June 6th, 2015
Message in a Bottle
Edges, whether in the world made by man or the world made by nature, are where strange and amazing things happen. You see it in the difference between a seaport city and a landlocked one, and you’ll also see it the boundary between mountain and plain, forest and grassland, coral and open sea — all are marked by profusions of life.
The science of ecology uses the word “ecotone” to describe that kind of edge and the underlying magic of the ecotone is that it is touched by two fundamentally different ways of living. Plants and animals (and people) adapted to life on one side meet their counterparts at the ecotone. It’s a diversity that produces richness both attractive and dangerous.
We tend to think of ecotones as visible, but there are more subtle boundaries. The line where one mass of air slides past another can also be an ecotone. It seems evanescent, I know. What kind of line can something be when shaped by the wind?
But an ecotone isn’t weather. The locals — human, animal or vegetal — can hunker down and wait out weather. But a shifting ecotone defies waiting. The only way to deal with the changes that it brings is to adapt, and adapting is easier said than done.
One particular ecotone casts a large shadow across history. It runs east-west across Europe and south of it the climate is Mediterranean, with warmish, wet winters and hot dry summers. To the north of the ecotone, it rains in the summer while the winters are colder and dryer. The ecotone has been there a very long time, but it hasn’t always hovered at the same latitude.
When Rome was an infant republic not yet dreaming of empire, the ecotone was very low, around the heel of Italy’s boot. That suited the legendarily ferocious Celts just fine. They had an agriculture so well-adapted to the climate north of the ecotone that Europe was bursting at the seams with spare Celts.
It’s why we find, in 390 BCE, when the Romans hadn’t even crushed their arch rivals the Etruscans, the eternal city being put to the torch by Celts who then besieged the defenders for months.
But if the Celts were marching south, the ecotone was on the march, too, headed north. It is fascinating — and perhaps a little alarming, like discovering puppeteer’s strings attached to your shoulders — to watch how the northern movement of the ecotone aligns with the northward march of Rome, the Republic expanding into Empire. By 51 BCE, when Julius Caesar had pushed Roman control across Gaul to the shores of Britain, the ecotone was there, waiting for him at the English Channel.
The Romans didn’t know any of this, of course. Human beings don’t have the right kind of senses, so climate shift lies just out of our range of perception, like ultraviolet light, something we can’t detect even as it rains down on us.
But if we are insensate, our crops are not. They’re exquisitely attuned to climate, so when the ecotone shifted, they did too. It was a change that gave the grain-farming Romans an advantage over the Celts; Rome had the right technology to reap the solar power that fueled all human societies in that age.
Romans also had the right technology to celebrate their successes — winemaking. The Romans were serious wine drinkers, but away from the shores of the Med, transport wasn’t easy. If Roman settlements in Europe wanted a good supply of wine, they’d have to make it themselves, and make it they did. On the Mosel River in Germany, the Rioja in Spain, and of course in Burgundy, Bordeaux and along the mighty Rhône River — all these eternal wine regions were all pioneered by the Romans. They also inaugurated some of the techniques we still use today, such as growing the vines on stakes (as opposed to trees) and planting on hillsides to let overly cool air drain into the bottomlands.
One settlement the Romans planted in Provence was called Jucunditas — Latin for gladness or joy. Maybe it was because the wine produced by the rugged limestone slopes was exceptional, or perhaps the legionnaires that retired there were simply happy to have survived their service to the empire and to be left in peace with their grapes.
But the ecotone was restless and it moved south again. We have the science to see what the Romans could not, the ecotone moving like a shadow beside the empire’s failing struggle in Northern Europe. The rains came at the wrong time, the spelt rotted in the fields, the harvests failed more and more often and eventually the Romans retreated to where they started, on the shores of the Med.
But the vines they left behind didn’t die with Rome. The tradition of winemaking held on and then flourished in the Medieval Warm Period, when England became a grape growing region, exporting their vintages to France, of all places. The Warm Period collapsed into the Little Ice Age, which punished Europe for centuries, fueling endless conflict, routinely bringing hunger and freezing everything from Napoleon’s army in Russia to Bob Cratchit’s toes in the front room of Scrooge & Marley. But still the vines and wines endured.
Now, in truth, it wasn’t great winemaking; in fact, it might have been as bad as most Roman wine. But after the centuries passed, something miraculous — and French — happened. The Gallic genius for the subtleties of food and culture emerged and with it came a drink that we would recognize as wine. What the French created from the descendants of Rome’s vines was a living demonstration of the possibilities unlocked by wholehearted devotion to the ineffables of terroir. It had taken almost two millennia, but in the last 150 years, the French got it perfected. And I suppose that we should be grateful that it has lasted long enough to seem like it’s been that way forever.
