Notes from the Cellar: What's in a word

by Jeff Cox, Wine and Beer Merchandiser

This article was originally published in April 2009

What is a winemaker? There is no such thing … the closest one comes is the man who wisely prunes the vines. — Stefano Inama

In French, there is no word for “winemaker.” Neither does the word exist in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Piemontese, Basque, Occitan, or any of a Babel of linguistic local flavors. While it may seem a charming, but anachronistic Old European curiosity, it’s not an accident, nor an oversight. This seemingly trifling linguistic detail explains a lot, about a lot of things.

We Americans make things happen. Our culture is built on a cornerstone of indomitable optimism, of rising to the occasion and never backing down. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Neither mountain, river, desert, wild Indians or beasts can slow our inexorable march. In the American Dream, “no” has no meaning, our mantra is “git ’er done” and tomorrow is just another frontier.

Of course, when it comes to wine, Washington state is the frontier, the new world of New World wine. To drive through Washington’s big-name vineyards is to see Manifest Destiny in action. Perfect ranks of trellised vines march in undulating waves, vivid green rectangles in surreal contrast to the rolling, russet hills.

This is winemaking defined. River harnessed, desert tamed. Irrigation, clonal selection, trellising systems. Soil amelioration, fertilization, adjustments, corrections, enhancements, reverse osmosis, watering back, micro-oxygenation, acidulation, flavor profile, barrel regimen, branding, marketing. Et cetera.

In the glass, the product is pure New World — big, bold, elegantly engineered and silky-smooth. These wines are monuments to their makers and the triumph of industry over nature. Next frontier?

But when you run out of real estate, the panorama changes. When you are where you are, the frontier becomes a whole new thing. When the “just over the horizon” is no longer an option, the dirt you’re standing on takes on a whole new aspect.

Not surprisingly, Old World wines are monuments to vine, dirt, sun and the ineffable magic that transforms them into wine. Far more than just a pretty phrase, it’s a soulfulness you can see, smell and taste.

The one whose métier it is to attend this marvelous transformation is, in French, the viticulteur, (viticultrice) or vigneron(ne). That is, one who cultivates the vineyard.

Jean-Pierre Vanel of Domaine Lacroix Vanel sums it up best in a recent interview with French newspaper La Libération, defining himself as an “accompanist” of nature, as opposed to the notion of the viticulteur as a “creator” of wines. Preferring to call himself an artisan-vigneron, he explains that he seeks to follow nature, rather than precede it, with his intuition and experience only serving to help him express the dictates of earth, wind, weather and the vintage.

I’ll drink to that. Amen.

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