latest album as dinner music or hunker down with headphones, taking in intelligent lyrics wrapped in sonic bliss.
Pinot Blanc is our Wilco, under-appreciated yet respected; self-confident yet vulnerable. A serious wine that retains its sense of humor… and, it doesn’t suck!
“When you walk on stage tonight… Treat it like it’s all we have, and then remember it’s only rock ’n’ roll.” ~ Springsteen
Thank you… Blanc on!