Solminer, in the Pure Land

If I were Anna and David DeLaski I would wake every morning with the thought that I could literally roll out of bed, across my living room floor, out onto and then off of my porch and finally into my rows and rows of beautiful vibrant vines without ever touching my feet to a horizontal surface. I would plan to build ramps so the falls wouldn’t be painful making this rolling maneuver a more diurnal event, but that would mean a lot of trips to Home Depot, which I never enjoy, so even without the ramps I would make the trip once in a while, suffering the bruises down the stairway from the porch, just so I could land joyfully in my vines, buzzing with the life of the pleasant and harmonious earth. To a city boy like me, the setup the winemakers and farmers for Solminer wine have looks something like Willy Wonka’s candy factory must have looked to the children who were granted access. The vines are so close, you can practically hear them growing in the quiet of the Los Olivos hills. This proximity to nature and its more beautiful products (grapevines) seems to me the most physically and spiritually healthy thing one could do for oneself. The silence; the cleanliness of air; the proximity to clear sunlight; living dirt; fluttering birds; buzzing bees; emerging flowers, leaves, roots, fruit, and proximity to oneself as a part of this biological cycle. A farmer’s thoughts and actions in the vineyard become a part of the earth which can eventually be measured in the product of his/her wine; a human can discover who (s)he is in relation to the other elements of the natural cycle: dirt sky sun moon stars water sun stems fruit roots mammals insects microbes and man. Otherness and selfsameness in the daily work of the vineyard become interrelated and interpenetrating; farming and winemaking among these elements of nature become an exercise in self-understanding. Man ends up in the bottle, his hands and feet and mind and hopes and fears and personal history. Maybe I have been wrong in the past: wine does not only have two ingredients, it has three: grapes, yeast, and human being.

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deLanda vineyard, Spring is awake in the hills

Much of the wine I drink from California winemakers today is made by engaged youngish people who do not necessarily have the joy and benefit of their own vineyards, and most certainly rarely live on top of one. Land in our state is expensive and for the “New California Wine” movement, in order to make a handful of different wines, one must buy grapes from growers who have been tending their land, oftentimes, for generations. This is not an altogether disappointing situation as winemakers get to experiment with different terroir and don’t necessarily have to churn out the same cuvees year after year; it lends a winemaker the opportunity to be a constant experimenter of varietals and locations and vinification methods; they also get to work closely with farmers and impact the agricultural methods when a bond of trust has been made with grower and winemaker. It’s sort of like the relationship a chef can have when (s)he works closely with a farmer. And this allows a certain kind of freedom even if it doesn’t give the winemaker the benefit of being deeply, diurnally (our vocabulary word of the day), and intimately braided into the vines from which he or she is sourcing fruit. Some of these youngins, like Chris Brockway, have spanned all the way from Santa Ynez up to Oregon in a single vintage and the results are often exciting. For this reason, a lot of the new wine coming up from California goes under the radar for people on the wine tourism route. Many of the tasting rooms and most of the restaurants in the wine country of California are serving sugary crap from the old commercial wine world of California, wines that are somehow even fruitier than grapes they come from even though sugar has presumably been converted to alcohol. The big producers and landowners bought their land in an age when the big ass fruit was supposedly representative of California terroir. And so when traveling in wine country, people think they are tasting what California wine tastes like. They are mostly tasting what it used to taste like, in an era when Americans drank Coca Cola like it was water and opted for nutrasweet as the healthy choice.

David and Anna are fortunate to have such a beautiful and wholesome opportunity here, living on the land they tend, and they are not squandering it. Though they had no history of making wine before they moved onto their land, they approach their adventure with the fresh ideas and plans for their 3 acre square of earth. Outsiders often have the most unique perspectives to bring to any field of thought. Of course, they are growing without the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, but they are also experimenting more and more with biodynamics, which aims to restore and preserve the life of the earth, specifically of the dirt. Their earth is soft and beautiful; strolling through the vineyard I almost felt like I was bruising the land with my feet; it had such buoyancy, as if little bubbles of air are constantly pushing up the dirt, little earthworms making tunnels through it. Many more mobile creatures than just human beings call the deLanda vineyard their home. Anna says they have gone all out biodynamic this growing season—the mystic horn of cow dung, mooncycle work orientation, fermented chamomile treatments—and that there are more ladybugs in the vineyard than ever. Biodynamic principles also consider the cosmic influence on agriculture and land, weaving man into the relationship as a sort of interlocutor. You can see this mindset even on their labels, most obviously in their sparkling Syrah, called “Nebulite” which is a straight up image of a galaxy, but also in the images of leaves or flowers or eggs, seemingly simple, but always with a tonality of the universe in all its creative wonder. As I write this piece, my list of ingredients in wine grows and expands, I must now add a fourth: the cosmos. I hope somewhere an enlightened extraterrestrial is among us drinking some of their wine.

