Karen Close: The Art of Winemaking
The spirit of Dionysos, Greek god of wine, might be an emerging presence in our valley.
This god is described as the intoxicating power of nature whose power is concentrated in wine, "the fruit of Dionysos." According to Greek mythology, he taught mortals how to cultivate the vine, leading them blindfolded to be initiated into the mysteries of fermentation or alchemy.
It seems Tom DiBello, award-winning winemaker at Cedar Creek Estate Winery, might be a gifted descendant of Dionysian spirit. Tom's awards for "the fruit" continue to mount. In 2002 and 2005, his efforts contributed to the winery being named Winery of the Year in Canada. This past June, Tom's Platinum Meritage received Double Gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. That doesn't happen often and indicates a unanimous choice from five judges.
I often feel an outside intuitive influence that comes from who knows what. I do believe that when you create, there is a connection with your subconscious. I know there is a place out there that I go to. I can tell the difference between whether it comes from outside or from within. It's not huge things, maybe just "Don't forget your notebook and pencils."
I keep careful records, but I don't write down descriptions of wine that is in my head. I know what the differences are and then I go into the cellar and taste. I made Excel spreadsheets from my top-end wines down, but about five years ago I could do it in my head. I'm able to memorize the barrel flavours. Then I blend and mix.
Each year I'm trying to make it better than the year before, BUTI don't ever want to force the wine to be what it isn't. The point is to get the best out of the fruit that you can. Like a painter, you might not have any yellow; then you just have to change your style. That's the art. When you're on the edge of science is when it is art. If you're practising things that have been discovered, then it's just technology.
Tom pursues excellence without trying to control. Such action requires a deep union between the creator and what is being created. That's the creative process. It opens you to an outside influence that makes you take risks, and pushes your knowledge into new discoveries.
Yes, winemaking is an art. Mother Nature gives you the palette and you paint what you can with it. It's about letting go to what's there. You need to have the knowledge and skill in the cellar so that you can react to what's there. One of the most basic things is being conscientious. Always be attentive. Never let the basics be forgotten. You have to do the boring parts with Zen concentration before the art comes. Cleanliness is paramount. Even grit on the vines can have an impact. Winemaking is also a co-operative effort. Treat people well and with respect. It takes a team effort.
The concept that great art is created through a co-operative effort of each sharing according to his or her talents is an ancient perspective that built civilizations. Tom DiBello readily shares his success, while remaining proud of the dedication to the training that has brought him to head Cedar Creek's team. There is generosity in this. All creative persons, once they have learned the traditions of their art, have to find again and again that place within themselves where they can receive the gift and then offer their leadership. It is a place that can only be found through the force of desire and yearning, but too much attachment to attainment and the personal effort expended can limit the final creation. Tom seems to understand this.
I grew up in Newport Beach, California not a wine producing area, but still I learned things that are part of how I do my job. One of my first jobs was as a janitor. I learned that putting energy into what you do gives it focus always bring a little Zen to it. My dad made wine. I thought it was interesting and I loved the smell, but mine wasn't a direct path.
I went to junior college and kept taking different courses in science and business. Then I was on a trip with my parents and their friends and we went to Firestone Winery. As soon as we entered, the smell came back. I talked to the winemaker there and discovered that you could take a course on winemaking at the University of California, Davis. I was one of 200 winemakers and viticulturists to graduate in the class of 1980. There were too many of us for the industry at that time. I am one of four from that class who is still at it.
I was different because I was willing to work from the bottom up. I learned a lot.
I started as a cellar rat to become the director of cellar operations (the equivalent of assistant winemaker) at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa. I knew it would be a good place to learn. In high school I had read a Time magazine article about Stag's Leap winning an award in Paris. They were up against 1st and 2nd Bordeaux, and won. That article gave me the idea you could do something in wines. While I was at Stag's Leap, a team I was a part of got 100 from Robert Parker, the wine guru.
To grow with one's talent requires a long process of relinquishing many influences waiting for the creative moment; that state of awareness, sometimes only fleeting, in which the impossible becomes possible. For some there is a sense that those moments become possible through the entry and expansion of awareness into worlds that are pre-existent.
