“You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians”.
The story feels good. The noble vine, eking out its existence on an otherwise unfancied hillside, humbly offering up a fruit that bears the character lines of a life lived in struggle. Great wines come from the school of hard knocks and dry rocks – at least that’s the impression I got when I first started to try to understand wine and its places.
It makes sense, in terms of wine-as-art and vine-as-artist. Growing up studying and playing jazz, I learnt how the struggles of the heroes of the music are a part of their sound. It’s hard not to hear the cool-school detachment of Miles Davis’s 1950’s records without invoking a trace of the remorse and bitterness he felt after returning home, to prejudice and segregation, from a life-changing tour of Europe, where a black musician could walk in the front door of the club they were playing that night.
Yes, difficult years can make for great wines. I’ve yet to meet a winegrower excited at the prospect of mildew, botrytis or drought because their wines need a spot of character-building, though. There’s the noble struggle – the stewardship of thankless land, the alchemy of dust to wine – but that’s a storybook tale compared to the mundanity of pestilence, decay and sourness. Great wines are made in spite of this type of struggle, not because of it.
If outright struggle is not, as we understand it today, the prerequisite for great wines, then the term we hear most often today is ‘stress’. Growers refer to the extreme stress of heat and drought – not something beneficial to wines – but also to a sort of measured, gentle stress that encourages quality fruit production. Much of the study of stress in vineyards is to do with when it happens in the vine’s growing cycle. When it rains, does the vine immediately take a big old drink, soaking up all that water into its grapes, or does the soil whisk away or lock up the water? When it doesn’t rain, has the soil held on to enough precious moisture to see it through? How quickly does the soil (and indeed the physical arrangement of the vine) lose water when the sun shines, and how does this affect stress?
Rather like a final year student facing an essay mountain, the nip of stress needs to come at the right time. A whiff of panic, a spot of urgency….but then, the comfy chair, the mug of cocoa (or something stronger), enough time for the ink to flow. A sudden panic attack on the eve of the exam is too late, whereas three months early leaves things a bit long to stew. If the timing is right, then yields and grape composition can take a favourable turn (at least for some wine styles).
Winegrowers themselves are better in stress than struggle, too. Do we really want to see a winemaker in a Maserati? Perhaps not. But we might be suspicious of one in a battered Fiesta, too. Somewhere between comfort and scrimp lies a sweet spot; I’ll always remember visiting a Champagne producer who had thrown some fancy launches in London, processions of fine cuisine and smart bottles. We headed out into the vineyards in the owner’s 20- year-old estate car. Money was there, but it was being put to work elsewhere.
A stressed vigneron, after all, is one dealing with the outbreak of mildew and spraying regimes. One faced with getting all the harvesters in the right place at the right time to gather each plot at perfect maturity (a game of whack-a-mole where the moles have a habit of popping up two or three at a time). Some seem to enjoy it, even sounding a little disappointed with easy vintages in the same way a tennis player does when they reach the final because their opponent pulled a hamstring changing their shoelace. A struggling vigneron, though, is one who can’t afford that extra pass of canopy work, the new blade on the weeder, the sacrifice of those less-than-healthy bunches. Vines aren’t a cheap date.
I should point out, now, that the 20-year-old estate wasn’t a rusty Peugeot. It was a Jaguar. And it ran as smoothly as you could imagine. Next time I visit, there may be a new Jaguar there, surely facing the expectation of another 20 years’ service without complaint. Without struggle. An arctic fox probably doesn’t think it’s cold, a desert fox isn’t wondering why it isn’t in the Guildford branch of Waitrose. The fine art of struggle and stress is one where grower and vine come to an agreement, where excessive comfort and true peril are never more than transient moments in a pursuit that has to prove, ultimately, profitable.
Most remember the period of 1955-1964 as Miles Davis’ greatest years. He struggled, yes, with drugs, with women, with record labels, with identity. Never, in these years, though, with money. Or with creativity. The ground beneath him was richer, more secure than it was for his contemporaries, quite a few of whom barely made it past thirty-five. In 1968 his quintet, regarded by many as the greatest in the history of the music, disbanded. He bought a Ferrari 275, and made one of the great albums – and reinventions – of the 20th Century, Bitches Brew.
Perhaps, on some level, he was comfortable after all. Comfortable enough to tune his stress not toward survival itself, but toward fruitfulness.
Photo by Florencia Viadana and Unsplash