Anna and David are also experimenting with Austrian varietals at deLanda: Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkish, and an Austrian-styled Syrah. Anna grew up in Austria and their love for Austrian wine is a kind of North star for their experiment. Too much of commercially-oriented California is planted with the same big name top selling varietals, and I rejoice in their interest in these other varietals; it is time to see what these grapes have to say about California terroir, to taste what aspects of California sun and earth these grapes express. Though a lot of their vineyard is planted with Syrah, they also have grafted Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkish onto their vines with great success. They also source fruit from Santa Barbara county including Gelber Muskateller and Riesling. The Gruner is so fresh and engaging, I wish the grape would replace a lot of the Sauvignon Blanc that is planted in California, it has much to say about the freshness of sunlight we have here (see my old post on California sun). They also bring Austria across the sea by picking on the early side of the harvest, preserving the natural acidity of the grapes and keeping their wine light and fresh. “Natural wine” for them also means wines which are low alcohol, good for drinking with food or with friends, a drink that is meant for dinner tables and people, not the auctioneer’s block. And while I often drink and write about the wildest, most untamed, cloudy, and even murky juice, David and Anna aim for their wines to express the clarity of the Austrian wine palate. You will find no floating lees in their whites, no giant crystals at the bottom of the bottles, no unexpected spritz, no mouse breath, and definitely no smells of poop or expired meat; the uniqueness of their wines does not come from its wildness, it comes from its purity.

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Wine visits its birthplace

 

The day I visited, we sat on their porch and drank through a bunch of wines, and talked a bunch of crap about wine and nature and agriculture and philosophy. Wine is fun not only because it tastes good, but because it brings people who like to learn together. Before I send you on my crazy-ass run-through of our journey I must say that my notes on the wines are not meant to obscure the flavors and impacts of the wine on its drinker but to highlight the imaginative and spiritual nature of real wine made for the whole person, not just for the tongue:

2014 Gelber Muskateller (Santa Ynez grapes): A cold, fresh mountain spring in Switzerland dribbles out of the rock and pools up in a dark granite cup. Jasmine-scented wildflowers growing above the pool fall into the water and infuse it with their light white perfume, the scent of a nearby wild beehive blows on the wind.

2014 Grüner Veltliner (50% John Sebastiano Vineyard 50% deLanda Vineyard aka their front yard): 1. Cut your small patch of April grass with a non-motorized push mower like my mom used to do in the days she still used cloth diapers. 2. Go inside and slice some green apples while eating pitted castelvetrano olives. 3. Toss the apples with some crisp young green lettuce and olive oil. 4. Dump the salad over your head and laugh maniacally. 5. Lie on the ground for a couple of minutes and just listen to your breathing, feeling like you don’t need to take care of anything anywhere.

2014 Dry Riesling (Kick on Ranch Santa Barbara County): A round golden disc is painted on a large piece of matte cardstock and laid on an old pastel painted yellow table. Soft middle-aged non-gendered hands fill up a fishbowl with sand halfway and place fresh thimbleberry and dianthus in the sand, then they sprinkle the tableau with spring water, thinking they (the hands themselves) are like clouds. The thought is pleasant to the hands.

2014 Linus Rosé of Syrah (deLanda vineyard/front yard): The funk has dissolved. Carl Jung intentionally drove himself mad so that he would have a personal history of understanding of mental/spiritual/emotional trauma/struggles from which to draw when working with patients. Sea fossils make the rock beneath us so much more interesting. When we cry in sorrow there is such an elated freshness of feeling which follows, and a soft comforting bed coddles us, all balled up just how we were once coddled inside a human body we would learn to call mother who would have to learn to call us something other than herself. Lightning is beautiful when it is distant and even more-so when it is silent.

