Wine as a Liberal Art

csm

David Rosenthal at Chateau Ste Michelle

I  teach a class called “The Idea of Wine” at the University of Puget Sound. It isn’t your typical wine class. It’s an examination of wine in the context of geography, history, science, business, politics, culture and globalization and how these various forces create different and sometimes conflicting “ideas of wine.”

I guess it is really about my idea of wine – that wine is a liberal art and a fascinating social mirror. The fact that it tastes so good is a wonderful bonus.

Wine isn’t usually included in the liberal arts curriculum, reflecting  America’s prejudice against anything that contains alcohol. But there is historical precedent. Symposium, in the original Greek useage, was a discussion over wine! Wine, as I think about it anyway, is certainly in the liberal arts tradition.

Chateau Warehouse sur Industrial Park

Part of my course involves fieldwork. In 2008 I took  the class to experience two ideas of wine that they wouldn’t get on a typical winery visit. Ken Avedisian at Cordon Selections wine distributors gave us a tour of his warehouse and explained how the distribution business works. We learned how Ken successfully balances his deep love for wine with the need to make a living selling it. Most of all, I think, we came away with an understanding that wine business is really a people business and that Ken is successful because he never forgets this fact.

Then we visited owner/winemaker Tim Narby at Nota Bene Cellars, where he makes spectacularly good red wines in an anonymous South Seattle industrial park. No fancy chateau here, just focused winemaking using exceptional fruit. We were fortunate to be there during crush, so my students got a clear sense of how wine develops by tasting at many stages from fresh juice to fermentation bin to barrel to finished product. The field trip popped some romantic visions of wine by revealing the reality of how it is made and marketed.

The Big and the Small of It

This year we headed to Woodinville, Washington, which is home to four or five dozen wineries that range from tiny family operations to the large and magnificent Chateau Ste. Michelle. The fruit comes from Eastern Washington, but the wines themselves are made and sold here, close to the market in a classic “cluster” of inter-related businesses. Our agenda was to compare and contrast big and small winemakers to see what we could learn from the experience.

We started the day at JM Cellars, a family winery that has in just a few years  expanded from a couple of barrels to 5000 case annual production. The setting is so spectacular – perched an a hillside next to a wetlands – that Wine Advocate praises the view almost as much as the wine.

Owner/winemaker John Bigelow took us through both the cozy winery and the hands-on production process (it was crush time once again) and I think everyone learned a lot about the art, craft and science of winemaking. It was easy to see that John enjoyed the opportunity to talk with a group that really wanted to learn about wine, not just swirl, sip, spit and move on. It was a great experience.

After an alcohol-free lunch at the Red Hook Brewery pub (I think this made some of my beer-loving students want to cry!) we headed to Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is Washington’s largest wine producer by a big margin. CSM and its sister wineries like Columbia Crest produce about three-quarters of all Washington wines. The beautiful Woodinville chateau-style facility makes nearly 2 million cases of white wine each year. The reds are made in Eastern Washington.

Enologist David Rosenthal took time out from the rush of crush to show us how a big winery works. Tanker trucks were arriving every few hours from the Eastern Washington vineyards full of fresh Riesling juice. We were able to taste the fresh juice and at several stages of the fermentation produces, with David drawing wine from the giant stainless steel fermentation tanks. Quite a difference in scale compared to JM!

The Little Winery Inside the Big One

One of the most interesting parts of the visit, for me at least, was to learn the extent to which CSM’s winemakers keep the lots of wine separate through fermentation and aging and, in the case of Chardonnay, make a point of experimenting with many different oak treatments. Instead of just making one big volume wine they actually make dozens and dozens of smaller lots, which can then be assembled in different ways that both reflect different geographic and geologic terroirs, different market ideas of wine (price points and so on, since CSM is in the wine business) and different aesthetic concepts of wine as well.

I’m impressed with CSM’s commitment to keeping wine small while making it big – I don’t know if there are many other wineries that pull off this trick quite so well. Maybe this is why Ted Baseler, CSM’s CEO, was recently name Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year. The citation reads

Ted Baseler is President/CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the most prominent wine company in Washington State. Under his leadership, it has evolved into a high performance organization known for its top quality, world-class wines; for its strategic partnerships with leading wine producers in Italy and Germany; and for collaborating with fellow members of Washington’s wine industry to help raise the region’s profile, worldwide. For his vision, leadership, brand-building, team-building, and region-building accomplishments, Ted Baseler is Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year.

Sounds like Chateau Ste Michelle thinks big and global while acting small and local. Sounds like a contradiction, but it is an appealing idea of wine.

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Special thanks to Ken, Tim, John and David (and to Marci Clevenger at JM Cellars) for making time in their busy schedules for my students and several parents who came along on the trip. Thanks, as well, to the anonymous donor who established the Robert G. Albertson Professorship at the University of Puget Sound, which makes my class and this educational fieldwork possible.

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