We’re talking about Pinot Noir. Don’t google it. You’ll get thousands of variations on the title of one book, rather sloppily quoted and never questioned, so let’s just go to the source. Here’s the book:
“There are good reasons for the hype industry, of course. There are 1,600 wineries in California alone — how is the consumer to judge one from the other?” Marq de Villiers
Ah, what romance. Josh Jensen, an American student, goes to France in the 1970s, discovers wine, works in the best vineyard in Burgundy, learns the secrets of the Burgundian wine-making method, and then returns to California, finds a difficult bit of land, plants it, and years later is making great wine out of the real bitch of grapes, pinot noir, that has bankrupted the hearts and bank books of so many winemakers. The book’s not really about pinot noir, though. De Villiers is on the search only for “the finest Pinot Noir”, and in Josh Jensen’s handmade offerings, he believes he’s found it. Actually, he finds it before he begins. The rest is great advertising copy. If his book was about the grape, it would have explored in greater depth Pinot Noir’s ancient ancestry — from ancient Greece, perhaps, or as the native grape of Southern France. He certainly would have spoken about it as the mother of the great white grape chardonay, and that it is the backbone of the French Champagne industry. It would have looked north to Baden and the Rhine, or east to Italy and Austria, where its traditions are also ancient, or to Romania, which held out promise for it at the end of the 19th Century, before the collapse of the Austro Hungarian empire and the greater ruin of communism pretty much did it in. He might have mentioned that it goes by many names, such as Blue Burgundy, Late Burgundy, and Blue Frankish. But, of course, he’s not after that. That this is the generic red-skinned grape for cool climates interests him less than that the best wines come from it when it is grown and produced in the most peasant-like fashion, and what king can’t find his roots in the peasantry, clouded by rumours of ancestry going back to Rome or further? It’s, like …
Christ didn’t die on the Cross but fled to Southern France, where he had kids, the kids of whose kids are the Holy Kings of France, protected even today by a secret society, and a little nod to wine doesn’t hurt in the title, either, does it. In de Villiers case, the bad guys are not the servants of Satan but the egalitarian wine-making scientists of the University of California at Davis.
This is not an egalitarian book, but it is a romanticized one. What de Villiers seeks with his book is the story of a complex red wine with long aging potential — what he considers to be the pinnacle of the wine world, and which for him is the King of Wines. He has made the simplest and oldest of red grapes into a Hollywood Star. I’m not being flippant. The treatment here has all the characteristics of Hollywood: the uneducated winemaker who knows more than the experts, who risks all at an impossible task, gets it right by guesswork, makes wine the old-fashioned way, by doing almost nothing to it (which he has learned from the source itself, the peasants of France — de rigueur), does everything wrong and gets it all right in the end, earning the world’s highest glories. This is the standard plot of any Hollywood film. This, for instance:
Harrison Ford Employing The True Californian Kingship Without the Crown Pose
Of course, he could be drinking something other than … what is that? Spanish Coffee?
Do we really have to sell wine that way? I think one consquence of “The Heartbreak Grape” is that the Internet is full of references to “The Heartbreak Grape” — a title that has replaced history itself. Even the French peasantry is more interesting than that. If de Villiers is right, and hype is the way to sell wine, I think we could do with a better story than “The Heartbreak Grape”, because that’s a story about winemakers and their relationships to wine tasters and wine drinkers, not the full story about the grape (Black Pine) or the wine. We need that story if we’re going to be as honest to the grapes as we want them to be to us. Someone with the honest story of Josh Jensen (his fondest wine-making moments are when he tore up the land for days on end on a tractor, and set the boundaries of his blocks by how high a tractor working hard could climb) deserves to have the real story told. So do we, as the Similkameen Valley is poised to be flooded with wineries trying to copy his achievement in what is mythically being referred to as a harsh and unforgiving climate. Unforgiving? Harsh? Hardly. Complex? You bet.
Let’s rise to the challenge. It might just be the case that in the Similkameen the grape has the potential for a new kind of wine making — as it did when it moved to the Rhine, to California, or to Oregon. Then we could follow the French example, of calling the darned stuff “Similkameen”, instead of Burgundy, and drop the Pinot Noir thing altogether. Or at least “Black Pine”. It might be hard to sell at first, but that kind of marketing courage wasn’t absent when Jensen started growing the grape everyone said he couldn’t grow. Why is it absent now?