I don't think about wine that often. I enjoy it, and I have the desire to become more learned in the various regions and styles of wine, but beyond that all I can say about wine is that I know what I like or don't like--once I taste it.
I'm slowly learning a bit more and since my last trip to Napa I've set myself on a course of self education. Remarkably I'm a member in good standing with the local library so I went and picked up three books on wine. One is an overall history of wine, one is a memoir written by a member of an Italian wine family and the third is a book called The Geography of Wine. Along with the Cook's Encyclopedia of Wine that I picked up cheap at Barnes & Noble these books will be the beginning of Project Vino. (Along with a few bottles of wine).
On each successive trip to California wineries I've learned more and more about wine. When I was at Cabrillo last year my friends and I took a trip to Ridge Winery, known for it's award winning Zinfandels. It's located in the Santa Cruz mountains, high atop a ridge with a spectacular view of the valley below (thus the winery's name).
As we walked through the vineyard I was struck with how poor the soil was and commented on the fact to my friend, who is a true oenophile.
"Exactly. The worst soil produces the best wines. Vines need to struggle to live which causes them to put all of their energies into concentrating life into the grapes."
I've thought about that from time to time and this year as I drove through Napa Valley it seemed that common refrain was echoed time and again. At one winery, the person guiding me through my tasting talked about the 2005 vintage and how it was a dry and difficult summer for the vines, how they struggled to survive that year--she said this with a glint in her eyes as she poured me what she described as a fantastic vintage.
As part of my education, I recently finished watching a documentary on the global wine industry called Mondovino. Burgundy, one of the premier appellations in the world, sits atop soil that wouldn't be suitable for many crops other than grapes. It was land that was given to Cistercian monks, who discovered through centuries that the Pinot Noir grapes that they found growing wild were well suited to the poor soil of Burgundy.
One modern French wine maker described it this way in the film: A long time ago, wine was produced by the monasteries for the monks themselves, for their guests, or as gifts. Their idea was to extract the best the land could offer for the greater glory of God. As well as for their monastery. And surely for their own ego and ambition too. The Dukes of Burgundy gave the monks the poorest land. And, if at that time, the Duke of Burgundy hadn’t given these lands to the monks, who, little by little, by close observation, over generations—it took centuries to understand things—then there would be nothing today.
Michel Lafarge, another Burgundian wine maker says this about the soil of Burgundy and its "First Growth," or "Grand Cru" vineyards:
There’s more iron, less fertility in the soil, up in the First Growths. The soil up there is poorer. A wine wants to grow in poor soil. If the soil’s too pretty, rich and powerful, the grape becomes too fat and rich too and won’t produce a wine of distinction. The grape is nourished by the soil, the roots, so if you have a superficial root, the wine is not as complex as if the roots go down deep.
The land and the climate is what is meant by the French term terroir. I have been thinking about terroir ever since my trip to the Ridge Vineyard and I have come to realize that the best soil for humans is soil that is poor and gravelly, short on nutrients, low on water, hot in summer and cold in winter. Grape vines have remarkably deep roots that seek out nutrients far below the surface of the earth--sometimes as deep as five feet. A good vintner prunes back the vines severely each year, metes out water in minuscule amounts causing the vines to work to live.
God knew what he was doing when he told the parable of the vine and branches, and it is no coincidence that Christ's first miracle was making wine at Cana. As I tasted wines in wineries across Napa Valley, reading and hearing about "Rutherford Dust" or "Oakville tannins" I began thinking about terroir, about the the fact that the best wines in the world grow in infertile land, land that would cause most other crops to fail. I thought about the passage in Psalm 63 where David cries out to God in "a dry and weary land where there is no water." I thought about Thomas Merton speaking of suffering as the necessary agent that allows us to be poured out upon the world like "wine, as strong as fire."
Suffering is the necessary ingredient for us to bear fruit, to serve God and to be transformed into the men and women that he desires us to become. Another wine maker in the Mondovino film says that the wine makers in Burgundy work to "orient their work towards the fullest possible expression of their terroir." But the difference between God is that he is not limited by the parameters of soil as the Burgundian wine makers are. Life brings us evil. God's redemptive power is so great that he transforms the evil that befalls us into something that is gloriously redeemed. The most acrid and lifeless soil is transformed through his grace and love into the richest humus. I believe that when we suffer, whatever we suffer, God uses it in our lives to help us us to reach the culmination of who God wants us to become. God plants us in the terroir where we will bear the most fruit, where we truly can become "wines of distinction," if we submit to his pruning and are content to live in the infertile world where he plants us. He doesn't desire us to become "rich and fat" grapes, which produce flabby wines. He desires us to struggle to seek him out, going deep to drink from the wellspring of his Love, going deep as the roots of the best vines must do.