It’s always been an anomaly to me to think about the fact that I am a winemaker. As in, I “make” wine. Or, as I think some days, I make wine happen. It’s not really the fact that I do this, but that the French don’t have winemakers.
OK, yes, they do make wine in France. Some of the best in the world for some of the longest time in history. But what I mean is that they don’t have a word for “winemaker.” They call themselves vignerons. More in the sense of “winegrower.”
I know, I know, you’ve heard it for years. “Wine is grown in the vineyard.” And, even though it sounds trite and marketable, it is true. But, then, why do we have winemakers in this country?
If you’ve ever stood in a vineyard by yourself, you might get a sense of it. Especially if you do it early in the season before buds break open. You get a feeling of birth, a sense of life springing anew. I felt this even before I have kids of my own, so I know it’s not a parent-thing. The vines awaken every year from dormancy and rush off with a flush of growth that is unstoppable.
Kind of like kids, in a way……
The French have another term when it comes to describing the process of the creation of wine: elevage. Essentially, this refers to the “raising” or “bringing up” of the wine. (Interesting sidenote: eleve in French means student, so there’s a teacher-student type of relationship that goes on here as well. The mentor (the winemaker) educating the apprentice (the wine) in the ways of being, well, wine.)
So, the French seem to grow grapes and raise wine. There’s no “making” involved. Now, I’m not so naïve to think that there’s not a bunch of white-gowned scientists in lots of wineries all over France. You can’t make wine without science, but you can’t let science get in the way of making great wine. (There’s a lot of art in wine, but at the same time, I see too many winemakers try to be “artistic” and claim “art” when really it’s just bad winemaking and bad wine.)
I think the term elevage speaks to a cultural understanding of one’s relationship to wine. We as winemakers are not here—in the best sense—to create wine in our own image. We’re here to bring it along, to help the fruit become what it wants to be with our guidance. You give the fruit (the child) all the tools (education) needed to be the best wine (adult) possible. My friend and predecessor John used to call it “winesitting” and he was right (and very French.) It is that…along with trying really hard not to screw it up.
Does this happen all the time at Allegro? No, of course not. We have bills to pay like everyone does, and we need to be practical. But there are many times when I see that we are on to something special, when we have a chance to do something extraordinary. And it’s then that the paradigm shift from winemaking to winesitting occurs. And it’s then that I think we become a little more like parents to children with our wines and vines.