When I sat down to write this journal entry, it was with the intention of focusing entirely on the practice of “calling the pick”; a crucial decision that signals the start of harvest, and, ultimately, the birth of a wine. Then, on September 12th, a longtime friend and treasured colleague, Ulises Valdez, died suddenly at the age of 49, and so I want to spend a moment remembering this dear friend and singular man.
Beyond being an ideal accompaniment for a meal, a bottle of wine can set the mood of a room. Just as music and soft, ambient lighting are essential to a calm and lovely repast, a bottle of wine can add a narrative arc to an evening…contributing history, humanity and nature to the stories shared around the table. I think about these things when considering what wine to pair with a meal.
Terroir is often spoken about as if it’s a fixed construct; unmovable, definitive. It’s as if the terroir of Burgundy, for example, lives off in an ethereal realm, elusive yet sacrosanct; something to represent and uphold at all costs. Carrying this example even further, what defines the terroir of Burgundy’s most coveted sites, after all? Standing on the hillsides there, observing those storied sites, one comes to understand that many of them came into existence not because of their ephemeral terroir, but as the result of man-made choices bound by history, logistics and practicalities.
While Nature can provide great solace and solitude, it can also be the source of great bonding with other human beings. I have had some of my loneliest moments walking through bustling European cities where I cannot speak with the locals, cannot ask for directions, and have trouble ordering a simple meal. Sometimes it’s hard to bond with anyone even if you’re moving through a sea of humanity.
Conversely, I have had some of the strongest and most memorable bonding experiences with others in remote locations, out in the wilds of Nature.
A few years ago, my family and I experienced such a moment while visiting the Sierras. We were visiting Kirkwood with the intention of doing some cross-country skiing. It took us a while to get there, so it was already mid-day by the time we got started.
Wines have been natural since the beginning of time. The “Natural Wines” category—by name alone— proposes a bizarre hook. What are consumers supposed to conclude defines a wine as natural?
At our Nathan Coombs vineyard in the Coombsville district of the Napa Valley, we work solely with wild yeasts. Wild yeasts are also commonly referred to as indigenous or native yeasts. This site is teeming with just enough organic matter and life for wild yeasts to be prevalent and assertive enough to complete fermentations. I work with other sites, though, where a cultured yeast proves better suited to a vineyard that might, for example, be challenged by a more marginal climate. Humidity at a site can be very challenging to wild yeasts, reducing their population to such a degree that the type of critical mass required to complete fermentations can never be reached.
Each site I’ve been privileged to work with is unusual. Accordingly, the fruit planted there expresses itself in such a way that could never be replicated. More precise still are the varieties planted there, in specific rows, within specific blocks. The final nuance is, of course, a vintage. To quote W.S. Merwin, a vintage is “unrepeatable as a cloud.”
Though the etymological origins of “collaboration” means, literally, to “work together”, the most gratifying collaborative efforts I’ve been involved with always begin in isolation. By isolating myself with the object of my affection; a vineyard site or a wine already being raised in the cellar, I can better determine where it seems to want to go. Really, the act of isolation is one of extreme listening; if I am distracted by others or by my phone, technology…whatever the case may be, I am no longer present. I am no longer open to receiving any inspiration that may exist in the moment.