02Dec - my lecture on Ansel Adams and Pacific NW wines
So last night's lecture went quite well and for those of you who didn't get a chance to go, here's the text and photos, at least. The Pinot Noir I carry as well as, sporadically, the Riesling. Everything else is available, perhaps exclusively, at Total Wine.
There were so many wines I'd like to have used last night to illustrate my points. I'm having a glass right now of a wine i'd love to have used, the eyrie vineyards 2006 pinot noir reserve from their original vines. unfortunately, i was restricted by price and availability and sponsorship. Total Wine was generous enough to offer several wines. I only used three wines that weren't theirs because i wanted specific flavor profiles that i couldn't find at a reasonable price point at total.
and several of the photos i used are in the exhibit at the columbia museum of art until January 17. I encourage you to view the exhibit, if you haven't already. there's a depth and a character that just can't be captured on a computer screen.
I went off book several times last night but this is what i had written down.
I recently moved into a new house. And outside of it, where I park, there’s a large maple tree. When the leaves started to turn they became a gorgeous yellow and green and every morning, as the sun streamed through them and mottled the car and me, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen. It felt almost contrived in the colors and the lighting, as though I were in a sofia coppola movie. Every sunny morning I’d see this and feel this joy of being a part of this natural occurrence and every morning I’d think that I should take a picture of it to remember the moment and the colors and the feeling of being a part of it. And every moment I’d find a reason not to. Running late or I’d put my bag in the back seat and I couldn’t reach the camera comfortably. And one morning, after a heavy rain, most of the leaves had fallen and taking a picture wasn’t even an option.
Timing. That’s the point of that story. The idea of timing is crucial in life in general but one finds it exemplified in so many microcosms. In comedy. In business. In love. And look at how important it is in wine and photography. Pick grapes too soon and the wine is taut and green. Pick them too late and the wine is flabby and hot. Take a photograph at anything but the ideal time, or lighting, or angle and the wrong moment, a less powerful moment, is captured forever. But when things happen just right, you’ve got poetry in a glass. You’ve got poetry in an image.
We’ve all got different ideas of what a good wine is or what a good photograph is. But we’re all here, at least, because we share the idea that, on some level, we enjoy the works of ansel adams and or pacific northwestern wines.
So, as a general tying in of themes, I wanted to look at some of the similarities just in philosophy, as I see them. One of the things I love about the northwest wines is their relative freshness in the global industry. They’ve generally shunned the ideas of the homogenizing of product in that they are producing wines that speak to the land. Wines that aren’t aimed or targeted but wines that express and emote the vagaries of the soil and the weather and the region itself. The terroir, if you will. And that idea of a true expression of the land is key to the works of Ansel Adams. So let’s begin tasting and, hopefully, I can show you the connections that I see.
(OFV estate grown pinot gris)
Let’s go ahead and begin with the OFV estate grown Pinot Gris while taking a look at Adams’ Frozen Lakes and Cliffs from the Sierra Nevada in Sequoia National Park. Tasting this you should be struck by how clean and crisp this is. Both the wine and the image evoke a solidity and a crispness that is at the same time both serious and bright. No wood. No malolactic fermentation. That is to say, no oak treatment which can lend any number of flavor and aromatic notes to a wine and it’s not been allowed to go through the process of malolactic fermentation which, as some of you know, is the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid. Malic acid being somewhat hard-edged and lends crispness and lactic acid being softer and more round.
So, without wood and without malo, this wine remains a purer expression of the pinot gris grape. Just as this image of stone and ice is only that: stone and ice. Compositionally speaking we have this parallel but also philosophically in Adams’ participation in the group known as group f.64, whose ideas can be summed up in their manifesto :
“Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form” This group philosophy was a reaction to the photographic technique known as pictorialism. The movement of pictorialism advocated intense dark-room manipulation and other post-production work in order to be reminiscent of paintings but also to assure a personal artistic expression.
So, here we have a major divide in philosophy that one can find in both photography and wine making: that of personal expression and that of subject expression. Do we see/taste the subject as it truly wants to exist or do we see/taste the subject through the eyes of someone else?
(Washington Hills Gewurz)
Moving on to the Washington Hills Gewurztraminer and this image of Tenaya Creek. I encourage everyone to take a moment with both the image and the wine and, by raising your hand, given the approach I’ve set up here, I’d like to hear some parallels between the two.
We’ve got a fairly classic gewurztraminer style here that’s very floral on the nose but shows more depth than just the nose would suggest. Just as in the photograph we’ve got an idyllic mountain creek setting with the delicate quality of the trees and flowers in the forefront juxtaposed with the solidity of the mountains behind.
(2 mountain winery off-dry Riesling)
I was lucky enough to talk with Matt and Patrick Rawn, the owners and operators of Two Mountain Winery, several times on their visits to Columbia and I was very pleased to hear their enthusiasm and the honesty of their approach to the process. This is something I experienced sometimes in Oregon, as well, and what attracts me to the region. Their approach is very minimal. Again, there’s the desire to let the fruit speak, and the land to speak. In keeping with this there is the idea of respect for the land. The idea of environmentalism that is shared by many of the winemakers in the Pacific NW and Ansel Adams. Over the years Adams received much recognition, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for "his efforts to preserve this country's wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth.” Both Adams and the NW share a desire to maintain and prolong the beauty and possibility of the region, Adams through his photography and expressions of vistas that should be preserved and winemakers through their wines that speak of a land that is distinctly, wonderfully pacific northwest. Without the distinction of the land and the soil there wouldn’t be the distinction that can be tasted in the wines.
