Wine is a privilege. Sometimes I like to hope that it can be more, that if approached with humility those of us who enjoy its privilege can learn something greater.
An (Ir)relevant Digression
A recent piece in the New York Times by writer Pico Iyer eloquently defended the virtue of quiet. Stillness is a font for focus, understanding and creativity. In a world filled with technologically facilitated distractions, it is increasingly common to operate in a state of numb overload – unable to process the volume and speed of information thrust before us. In this environment, the quantity of our contributions and communications may be increasing, but their quality is decreasing. We are losing the ability to determine what matters.
I also recently learned of Erez Lieberman Aiden, a “scientist” who defies the dominant forms of thinking that the modern world has imputed on thinkers and professionals. Specialization, the narrow concentration on a small, particular area of thought, predominates in the modern world. In my profession, law, the trend has been toward lawyers who work only in limited areas like bankruptcy, insurance, or family law. In medicine the trend is the same: the greatest rewards go to those who become experts in very small regions of health and anatomy. This approach can make sense. We might never reach the same depth of understanding if we had to understand everything rather than one really small thing. On the other hand, specialists lose the ability to see problems from an outside perspective.
Erez’s work, which has focused on using pan-disciplinary approaches to solving difficult problems in science and the humanities has produced some stunning results. With no prior expertise in the field Erez solved the problem of creating a 3D model of the human genome. In the humanities, Erez has started providing some unique insights in English grammar and usage (that verbs regularize in inverse proportion to the frequency of their use).
While the grammatical discovery may not seem overly important to most, Erez is trying to show that the traditional mode of approaching problems by specializing in a very small area (e.g. reading a small number of books very carefully) limits what we can learn. By using mathematical models and Google books, Erez was able to take a broad but less in depth view of the English language by looking at 4% of all books written from the Middle English period to today and then extracting grammatical use patterns from that information. This approach has never been tried in the humanities before, but it produced a fascinating and important insight into English grammar usage.
These two seemingly unrelated stories share in common the tendency of modern thought and communication towards contradictory extremes. While we have less and less time to concentrate, the ways in which we think are becoming increasingly compartmentalized. Even as we spend more and more time looking in depth at discrete ideas, our knowledge is becoming less important, less insightful, less reflective.
Without both time to be quiet and the openness to see from multiple perspectives, we become less effective problem solvers.
And Into Wine
So what of wine? The privilege of drinking ‘great’ bottles becomes increasingly meaningless in its privileged aceticism. Every day drinking wines are often discussed in the North American press as some sort of profound basis of community that the Europeans have long understood but that we are only beginning to appreciate. Of course, this refrain ignores the basic reality that wine in Europe is largely inflected by culture and nationalism and is not just an innocent marker of friendly community. Even in Europe, for most people wine is just something to drink with food, and much of the everyday stuff that most consume is pretty poor quality.
So, once again, good wine? It’s about privilege. It is lifestyle, hedonism, romanticism. But occasionally it can teach us more than just about the good life.
The Story of Clape
Across a mundane, concrete-grey road – a doorbell. Adjacent to the ringer, on plain white paper, the word “Clape”. A calm older man opens the door. “Bonjour. Nous avon un rendez-vous”.
During harvest, the Rhone Valley is as quiet and desolate as it is, cliche-like, “humming with activity”. Ringing the bell at Clape prompted a few rare human moments as the old man (whom I later deduced was Auguste), unceremoniously escorted me across the street from the nondescript warehouse front to a small structure erected across the street to meet with his grandson Olivier, who was busy pumping over.
Nothing at Clape is glamorous. Olivier looked stressed. Harvest is a time of endless deadlines and overwhelming long hours. Only 3 people work full time in the cellar at Clape – Olivier, his father Pierre-Marie, and a cellar hand – with the semi-retired Auguste lending his forceful opinion to the final blend (all three Clapes must agree before the Cornas is bottled).
But Clape is much more than a “family” winery. It is an expression of generational differences not in conflict but rather as working to produce something greater than any of them individually.
Clape is one of the very few wineries left in Cornas that makes only one Cornas wine, choosing not to bottle single vineyards like their neighbours Domaine Courbis or Thierry Allemande. This allows them to whittle down the messages to one meangingful expression.
