“in wine there is the truth.” it’s a latin phrase that refers to the remarkable ability of wine to bring out people’s true feelings. we’ve all been there before: several glasses in, feeling a warm glow, inhibitions wiped away…and the truth comes out—sometimes for the good, other times…well…you might just hope that the truth serum comes with a memory-eraser so you don’t have to relive the silly, embarrassing or awkward moments of truth spurred on by the multiple glasses of liquid courage you just consumed.
i’m sure about now you’re anxiously awaiting the sordid details of a wine-induced night filled with squirmy truthful confrontations or swinging from chandeliers…but alas, i must disappoint.
this time i’m taking the high road, telling a wine tale of a different kind: about the “noble grape” and the truth it can teach us about ourselves.
several years ago, we went on a trip to napa valley. if you’ve never been there, it’s time to add it to your bucket list. it’s mind-blowingly beautiful with acre after acre of lush vineyards, the freshest, most vibrant produce you’ll ever eat, and rich napa stories of the people behind each unique winery.
we had been there several times so rather than the casual meandering of our previous trips, this time we had an actual agenda. the wine spectator ratings were logged, the route was mapped out, and our mission was to check out some of the best california cabernet wineries in the region.
for such a little valley (30 miles long), there are more than 45,000 acres planted to grapes in napa. we wanted to find out what made these wines some of the very best—not only in california, but the world.
we started out at rudd, a jawdropping estate in oakville. it was regal and elegant, with amazing gardens, a tuscan style tasting room and an intriguing ivy-covered hobbit hole that served as the entrance to their wine cave. past the massive sunflowers beckoning you in through the doorway, it was what you’d expect: beauty, refinement, a perfectly manicured epicurean experience.
next we hopped down the road to groth, where it was much more about education than elegance. though the property was pretty, it was here that we received a much deeper glimpse into the art and science of winemaking: the winemaker’s philosophy, the process, and the vast array of factors that go into making world-class wines. we took a tour and got up close and personal with a critical component of the winemaking process: the soil. mason jars filled with gravely dirt samples lined the shelves of one room. and when we walked through the dusty vineyard, the ground felt not lush and fertile as we had expected, but dry and in some places, rock solid.
we came to find out that over 2 million years ago, “the beautiful and serene napa valley was one of the most violent places on earth” from a geological perspective. “the ground on which we were standing was created by exploding volcanoes and fiery flows of molten rock, shattering earthquakes, upthrust chunks of primeval sea bottom and massive floods”—yielding some of the most mineral-rich soil for grape-growing.
in the oakville appellation, the 1.5 mile stretch where these two wineries sit, the poor, nutrient-deficient top layer of soil causes the vines’ roots to strike deeply into the earth in search of nutrition. at these depths, they are able to find enough moisture to sustain themselves.
making the twisty, twenty-minute trek up to pride mountain, a similar theme emerged. 2000+ feet up, the winemakers talked of rocky, volcanic soil, excellent for drainage and creating the perfect conditions to “stress the vines.” the dry soil forces the vines to push deeper to find sustenance. the end result is smaller, more compact grapes with higher skin to juice ratio—ultimately developing the complex and concentrated richness of these wines. from gentle stress comes succulent flavors of black cherry, currant, blackberry, cassis, licorice, cocoa and even vanilla.
i loved the idea of such richness coming from rough circumstances. the tumultuous story of the soil yielding some of the most coveted treasures in the wine world. too much of a good thing (in this case water) leads to big, full grapes that lack depth and dimension. too little means poor grapes that fail to grow. the delicate balance of stress and diligent care yields the very best results.
the truths i found, in winemaking as in life: out of stress, comes character and complexity. out of hardship, resilience. out of the need to survive, you can actually thrive.
back in the day, it took vision to see the potential in such rocky terrain. many of the people who came to napa had the optimism, passion and appreciation for what this heavenly stretch of land could hold. today the inspiration still rings true. these tough little grapes remind us that to truly enjoy the sweetness of life we must also ensure some struggle:
“walk with dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. let their spirit ignite a fire within you and leave this world better than when you found it.” - wilfred peterson (from the “rudd story”)