Wine is a farm product, an earth product. Great wines are made in the vineyard, so the cliché goes, but it’s true, and the best winemakers are either farmers themselves (a vigneron, to use the French word) or they work so closely with their vineyard sources that they might as well be farmers. The winemakers I know and admire the most can’t wash the dirt from under their fingernails or the purple stains from their shirts; a hundred tubes of sunblock cannot fade the hat lines drawn across their foreheads. One of my favorite winemakers still likes to wear a 4-H t-shirt he’s had since he was a teen 4-H’er. Another can never be reached on the office phone because he’s always outside working on his vines. Still another’s hobby, repairing the slow, noisy vineyard truck, isn’t really a hobby at all, it’s a constant necessity. (He has dirt and grease under his fingernails.)
Steve Brooks, the winemaker at Trust Cellars in Walla Walla told me recently that winemaking “is 98 percent moving stuff around. About one a half percent is cleaning. And half a percent, I estimate, is the wine part.” That’s at the winery. The rest of it, the big part of it, is digging, staking, trellising, pruning, cutting, thinning, irrigating, harvesting and, most of all, worrying -- about rain, heat, cold, frost, insects, mildew, leaf rust, berry rot, rodents, birds and the biohazards visitors might bring in on the soles of their shoes. (And don’t forget to leave the gates as you found them.)
The glossy magazines out there promoting a “wine lifestyle” never seem to include farming in this supposed way of life, though restaurants, hotels and automobiles, not to mention wristwatches, that cost a mortgage seem to be involved. Sure, there are lots of lovely photos of vineyards and wineries -- but the ads these magazines carry mostly pander to a class of living that’s way beyond the means of most farmers, including grape-growers. But farming is the authentic wine lifestyle. From a great bottle of wine, great farming is what you taste.
Earth -- and Earth Day -- first! as they say.
Steve Bjerklie has written about the food and wine industries for nearly 30 years. He helped introduce Walla Walla's wines to the world in 2005 when The Economist magazine in London published his story "The French Touch," which described the several ex-pat French winemakers working in Walla Walla. Steve also writes about Washington wines and vineyards for Washington CEO, Mid-Columbian magazine and for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin's new magazine, Lifestyles.