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On the Voice of a Place… and Being Swept Away

By Karen MacNeil
March 8, 2016

One early morning recently, I had coffee with Agustin Huneeus (senior) who along with his wife Valeria and son Agustin, own the Napa Valley estate Quintessa.

I remember the first time I drove by Quintessa’s “front door”—an immense stone arc wedged into an entire hillside. Immense and rugged, it seemed to say: deep inside here lies something you want to taste.

It was an invitation from a rock–and thus, as I’ve come to understand–the best kind of invitation possible.

Because it was the place that spoke.

No one knows better than a wine journalist how cliché this can be. Even some fifteen dollar merlots have back labels heralding the wine inside the bottle as an “expression of a place.”

After 35 years in the wine business, though, I have come to know irrevocably that most wines are not in fact the “voice of a particular vineyard.” They may be good wines, they may even give a lot of pleasure.

But only great vineyards have a distinctive character that can actually be felt, intuited, realized.  In a great vineyard, you can stand on that ground and feel the current going through you—sometimes before you ever even taste the wine.

Agustin said it best. In the Napa Valley where making the best possible cabernet sauvignon is what nearly everyone talks about (and it’s a worthy goal), he has only ever wanted something else. He has wanted to witness the flavor of Quintessa; to see what the place wanted to reveal.

The same is true of Bill Harlan (owner of Harlan Estate and BOND), who at age 74  bought more than 850 acres of rough, secluded woodland high in the Mayacamas mountains of Napa Valley to plant  vineyards to make a new wine called Promontory. Walking the ridges that bordered the property, he could feel that this piece of ground had something pent up inside it. Something that could be (needed to be) captured and expressed through wine.

That is great wine’s mystery and miracle. What else allows us to taste the earth so intimately? Grape varieties, presses, barrels, winemaking techniques–and everything else that constitutes contemporary wine talk—are rungs way down on the ladder of importance. They are means not ends.

And so I for one, want to stand in more vineyards and just try to listen; I want to taste more wines and hope to be swept away by the sense of the place.

Originally Published in Sommelier Journal