Zen Winegrowing | January–February 2011

“The best winegrowers are guided by a subjective palate, not scientific protocol.”

This quote from Andre Ostertag of Alsace greets me at my desk every morning: “When scientific knowledge and technology are limited, our senses of observation, intuition, and sensitivity, all of which make up our subjective thought processes, are heightened.”

It serves as a reminder, or perhaps a validation, of why I love what I do. Ostertag gives me the confidence to reject convention and go with my gut.

Observation-Based Farming

American society completed its transition from agrarian to industrial several generations ago. In doing so, we lost a very important ancestral connection to intuitive farming. We are attempting to replace intuition with numbers, formulas, and science. This is somewhat successful where the crop is a commodity, the scale is large, and the inputs (weather and water control) are predictable. Grape growers in the Central Valley of California are very successful at this modern approach; winegrowers on the East Coast are much less so.

A grape grower is a conventional farmer whose job is to increase yields and decrease costs. A winegrower, however, is a farmer who has an emotional attachment to the vines and to the resulting wines. Seemingly irrational management decisions produce wines with personality and a sense of place.

In the vineyard I embrace what I refer to as “observation-based, reactionary viticulture.” Each growing season is analogous to a classic, epic feature film running in slow motion. As it unfolds, I have no idea how it will end. Like most Piedmont winegrowers, I did not grow up amongst the vines, so I have had to put quite a lot of effort into interpreting the vines’ signals. I observe the timing of the season: running late, precocious, or right on time. This will clue me into what to expect in the fall and how I might adjust the crop load or sun penetration into the canopy. Leaf size, color, and health, shoot tip growth, internode length, cluster size and compactness— these change every year. The decisions I make in response to those cues from the vineyard create wines distinctive to a particular time and place.

Society’s need to classify, identify, and justify has lead to a certain branding of agricultural practices. The terms organic, biodynamic, and sustainable have good traction in the marketplace. In order to prevent fraud, organizations have developed rules and regulations for growers who would like to be certified in one of these practices—practices that used to simply be referred to as “good farming practices.” My fear is that we are becoming more concerned about following the rules than about making independent, subjective decisions that are best for our land and our crops.

Palate-Based Winemaking

Most modern wines have become very good, very correct, and very boring. They often lack personality—of place and of an individual. Today’s winemakers think there now exists a kind of alchemy of transforming ordinary grapes into grand cru classé wines. Acid, tannin, color, and concentrates are only a phone call away. The effort is focused in the cellar rather than the vineyard.

Fortunately, there are many exceptions to industrial winemaking. I have found that the winemakers I admire most all have one thing in common: Their primary winemaking tool is a good, experienced palate. Just like a professional athlete, a palate-based winemaker spends years training and learning from experienced mentors. They stay “in shape” by tasting at every opportunity—taking notes, spitting, discussing.

The struggle between technology and intuition is by no means new, nor is it restricted to farming and winemaking. It’s about individual comfort levels and satisfaction. As we age, we are by nature less enthusiastic about embracing new technology or information streams. Too much noise makes it hard to hear the music. I’ve always admired the Amish, who as a society decided that life was just fine at a certain place and chose to not accept any more noise and clutter.

That sentiment is echoed in this Zen story: “A brash young man watched a sage drawing water from the village well. Slowly, hand over hand, the old man pulled up the wooden bucket of water. After some time the young man left and returned with a pulley. He excitedly explained how to use it and how easy it would be to draw water by cranking the handle. The old man refused: ‘Were I to use a device like this, my mind would congratulate itself on being so clever, and then I would quit putting my heart and whole body into my work. My work would become joyless. And how, then, do you think the water would taste?’”

Flavor, January–February 2011

Jim Law