Stop Struggling

I suspect I am not alone in being a wine lover without a green thumb, wholly dependent on the agricultural skill of others to bring wondrous crops to my table and glass. I am in awe of the ability of winemaker friends to bring a plant to life in surroundings that test one's sense of the possible. 

However, our human sense of struggle, and struggle for a plant are measured differently. Lay people parrot comments they read in wine books about how grapes have to struggle to produce good fruit. I was told the same thing in music class, that great music was written by composers who struggled, as if Mozart not knowing where his next meal was coming from somehow prompted him to sublimate his hunger into composition. Struggling for your art, struggling for your wine...are these two sides of the same coin? 

I don't think so. I suspect Mozart was just hungry and he kept writing music because he never gave up hope that someone would pay him. If we'd given him a burger and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon I doubt he would have stopped composing. Further, it is a fallacy that he, and many other great composers, toiled in obscurity and never enjoyed success. Some did struggle, yes, but many had mixed success (Mozart was hugely popular in Prague and even named a symphony after the city in gratitude), and some had a great deal of success and still wrote great music. This isn't limited to classical music either - the same is true of jazz performers and composers and creators in other arts as well. The glamor of the "starving artist" is such a prevalent myth (probably foisted by inept artists!), we don't need wine adding to the confusion.

Vines pushing deep into the soil of Chile's Apalta with Carlos Serano of Vina Montes

Vines pushing deep into the soil of Chile's Apalta with Carlos Serano of Vina Montes

You see, there is something to the idea of a grape vine's need to struggle (like the vines in Chile on the right), but it's not that a metaphysical battle of plant life is necessary to produce great wine. What we call struggling is really having the grape vine do meaningful work - roots that delve deep in soil and bedrock for sustenance tap many more layers of nutrients that vines that have a cushy life and just spread out horizontally in fertile soil. Fertile makes plants grow, it doesn't necessarily give them complexity and flavor components. Vines that grow in fertile fields are the equivalent of spoiled kids who never work - the kids don't know the meaning of work because everything is easy, and the vine gets so thoroughly fertilized it produces a huge crop of diluted flavors.

The vine that works hard, like these vines in Portugal (below) struggling to push a root through several meters of schist, doesn't get too much water and does get a variety of nutrients. Think of a vine like a battery - it has a certain amount of "power," which in this example let's call "flavor energy." It can send that fixed amount of flavor to 20 bunches of grapes if the vine can produce that many, or to four bunches of grapes if it is limited.  The vintner can, to a point, control how many grapes his vines produce, but the vine determines how much flavor it puts out. It's the same amount of flavor, so would you rather have it spread over five liters of wine, or all packed into one bottle of intensely flavored nectar?

A wall of blue schist pricked by tenacious vine roots in Portugal's Douro Valley

A wall of blue schist pricked by tenacious vine roots in Portugal's Douro Valley

I'm opting for the latter - that is the value of struggle for a vine, and that's also why "over-cropping" is a bad thing (allowing a vine to produce more fruit than it has the flavor to support). And it is why grapes, and their resultant wines, with intense flavor tend to cost more - there is less of it, but it tastes a lot better.

These thoughts came to mind this morning when I saw a wondrous video, a time lapse clip of a Rose of Jericho appearing to come back to life from the dead. This desert plant, a bit like the "Resurrection Fern" that drapes from a 100 year old oak tree in my yard, goes dormant when deprived of water. It can go months or years without water, but once a bit of humidity is proffered, it is resuscitated as if by miracle. Grape vines do go dormant over the winter, but leave them without water for months and they won't survive, but this was still enough to get me thinking about the great beauty and balance of nature, and how that beauty and balance come into play in creating great art, great wine and great experiences. Perhaps this little video will have the same experience for you:


Videographer Sean Steininger filmed this plant over and over during a three week period, then strung together short clips of each resurrection to get a longer presentation viewed from many angles.

I think I'll toast this rose with a nice red wine, one that struggled through schist to form its flavor profile, and I'll ponder how every wine tells a story, and lets us tell our story too.