Not Such A Serious Thing
Metaphors force us to hold words up to the light and consider whether we truly understand them. You can’t write–or have a conversation–for long without using one, whether you mean to or not. Language forces us to equate things to make sense. Chaos ensues.
“Chaos is a friend of mine.”
Though this can’t literally be so, we understand what Bob Dylan meant when he said it.
Or at least we think we do. Does his friend bring chaos, or does the Nobel laureate live in a state of disarray? Does he enjoy frenzy like he enjoys a companion? Whatever his intention, we’ve created possible meaning by just digging around.
The joy of a metaphor is that you can play with it. It's not such a serious thing. Being definitive defeats its purpose. Multiple possibilities allow you to draw new discoveries from what once felt settled.
Plenty of conclusions about wine are made down on one’s hands and knees in a soil pit, with an eye pressed to a refractometer, or while attempting to identify a bottle in a paper bag. These conclusions are helpful. But, as is often the case in a culture so in love with reduction, we tend to get stuck in a rut of language that, in turn, can get us stuck in a rut of taste. Examining our language can reveal something meaningful about wine.
Wine is surprising, humane, and playful. It is a solution, a refreshment, and a toxin. There are things about it you can only know with your nose, tongue, or hands. But the words whispered in your ear just before you drink can dampen or rouse those instruments. We are impressionable: The way we think and speak can change the way we taste and choose. Let’s be curious about the words we use to describe things. Or at least hold them up to the light every once in a while to keep our instruments calibrated.
To that end, here’s my mixed metaphor for wine that I hope may, even for a moment, make the old seem new, the axiomatic, inestimable.
Wine is a map, a watch, a friend, and a memory.
First, a map.
1. We Couldn’t Help Ourselves
Mappa mundi, a medieval Latin phrase, means “sheet of the world.” We’ve lopped off the first three letters and use those as our modern English derivative.
Maps mark physical territories: widths, heights, and routes. They are topographic, thematic, navigational, and cadastral. They are as literal as satellite images and as imaginary as political borders. They show young men where to drop a nuclear weapon, and they guide an Instacart driver to your door. They promise salvation just over the ridge and break bad news about a slowdown on the 405.
To map is to associate elements of one set with those of another. It is to record the spatial distribution of something. To diagram relationships.
We map things out to get our plans straight. When our thoughts are jumbled, we’re all over the map. When we do something noteworthy, it puts us on the map. People used to call their own faces maps.
Where my friends and I make wine in Redlands, California lives a couple named Jack and Laura Dangermond who bought “the last wild expanse of California coastline.” Twenty-four thousand acres of sage and oak just west of Lompoc where “mountain lions still hunt marine mammals on the beach.” They’ve turned it into a lab where thoughtful people can take a close look at wilderness then figure out if there’s anything we can still do to keep the climate from destabilizing.
Back home, Jack and Laura founded and run a company called Esri, which is an acronym for Environmental Systems Research Institute. They’ve built many products, including ArcGIS which is a family of software that allows people, corporations, and governments to build very detailed digital maps. This, in large part, is what earned them the money to buy a chunk of California’s heel and still have enough left over to make the Giving Pledge: a commitment to contributing the majority of their personal wealth, upon their death, to the activities on which Esri is presently focused, which include improving geographical literacy, conserving open space, and contributing to their community.
Redlands, where the company is a major employer, is full of thoughtful people who build, distribute, and scrutinize maps. “The Science of Where” is the company’s slogan. “Where” is often used as an adverb (“where are we going”) not a noun, like it is here. “Where” is the thing a map is trying to say. The story it tells. The question it tries to answer. But it’s no simple answer. That’s part of what made Jack and Laura billionaires.
Their mapping of the world has helped them change the map of Redlands. They built a massive, wooded campus for ESRI just west of downtown. They’ve supported the expansion of public transportation into our inland backwater. They’ve erected and restored blocks of buildings. On the eastern edge of town, whole swaths of desert scrubland are wired with irrigation lines and nursery-raised indigenous scrub, laid out by men Jack hired to preserve the rolling golden hills captured in sepia-toned photographs of the San Bernardino Valley in the early 20th century. We harvest grapes from a vineyard right on their border.
Independent of the Dangermond’s efforts, the map of this town has grown and shrunk. It was sliced in half by Interstate 10. The center of commerce has migrated a half dozen times. The concentration of wealth has ballooned and deflated across its neighborhoods over the decades. But these changes have essentially been the reshuffling of the same deck since the 1880s when the boundaries of Redlands were first drawn by Mr. Brown and Mr. Judson, its founders.
