February 26, 2012
October 7, 2001
When I'm out pouring my wine for the public, one of the most common questions I get is, "how long have you been making wine?" The answer is not necessarily so simple, though it's not as complicated as the other main question I get, "how did you get into wine?" With that one, I can cite any number of epiphanies, a sequence with which readers may be familiar. Being maybe five years old and going on a day trip to Napa during a big family reunion in San Francisco back in the 1970s, the scent of wine soaked wood from the cellar at Inglenook a memory that's never left me and never will. Or studying in Europe during college and traveling to the remarkably picturesque village of St. Emilion in the Bordeaux region. Or later that year living with in Austria and getting schooled in the dry white wines of the Wachau and Weinviertel by my Austrian hosts. Or the bottle of '86 Steltzner Cabernet that my brother poured for me on my first night of a cross-country road trip after leaving college. Or, or...there simply wasn't one epiphany. It's complicated I suppose.
But how long have I been making wine? I usually answer "since 1999," when I first volunteered in the cellar of a California zinfandel and syrah producer then just transitioning from home wine making to the professional ranks. As I've written, that experience provided the model for my own garage wine making before I joined the professional ranks in 2009.
Really, the first day I truly made wine, my own wine, was October 7, 2001, a dry and mild but cloudy Sunday that was otherwise unremarkable at the time, at least that morning, but became one of the most significant days of my life. And keeps on returning in ways I never expect.
I was a new homeowner then, with an unexpectedly large garage that seemed perfect for making wine. I had found a listing for pinot noir grapes outside of Mollala at a local wine making supply store and drove down the valley to pick some hundreds of pounds of grapes myself, the Giants game on the radio in the car on the drive and, later, on my boom box in the vineyard rows as I picked. Slowly. Very inexperienced.
I knew very little about making wine at that point. I was smart enough to ask the grower on the phone when the last sulfur spray had been but innocent enough to take the answer at face value, especially when I arrived to find the vines covered in sulfur dust. I knew that wasn't good but didn't know why, so I went for it anyway and found out the hard way why that was a huge mistake. Sure, the terroir of Mollala may be less than ideal for pinot noir, but the wine sucked because that sulfur reacted with yeast during fementation to create powerful (and powerfully bad) aromas called mercaptans. You know, what they put into natural gas so you can smell it. So you'll know something's wrong and call the gas company before an explosion. Unfortunately, wine is a nice proving ground for mercaptans. This wine succeeded on that level only.
I shouldn't be too hard on myself. The fermentation was otherwise fine. All the sugar converted to alcohol, the wine had good color and enough body to, in theory anyway, make a decent drink. It just smelled and tasted like boiled cabbage under a sewer grate on a summer day. Dank. Nasty.
Happily, I didn't give up. If wine making is about one's quest for new mistakes, for all the things that could possibly go wrong in the process with occasional genius along the way, I was off to a wonderful start. Still waiting for the genius of course, but it was a good start.
I kept bottles of that wine for years, occasionally getting the courage to open one to see if anything positive had happened to that horrible stench. No, it never did and the final bottle went down the drain maybe two years ago in a fit to rid the cellar of this and other failed experiments that had finally outlived any seeming usefulness.
I sort of wish I still had a bottle of that first wine, not because it would be any good. Rather just to see it, to know it was real, which of course it was but now is just memory. Instead, I have other things to remind me.
Take the 2001 St. Innocent Pinot Noir Anden Vineyard, a stray bottle I've held for many years waiting for the "right time" to open. As I've written, I'm clearing through many of these random bottles and the other night it was time for this wine to receive its due. And oh my god, if my first wine was that bad, this is incredibly good. A bit tannic but otherwise remarkable, astonishing even. Wine that tastes like nothing else but Oregon, with the masculinity of Seven Springs vineyard and a savor that only the best Oregon wines ever show. This bottle was too good for Friday pizza night at home.
Of course, I had none of this on my mind when I opened the bottle. It was just another wine I'd waited on too long, or thought I had anyway, that seemed to need opening. Now. I poured it and immediately the scent made me laugh. This is why I make Oregon wine. This smelled unlike anything else in the world, unlike any other place in the world. The words I use may not be so distinct, but the wine utterly is. Cherries, black tea, a sense of green moss on a forest floor otherwise covered in brown leaves and needles, dry and earthy the way hummus smells, ashy in a way that convinces me it's most or all Pommard clone, like Burgundy but nothing like the Cote de Nuits or Cote de Beaune, if that makes sense. This is simply Oregon, and lovely.
Then I turned the bottle to read the back label and found the pity stats winemaker Mark Vlossak likes to print. When it was picked, how long it was aged, when it was bottled, etc. And the pick dates here were October 5 and 7, 2001, bringing back that latter day in a flood of memory that I've been thinking about all weekend.
That crazy day when I heard on the radio about the start of war on my drive home, wondering for more than a moment if I wasn't a presumptuous fool for making wine in the face of such catastrophe. But it's what I do. And that's the day it really all began.