by Clare Tooley MW

The Warrior Mentality

I have worked my entire life for restless warriors.  First in a bohemian penthouse studio in Notting Hill, then in the stubborn landscape of Bordeaux, and now in the velvet-textured splendour of California’s wine country. All are exhaustive seekers. The wine industry does not have the monopoly on such consuming energy. The tech world teems with such forward momentum, building its own tools for growth and innovation, harnessing the infinite possibilities of the human mind to do so. We, however, are forced to work with Nature to ensure our future, and Nature is a reluctant collaborator. Harmony exists solely on her terms.

Such a Mother demands a warrior mentality. The creation of premium wines involves dealing with loss constantly, yet returning to the fray regardless – green harvests, leaf stripping, water privation, frost despair, berry sorting, selection, rejection, the paring down to the next to nothing. We are forced to remove in order to build. The world’s most beautiful wines are the work of a thousand cuts. It is a restless occupation, driven by restless people.

Despite my mentors’ exacting regimens, they have also shown me the worth of their vision. I know, because of them, that the wine yet to be made, the bottle yet to be opened, the market yet to be visited, offers potential riches and wonderment, like a lottery ticket, but loaded to win. The element of surprise, embodied by Nature herself, imbues the product and industry we derive from her. And this is where I have found the most happiness so far, in surprising wine, in surprising places, with surprising people.

I opened a bottle of white from Paso Robles this week, four years’ old already yet tantalizing still, perfumed like potpourri violets, with just enough acidity to lift the flavors through to an age-soft finish in the throat, licked by a hint of sweetness. I will never forget the rush of crushed nettles underpinned by rooibos tea on my first South African Sauvignon Blanc, searingly green, now imprinted like a precious pressed four-leaf clover in my mind. A sample of black-crimson Primeur Pauillac from the heatwave year took my breath away as it ballooned in my mouth and went straight to my head, sipped in an empty room decorated only by a goldfish bowl. I remember a Musigny, exquisitely fine-tuned, its rose-purple fruit core bound by silk-thread tannins, so elegantly proportioned, tailored, it shamed the clumsiness of my swirling glass and made me want to dress better in its presence. Surprising like my first sip of Krug, going off like a firework in my mouth, making me question how such a fine stream of bubbles contained the power to take you instantly to a land flowing with milk and honey.

And surprising people. Thousands of them. Like kind, funny taxi driver Igor, in Moscow. “Capitalist shoes” he said, smirking, glancing at the sodden feet I had tucked, a little ashamed, back into the warmth of his taxi. I had walked through Red Square in a February blizzard, almost deserted, my footprints the first through the snow. This was the treat I had gifted myself, at the end of an unsettling few days at a trade show in Moscow, the first and only time I have been to Russia. I had watched beautiful women, young, high-heeled, peopling a dusky hotel lobby, long hair and makeup glimpsed in the opening and shutting of the elevator doors, ascending to brief assignations with sex and mascara. No-one smiled at me for days other than a sales contact, made online, who took me walking during the day and told me stories of his days as a KGB agent; “former” he added, when he saw my widened eyes. I remember we raised a toast in cold, slick vodka to his new life in the wine trade.

It is the only trip I made where I have no recollection of the wines I was hoping to sell nor the wines I tasted. I do however, remember a cup of hot chocolate, thickened with whipped cream, just off the snowy Red Square. It offered greedy comfort after days of hard-nosed business conducted by unsmiling men. I sat in my wet shoes, considered the vastness of a world yet to be explored, and, surprisingly, recognised deep, professional happiness. I bought expensive vodka and caviar as my parting shot, vowing never to return to a place I had felt so ‘unnecessary’, looking forward instead to new adventures.

The vodka was confiscated in transit, so never opened to remember the one kind man with a dark past with whom I had toasted freedom. I do remember the caviar however, its texture of wet silk and briny, botanic soft granules popping like Champagne beads on the tongue, the remnants of an era of palaces. Tsarist taste to go with my capitalist shoes. Igor would have smirked again.

The warriors I have chosen to follow, then and now, have inspired me to keep going and to keep looking for the unexpected. I am grateful to them.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

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