The same goes for the other small southern California towns along the Santa Ana River, developed during the land boom at the end of the 19th century including Colton, Rialto, and Riverside. Same for towns along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains including Fontata, Mira Loma, and Rancho Cucamonga. As water was discovered, developers purchased plots, reappropriated from Mexican ranchos. One map was redrawn from another. Their contours have been in a state of adjustment ever since. This is the story of southern California. But what about a place where no developers have imposed their idea of order. What about the “last wild expanse of the California coastline”?
Mapping the last of the wilderness, the ostensible purpose of the Dangermond Preserve, is a transformative act: Wilderness is unknown by definition. To give it borders and to examine it is to domesticate it, even if the act is in the name of preservation. Once we humans set our sights on something, so to speak, we create taxonomies, we dig deeper. We are perpetual seekers of meaning, especially in places inhospitable to us. Something is certainly gained, but is something lost?
I imagine a line of trees. One foot inside, and you're on the preserve. One foot outside, you’re just in regular old Lompoc. What must the difference be? Is the wilderness more pure in some way? I’ve never spoken to someone of Chumash descent, but I could imagine them being skeptical of someone bold enough to use words like “pure” and “wilderness” about the territory now called Santa Barbara County–where their people once hunted marine mammals on the beach. Perhaps the domestication that a map imposes is only relevant to humans. And only some humans, at that. After all, do birds and trees observe our boundaries? Does everyone agree which lands belong to whom?
One map of the proposed California high-speed rail shows a boxy overlay of the modern California counties in light gray lines underneath a collection of thick red curves that mark the tribal lands of this continent’s native Western inhabitants. There are perhaps a few dozen other sets of lines that could be stacked between the gray and red lines to show how this state has been split, divided, and merged again since the Lockian conception of property met up with California’s first people.
One map is never enough because none is comprehensive. Many are irrelevant only a few generations after they are drawn because of shifting alliances and coastlines. Still others are incomplete even while they’re being drawn because their creation is a clever act of theft. And yet still some maps are drawn with the intention of creating peace between people or to preserve resources while inadvertently creating conflict and lighting the way for oil drills. Every map is yet another imperfect rendering of a landscape, an epoch. It gives us (or at least its possessors) something of value, but always leaves us wanting more. Perhaps a sense of longing for a wilderness we only know from stories.
So what of wine? It is certainly defined by territory. Its vineyards are designated by widths, heights and routes. Elevation distinguishes vineyards from one another. Some receive their name from themes related to their caretakers or the animals with which they share the land. Wine country is navigated by famous numbered highways, trains, and gondolas. They are marked both by bureaucratic regulations and cultural expectations. They are both mythic and overwrought, grotesque and pastoral.
A wine is revered when it earns the distinction of being a “wine of place.” The first guess anyone must make while deducing the identity of a wine is–in observance of a 15th century European map–either New World or Old World.
When you look at a map–wheather new world or old–what you’re really looking at is a whole lot of dirt, and when you’re tasting a wine of place, we generally agree you're also tasting dirt, so to speak. Dirt is special because of where it lies, what has happened there, and all of the accidental, geological, and evolutionary things that make the compounds within its soil unlike the soil of other places. What has degraded there? What has flowed in? What tectonic plates have smashed into one another or what molten rock rose there?
Some claim there’s no physical way you can taste these things in wine. Others demonstrate their ability to do so again and again. So a map is, in part, dirt, and so is wine. Let’s go deeper.
The aim of a map is to, in some way, reduce the complexity of a landscape—its dirt— to a series of colored lines which may be considered both practical and aesthetic. This simple gesture contains—or at least refers to—multitudes. Wine does the same job of reconstituting a greater type of complexity in a more immediate, comprehensible experience. Wine takes millions of years of geology, the interplay between terrestrial and subterranean creatures, and the relentless optimism of vitis and reduces it to a sensation in the nose and on the tongue that somehow can resurrect entire moments.
Complexity, on its own, feels like chaos to our pattern-loving minds. Maps and wine both domesticate this chaos, reducing it to something our senses can comprehend while still, ineffably, containing echoes of the grandeur of centuries. We humans are simple creatures whose majesty lies in our penchant for self-aggrandizement, but we can understand fairly little of what makes up the universe unless we observe–and drink–very thoughtfully.
A fading map hangs above the shelves in the tasting room at Galleano Winery in Mira Loma, the last of its kind. The map marks the locations of a dozen large vineyard blocks extending south from Mount San Antonio through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
Streets still in use today create boundaries between blocks.
