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The Last Crush
[January, 2000, the farewell installment of The Crush wine column]

This is the last Crush. In the coming months, the subject of wine will be folded into a more general but weekly feature on alcohol of all kinds.

It's been a great four and a half years, and I think Willamette Week deserves a lot of credit for running the Crush that long, allocating space based not necessarily on how important wine is in American life, but how important it could be. The paper gave me (and James McQuillen, my crack co-author for nearly four years to whom thanks is also due) incredible freedom to poke into both the beautiful and the bizarre where wine was concerned, and all I had to do was write it down.

I've tasted world class cabernet in a tin shack outside Walla Walla, scaled the Santa Cruz mountains to find the holy grail of zinfandel, run roughshod over the Red Hills of Dundee. I've levelled a microwave at chilled wine that it might live again; tasted Australia's greatest wine (Penfold's Grange) with a native who insisted "boom, lovely, there you are"; compared Michael Jordan to a nuanced Pinot Noir (when he was out of arm's reach, of course). I've even acted as a human stir stick in a vat of fermenting grapes: oh yes, a hot tub of wine -- I've got to figure out a way to do that again.

Nevertheless, the past half-decade wasn't all blithe inebriation fueled by free booze. One founding tenet of the column -- which I believe more than ever -- was that wine has a place in everyone's life, not just those of stockbrokers, snobs, and boomers over 40. But that's not what the statistics say, nor does it jibe with the conventional stereotype of wine drinkers held by most of the country. James and I simply assumed the stereotype was misinformed, but the numbers and my interactions with people outside the industry made me wonder if we'd got it wrong, if wine was a product as truly undemocratic and stuck up as most of the population believes it to be.

For me, the answer began to unfold with a grape grower named Bill Wayne. I'd just started to shoot a documentary exploring these murky questions, and I wanted to see if the very beginning of the whole process -- the vineyard -- could give me any leads. So once or twice a week, I headed out to Dundee and up a back road to Abbey Ridge Vineyard, which Wayne and his wife Julia planted more than 20 years ago.

Months later, when I finally got around to logging the footage, I watched his and a handful of other consenting Oregon vineyards I'd filmed transform from dead sticks to grape clusters. But more importantly, I got to hang out with Wayne, a thoughtful, thoroughly laid back man with whom I spent countless hours talking about nothing in particular, and certainly not wine with a capital W: his master plan for non-violently vanquishing his arch enemies, a family of deer which nibbled young grape shoots; the brakes on his beloved, ancient land rover; the pros and cons of Portland restaurants. In short, all the things he'd been methodically working through in his mind as he farmed his vineyard.

After a few months, I noticed that the din of the city and my harried job and e-mail and traffic and politics would begin to evaporate like fog on a pair of glasses when I turned down his drive, and disappear completely once we started shooting the breeze. Much later, it dawned on me that during the few hours I spent in his vineyard, I had been slowing to his pace, which was in turn the pace of the plants he farmed, methodically working through their timeless cycle from dormancy to fruit to dormancy again.

This doesn't mean Wayne is some beatific cartoon ethereally aligned with nature and the land: his life is undoubtedly peppered with most of the same nonsense plaguing all of us. But like many other wine growers I've interviewed over the years, letting go and slowing to the pace of the land has smoothed the edges of some part of him like rocks in a tumbler, leaving behind an individual just a little more centered than the average 21st century American.

Part of the reason I'd chosen Abbey Ridge as one of my subjects was because of how distinctive wines produced from its fruit tend to be. Its Pinot Noir, for instance, always stands out for me with a fragrance of crushed strawberries, raspberry, lavender and brooding spice. Even after fermentation, aging and bottling, you can uncork its wine thousands of miles from this tiny vineyard and get transported right back to the source. All good wines have the power to at least generally evoke the time and place of their creation; truly fine wines, like precision machines, are only more exacting. Like an hour with Wayne, a glass of wine is in some small way a conversation with a vineyard, with the land and the seasons above it from which I, at least, am usually so separated by just trying to keep up.

It wasn't that long ago that most of our ancestors spent their lives like grape growers, moving at pace with the land. Did they bask in a misty vision of simplicity and homely values? Maybe if you factor out disease, bigotry, and bloody warfare. The fact is that there's never been a time in history when we (that is, we Americans) could have it all so completely, could enjoy longer, healthier and more peaceful lives both because of and despite all the infrastructure between us and the planet sustaining us. But like an old car starting to rattle above 80, we were designed to go a certain maximum speed, and that pace is undoubtedly some factor of the earth's pitch and rotation.

Recalibration begins as easily as a glass of wine in the company of friends. That, I've learned writing this column, is the essential meaning of this drink and why it's something anyone -- everyone -- ought to try.

Thanks for reading.


©2000 Matt Giraud. This column originally appeared in January, 2000 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon.

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