The bus to New York was crowded and cold and the pages of my training manual haphazardly highlighted and clipped were all over my lap. Less than a week as a wine shop sales associate and I already had to skip out of town to see a friend’s theater production, but the need to achieve would not relent. I scoured those pages on the bus, eager to fill the gaping chasm of my lack of wine knowledge from the ground to the glass.
Even at the end of three years of virtual saturation in material and product, wine and the knowledge thereof seems to be like so many other subjects: the more you learn, the more there appears left to learn, more daunting and more worthy the quest becomes. It was the first of many discoveries, the literature major in me unable to resist noticing pockets of metaphor tucked into the vineyard vignettes. Turns out, the story in my glass starts much earlier, deep in the dirt with roots reaching for the pulse of the place they’re growing.
Actually, less is more. When you initially think of an agrarian society, you assume that there will need to be plenty of sunshine, plenty of water, and nutrient-rich soil for whatever crop is growing, right? Because ideally a farmer would want a large, bountiful harvest, creating the provision of food and good income for the year. And I’d bet that’s probably true for a lot of things, but when it comes to viticulture, it’s almost the opposite. Vines that work the hardest in some of the toughest conditions often are the ones to produce the most wine-worthy fruit.
Picture this: rugged, steep hillsides with rocky soil, highly elevated and mostly bare except for a few gnarled vines. Not exactly Eden, right? But picture what’s going on beneath the surface: these vines dig deep for water, through all that mineral-laden dirt to find what soaks up into the mountains, and because the plant is working so hard just to survive, it doesn’t have the energy or time to produce excessive, happily hydrated fruit. Instead, you get small, highly concentrated grapes and though there may not be very many of them, they are endowed with a great sense of where they come from, a key ingredient in conscious wine making.
Sitting on that New York-bound bus, I distinctly recall looking up fairly stunned from that revelation, itching for somebody to tell. These days, the food and beverage marketplace is flooded with “small batch” things—bourbon, vodka, other spirits, small-batch artisanal chocolate and cheese, small batch olive oils, small batch toffee and potato chips and dog food—don’t these guys know that wine has been driving that trend for centuries? And it’s more than just making things in small, careful doses; it’s coaxing the source of the very materials to produce minimally so that the raw material is already poised to be mind-blowing! This is amazing! Somebody make this a metaphor!
Ahem. Pardon me.
Cut way back. Alright, I admit it: I don’t exactly have a green thumb. My flirting with gardening began last spring with the sudden advent of an actual yard, and after weeks of yanking weeds, ant bites, sun burns, and back aches, I got a few things planted, but heck if I knew what to do with them after that (“do they just…grow back?” I asked a friend as the colder months set in. “You mean I have to do it again?”). So imagine my surprise last week, as my husband and I wound our way through Tuscany on one leg of our Southern Italian honeymoon, and the vineyards that dotted the hillside were just rows upon rows of these gnarled black stumps.
Pruning is something I’ve always struggled with. “Cut your hair,” my mom would say. “It’ll make it grow faster.” Somebody explain that logic to my nine-year-old self. It took a lot of will-power to head out to my rosebush out back, the one thing that actually seemed pleased to be planted by me, and cut off al of those hard-sought branches and make room for new buds. Wine growers take this to the extreme. Tucked behind Tuscan homes, the Chianti vineyards we saw look like rows of knobby fists strung together in straight lines, waiting for the something to happen to them. They look hopeless, dead.
It must take a lot of faith in what they do to hack away those beautiful leaves, the branches that shot up the previous year and curled around the twine and wires they’re trained toward, provided the fruit that they used to make their year’s income. But those farmers trust, cut way back till only the heart of the plant is left, and wait for spring to bring back what it promises.
Don’t water the wine. A while back, a few fellow nerds and I were daydreaming about owning a vineyard together. “I’ll work in the vineyard!” said one. “I’ll make the wine,” said the other. “And I’ll water the vines!” I said. “NO!” they shouted. “You…you can bake the cookies.”
Back to our first point about unhappy grapes: happy, well-fed-and-watered grapes make uninteresting and nondescript wine. All growing things need water, of course, but while my rose bushes seemed to enjoy the excessive hydration, to over-saturate a vineyard would doom its fruit as un-wine-worthy. Additionally, excess water easily gets caught in the tight clusters of grapes and is the perfect breeding ground for mold and rot.
I spent a few weeks of last October at a winery in Alsace, France, a small strip of the country tucked between the Vosges Mountains and Germany. With a motley crew from the surrounding towns, I trudged through the vineyards each morning with my bucket and clippers, harvesting grapes to be sent to the crush that afternoon. The trouble came in the second week when the rains began and we hadn’t yet harvested any of the Riesling, a prized grape used to make wines ranging from every day drinkers to the most age-worthy and prestigious wines of the region. The risky choice to let that variety hang a little longer on the vine introduced a new risk, losing the crop to mold or rot. What could we do but trudge into the vineyard in the rain, knee-deep in sticky mud, soaked through and shivering? We harvested, by god. And we got it done.
There are people who can tell you exactly why vineyards work the way they do, they can tell you the composition of soils and break down phenolic compounds and pH balances, they can give you figures on residual sugar and wind speeds and a lot of really important things that go into the creation of their product. I’m not one of those people, and there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to be. I like the little bit of contrary magic in my glass, I like the mystery, I like the idea that no matter how fancy the stemware or dinner party, what comes in the bottle started in the dirt doing important work deep on a mountainside somewhere, fighting to survive and to share the paradoxical fruit of its labor against all odds.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.