The Clapes’ lack of pretension and their focus on the single question “What is Cornas?” has given them a sense of wine as more than privilege. Wine is the interweaving of the various generations of their family and of Cornas itself. Theirs is a question of expression rather than pleasure. They are thus careful that this focus on expression avoids the risk of dilution. With 5.5 hectares of vineyards in Cornas, they have no plans to expand in size. They have also not increased their prices to obscene levels despite being one of the most important and respected wineries in France.
The Interdisciplinarity of Generations
I rode down the Domaine’s rickety industrial elevator with Olivier into the dank mold infested cellar that is not much bigger than a walk-in closet. This dark cellar houses all the barrels of each of Clape’s vineyards. Each vineyard is aged separately and then blended into the final wine according to the dictates of the tri-generational counsel of Clapes. Clape belies such details as their holdings of perhaps the greatest Cornas vineyard “Sarbrotte” (purchased from a retired Noel Verset) and other of the best sites in the region by announcing none of these details on the bottle.
The Clape Cornas is made without destemming and, as such, the grapes are hand sorted in the vineyard. The granite soils and warmth of Cornas make the wines denser and richer than many in the Northern Rhone. However, uniquely, Clape uses 40-60 year old Foudres from Alsace to age the wine, which allows the fruit and soils to push out without much of any influence from the oak.
Domaine Clape has no website and so seems to live in an informational vacuum. But this choice, and it is a choice, is not about remaining obscure. Rather, it is about quiet. About focus. The Clapes’ communication has been refined into a series of decisions that once a year becomes “Domaine A. Clape Cornas”. The rest of the time they listen, reflect and remain in quiet.
Yet, both Pierre-Marie and Olivier have international experience. Olivier has worked in both Australia and California and he told me it was challenging coming home not because of all the new ideas he wanted to bring into the mix, but rather because of the pressure on him to have the same skill at listening and understanding Cornas and keeping the Clape bottling one of the most distinctive and true in France. Because of this, the Clapes are interdisciplinary wine makers, even though they make only one “Cornas” (the second Renaissance bottling is of younger vines).
It takes guts to jump into wine making techniques all over the world and to come home still humbled by what already was. By way of example, Olivier slyly commented to me that his compatriot Maxime Graillot, by distinction, is trying to do too much, making too many styles and wines with too much land. He was, in other words, overloading on communication rather than pulling back and making more precise decisions about what matters.
On Stripping Away
That same dark cellar in Cornas also houses the entire stock of Clape’s old wines, going back to Auguste’s first bottlings in the early 20th century. The mould-infested creatures sat as comfortably as rock in that cellar. They were as poems housed silently in an old, nearly forgotten library.
My visit to Clape was, like a great poem, a stripping away. The privilege of wine there was not lifestyle – it was voice. Not many people find voice, whether their own or others. A wine like Clape’s Cornas is an embodiment of voice that only a very few will ever have the chance to experience. And it speaks with a clarity nearly impossible to find in the world of wine.
Clape is also a reminder of the importance of voice and of how to find it. Sometimes we must keep ourselves clear of the many interferences around us to come close to what is essential in our lives and to understand how we can add meaning through our choices. Everything else is the white noise in which we inevitably must make decisions. But, without time for reflection how can we know what choices to make and which are better than others?
The privilege I now feel when drinking a bottle of Clape’s singular Cornas is that this wine has become a rare reminder that, in order to stay in touch with one’s voice, one must take a moment of quiet to reflect, reformulate, and reinvigorate – to figure out how to make one’s contribution matter. This particular privilege thus reminds me that such moments carry with them a concordant responsibility. Deciding how to act on that responsibility is one of the great questions of life.
The Voice of Cornas
2009 Renaissance Cornas: Big and fruity nose right now with a jammy fruit palate. The acid is fresh and the wine has amazing balance. Huge, fresh and delicious. Excellent.
2009 Cornas: Very very young, but utterly complex. Dark flowers, cherries, plums, meat and minerals. Structured for millenial aging. Extremely serious wine compacted to the point of near incomprehensibility. Once this gradually releases from its primordial density, it will be epic. Excellent+.
1996 Cornas: A ‘lesser’ vintage. Storied wine. Each sip requires contemplation. A fully open and resolved wine. Tremendous florals and perhaps the most intricately delicate Syrah I’ve ever smelled and with Grand Cru Burgundy-like elegance. Excellent+.