A little offering; an excerpt from the forthcoming book
When it comes to wine, I can be polarizing. I don’t mean to be; I just have unnaturally strong opinions. Take, for example, the supposedly provocative notion,“Why add anything to wine that isn’t necessary?” Though barely five feet tall, nearly one hundred pounds, that query, out of my lips, can spark forest fires of controversy, inciting far larger people to do battle with me. Yet having resigned myself to this sad state of affairs, I persist, be- cause as Eleanor Roosevelt said,“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, you’ll be criticized for it anyway.”So when I glanced at my phone’s caller ID, saw Oregon, and heard the gentleman introduce himself as Jason Lett, my first re- action was pleasure. I liked Jason, an intense man who was the son of David Lett, the founder of Oregon’s edgy Eyrie Vineyard. If you handed Jason a banjo, he could be Central Casting’s pick for the young Pete Seeger. But my second reaction was, Oh no! Did I do something wrong? Did I say something careless about Eyrie on my blog? Did I somehow screw something up?
“What’s up?” I asked cautiously. That’s when he propositioned me.“I was talking to Dad. We think it’s time you made your own wine. Come here. Make it exactly like you want it—all natural, nothing added, nothing taken away. Go hardcore on us. Use all the stems, no sulfur, anything!”The Letts share many of the wine values that often get me into trouble when I shoot my mouth off about them. The elder Lett was the pioneer who, in the mid-1960s planted the first Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and the first Pinot Gris in America. While not whole hog into the natural-wine thing the way I am, the Letts cut close to it. On their fifty acres in the Red Hills dis- trict, they farm without insecticides or pesticides. They eschew the trendy use of irrigation and opt for dry farming. Instead of an antiseptic, hospital-like environment in their cellar, spongy black mold grows on the walls. They pay no attention to point-giving critics—who, in turn, pay little attention to them. The Letts are my kind of wine guys.
Jason proposed giving me a half ton of grapes to play with. He vowed to leave me and my fruit alone until the first fermentation— the one that converts sugar into alcohol—was completed. At that point, I was free to return home, leaving the Letts to take care of what the French call élevage, holding the wine while it matured and stabilized prior to bottling. They would own the wine. I could buy some, if I wished.
While I recognized this as a rare opportunity, the truth was that I never wanted to make wine. A few years back, I interviewed a California banker for a story. He posed the question “Doesn’t everyone who loves wine eventually want to make it?”
My answer was no.
But I had to admit that Jason’s offer was tempting. With the gauntlet thrown, my competitive side awoke. In no time at all, however, that competitive side disappeared and was replaced by a vision of me as a victim. There sat Alice, trapped in a room, while Rumpelstiltskin waited for her to turn straw into gold. If she failed, he’d swipe her first born.
“If I run into trouble,” I asked,“like stuck fermentation, or if I need help getting it into the barrel, you’ll be there to help me, right?”
Jason laughed. “We’ll be in the middle of crush ourselves. You think we’d have time?”I gulped. My nightmare of being locked in a room until my im- possible task was completed was close to the truth.
Like a flounder in a pail, I flip-flopped with indecision. Yes? No? What to do? Oh, how to torture Alice. The specter of failure was terrifying. Sure, I didn’t want to waste prime Willamette Valley fruit, but what if making wine according to my principles proved to be beyond my reach? I had been so vocal about my belief and love for wines made without any additives, what if I failed? Would the public accept my excuse that I was a writer and not a winemaker and be forgiving? My grandfather’s wine turned to vinegar; so could mine. Conversely, after I stomped, the fruit could stubbornly refuse to ferment or, alternatively, might never stop fermenting. If that happened, I could be stuck in the Willamette Valley for years.
I believed that making wine without additives or industrial enological heroics was absolutely a grape’s given right, but what if? . . . What if? . . . What if I had based my writing reputation on a method of winemaking more difficult than I thought it would be? I began to think that making wine in my bathtub, while not authentic,would be saner. I wasn’t a complete idiot. I had plenty of vinifica- tion book knowledge. But on a practical level, I was stumped when I tried to figure out the mechanics of transferring wine from a fer- mentation tank to a barrel. I had no idea how I was going to press the juice from the skins. When Jason suggested I squeeze out the wine through cheesecloth, I thought he was kidding.
A month later, I had other opportunities on my mind and Jason’s phone call had receded into the shadows.