• • •
Jean Tamaro is a sommelier in Chicago. She’s young, gifted and has been central to the transformation of a single, newly-opened restaurant in Chicago into a diverse group of ten restaurants in only five years. It’s a story of remarkable success in a remarkably short time, and it has been an all-consuming occupation. But into that bubble of focus, messages have begun to find their way.
“The first time I started thinking about climate change and recognizing it was when I started seeing bottles of wine from Gigondas (France) that had fifteen or sixteen percent alcohol. It’s such a high content for wine, almost edging into something like Port or desert wine. That’s an absolute sign of a hotter climate.” Now, Jean is a certified sommelier who is actively on the path to becoming a Master Sommelier, so she’s educated about the topic, to put it mildly. But during her studies in the past decade, climate change never came up. “You’d hear about it in other areas, in politics, but rarely associated with wine.”
Other messages are coming, too. Champagne (the region) is having a run of good fortune, declaring vintages and making vintage wine more frequently than non-vintage wine. But the reason behind this is that Champagne is one of the coldest wine-growing sites in the world, so the increasing temperatures that are savaging appellations in the south of France are simultaneously improving growing conditions in Champagne, at least temporarily. For someone Jean’s line of work, there’s a temptation to “be excited about it and not recognize that this is a sign of something greater.”
France represents the standard. It’s the language, it’s how we think about it, it’s the foundation. But in the high alcohol bottles of the southern Rhône appellations, in their jammy fruit and sometimes flabby structures, Jean can see a future where the standard is nothing but history.
Studying wine is a 100% academic pursuit — regions, tasting notes, laws, grape varietals and producers. But it’s also completely tactile and sensory. You can read about it all that you want, but if you can’t taste it and experience it, how are you supposed to know about it? The thought of someone starting to study wine ten years from now — or the thought of someone making wine, fifteen or twenty years from now — who may have only read about white burgundy or read about Châteauneuf-du-Pape and not actually have experienced it on a physical level is such an incredible loss.
For someone like Jean, the loss is acute and specific. She knows Gigondas like she would know a person and this small jewel of human experience is going away, for good. But what about for someone like me, who can hardly discern a Gigondas from its Paso Robles imitation — should I care about the end of this era? Do I even have the right to?
My memorable wine experiences total exactly one. In the summer of 1990, I found myself at the ruins of an abbey in Jumièges, Normandy. The place was soaring, mysterious, beautiful and — for once — my deplorable French was an asset. That’s because I and my companion were assigned the one tour guide who could speak English. Her name was Anne and — on this idyllic afternoon when the Abbey was somehow deserted of visitors — she dispensed with the rote tour and instead took us to all the off-limits places, accompanied by a wry commentary which revealed that though the scheming abbots were long gone, court intrigue was still de rigeuer in Jumièges.
It was one of those serendipitous moments when you stumble across a kindred spirit and our tour ended in a storeroom/lounge where the grad students waited between tours. As we chatted and laughed on the single day we would ever see one another, Anne unthinkingly planted a bottle of generic vin rouge on the table. There were worn and mismatched cups to accompany it and I — taking a sip mostly to show appreciation for her gesture — found myself struck with exactly that constellation of sensory and emotional impressions that people always talk about when they talk about wine. It was rich, with contrasting and harmonious flavors playing peek-a-boo on your tongue as a warmth crept into your senses and thoughts. It was conviviality somehow made liquid and bottled — in a bottle that didn’t even have a label.
Now, I’m sure that if I could get the time machine working well enough to retrieve a glass for Jean, she’d burst out laughing at the taste of my epiphanous wine (though she’d do her best to spare my feelings). The vin rouge on that table was unquestionably the kind of workaday wine that will survive climate change, even if it has to grow in the lava fields of Iceland. But I wonder if part of what made that bottle special was the way it did what wine does more than any other form of sustenance — bridge the physical task of keeping ourselves alive with the experience of living.
That unassuming table wine was a perfect match with both our modest surroundings and the uncomplicated warmth of that summer afternoon. At the same time, it was profoundly rooted in place and time. The wine tasted like where we found ourselves and it took no imagination whatsoever to know that the generations who had raised the soaring walls of the Abbey with nothing more than their backs and their wits had quenched their thirst with much the same drink.
That was when I understood that wine is more than social libation or an alterer of states. It’s easy to think of history as buildings and books, iron and bone — things physically hard enough to withstand time — but that’s wrong. Real history is mostly made not of what endures, but that which, like the living themselves, perish. Indeed, the foundation that enabled the construction of the monuments and the enacting of the scenes in the history books was the simple, profound and unending work of feeding and clothing, as invisible and unheeded as the air we breathe… but not undetectable, because I could taste it.
