Many people think wine making is beautiful and glamorous, and it is. And it isn’t.
According to the cliché, ugly places do not make good wine, and—like most clichés—that is mostly true. Most vineyards are lovely places, with well-ordered symmetry, sometimes with trees or lavender or other flowers adding panache and nuances to the wine and the property. In many cases, an architectural wonder overlooks vines and produces wines.
At its heart, however, winemaking is a farming job, where work is not necessarily romantic. It is aching hands grimy from soil and fertilizer. It is grinding hours, summer sweat, winter chill, hail heartbreak, drought dread, unwelcome showers at harvest. Any farmer will tell you Mother Nature is girl with a curl—when she is good, she is very, very good. And when she is bad, she is horrid.
A vineyard is a war zone. Birds love to eat grapes. Various insects—especially aphids that devour roots and glassy-winged sharpshooters that deliver bacteria of vineyard-dooming Pierce’s disease—view vine plots as their picnic table.
Add to that whatever other challenges nature can conjure. In Napa in 2014, earthquake. Even when the 2013 vintage was safely in barrel, the earth moved to remind grape farmers and wine makers who really is in charge.
All that is true, daunting, challenging, and what makes wine wonderful. Winemakers will tell you there is no boring vintage, no growing season that does not vex and test, and the adventure is exquisite and the rewards sublime, which is why many winemakers have roots of five, 10, 20 generations on the same soil.
The next generation could sell the operation, invest in index funds, and live happily ever after. To the joy of our palates, they say “no way” as they trudge back into the grape rows in the dawn’s early light.
• Castello d’Albola Chianti Classico 2013: Seriously good easy drinker with great fruit and length; family owned vineyard-winery since 1821. $16-19
• Château du Taillan Haut-Médoc 2012: Affordable, quality merlot-led Bordeaux; winery run by five sisters, fifth generation owners of the château. $20-25
Last round: I do not own a winery, but I do my part to keep several of them in business.