Tell Me More About Your “Struggling Vines”

Hey, sommeliers! How’s the hangover today? Nothing a La Croix and a burrito can’t fix, I’m sure. Do you have lots of tastings to do today, lots of self-administered quizzes to prep for? I know the feeling. But no matter how stressed you are, we gotta talk. So pour yourself a glass of opening shift riesling and let’s get cozy.

I want you to think of everything you know about coveted Napa cabernet. No blends, no biodynamic buried horn bullshit, just a standard single-varietal cabernet. You’ll probably express your passion for the balanced notes of black currant and ripe plum. You’ll fawn over the fine tannins and seasoned oak. But you should know that there are many elements of your $1000/bottle cabernet that you will never get to experience until spending at least one full year in Napa. And how dare you think you know everything about this sacred land, the “phenomenal” terroir that you like to brag you’ve hiked through. “This one time it was so hot, there was mud dust settling into my glass” you’ll tell your eager customers. But I beg of you, Master Sommelier, terroir riddle me this: how do the winemakers bottle that zippy neon green electricity that only reveals itself on the foothills after a February downpour? Have you ever mentioned that a great Napa cab’s hints of purple mimic the silhouette of mountains on a full moon in a cloudy sky? I swear that purple is an intensity that you can never understand until you’ve walked barefoot along the Napa River contemplating love. The wine industry is strong but the river is stronger; I wish you could see it here when it floods. It’s too bad that you may never grasp that the subtle licorice does not come from the grapes (like you have been taught), but from the wild fennel that infiltrates your nasal passages only while driving 80 mph down the highway to catch a protest against local immigration raids.

And speaking of native plants, keep in mind that the “wild berry notes” you notice in your cabernet have nothing to do with how that bottle was aged. No, in fact they are proof of native berries (that have since been wiped out by grape monoculture) trying desperately to make a comeback. Those berries are working hard to get your attention, so that you might acknowledge the history of this soil. Those berries want to tell you about the days when indigenous people harvested abundant acorns, berries, fowl and game as sustenance. Berries secretly want to tell you that your designer backpack (the one with the secret phone compartment and reversible fabric) can never compare to the Pomo’s intricately woven watertight baskets. Oof. And I hate to be the one to tell you, but maybe the leathery taste is reminiscent of the tannery along the Napa River that was at one point the largest leather production facility in the country. The winemaker who arrived here two years ago probably has nothing to do with it, the earth is just speaking to you. And that’s okay. Be open to that. Be vulnerable. You don’t know everything about Napa, Master Sommelier, and that’s okay. I’m not suggesting I know everything, either. But I am offering a perspective.

It’s sad, really, how sommeliers often compare Napa cabernet to French Bordeaux, but fail to acknowledge the Spanish influence of missionaries that marched and murdered native people off this land by the thousands. Funny, how maybe that toasted oak you sense is not from the barrel, but from the 1902 fire that obliterated the Chinatown where thousands of Chinese immigrants lived before they were pushed to San Francisco. Or maybe that’s the fire of the KKK rallies from the 1950s that is manifesting as a slight char in the finish.

Now, tell me more about how the vines struggle to offer you the finest wine in the world. Consider that the lusciously heavy body of your Great Napa Cab is weighted with oppression. How does that taste?

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To be clear, I love wine. I moved to Napa to be with my winemaker boyfriend and we love to drink, taste, compare, and collect. But I have since found that so many aspects of Napa wine can never be appreciated by a visit or learned via textbook; they have to be listened to. Only when we listen to the stories that are hard, do we truly honor the storyteller that IS Napa terroir. I urge sommeliers and connoisseurs everywhere to do some research, because the thing is, this isn’t Europe. People have not been growing grapes here for several centuries like in Italy, and it has only been a few decades! So we all need to stop treating Californian tasting notes like a system of oppression fueled by wealthy winery owners is not affecting your wine, because it is. Many wine drinkers acknowledge thanks for the immigrant workers in the field, but please also recognize that some travel a couple of hours each way to get to work, because they can’t afford to live in Napa. Please acknowledge that many are not paid overtime while their white, American-born coworkers are. I urge you to acknowledge these things within yourself and with your friends next time you taste Napa cabernet and maybe you will learn something new. Maybe it will taste different.

A couple of great local resources to learn more about Napa’s historical and current issues:
- The Napa County Historical Society
- The Suscol Intertribal Council
- Latinos Unidos Napa

Chelsea Ritter-Soronen

Written by

Chalk Riot // Muralist // Public Arts Organizer // Certified Wine Nerd // proudly wasting money on plane tickets and art supplies since 2004

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