The irony, on that warm afternoon, was that I’d come to visit the hardware of history — the picturesque ruins — but discovered a more subtle and profound connection with the past. If I’d been in the South, I would have been in touch with a much more ancient past, perhaps walking the Via Domitia and reading Pliny, but I still wouldn’t have had the same epiphany unless, perhaps, I stumbled into one of those places where part of that past still lives, like tiny Gigondas.
That name, you see, is a corruption of the original Latin, Jocunditas. The grapes have been growing there ever since the Romans and the Gigondas syrah that is now grown and made everywhere from California to Australia is, in fact, of this place, a native to the Rhône Valley. Would I have known, back then, that I was drinking something more special and more storied that the table wine of Jumièges? I doubt it. But neither do I doubt that it would have sent me the same message.
• • •
The ecotone is, once again, marching northward across France. This time, though, it’s different. For one thing, it’s moving because we’re pushing it. For another, it’s not about the see-saw between the Mediterranean climate and the European one. It’s about the arrival of the climate from one ecotone to the south — the one that belongs to the Sahara.
As that climate begins its destruction of the vineyards of Southern France, Jean still has to find wines that go with the menus of her restaurants. Increasingly, she’s finding them in unlikely places. “In the past six months to a year, I’ve really been enjoying wines from Washington (State). And one of these varietals that I really enjoy is syrah.” Her favorite Washington producer is called Cayuse. The man behind it is a Frenchman, Christophe Baron, a scion of a family of vignerons. In English, we’d translate this as “vintner,” but that’s missing some of the nuance. A vigneron is a winemaker, but one who views the vineyard itself as the key.
Going walkabout as a young man, Christophe knew that someday he would buy land and start his own vineyard, but that someday abruptly arrived one day in a place he didn’t expect, the town of Walla Walla, Washington. It was there that he happened upon a field thick with stones the size of oranges. Now, there’s a lot of agriculture in Walla Walla, but this was — in 1997 — not land that anyone was fighting over. Who would want all this stony ground?
But Christophe saw something when he looked at it. For one thing, he believed that a great wine could only rise from vines which struggle in inhospitable soil. And for another, the rock strewn acres were uncannily like the legendary vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, only a couple valleys over from Gigondas. The land there is hard, but the smooth rocks, called cailloux, are actually an aid. In the cool season, they capture heat during the day and release it at night. While in the hot season, they trap moisture, protecting the ground from the blistering sun.
Christophe got what he was looking for in terms of the soil, if you can call it that, which is nothing more than a two foot thick layer of rock and silt on top of hundreds of feet of solid volcanic stone. Now, nearly twenty years later, the syrah from those first ten acres is sought after with a waiting list, while the first vineyard now has seven siblings which are nearly as coveted. He tends his vineyards biodynamically, eschewing pesticides and herbicides or, as he puts it, using “forces of life, instead of forces of death.”
In Christophe, we find a balm for the calamity enfolding French winemaking. Here, a person who embodies literally centuries of French winemaking tradition has rebirthed it on the new frontier of West Coast winemaking (because Napa and Sonoma are showing tell-tale signs of heat stress, too.) His is just one story, but it’s an encouraging one, because the future of wine is, bluntly, going to be a mess.
Sure, people will do their best to adapt and there will be discoveries, new wonders that never would have come this way otherwise. Already, French winemaking concerns are buying land in southern England, and as Christophe has amply demonstrated, the vines can put down deep roots in new places and wring joy from unpromising ground. But wine is also about time.
Maybe the secret, the reason there’s a veritas in vino, is the alchemy wine performs on time, pressing the seasons, years and history together, allowing us to escape our bubble of instantaneity to, fleetingly, sense the tapestry in which each of us is a thread. It was the slow time of the 19th Century that produced this art, unpressured by global trade deals and the need to tweet photos of the harvest. Modernity was stoking the engines of speed when Napoleon III sat on the throne, but from our point of view? There was nothing but time, time to wait, time to wonder, a sea of unexplored and unfilled time. So pardon my cynicism but I wonder how many winemakers of an era devoted to the extinction of time will grasp the art of its distillation.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that Christophe Baron is what we can expect from winemaking on a hot planet. Otherwise we will be, in the end, left with nothing more than the last presses of Gigondas, among others. They won’t be good wines. They’ll be artifacts, instead, souvenirs of the moment when millennia of winemaking exited the world of the living and instead joined the shattered statues, broken vessels and threadbare carpets that we keep and treasure because, if we squint and use our imaginations, we can sense the glory of a gone world, even if we can no longer taste it.