Midway through a bonny career that I had plied,
I found myself lost, not (of course) in a copse of new wood,
But rather, I awoke to grasp that I had put a great dream aside.
So begins Part 1 (The Vinferno) of the Da Vino Commedia by Al Dente Allegory. Mr. Allegory bears more than a passing resemblance to one Randall Grahm, master punster and proprietor of the increasingly esoteric Bonny Doon wine empire. This is not entirely surprising; I discovered De Canto I-V of the book masquerading as the first part of Bonny Doon's spring newsletter. The Commedia is, says Grahm, an honest(ish) account of "my own personal crisis. Whither Bonny Doon? Whither Randall? Will I ever find a way of doing the things that really, truly satisfy my soul?"
At first, our narrator is confused about what those things are. At first, he fears only for "what might remain when I was bonny no more." He has had fun, scored well enough, and become a jack of many wines, if master of none. (The section of the newsletter actually devoted to wines offers tasting notes on some 25 bottlings -- California, France, and Italy; Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Moscato.) Still, he wonders, "What had I accomplished in a life as brief as the turn of a screw?" (Well, the mainstreaming of screwcaps -- but he knows that. Hence the pun. Also, perhaps, the mainstreaming of dry pink wine in the US, via his Vin Gris de Cigare. And...oh, enough.)
But fame is only the shadow of the immortality he seeks. After avoiding the Giant Southern Leopard (heh), the Yellow Tailed Lion (heh heh), and even the Spectacular She-Wolf (oh, very sly), he runs into M. André Noblet, "the legendary cellarmaster of DRC." Domaine Romanée-Conti is the holy of holies for Pinot Noir, and Pinot Noir is the reason Grahm got into winemaking -- the great dream he had put aside.
Deep in my bones was a feeling that was haunting.
"Where then are you taking me, cher maître?"
"You wish to master pinot, to ascend the steepest mountain?
"The way up is the way doon, peut-être."
These words had a rather harrowing effect.
I steeled myself for great pain, torture, anguish, etc.
And rightly so. Noblet warns our poet/winemaker about the perils of chasing fame:
"You shall hear the anguished cries and moans
From those who sought to make wines très flatteurs,
Producers of all ilk: burgs and clarets, Rhones...
For them the highest point score was all that mattered.
What availeth a score of ninety-five
When one loseth one's soil and a sense of place is shattered?"
The sense of place, the soil -- Grahm's real terror is never finding terroir. As Noblet puts it:
"It is the rare epiphanous moment that we must glean,
When we somehow become more than mere vignerons
And instead become the content of the Great Terroir's inspired dream."
Now that's immortality, and it's what Grahm has decided to pursue. "I feel at this point, I do need -- at the minimum -- to make a wine that expresses terroir. Or at least to make an effort to do so. I may or may not succeed, but I will make a sincere effort."
That's strong talk coming from Grahm. Lawrence Osborne's book The Accidental Connoisseur came out in 2004; in it, Grahm sets himself up against Ridge Vineyards's Paul Draper, whom he terms "the apostle of terroir. Its high priest in America. I'm his opposite because I'm the agnostic of terroir. I'm like the agnostic who's agonized by the absence of God. I wish we had terroir. But we don't. I'd like to make a terroir wine before I die. But who knows if I will?"
Back then, he talked about the ridiculous expense of getting a vineyard to give up its geist: "Helen Turley tells me that it costs $60,000 to make a terroir wine. Low yields, withholding water -- it's ruinous for us, impossible. And you're spending all this money with no certain outcome, on land with no history." Back then, he was talking about micro-oxygenation as a way of getting wines to imitate the spirit of place. "It extracts a sort of pseudo-terroir out of the grape. Because, you see, we can get everything out of the grape, everything, even if we don't have deep minerality from a complex soil."
But back then, reports Osborne, he was also "still looking for the Holy Grail of terroir! "Still looking for "that special place." All it took was the discovery of a limestone-rich mountain vineyard and a guided tour of Vinferno, the wine hell, to set his feet back on the true path.
It is, naturally, the road less traveled by. "Most people really don't care about terroir," says Grahm. "They want the wine to taste good." The two are of course not mutually exclusive, but if all you care about is the latter, you may find yourself sacrificing the former. "Robert Parker certainly doesn't care about terroir. Wine Spectator certainly doesn't care. They want it to taste a certain way, to conform to their image of what excellent wine should taste like."
And here is where the theology of hell gets complicated. De Canto V sees the poet wandering among the analogues of Dante's virtuous pagans -- good men who never received the grace of Christ and so remain in a place of natural, but not supernatural, happiness. Explains Noblet:
This is Wine Limbo, where reside the brilliant vignerons of lore,
Masters who came B.S. (Before Spectation)
And were never awarded a numerical score.
By that account, the advent of point-scoring is what made salvation possible. "It's not a perfect conceit," admits Grahm, "but it's interesting in the sense that I truly believe that the wine industry underwent this kind of tragic occurrence very similar to the fall of man. Adam ate of the tree of knowledge." The wine industry ate of the tree of self-knowledge -- as Grahm puts it, "acute self-consciousness. Sometime in the '70s, we lost that naïveté, that amateur enthusiasm. It became a business. The problem with that was that there was so much money involved that nobody wanted to screw it up. So you had this agonizing self-consciousness, the development of consultants, the rising importance of critics to validate what a winemaker is doing.
"I think it led to a loss of authenticity to the products we're making. We're no longer pleasing ourselves." And that's a mighty inclusive "we" -- Grahm names names, the Bordeaux big guns: "Margaux doesn't taste like Margaux, Pauillac doesn't taste like Pauillac, St. Estephe doesn't taste like St. Estephe. Everything kind of tastes like puréed mush. Everything is overextracted. Chateau Pavie tastes like Port, and Parker gives it a 98 or a 97 or whatever he gave it. I don't think Wine Spectator created this; I think Wine Spectator is more of a symptom of when people started thinking of wine in this highly competitive way."
But then -- O Happy Fault! -- the fall is what occasioned the redemption. "Salvation, I think, is individuals developing the self-confidence to produce wines to please themselves. God knows it's hard. There's a real concentration of distribution channels. Everybody wants to fit in; everyone wants to have a commercial product. But if everyone is producing the same product, how can anyone stand out?" Perhaps with a little amateur enthusiasm. Perhaps with a mad personal quest for terroir. Perhaps Grahm will tackle Don Quixote next.