After working for a year and a half in Hungary and France, I was ready to come home.
I loved my life overseas, yet yearned for cheeseburgers, pizza, and fries with ketchup (not mayonnaise). After a long day at the winery, I wanted a cold Schlitz, not a shot of Palinka (plum brandy) or Pastis. California was the obvious choice. The Golden State boasts millions of acres of vines, sunshine almost year round, and great food. It also holds title as the undisputed epicenter of wine production in the U.S.
Through a succession of chance meetings, I landed at Limerick Lane Cellars in Sonoma County. Michael Collins, owner and founder of the property, showed me a side of wine that I had yet to fully comprehend.
In Hungary, for example, winemakers were eager to discuss the production methods for their prized Aszu, a decadent dessert wine that tastes of caramel, almonds, and apricots. Weather, on the other hand, was always the topic du jour in Bordeaux. Here they need sufficient sun and rain (and all at the right times) in order to ripen grapes yielding a wine with sufficient body and flavor. Michael, however, liked to talk about dirt.
While I expected Michael to give me a tour of the equipment, tanks and barrel room on my first day at work, I was in for quite a surprise when he led me directly out to the vineyard.
"The clay is rich and deep here where we stand," he started, continuing with "the two acres up on the southwest slope have about fifteen inches of loam atop the bedrock, the plot directly behind the winery has a Boron deficiency . . ." His words all referenced soil variations, yet the message was about the wine.
To make good wine, you need good grapes, and to grow good grapes you must have the right soil. After thirty years on the land, Michael knew how the vines of each parcel were affected by the soil: small berries with ripe tannins on the slope, abundant crops of large clusters in the back, late-ripening high acid berries behind the winery . . .
Yes, producers in every region must consider all the factors that work together to make a wine. These include but are not limited to the grape variety, production method, soil, and climate. Yet of all these factors, most producers have a first love, and that will likely always be the lens through which they see their final creation once it makes it to bottle. For Michael, that just happened to be the dirt.
Although I eventually left the winery to move to New York City, an appreciation of soil and its importance in shaping wine stayed with me. It can be a difficult thing to grasp for we do not really see it, we see only the topsoil. Yet this top layer, as with many things in life, often tells us little about what lies beneath. Labels, furthermore, do not list vineyard soil characteristics, nor would we want them to. But the next time you're thirsty, pull the cork on your favorite bottle, take the time to taste it, pay attention, and let the wine do the talking.