Terra Incognita

January 25, 2019

I have been thinking a lot about trust when it comes to winemaking. Even in light of everything we've learned since 1857 when Louis Pasteur proposed that yeasts provide the mechanism for fermentation, the process of turning grapes into wine can still feel like alchemy.

 

 

It is possible now, of course, to rely strictly on industrial agriculture and science to make good wine. We have the equipment and knowledge required to produce consistently sound, clean expressions, even in difficult vintages. This is a hard-won capability - developed in response to an historical need - which continues to require the combined genius of many exceptional scientists, growers, and producers. It is, without question, an incredible skill, and I, for one, am grateful for the work and research that has established what we now know about winegrowing and fermentation. But once we have mastered the science and learned to trust in our own human aptitude, tools, and intelligence, what's next?  Do cleaner more technically perfect wines make us happier and more satisfied people?  Is it possible that - as farmers, craftsmen/women, eaters, and drinkers – there is something even more soulful, profound and – dare I say it - magical available to us? Having learned what happens when we seek to control all the factors, are we now free to explore what will happen when we choose to think beyond numerical analysis and trust in the natural process?

 

It is exciting to participate in the wine industry at a moment when it is ready to focus on these questions. With an unprecedented understanding of viticulture and oenology solidly in our possession, producers around the world are choosing to place trust in healthy soil, native yeasts, and time instead of chemicals and manipulation.  And we are finding that nature is amenable to our aims.  Healthy soil, it seems, produces healthy, flavorful grapes. Native yeasts are reliably up to the task of fermentation, and if allowed enough time, wines tend to integrate and refine themselves.

 

A friend of mine recently told me about his experience working in Germany where winemakers wouldn't dream of racking a barrel during a low-pressure system. (For those less familiar, racking is a process of moving wine from one vessel to another – often to remove it from any solids that may have settled to the bottom.) During a high-pressure system natural forces compact solids, leaving the racked wine cleaner and clearer and the winemaker better off for having prioritized barometric pressure over a strict production schedule. It’s intuitive, simple, and if executed thoughtfully, can save the effort and expense of filtration, but the concept certainly wasn’t part of my semester-long course on “Wine Filtration and Bottling.”  My life experiences have not much required me to think this way. But what other pieces of old wisdom have we forgotten in our rush to modernize? The more I learn and read the more curious and hopeful I become.

 

Caring for small lots of wine from vintage to vintage has a way of making the philosophical question of trust immediately very real.  There are always opportunities to fiddle, second-guess, tamper, and try to perfect a wine in progress.  It’s challenging, even painful sometimes, to make a decision to trust your senses over the numbers and trust the process over your reactionary desire to do something. In his book Postmodern Winemaking, Clark Smith compares winemakers to helicopter parents shielding wines from “the essential experiences that develop depth, character, and strength.” He says that “to make wine is to choose a path,” and while “increasingly, great winemakers elect, when they can, to do nothing, […] the choice is central to the art.”

 

Modern science and technology provide us with the information and tools needed to produce replicable, predictable outcomes. This sense of control is comforting and the results are often good, but along this path, it is unlikely that we will ever be astounded. It seems that only when we patiently submit to influences grander than our own can we ever be truly, profoundly amazed.

 

I find this idea relevant to my experiences as a winemaker as well as a human, but I suppose I’m writing about it now because this past year has been big for unanticipated transitions. I moved into a new production space where I am able to make more wine and where I can finally host you as a guest – which is good news at every level! I have also made important steps toward planting vines on an immaculate alpine meadow in the Columbia Gorge, and finally, I am currently working at Burn Cottage Vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand - an experience that is solidifying my commitment to farm sustainably and enhancing my understanding of biodynamic viticulture.

 

Just before I left on this trip, I was able to make some the 2017 Gamay available for sale in retail and restaurant locations in Portland, OR. It has gone more quickly than anticipated – which is both humbling and inspiring (THANK YOU PORTLAND!) – but, I have set aside a limited number of cases for those of you who have loyally read all the way to the bottom of this long rumination. Due to small available quantities, I am not opening the 2017 for sale through my online store as I usually do, but please write to me at bk@tccollector.com to make a request. I am able to ship wine only to a small number of states at this time, but for those of you who live outside the areas for which I hold licenses, I will take note of your location and investigate the regulations.

 

I’m excited to share more with you soon about the 2017 label art for which I became wildly inspired by occurrences of the fibonacci spiral in nature.

 

Truly, I cannot thank you enough for continuing to be part of this story. Wishing you profound amazement.

 

 

*A Note on the Title:

Terra Incognita means “unknown land.” I have been corresponding with an author named Chet Van Duzer who studies ancient maps. In an example he shared from the 1500's, the name was assigned to the as yet undiscovered South Pole, which was included not because anyone had ever seen it, but because it “had to be there” to counterbalance and lend symmetry to the familiar northern landmass. This curious inclusion inspired Mr. Van Duzer’s research and to me, serves as a reminder both of the power of human intuition and the extent to which mysteries still exist and discovery remains possible.

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