"Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."--Tom Lehrer
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Thoughts on an Earthquake
My first thought after awakening to the news that the 6.0 earthquake in wine country was centered in Napa? Sounds like all those falling bricks will delay harvest…
Earthquakes are a reminder, if we really need one, that we’re rather insignificant beings on this colossal planet. If we see Earth as a berry, humans are a kind of botrytis, an Ignoble Mold. We’ve spent a couple of hundred years of our Industrial Revolution trying to destroy Earth. It only makes sense that Earth is going to fight back once in a while. It’s the movements of its tectonic plates, like the minor movement that dismantled downtown Napa early Sunday, that created the beauty and diverse soils of Napa and Sonoma, the soils that make them such wondrous winegrowing regions. An earthquake is like your father saying to you when you misbehaved as a child, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out.”
As a lifelong resident of earthquake country, I recognized the rolling movements of my bedroom in Healdsburg as a sign that I wasn’t near the epicenter of the quake. Near the epicenter, an earthquake is sudden and explosive, only, unlike an explosion, you don’t know which direction it’s coming from. When the Whittier Narrows earthquake struck Los Angeles in 1987, I was in the shower. I have never been more grateful for shatterproof glass. I had shampoo lathered in my hair and suddenly my apartment was trying to move in next door. I grabbed a towel, even in a crisis we cover our dicks, and ran down the stairs. In the distance I could see sparks from a transformer of some kind shorting out, and I remember the cacophony of the ubiquitous car alarms of the times was very annoying. My girlfriend was screaming. She knew what was behind the towel. And then, in the way of quakes, it just stopped. There is an amazing silence after an earthquake. Even the birds are holding their breath. Dogs are woofless. Had it not been for the fucking car alarms, it would have been like standing at the dawn of time.
I had just started as a sommelier. I was about a month into the job. I drove to work that night and found a dozen large trash cans filled with broken wine bottles. The busboys had piled the shards with labels still intact in a separate place, trying to create an inventory of what had been lost. Cristal, Yquem, Lafite, Gaja, Rayas, Jayer… They were just names then, the carcasses of dead wines, stacked up as if in a graveyard. And you know what? They didn’t matter. Wineries have stories, marketing folks spend hours and hours crafting those Authentic stories, but when real life happens, when we’re taken away from our silly eno-illogical passions by genuine tragedy and heartbreak, it’s not the spilled wines’ stories we care about, it’s the human stories. Wine is only wine.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how Natural Wine might be affected by a Natural Disaster. Or is an earthquake an Authentic Disaster? A Real Disaster? The terminology is so confusing. Someone call Alice Feiring. She'll know. When I think wine and disaster, I think of her.
When I was a freshman at Occidental College, the Sylmar quake struck. Funny how we feel the need to name Natural Disasters. We name hurricanes, we name earthquakes, we name big fires, we name wines from Cornellisen… The Sylmar quake was around six in the morning, and I was unceremoniously thrown from my cheap dormitory bed. I did the exact wrong thing—I ran to the window. Across the street from my dorm was a large grassy area. In the dawn’s early light, I could see the grass moving in two foot swells, a small ocean disturbance. Grass isn’t supposed to be doing the Wave.
An anchor on CNN was speaking to David Duncan, whose family owns Silver Oak, and she was calling the loss of so many bottles of his wine in the earthquake a “tragedy.” Moron. The poor woman who lost everything when her trailer park home burned to the ground? What about her? Who cares? What’s she ever done for every restaurant chain in the country?
I was wondering if earthquakes have anything to do with balance, or terroir. Wouldn’t an earthquake right before harvest change the terroir? Will you be able to taste the difference in Trefethen Cabernet’s terroir beginning with the 2014 vintage? I would think so. Some of the vines are several feet east of where they used to be. And wouldn’t a 6.0 earthquake change a wine’s balance? It changed mine. Though I’ve always been unbalanced. I wonder about these things. This is the minutiae that makes wine interesting. The shit we dwell on while the ground beneath our feet disappears. We are trivial beings so much of the time.
We live in constant denial of our insignificance and mortality. For a few minutes, earthquakes change that. In those remarkable and unforgettable handful of seconds that an earthquake lasts, we simply don’t know what to do. We run in circles, we scream, we pray for it to end. It’s like reading Palate Press. And when it does finally end, for a few days, at least, we’re a little less certain of our place in the world. The ground beneath our feet is no longer trustworthy. Our priorities are highlighted for their emptiness. I didn’t even check my wine cellar after the earthquake. I didn’t care a whit about the progress of the 2014 vintage. I wanted to hold my wife. I wanted to laugh with my friends. I wanted to remember what mattered in those frightening seconds the quake shook my little world.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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