So, again, out of Washington we have this off-dry Riesling. Rieslings in general, if I can digress for one moment, are an often maligned wine. The grape is capable of an extraordinary amount of versatility. From thick and warming and sweet to bone-dry, crisp, and bracingly acidic and everything in between. What we have here is a wonderful example of not too sweet, not too dry. There’s a leanness to it but, at the same time, a firm muscularity to its body. A sinewy quality that I felt was reflected in this photograph of roots in the Foster Gardens in Honolulu. Again, the emphasis is on the lines and the shadows. We see the roots and we get a sensation of solidity yet motion at the same time. A connection to the earth in addition to a sense of motion and fluidity.
(Daedalus Cellars Jezebel Pinot Noir)
Now, in reference to an articulation of the earth, there is the idea with which I’m sure everyone is familiar, the idea of terroir. Terroir is, of course, the expression through wine of a sense of place. Certainly, in France, there are some wines which one can taste and begin to pick out notes of garrigue (that is, lavender and thyme and herbs) and earth and sun and think “Ooh. That’s southern French.” Similarly, there are wines that, through their cherry and cocoa dust and tar and anise, one thinks “ooh. Italy.” There’s an earthiness, and smoke, and freshness of fruit that I think expresses Oregon and that I think this Pinot Noir conveys. There’s a touch of strawberry and a touch of cherry, and a touch of forest to this wine. To me, there’s an expression of origin. To my palate, and I emphasize, to MY palate, this wine speaks of the Oregon that I like. Pinot Noir is such a sensitive and fickle grape that not only does it react dramatically to terroir (look at Burgundy and how Volnay and Pommard aren’t terribly far apart geographically but worlds apart stylistically) but the grape bows easily to the winemaker. It is a careful and exacting winemaker who can coax a pure expression of pinot noir grape and place. And, as we look at this photograph of a barn in Cape Cod, there are few, few other places where this picture could’ve been taken. The Cape Cod style shown here is distinct. The steeply pitched roofs, the paucity of exterior decoration. The symmetry and cleanliness of line. The balance. Again, there’s a simplicity that speaks to a subject that still exemplifies a distinct thought, in this case, Cape Cod.
And, like the wine, while the effect is immediately light there is surprising depth to this. The way the long grass plays off the vertical lines of the fence pickets. The rich texture of the mown grass that leads to the barn and what lies behind the barn itself.
(Whitman Cellars Narcissa Red)
In mild contrast to the idea leaving as much of the artist out of the oeuvre, let’s consider a still-life, like this: Rose and Driftwood. Such an image is composed artificially but discreetly. We aren’t preoccupied with where the rose is vis-à-vis the driftwood. We’re not concerned with how much of the rose we can see and how much of the driftwood we can see. We find ourselves more enjoying the patterns and the textures of the image. The undulations of the line. The shadows and the suggestions of depth. In this way an artist can manipulate without being overbearing about their influence. While still allowing for the subject to speak and for that subject to play off of other subjects. Here we have different, organic subjects, each possessed of a crispness line and a depth and a cleanliness that melds easily with the other while still maintaining their individual personalities. There is a visual balance.
Just as in winemaking a talented and discreet winemaker can manipulate with the intentions of allowing a grape or blend of grapes to speak as clearly as possible. An even-handed oak treatment can lend a touch of sweetness and/or spice to a wine, as in this Whitman Cellars Narcissa Red, not to overwhelm or challenge the inherent fruit but as a method of unification. Aside from any chemical influence on the wine, the structural nature of oak (that is to say, its slightly porous nature) allows for the intake of oxygen. Not enough to oxidize the wine but enough to soften the tannins. Also, the porous nature allows for some degree of evaporation. In a given 59gallon barrel, between 5 ½ to 6 ½ gallons of wine may evaporate which has the effect of basically reducing the wine. Concentrating aroma and flavor compounds. So, of course there’s been noticeable manipulation but driven not by a desire to express one’s own vinous agenda but rather an urging designed to allow the wine to speak more successfully.
(Whitman cellars syrah)
The concept of old world versus new world is, I’m sure, something that’s come up many times and I must admit that, generally speaking, I’m in the category of people who prefer the style of the old world. The Pacific NW, as well as, to a certain degree, South Africa and sometimes South America, frequently reflects qualities of both old and new worlds in a way that I find appealing. This syrah, for instance. Like a new world syrah it is definitely on the full-bodied side. The fruit is ripe and it’s dark and rich however it’s still balanced and relatively clean. One doesn’t leave it feeling coated or overwhelmed by a saturation of purply jam as can be the case with some California syrah, or shiraz as they’d quite likely call it, and one can certainly find this easily in the Australian shirazes. While it has the strength of character to drink on its own, its balance and acid allow for easy pairing with food, which is a concern key to old world wines that seems to be getting lost in the new world desire for boldness and alcohol.
Now, let’s look at this photograph of a freeway interchange in Los Angeles. It almost recalls the roots in Honolulu in its strong, fluid lines. Here, from a distance, the cold, utilitarian man-made structure of a freeway is given an organic warmth. Adams steps back and shows us something unmistakably artificial imbued with the qualities of something natural and ancient. He meshes the two disparate ideas into a one, clear thought. Something contrived with the qualities of being untamed. Something new with the qualities of something old.
So. What I’d like for us to have learned here today is, primarily, the ability to see and drink things differently. Pairing doesn’t necessarily mean wines and food. Wines and music. Food and music. An atmosphere is given more texture when we draw connections between more of the things we enjoy. And, of course, it’s always fun to find connections between things you love. These works of Ansel Adams and the work of all these winemakers and vineyard managers and pickers have all come together today and have shown us the similarities of their philosophies. So, I encourage all of you to seek out, not only these wines and other wines of the region, for I think that while they’re becoming more popular they are still relatively under-appreciated, but also different methods of pairing.
That is all. Thank you.