Love of nature is something you definitely have to look at. Pre-existence I don't know, but just walking through the vineyard and the Okanagan what a place to experience God's gifts. I am filled with appreciation. It is a beautiful thing that I do. I'm blessed that I love what I do and then double blessed that I am good at what I do. I feel an exchange. It's in the tasting. The theory is science, but the nose and palate tell the truth. I'd like to say, in my opinion, sometimes they are better than what the science allows at that time.
The energy to create comes from within, but how do audience and what is currently fashionable affect one's personal motivation?
Really the truth is in the bottle: "In vino veritas." At times I have listened to the public and the marketers and tried to deliver what they wanted, but interestingly those wines have failed. Instead, I make changes slowly and try to bring along the customer. Presently I'm trying this with Gewürztraminer, Ehrenfelser and Dry Riesling I'm working on getting them a shade deeper. I'm very lucky that I am allowed to be the ultimate arbiter of my wines. The marriage between winemaking and business is very interesting. You need "passion and pockets," but then maybe that's true for all artists. In Napa it felt a bit medieval we were just peasants working for the liege.
I'm treated very well here, and it's interesting when I look back on the decision to come. I'd been intrigued by Okanagan wines since 1986. I'd tasted them in competitions; then in'86 in Napa we had this big flood. I was the last car they let across the river to get back to my home. I was determined to get my homemade wines out of the garage. The river was at the top of the bank in our yard. Next door was an old lady in her 80s sitting on her porch. I heard her commenting, "Mmh, just a little higher than the flood of '22," and then a bit later, "Mmh, maybe we're up to the height of '56." Her son called to me, "If I was a winemaker, I'd go north young man. I'd go to the Okanagan." Then he walked in the house and brought me a pamphlet. I still have it. The flood waters rose to my waist. There was a picture of me in the paper fishing off my porch clutching a bottle of high-ethanol Zinfandel that I'd saved.
I came to the Okanagan in 2000. During the intervening 14 years I kept my eyes out for Okanagan wines. I was in Washington when Kevin Willenburg, the former Cedar Creek winemaker, called me. We'd been friends at Davis. He had to leave Cedar Creek for family matters and wanted me to take his place. I said I'd just signed a great contract and liked what I was doing; but with the consent of John, the GM I was working for, I did agree to come up and see the winery. After much soul searching, and with John standing beside me, I said no. Within moments I had a fever of 102 degrees. I was quite sick when the senator called me to discuss my decision, and I changed my mind. Then within a moment or two my fever was gone. It was a hard time, but the owner in Washington understood and we're still friends.
How does one explain a calling like that? Is the long reach of Dionysos guiding his "fruit" into the right hands? Through the integrity and consistency of their lives, great creators find their path and set a standard for serving others and their craft.
Where is there to go? I guess that's the question. The Egyptians made wine. I think it's in the marriage; it's industry and artists together that drive where research goes. Once you find something new, then you can push the research. I'm working with some papers at UBCO. I have hopes. When you have more scientific knowledge, then you can grow better grapes. Ultimately it's about the fruit. It's a fact when you throw money at it, then you can change things. Phenolic chemistry is complex and pushes the edges.
"Question authority" is my motto.
Let each man exercise the art he knows," proclaimed the Greek dramatist, Aristophanes rebel and a champion of the Dionysiac spirit. This is the spirit that encourages creative growth. What might Dionysiac spirit mean for the Okanagan as it grows into the future?
In his day, the dark side of Dionysos, the wild and daring, was feared by the other gods and they sought to destroy him. He was dismembered and the pieces burned, but as the son of Zeus, he possessed deep resources of wisdom and the power to resurrect himself each spring. His rebirth offers hope because after his dismemberment he returned stronger than before. The Greeks believed humanity was created from his ashes.
Might there be a metaphor in the ashes of the Okanagan Firestorm? Perhaps a look at our mythological roots will encourage us to discover our full creative potential to build from a rich legacy. Our winemaking industry is indeed brewing nectar of the gods. Perhaps we'll grow into our creative destiny as we imbibe.
Karen Close is an artist and
writer, a former schoolteacher, and the author of
Unfinished Women: Seeds from My Friendship with Reva