2014 Rubellite-90% Syrah, 9% Grenache, 1% Riesling (some deLanda, some another vineyard): Pretty oh so pretty, a young woman who does not feel new-agey can still dance in a field late at night. At that, so can a young man. The best things in life have no relationship with a question of good or evil, they just exist. Can a person truly be a-political? If wine can, this is certainly an example, all purple and young and limpid. Being jealous of somebody with no cares does not make us feel fine, just drink that person in and let yourself be inebriated.

2014 Vollmond meaning “Full Moon” in German-mostly Syrah with a touch of Blaufränkish, all from deLanda, unfiltered: I’ve been sitting here waiting for these dark velvet curtains to open for only a short while and when they do a great, giant blackberry emerges floating majestically. Everybody beside me in their seats gasps in wonderment and sees that the stage is everywhere. We play our roles too well, set up by other actors and thinking our choices and emotions are real and “us”. The blackberry is ancient and does not speak, its silence showing the power of the universe, the power of existence. We all feel it vibrate inside of our bellies and want more of it.

2014 Blaufränkish (deLanda): The blackberry is back and doing its impression of a blueberry, how talented it is and what joy and laughter it creates at nobody’s expense. Comedy does not have to be mean we all realize, without quite having to form that thought wholly. The blueberry is obviously very beloved by the blackberry. The moon is so low it looks like it will fall on us tonight, why are all the orbs in the sky so perfectly round?

2014 Nebullite-Rubellite turned into a sparkling wine. Electricity animates us all. How the hell do bones and blood and muscle carry thoughts and feelings and attractions to other beings? Are we really made of star dust? And how did Shakespeare know that before the scientists did? How can dust become flesh? Look at the night sky in the country and then look at a piece of beef on a cutting board: really the same? Could we have this much fun every day and still survive? What’s between galaxies? Darkness and vacuum? What’s between these bubbles? Darkness and wine?

2014 Petillant Naturel of Riesling (I don’t remember where the grapes are sourced from, have you read how many wines we tasted?): A precocious child of 3 years old has grown up on his parents’ home vineyard, helping with farming and soil and playing among the vines with his wild and fast dog. He sees them drinking wine on their porch with a stranger and says “I want some wine”. They hand him a glass and ask him what grape he thinks the wine is; he smells it, takes a sip, and responds “Muscat”. It’s a good guess since it does smell a lot like honey. But it’s really Riesling, that’s his second guess. And this is the wholesomeness of life in touch with growing plants and earth and the magic process of wine as a family practice. A civilization of yeast grows in grape juice and makes wine. Wine marches out into a chaotic mass of humanoids and makes a civilization.

What a day we had on a porch in Los Olivos.

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David shows us the cosmic civilization of yeast growing in his petillant naturel of Riesling

 

The people of the Greek island of Icarus, as many of you know, live long lives. They drink a lot of wine that they make from their own front yard vineyards and eat a lot of vegetables they grow too. The young people are mostly unemployed and have no big modern art sculptures to speak of and no known major writers who have written an opus magnum; few Icarans get to travel the world or speak international languages or know a lot about calculus or bioengineering. On average, an Icaran drinks 2-4 glasses of wine a night, but I don’t think it is the actual physical/chemical act of ingesting wine that keeps them on the earth so long as much as it is that the wine is a marker of the healthy lifestyle which preserves them. They have little stress, and spend a lot of time with friends laughing and talking shit. They share their yields and are not in fear of the capitalist system crashing down on their heads, because they hardly participate in that system. Is wine their panacea? No, but it is a part of their humanity and a natural lifestyle. We mark our days very strictly with clocks and we make a lot of money move around. I get to travel and experience different cultures and eat their food and see their mountains, but what cost do I pay for this? Would I turn it all in for the opportunity to grow up alongside of rows of beautiful grape growing vines? It’s hard to say as I ache for the quiet and harmony of the country about as much as I do for new experiences and knowledge. I do know, however, that wine should be a natural part of all of our lives, and should be shared by family and friends. Solminer is a part of a larger movement to bring this kind of wine culture to America. “Natural wine” isn’t only about native yeast and less technology and the absence of chemicals and treatments, it is also about wine being a natural part of our lives to share in the mature joy of being human and liking it.

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Assistant winemaker, Linus, and vineyard manager on leash

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