I’ve been in wine sales for a number of years now and while I love it, I have long had a gut feeling that I may be missing out by not exploring the more tactile side of wine in terms of being directly involved in the making of it. Hands-on exploration of something I love has always been the best way for me to tell if I’m passionate and patient enough to pursue it in a real way.
Before I changed careers, I was a university poetry adjunct professor/writer. I also started a small press called Zumbar that published poetry on an 8×12 C&P press (using mostly broken typeface font rescued from auctions) which focused on process (as opposed to finished pieces).
These slow arts have taught me patience (which is probably why I gravitate toward them) but they have also enabled me to explore the ever-fascinating world of what I like to call “the in-between”- a world that I generally tend to live my life in. Most of my own poetry continually explores this world and I am drawn to crafts and other artforms which do the same. Wine is very much one of these artforms.
In my opinion, process is often what gets overlooked, discarded or discredited, but to me, this is the heart of the piece or product being made and it should be given a voice. Although I didn’t know it at first, this is one of the reasons I changed my career focus to wine. Wine is a living thing that exists AS the in-between state since it is made to be saved, savored and enjoyed while existing as something that is, all the while, decaying.
Being directly involved with this naturally-occurring product is utterly fascinating to me. To have a hand in the making of something that otherwise just “happens” – something that is meant to exist as decaying matter, speaks so much to how drawn we are to the natural devolution of things.
While my years in wine sales and as a tasting room manager have shown that I can apply my experience as a poetry instructor to my encounters with folks’ trepidation about wine, I want to step into the process of making wine itself, to perhaps demystify it even more so for myself.
I am guessing, sensing, that the day I make that first barrel or two of wine will be a very human moment for me. It may be akin to the feeling of publishing a full book of poems. But, of course, these “poems” will have a shelf life, and so, I am preparing myself for the urge to create more wine – another barrel of something related to the first in some way, so that that story can continue. In my mind, this is quite possibly one way in which winemaking perpetuates. How can the story end if you’re always creating the middle of it?
Growing up on the Central Coast in Santa Maria, California, it is only natural that I have gravitated toward wine that for me (in terms of my palate and memories) reflects that place. With regard to love of wine as it feels like “home” to me, I came to fall in love with Italy in the late 1990s and Italian wine much later, once I got into the wine industry. Both feel like “home” and remind me of the actual place where I grew up on the Central Coast in both flavor and aroma. For the most part, I pretty much love to have my palate surprised by wines of the Piemonte and Sicilian areas of Italy. There’s just something about Italy’s morainic and volcanic soils that bring out more secondary flavors in wine and remind me of the savoriness of the food with its subtle, yet authentic spices and herbs of the Santa Maria area.
Naturally I’m biased here and am making some of these connections based purely off of memories I had as a kid growing up in the same place and same house all my life, but I remember when I had my first Picotendro (Nebbiolo) from Valle d’Aosta, I remembered flavors of iron or metal, piercing tannin and acidity and layers of dried flowers or dandelion weeds that almost smelled of honey or dung. It was a massive landscape of flavor and aroma unfolding upon my tongue almost at once and I absolutely loved it. Why? Because it felt like home to me, period. Much to my surprise I was then told that I should only be drinking Picotendro with food given its austerity. But if that was austerity, it was not intrusive or overwhelming to my palate. And yes, while so many Italian wines can be enhanced with food, I sensed so many layers coming forth with that one wine that I couldn’t even think about food coming into the picture. This wine held its own feast for the senses.
But that was one of those moments when I realized I had found a home in drinking/exploring wine. It wasn’t necessarily a place that others would similarly call home, but that wasn’t important to me. I found I needed to begin chasing down and unearthing more of these wines – wines that disrupted the tasting narrative – wines that defied expectation. This understanding has also been one I’ve attributed to my own poetry and the writing of others in general. It’s about standing on your own feet atop any form of categorization. Such wines (and such poems) become, as one of my dear friends/poets says, records or documents of witness and testimony. They are necessary.
For me, the only way I want to learn about making wine is by doing it. I don’t want to go through a program at UC Davis. When it comes to a craft, I want to learn it with someone who I respect, feel inspired by and comfortable with, and definitely someone who I can be myself around. That said, I began looking in earnest for a harvest internship this year. I actually reached out to some female producers in Italy but most small producers only go with experienced candidates or simply rely on their family to help out. Not many foreigners get the chance to work harvest over there. The other avenue I wanted to pursue was along the urban winery path since I’ve been managing or growing urban wine tasting rooms for several years now.
So late one night, I sheepishly crafted an email to Ed Kurtzman, a wonderfully prolific winemaker (specializing in Pinot for the two labels August West Wine and Sandler Wine Co.) who is just an all-around human and humble person in the industry. Given the smallness of the industry, we had met before, and my partner and I also had a lovely casual interview with him months ago for our small wine experiences business, Vine Graft.
In my email, I told him briefly about what I had being doing in my wine career up to this point and how the one thing that I felt was missing was getting my hands dirty with the stuff. I asked if he knew anyone who might need an intern for the upcoming harvest and much to my surprise, he replied back right away saying that yes, HE actually needed one himself. When I read that, I couldn’t believe it. There it was. One open and honest email for another. As I said, if I was ever going to learn about making wine, I would need to work with someone like Ed. I felt incredibly lucky at that moment and knew that a new page was turning in my little world of wine.
And so, here we are! I officially began my adventures in winemaking today, but did come in to assist on a bottling line last week, which I’ll talk about in the next post. I’m trying to chart all of these adventures – everything I learn that I know I’ll never want to forget – realizations I had that were very “in the moment”, human, funny or essential. Read more of my posts for all my upcoming observations over the next couple of months. Trust me, there’ll be a lot. Some of these posts might read a little dry or technical, so you probably won’t want to read them all and you definitely shouldn’t feel like you need to! This is mostly for me, as I wanted to track this journey through words since it is all very much about living out loud through the senses.