Rancho Mira Loma and its neighbors were carpeted in tens of thousands of acres of grapevines. They transformed the landscape from sand and scrub, tossed around in a relentless wind, to a sea of green bush vines. People still living remember when it looked like this. They remember a time when you could drive for miles and see only vines. Tens of thousands of people made their living in the fields, in the wineries, and in the businesses that distributed the millions of gallons produced each year. To be in the Inland Empire meant to be in wine country.
Decades later, most people driving down the 15 and 210 freeways don’t recognize the few remaining vineyards they pass. Where are the trellises? The chateaux-aping tasting rooms? Perhaps a few dozen people still make their living off the vines and wine. The map in the Galleano tasting room is a relic—all of the blocks have been dozed over to make room for Amazon distribution centers and scrap yards and earth-toned homes, complete with solar panels and smart thermostats. Wine country is somewhere else now. For most people.
Those few dozen people who are still involved in farming this land and making wine from it have a gift. The remaining vineyards—spread out over about 400 acres—still contain their original vine material, planted on their own roots, without irrigation. They stand in the same sandy soil in which they were planted over a 100 years ago. The wines they produce are an anachronism. While most wines must be bottled and kept safe for decades to transport their drinkers to the past, the new vintages from these vineyards are already historical. I have no way of knowing but can only imagine they tasted the same to the immigrants who farmed the vines before my grandpa was alive. This wine reduces the complexity of rapid change in southern California history to a visceral experience that somehow contains the majesty and the heartbreak, the possibility, and the loss.
When we first visited the Lone Wolf Vineyard on the Pechanga land, invited by our friend Abe Schoener, we were told its vines had been planted in the 1890s by ancestors of the tribal elder who owns the property. Since then, they’d been mostly forgotten, allowed to turn into an unruly collection of vines that mostly fed coyotes until Abe, Christina, and Raj met their owner and asked if they could farm them. The vineyard is naturally broken into three sections: Pet Cemetery (where Bill the dog, among other companions, has found his final resting place), The Center (a collection of the scrawny vines, interrupted by three large oak trees), and the Wildlands (a bramble resulting from once-separate vines growing together after at least 60 years without pruning).
We encircled Abe’s paper map, laid out across the tailgate of a rented pickup. He’d brought us there to prune. The low bush vines sit in a clearing between three houses and are bordered on one side by the local kid’s motocross track. The boys buzzed around on pocket bikes while we scrutinized the plot. Abe had drawn the map himself based on a combination of satellite images and many dozens of tours up and down the jagged rows at the center of his viticultural world. He explained that the Wildlands was particularly challenging. While some attempts have been made to bring order to The Center and Pet Cemetery since their planting, the outer reaches had been left to grow new sister canes from seed or to plow their shoots back into the soil to re-root. There were no central trunks, only tangled brambles, hung with pink, white, and black clusters–all on the same cane. Chaos.
Over the years, with winter pruning carried out by Abe’s friends, some of the once unruly bushes in Pet Cemetery and The Center are standing taller, their trunks drawn with more certainty. Many of the vines now grow thick and sturdy canes, bearing the weight of less, more predictable fruit. Something has been gained in the sensemaking, but something has also been lost. Some of the chaos has been domesticated, but the southeast corner of Wildlands seems to slough off attempts to bring it into line.
To lose chaos forever is impossible, though. After all, it is the default position of the universe. Whatever feeble order we create is simply momentary. This is why we and maps and wine are all well suited: We are things that generally make sense to one another within a similar time frame. We are a temporary order, imposed on the indifferent reshuffling of nature. We humans are creatures who like to matter and to understand the world through the limited prism of our senses and the only slightly less limited reach of our imaginations. So we create these things to join us in a limited moment of comprehension. One that would otherwise be lonely and wild.
I was once alone at Lone Wolf, taking soil samples. I would collect a few inches of topsoil from the base of each plant and organize them in baggies, numbered in correlation with a map I had drawn. Simply by putting it down on paper, I felt like I really knew the place for the first time. Pepper, a labrador puppy who lives nearby, kept stealing my soil bags and taking them off to nibble them in the shade of an RV.
A young man on a minibike was kind enough to bring them back. I didn’t ask him, but I wondered what he must think of all the folks who come to the lot next to his motocross track just to prune old plants with an odd sort of reverence, year after year. I’m not sure what I would tell him if he asked what we were doing, but it may be something like this:
We found something wild and couldn’t help ourselves.