Bree Interview



Q :: How did you get into winemaking?

A :: A passion for the pleasures of great wine, and a desire to add to those pleasures by my own work. Not by imitating the wines I admire - something I've never done - but by acquiring through their pleasures a sort of classical education, by which I mean simply an evolved sensuality: an intuition for the pleasures of wine similar to the sense a classical education might give a writer for the possibilities of writing.
:: And then, when I first actually did the work itself, I was amazed that I felt so completely at home. I loved the fact that it all happens purely from the inside out, all improvised from within the material just as it presents itself, with a permanent sense of mystery, and no safety net.
:: It's still that way. Each time we get back from harvest, I turn off the engine, open the cab, and look back at the truckbed stacked with grapes, tons of them, in hundreds of boxes. I just look; and after a very particular moment of silence, I say to myself, "OK, Sean, there it is. Do something."
:: It's very carnal, very immediate, and very real. The buck really does stop right there, right in front of you each time, and whatever you have to offer either works right there, with what's actually there to work with, or it simply doesn't count.
:: Wine-making consists in bottles of wine, not in wine-makers' intentions. That suits me perfectly. The first time I made wine, I knew I had found my vocation.

Q :: Did you have any formal training?

A :: In art history.

Q :: But no degree in wine-making?

A :: Well, so far as I know, no such academic degree is offered, by any institution, anywhere in the world. If this seems as incomprehensible as the fact that there's no word for "wine-maker" in French, so it is; but it's also equally true.
:: What is so often taken to be the same thing - and so often pretends to be - is a degree in enology. That's an absurd - and on the part of enologists, arrogantly ignorant - confusion, and can be extremely damaging.
:: Enology is the scientific study of wine, and is a perfectly valid and useful technical tool in its own right; but it isn't winemaking any more than "food science" is cooking. To pretend to train a winemaker by a degree in what is, essentially, beverage processing technology, makes no more sense than the pretense that a degree in food processing technology is the proper preparation for a chef.
:: If chefs were trained the way wine-makers are, you'd rarely eat out.


Q :: So, no enology degree from UC Davis?

A :: No; pretty clearly not. Despite my genuine respect for the tools enological training has given the wine-maker, they are just that: tools, not the craft itself. And even if UC Davis - or anyone else - actually did teach wine-making, which obviously I wish they did, I don't know if I could learn it that way myself.
I've always had to reinvent the wheel to learn almost anything, and academic education, even at its best, rarely can take time for that. It wants conclusions, and tends to impart them along with a mind-set that makes them difficult to question, because their logic, which may be quite reasonable, makes them seem true. Unfortunately, while perfectly reasonable, they may be false.
In wine-making, this can lead to some serious problems. It is, after all, an art. You really do have to learn your tools by using them yourself, from within the work itself.


Q :: But you're not saying that science isn't useful in wine-making, are you?

A :: I'm not saying anything of the sort! I'm saying that no matter what the intensity of my love for my microscope or for malolactic chromatography, science simply is not the essence of the process, and to believe that it is, is a fatal error. When science is useful, it can be acquired, used as a tool should be used, and kept in its proper place.
Back, as always, to the obvious analogy, does anyone ever so much as suggest that anything else in gastronomy is a matter of crunched numbers, real figures, hard data, and all the rest of it? Of course not. Because for one thing, art isn't about reproducible results to begin with; science is, technique may be, but art is not. Art is about unreproducible results. Even being "consistent" begins with the understanding that each result - and certainly each wine - is an unreproducible result.
All the science in the world isn't going to tell a chef what to do with a chicken. It may suggest some experiments and may explain some results, but the only result that really counts is a better-tasting chicken, and the only judge of "better" is the pleasure the chicken gives the palate; and the essential job description of "chef" (or "wine-maker") is to make that judgment, right now, right here, while the pan's still on the flame.
Nothing - absolutely nothing - counts here but the palate. Everything depends on the quality of its pleasures, just as the greatness of a painting depends on the quality of the pleasures of the painter's eye, and the greatness of a poem on the quality of the pleasures of a poet's ear. Nothing should deceive a winemaker into thinking otherwise about what matters in wine.
But I'm afraid that's exactly what enological training does. It says, "here's the science; the art will take care of itself." Actually, it's just the other way around.


Q :: Is that why there are so many mediocre wines, and so many wines that taste alike?

