Last year a friend asked me a question I had never considered before: Over the many years I had been writing about wine, what was the greatest thing this job had given me?
I answered almost reflexively. As a New Yorker who has spent most of my life living in Manhattan, wine had provided me a connection to nature that I most likely would never have experienced otherwise.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few weeks, as the pandemic has now been with us for more than four months. Most of that time, I’ve been in my apartment, far away from vineyards, much less anything that might reasonably be construed as wild and natural, like a forest or ocean. I feel the difference, physically and emotionally.
My friend professed surprise at my answer. He’d assumed that I would cite the wonderful, otherwise inaccessible wines I had been able to drink, or maybe the many intriguing personalities in the wine world with whom I’ve spent time.
These, of course, have been wonderful benefits as well. If I were not representing readers of The New York Times, I would never have had an opportunity, to drink, say, great old wine made from grapes harvested in 1846, or to try 16 vintages of Château Lafite-Rothschild going all the way back to 1868.
I also know that my understanding of wine would not be nearly as rich without having had the opportunity to spend time with people as diverse as Jean-François Fillastre, a little-known Bordeaux vigneron; Paul Draper, the longtime guiding force of Ridge Vineyards; Bartolo Mascarello, a tireless defender of ancestral Barolo practices; María José López de Heredia, an equally stalwart proponent of traditional Rioja, and so many others.
But nothing in wine has affected me so profoundly as observing the intimate relationship that enlightened farmers have with the land that they tend. What I’ve learned from them has shaped my outlook in many important facets of my life, from the foods and wines I buy to the clothes I wear to how I think about climate change and political issues.
It’s also made clear to me how little we know about the natural world, particularly the complex and intricate links that govern the well-being of a healthy ecosystem, from the network of microbial life in the soil to the diversity of plant life to the importance of animal life all the way up to the apex predator.
Taking away any one link in this complicated chain can have devastating consequences — to the soil, the air or even the flavor of the wine in your glass. Even something as seemingly mundane as putting up a fence, which might impede animal pathways or divert the natural flow of water, can have ripple effects far beyond anything intended.
I would not have grasped any of these connections had I not spent time walking the land with people like Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista in Vermont; Mimi Casteel of Hope Well in Oregon; Andy Brennan, who makes ciders in the Catskills; Steve Matthiasson in Napa Valley or Arianna Occhipinti in the Vittoria region of Sicily.
I come to none of this naturally. I was born in the suburbs to city people. My father, who grew up in Brooklyn, never left the city until a classmate at New York University one summer invited him to visit his family’s house upstate.
There, the classmate showed him their property, including a vegetable garden. As my father liked to tell it, his friend reached down and pulled up a carrot and proudly displayed it.
“From the dirt?” exclaimed my father, whose sidewalk-and-streets upbringing had not prepared him for such a sight.
I, at least, had the opportunity as a child to go to a camp, to hike and swim and learn how to gather wood and build a fire. But as an adult, I have never hunted or fished. I love to hike, but not overnight. I prefer running water and clean sheets to tents and sleeping bags.
Still, nature has touched me through wine. Perhaps it’s an example of biophilia, a notion popularized by the biologist Edward O. Wilson, who posited that humans possess an innate love of nature.
I can’t say if it is true, but I am desperate to smell the earth and air in a naturally farmed vineyard, to walk in a forest or stumble barefoot through a stream.
I owe my consciousness of this yearning to wine. If it had not been for wine, I would not have been able to distinguish between the dirt my father perceived and living soil, which teems with unseen life, playing a crucial, symbiotic role in ensuring the healthiness and well-being of plants, including grapevines.
I would not have known that you cannot assess the healthiness of a vineyard without looking at the ecosystem, of which the vineyard is a small part.
“An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing,” the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka wrote in his seminal 1978 book “The One-Straw Revolution,” and I’ve come to see the simple truth in that insight.
Throughout the 20th century, the trend in agriculture — what we now call conventional agriculture — was isolation. Vast tracts of corn, soybeans, wheat and even grapes replaced the subsistence farms where a mixture of vegetables, fruits, grains and animals coexisted.
Such polycultures were threaded through with wild areas, where beneficial insects, birds and other animals lived. This, theoretically at least, fostered a healthy biological diversity in which pests and diseases were kept in check naturally rather than through artificial means.
The isolated monocultures that have come to dominate modern agriculture lack the sort of symbiotic relationships between species that keep ecosystems healthy. These man-made constructs have disrupted the natural order, which must be replaced with insecticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and other modern crutches. A sturdy environment becomes fragile and must be continually propped up.
The effect of modern agriculture is felt throughout the food chain. Millions of animals grow in an unhealthy industrial environment and must be pre-emptively plied with antibiotics and other drugs to replace natural defenses.
Contemporary orchards are another example, as Mr. Brennan, the cider maker, detailed in his 2019 book, “Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider and the Complicated Art of Making a Living.” In an effort to maximize yields and minimize labor, humans have turned to dwarf trees and clonal rootstocks that cannot even stand up on their own, and survive only with intensive chemical spraying.
When you begin to examine the sources of your foods and wines, and you become aware of the compromises made almost entirely for commercial purposes, you begin to analyze more closely what exactly is in your glass and on your plate.
Many people understand with one bite the difference between a commercial tomato and one grown locally and sold at a farmers’ market. We can easily taste the depth of flavor in a farm egg that is absent from commercial supermarket eggs. Why would anybody doubt that a wine produced carefully from conscientiously grown grapes would be superior to bottles of processed wine made from industrially farmed grapes?
If you’ve walked a chemically farmed vineyard, no matter how neatly it’s manicured or how pretty the bordering roses might be, you cannot help but be horrified by the gray, lifeless soil underfoot. Contrast that with the bountiful vineyards of Ms. Casteel or Ms. Heekin, which are part of healthy ecosystems. They appeal to all the senses, from the sounds and sights of birds and insects to the smell of life to the soft give of the soil beneath your feet. You can certainly taste that sort of vineyard in the wine.
This is not to say that traditional practices are always best in agriculture. Advocates for regenerative agriculture, a way of farming that emphasizes building and supporting the organic matter that composes healthy soils, are dead set against age-old practices like plowing and tilling. These techniques not only disrupt the life of the soil, they say, but also release carbon to the atmosphere that otherwise could have been stored safely in the earth, mitigating climate change.
The aroma on a fall or winter day of old, discarded vines being burned, another traditional practice, can be pleasant, until you realize it’s another disastrous release of carbon into the atmosphere.
It’s easy to write about wine without any sort of awareness of nature. You can sit at a table tasting hundreds of wines, without a thought to where they came from, beyond a bottle.
Many people have argued that lots of great wines have been made from chemically farmed grapes, and that is true. But at what cost? And how much better might those wines have been if the source material had more depth, purity and complexity?
A connection with nature fosters idealism, romance and hope. It puts many people in touch with God, if your mind goes that way. In the interconnectedness of all things including a glass of wine, one can see either the astounding beauty of nature or the hand of the creator.
When you lose that connection to nature, all you see is a glass.