A few years ago, I visited a small, highly regarded winery in northern California. I enjoyed superb wines, excellently crafted by the owner/winemaker.
During the course of my interview, I asked the logical question of the confident and somewhat egotistical owner: “What do you attribute the success of your wines to?”
His answer surprised me: “Mother Nature. She accounts for 90 percent of the success of my wines.”
I thought about his humble statement and began to reflect on the evolution of the vineyard and the intricate and interdependent processes it goes through. Which has more influence on the final product: the seemingly randomness of nature or the measured, scientific approach of a winemaker? Is it the finesse and artistry of the individual winemakers or the design of Mother Nature that consistently produce great wines?
There are numerous steps in the production of wine. I have chosen a select few to evaluate the impact of man (a term I proffer as a species, not a gender) and nature (also a genderless term). In man’s eternal interdependency with nature, varying influences result in variable results. Who exerts the greater influence and achieves the greater impact: man or nature?
Step 1: Which grape variety to plant? Man’s influence: grape varieties have varying requirements in order to flourish. Pinot Noir is very fickle; Cabernet Sauvignon much less so. Nature’s influence: match the variety and the surroundings and nature will cooperate; disregarding a grape variety’s genetic needs is a recipe for failure. The greater influence: nature.
Step 2: Which vines to plant – those evolved in nature or those hybridized? Man: beginning with maxim number one above, man continuously strives to improve his chance of success, seeking to overcome the inconsistencies of nature. Nature: begin with strong genetics but tolerate a bit of tweaking. The greater influence: very close. Man has been able to overcome nature’s order of self-selection, but within narrow parameters. Here I give the nod to man.
Step 3: Where to plant? I believe this is the overwhelming criteria for a successful end product. The concept of terroir (a term in and of itself a concession to nature) reigns supreme: the soil, microclimate, sun exposure and elevation will most determine the success or failure of a wine – and a winemaker. Man: understand and manipulate nature and success is within reach. Nature: cooperate or perish. The greater influence: nature.
Step 4: Human intervention in the vineyards or natural selection? Man: introduce manufactured fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to enhance (short-term) yield. Nature: survival of the fittest will result in the greatest expression (and sustainability) of a grape variety and resulting wine. The greater influence: nature.
Step 5: The influence of weather. Grapes are an agricultural product; grape growers are farmers, subject to nature’s whims. Nature has exclusive domain over rain, the amount and duration of sun and late season frost. However, man, through scientific advances, is able to cope with nature’s dominance and thereby achieve previously unattainable yields and quality in the face of natural disasters and calamities. The greater influence: nature, by her randomness and omnipotence.
Step 6: Harvest. The end of the debate – or not? Once grapes are in the shelter of the winery, man has exclusive domain. Or does he?
A critical aspect of winemaking is fermentation: the sustained intervention of yeast with crushed grapes to break down natural sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Man: by influencing this process (introduce nuanced strains of yeast, control the duration), a personalized wine may be created. Nature: without the ideal temperature and environment, fermentation will stall or cease. The greater influence: a tie. Nature provides the basics, but man is able to influence the process.
Nature clearly has the upper hand. Man’s ability to cope with the vicissitudes of nature determines his success. Without a winemaker’s individual influence, there is a commonality among wines, but without nature’s nurturing, often erratic, behavior there is no baseline wine for man to craft. I now understand the central coast winemaker’s mantra.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.