A :: Actually, yes, it does follow from what I was just saying. It even makes mediocrity interesting, since if everything at this point depends on qualities of pleasure, then mediocrity must be itself a pleasure, which I think it is. It actually fulfills a desire. It's no good saying that it depends only on inattention, indifference or lack of inspiration, because mediocrity can stay mediocre in the face of any imaginable pleasure greater than itself.
What is it that mediocrity defends by offering such a powerfully anaesthetic counter-pleasure of its own? I think of Jean Giraudoux's observation - one of my mantras - that "only mediocrity is always at its best."
:: Perhaps that's the pleasure of it - the reassurance, the philistine dark side of "home cooking" & "comfort food"; since it doesn't have to be "good" to be loved, neither do you, and for many people, that's what love is. So perhaps mediocrity is a pleasure because it's so oddly reassuring.
But look, I don't really pretend to get it. I can't answer you. I'll have to leave it that mediocrity exists because there's a major market for it.


Q :: How would you describe the market for your own wines?

A :: Someone once asked me why they should buy my wines, when there are so many others out there; I replied that there are many people out there, too, but only a few are friends. They aren't interchangeable, and I like the thought that my wines would be prized in the same way - for offering pleasures uniquely their own. Of course this means my wines will have an equally individual audience, for that very same reason; after all, while they may be my friends, they won't be everybody's.
:: So I like to think of myself as making wine first of all for myself, not from ego, but as a plain necessity of procedure. I have to make the decisions and carry out the work, and I don't know any way to do that other than to proceed according to my own pleasures. But this does simplify the question of offering those pleasures for sale: since I never offer wines I don't enjoy drinking myself, my entire "marketing strategy" is simply to find those whose pleasures agree. Some don't; no doubt there must be wine-drinkers who can't imagine why anyone would like my wines; but then, there are far more than I can supply who think they're some of the best wines they've ever tasted.
Well, guess what? I just want my wines to go to the second group; that's all.
That's their natural market. We agree about what we enjoy, and that simplifies life in the best way. Since I never release a wine I don't like, I can be pretty confident they're going to like the wines I do release, simply because I like those wines myself. In other words, we agree about what good company is, and good wine should never be less than that. Why have dinner with a wine whose company you wouldn't enjoy if it were a person?
The Pleiades is the perfect example, since its only intention is to be good company. But what is one's idea of good company if not the immediate expression of one's actual personal pleasures? When I used to eat at La Coupole in Paris years ago, I'd be seated next to a hooker, or a Marxist accountant, or a pig broker and his wife from the Auvergne, and I'd find out all sorts of things about which I hadn't had a clue before; while being benevolently supplied with Belons and Sancerre, confit and Vacqueyras, and of course I'd wish I could eat there every night. So of course I want the Pleiades to be that sort of company; on the other hand, that isn't the sort of company everyone wants.


Q :: But, do you think that's a good approach to wine in general?

A :: Absolutely, unequivocally, yes, I do. I think the experience of a new wine should be approached as openly as the experience of a new person, and I'm very strongly arguing for openness in both cases.
:: Restricting ourselves just to wine here, it has to be depressing to see the sterile filtration so many people put a wine through before they've ever tasted it, and worse, the fantastic set of ideological checkpoints the wine has to pass before they think it's legal to enjoy it, as though the most humiliating mistake would be to enjoy something you weren't supposed to!!
"Well, yes, it was the best wine I've ever tasted, but I don't know what to think about it; I mean, how can I be sure it expresses the sous-sol of Château La Bêtise with a truly compelling typicité?". And so on.
It should be so much simpler, and the results so infinitely much more complex.
You pop the cork. You pour a little in the glass. You savor what you've poured.
What does it mean to savor? It means to think, but in terms of the entire reciprocal presence you experience. The rational faculty is there, ratcheting away as it always does, but it's nothing like the whole perception, and the whole perception is exactly what savoring is.
So let the process happen, with the censorial function turned off for the moment. Let the wine speak its own language, try to savor what's coming forth, and leave the possibility open that this may lead to something unique and interesting.
Or, if you think this is pointless because great wine was defined by the classification of 1855 and anything different is thus less, why bother tasting anything new? Does noblesse oblige? Is the excessive nobility of your palate really the problem we're facing here?
Anyway, I can't tackle the whole thing: the question of who takes pleasure in what and why is far too splendid, weird, and complex. It's perfectly fair to look my entire website as a series of footnotes to it.
In the meanwhile, I'm asking, why waste an open bottle on a closed mind?







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