Napa Valley wines

Inside Napa Valley wineries: part II

In theory, making organic biodynamic wines is simple; just let nature do its job. Let the grapevine dance with the moon, dodge the sun, discover the stars


Napa’s Screaming Eagle. Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

Napa’s Screaming Eagle. Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

Beyond the blue yonder where chocolate-coloured grapevines stretch as far as the eye can see, a plant is making choices about its future. It is gnarly and old. Its snaking brown roots sink deep into the land that has been its sole and only home; a land that made its name through Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa, they call this place. It used to be farmland until the 1970s.

A young Stanford graduate, Robert Mondavi, moved there to start a winery in 1966. That changed everything. More wine buffs followed suit. In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant in Paris, concocted an audacious plan to gain fame, publicity and posterity. “Judgment of Paris”, he called it—a blind tasting pitting French wines against others.

To everyone’s shock, several bottles from Napa won over the Burgundy and Bordeaux varietals. The French judges tore up their sheets in shock and dismay. Those two wineries still exist in Napa: Chateau Montelena, run by Bo Barrett, who is married to Heidi Peterson Barrett—the winemaker who created Screaming Eagle, Napa’s most expensive wine (talk about pairing and pedigree); and Stag’s Leap, whose Cabernet Sauvignon made the cut.

The vineyard I am standing in makes a restrained version of the famous “California Cabs”. Frog’s Leap—like Peter Cellars in Sonoma Valley—follows organic, biodynamic practices, although I doubt that they bury cow-horns into the earth as advocated by Rudolf Steiner, who invented biodynamic agriculture.

In theory, making organic biodynamic wines is simple: You let nature do its job. You allow the grapevine to dance with the moon; dodge the sun; discover the stars; and synchronize itself to the earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields. The grapevine, as the folks at Frog’s Leap say, “knows when the birds visit, it’s on familiar terms with surrounding insects and their life stages and it takes a cue from the acorns falling off the nearby oaks. In short, everything in its environment is a clue.”

If the flapping of insects reduces, the vine knows that frost is coming and the insects have gone underground. If the birds brush against the vines joyfully as they ride thermal currents, the vine intuits things about the weather. The chatter of adjoining plants—the roses, mustard, oats and dandelions—is a negotiation about nitrogen, minerals and other nutrients. Who takes what?

Based on these clues, this single grapevine sets forth a cascade of actions: when to allow bud-break; how to attract pollinating insects to procreate; how many clusters of grapes to grow. The plant has to give up eight clusters for that single glass of wine you are holding in your hands. So treat it with respect.

The wine that we drink these days is a far cry from the time the Romans dropped pieces of toasted bread into their wines to temper its high acidity. They would “toast” each other with stirring speeches after quaffing bad wine. The Egyptians used to give their daughters bottles of mead—a type of honey-wine—as part of the dowry, thus sending the couple with honey-wine on their honeymoon.

What makes a wine good? Some part of it has to do with rhythm and routine. Grapevines get comfortable in the spots they have inhabited for years—they find familiar spaces in the sun and soil. They reveal themselves slowly through the changing seasons and the blooming of flowers and berries. The winemaker touches every vine and every cluster of grapes. She knows every crack in the soil. She stumbles against a rock. The next day, she walks around that section—unthinkingly and automatically.

A collection of memories—from grapevine and winemaker—goes into a bottle.

A lot of it has to do with continuity and recognition. Years and years of harvests and the memories they engender, layered like sediments across the sands of time. Every new vintage ruffles that memory. The early frost of 2016 reminds the winemaker of 1998. He makes daily adjustments as the clarion call of the harvest season approaches. He stays up nights to stave off the frost. He puts machines to work. They are shaped like windmills and press warm air against the earth on frosty nights. He measures the “brix” or the sugar to make sure that the acid and sugars are balanced. He prays and makes choices—“let’s harvest a few days later.”

A collection of memories becomes a brand name. Myth and metaphor get passed down generations of winemakers. Some vintages surprise—like a coloured feather floating amid a cloud of dust.

In Europe, this deep sense of continuity and rootedness is centuries old. In Napa, it took 40 years versus the 400 years that it took to build a brand in France and Italy, and still Harlan Estates is able to sell a bottle of its wine for $750 (around Rs.51,000). Prices have shot up too fast, they say. And yet, there is a waiting list for these wines.

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly, it is not an objective exercise. Wine is about taste but it is also about ethos, nature and memories. The reason we choose a wine to drink has to do with complex layers of emotion, romance, nostalgia and finally, taste. All plants are entwined with the soil and climate they inhabit; the grapevine more than most. It offers a home to bugs, bees, flowers and the odd dash of frost. It is a microcosm of the climate, soil and wind of the place it calls home; its terroir, in other words, echoes nature’s alternating exuberance and restraint. In that liminal space between the sacred and the profane, a glass of wine comforts the soul and spirit.

Drink it reverentially. Because it comes from nature; it echoes nature’s exuberance and restraint. And because it is the result of countless choices made by hundreds of vineyard workers and thousands of grapevines.

This is the second in a two-part series on Napa Valley wines. Shoba Narayan is drinking a lot of Napa wines these days. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com