I’ve been in the wine business since 2008, since the crash of the stock market that happened to coincide with my own quarter-life crisis. In other words, Boo Walker was crashing at nearly the same speed as the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And so I made a run for it, leaving the day trading job I’d had since graduating college, packing it all up and moving out west, chasing a dream of driving a tractor.
Up to that point, my wine education came from the days I’d take my thicker-than-now wallet to see a bottle shop owner in Charleston, South Carolina. She would send me home with wines from around the world, encouraging me to discover all that was out there. On one of those visits, she handed me a bottle of Red Mountain wine from Hedges Family Estate, and perhaps more importantly, the ticket to my destiny.
It wasn’t only the juice that captured me. Washington State had become a part of me since I’d first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana when I was a teenager. I may have played that song on my early-nineties boom box more times than any other kid that year, and it’s from that tune that I began to explore all that was the Seattle music scene at the time. Washington State became this evergreen fantasyland in my dreams, a place far, far away from everything I knew. So when I drank my first glass of Hedges, a bell rang deep within. It was only a matter of time before my mug defaced a Washington State driver’s license.
The multi-talented fermenter-of-all-things daughter and now winemaker, Sarah, got me a job working in the vineyards, and from time to time, the family would invite me inside to sit at their table in the Chateau and taste through the wines. Oh, how quickly I discovered the limits of my wine knowledge. I could have spat off a list of cult Napa Cabernets, probably told you what grapes were grown in Bordeaux, and maybe the difference between Syrah and Shiraz (nothing but the spelling, btw), but I didn’t understand the larger picture.
The Hedges family not only taught me how to drive tractors but also the philosophies of the old world. Anne-Marie Hedges, a Champenoise whose parents and grandparents fought for the resistance against Hitler, had impressed upon her American family the wine beliefs of her European roots.
It was something Anne-Marie and Tom’s visionary Francophile son said one day that tore me away from all my previous notions of wine and still lingers with me every time I raise a glass to my lips. Christophe said, “I’d rather drink a bad wine that has a sense of place than a great wine that lacks terroir.” In other words, context matters. Wine is so much more than the nose and mouth. Kermit Lynch, another person who sculpted my beliefs says in a similar vein, “Blind tasting is to wine what strip poker is to love.” Yes, blind tasting is fun and also educational. Discovering the nuances of lychees, peaches, and other stone fruits in white wines; or the differences between Oregonian and Burgundian Pinot Noir; or the true meanings of “minerality” and “finesse” and “subtlety;” or the profiles of various viscosities, alcohol levels, and acidity, is paramount to one’s journey in wine.
But in my eyes (perhaps brainwashed by my old world teachers), context matters infinitely more. What led to that bottle of wine sitting on your table? What led to the juice that now dazzles your olfactory system and dances on your tongue? Is there a family behind the wine? How many generations? When and how did it all begin? What are the details of that specific day that a couple decided to start a business in wine? What obstacles presented themselves along the way? What were the happiest moments?
What are the personalities of each of the family members and the other employees? What are their convictions? What is the typical music, food, and sport of the region? How does the winery farm? Do they care about sustainability, organics, and Biodynamics? Is the wine estate-grown and bottled? Are there other elements of a farm that might contribute to a more rounded sense of place? Do they use animals? What are the names of their dogs, chickens, sheep, and horses? Like the mom and pop producers in Sicily, do they make olive oil from their estate trees? Do they use concrete, barrel, or amphorae? Do they use indigenous yeast for fermentation? Do they have honeybees? Like my new favorite, Domaine Gerard Raphet in Morey-Saint-Denis, do they use horses to till the land?
Those questions don’t yet touch the more traditional and yet equally important meaning of the word terroir. Where are the grapes grown? Do they come from a single vineyard? What is the soil? What is the climate? What is the slope? Where does the water come from? Does wind or fire affect the vines? And on and on.
No, you can’t learn the answers to these questions by putting your nose to the glass or taking in that first and second sip. If all you care about is those hedonistic qualities, you might as well be playing strip poker. Though it sounds like a good time and I’m considering peeling off my shirt right now, wine is more than fun to me. Wine is life. To know the context of wine is not only helpful, but it is crucial to enjoying the bottle that stands before you, waiting to whisk you away.
The Hedges family’s answers to these questions keep me thirsty for more even after slinging ten vintages of their juice around the world. As Kurt Cobain sings in the song that started it all for me, “And for this gift I feel blessed.”