Wine, Wendell Berry, and My Preoccupation with Place

The last few weeks have been, to put it mildly, difficult. Don’t worry; I won’t air my political anxieties here, as I think we all have had enough of that noise by this point, but the month of November has seen me wildly vacillating between emotional states. I hadn’t made it past the first day post-election before I realized that I needed some centering, and something to push me into a more positive state of mind. When I find myself in this position, I automatically head for my bookshelf and grab something from my favorite author, Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry and Wine

There are few authors who rival the impact that Wendell Berry has had on my outlook on the world. To illustrate how much this man has impacted me, I once had a dream in which I printed T-Shirts that said, “Wendell Berry is my Yoda,” which, if nothing else, illustrates the subconscious’ ability to marry disparate obsessions in one odd little package. Whenever the world gets too big for me to handle, picking up a Wendell Berry book helps to shrink it.

Among the many lessons that can be gleaned from the writings of Wendell Berry – and there are many more than could even be hinted at in this blog post – the thing that has resonated most strongly with me over the years has been the emphasis that he puts on the concept of “place.” The stories and essays that focus on his home in rural Kentucky serve as a critique on many aspects of modern life, not the least of which is our loss of connectedness to the places that we live and to the work that we do.

My nephews walking the brick wall around my grandparent's property.

My nephews walking the brick wall around my grandparent’s property.

I first felt the weight of place at my grandparent’s home in Bangs, a small town in central Texas. I can’t exactly explain why I felt such a connection to the property in rural Texas, since my visits to the big white house were infrequent occasions, often consisting of weekend or holiday trips. There is something about “land” that has a gravity that a mere house cannot generate. My grandparents took great pride in working their property, and I think there was always a part of me that viewed that land as being part of our family legacy, a place of productivity and self-sufficiency that held a permanence that didn’t exist in my suburban home. Ultimately, my family’s story ended up diverging from the little Texas farm when my grandparents passed away, but I will always feel a part of the story of that land, and it will always be a part of my story, albeit a part of the story neither present or future. I will never forget the ache of the last night that I spent in that old house after my grandmother’s funeral, knowing that I could not return there as anything other than an outsider, my role in the story of that place belonging to an earlier chapter.

The stories that Wendell Berry tells are often stories about the way that we belong to the land as much, or more, than it belongs to us. They are stories of fidelity; stories about living up to our obligation to care for the land and ensure its longterm productivity. They tell of an intrinsic value found in a place and way of life that transcends the moment of time in which we are living. They are tales of overwhelming smallness, a celebration of the insignificant that supersedes the bigness of the world that many of us live in. They also speak of the pride of cultivation and of the contract, whereby we give our conscientious effort to the care of the land, and in return it gives us sustenance and enjoyment.

Given my affinity for the words of my Kentucky sage, it was perhaps inevitable that I would be sucked into the world of wine when first confronted with the concept of terroir. I think that the idea that a specific piece of earth had it’s own character, and further, that this essence could speak through a glass of wine has intrigued me from the very beginning of my wine journey. I have generally pursued wines that are expressions of place, reverently savoring the character of the earth that gave birth to the contents within my glass, and thinking about the stories that could be written about the people who cultivated the vines and who diligently nurtured the wine through the fermentation process. When I dream of my own winery, I dream of creating what my winemaking hero, Randall Grahm, describes as vins de terroir, or wines that are expressive of the place where they were grown.

Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the fog

Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the fog

Since I began working in the wine industry here in Washington, I have been fortunate to have developed a connection with Destiny Ridge Vineyard, the estate vineyard of my former employers at Alexandria Nicole Cellars. I was captivated by Destiny Ridge from the first time that I visited, and became enthralled when I began working in production at the winery. I still feel the pull of that place – especially my beloved Grenache block – on a regular basis. It always feels like coming home when I visit. The reasons for this feeling are complicated. Just as a big part of my connection to my grandparents’ property was the symbiotic relationship that the farm had with my grandparents; my love for Destiny Ridge is tied to the people who I grew to love at Alexandria Nicole. Even beyond the people that I worked with, I think about all the others who have come and gone during the life of the vineyard, each becoming a part of the story of the land. Whether it be a harvest intern working their first harvest at a winery, the migrant workers who hand harvested grapes in the cool autumns of the Horse Heaven Hills, or even a guy with a background in marketing who wanted to learn more about wine production; Destiny Ridge will always be a part of their story, and they will always be a part of the vineyard’s story as well.

I know that most people will probably find this strange, but in a way I believe that my passion for wine might have much to do with my continuing pursuit of a sense of place in a world that is largely placeless. It is my attempt at connecting to something authentic, joining in the story of a specific place on this earth. Sure, there is as much flimflam and artifice in the wine industry as there is in any modern business, but thankfully there is still a lot of wine that evokes the spirit of its place of origin. One day I plan to more closely tie myself to my own place, but until then, I will continue to pursue my fetish for place where I can.

I am a renaissance nerd. I am an obsessive. Currently, my interests are most focused on things that you can imbibe (wine, beer, spirits), on the world of design and hand lettering, and on soccer (specifically Liverpool Football Club and the Seattle Sounders)

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