by Michelle Carlin, CS, CSW, CWAS
If I can transport myself to a decisive moment in my life, when everything changes it would be for sure the moment when I was leaving Argentina in 2007. After a failed attempt to make a wine career, tears of the sudden realization that I should find another way to learn about wine blurred my vision. I was a little inflexible those days, having set my mind into a goal that I thought could only be achieved in a single way, by a path that I could no longer keep. Nothing prepared me for the surprise to follow, to be taken by the desire to learn, listening to a voice within my head compelling me to succeed. Sometimes magical things happen when you take the odd trail, the twisted road is the most exciting road, like an old vine trunk, and in such a manner life showed me a great route to find a new job, side by side of one of the most inspiring individuals in the wine world and in life that I have ever met.
He became my father, my friend, my coworker, and my mentor, showing me the most important thing that one should always know about the wine, “do not forget that there are always things to learn about the wine, you just have to listen, wine is a living creature, changing, evolving, breathing, and always ready to show you something about him and yourself”, and he was right. What amazed me about his tasting room at the university were the walls that he covered with maps, every time I had the chance to be there I gazed upon the locations where those maps took you, I used to watch them and sigh. I remember the first time I saw the California wine map, I was there just staring, thinking about all the names on it, (Sonoma, Napa, San Luis Obispo,Mendocino, Oakville, Carneros...) he saw me and said, “Yes, California and its fantastic wines, the place is beautiful”. I just smiled, but something lit inside me, he told me about the uniqueness of that place, “California and its north coast's terroir is something that you need to have in consideration”, he said. To me those words meant just one thing, a lot of studying, plenty to read and learn about the terroir, why is it important or how it can manifest itself in a glass of wine… marvelous.
“Do not forget that there are always things to learn about the wine, you just have to listen, wine is a living creature, changing, evolving, breathing, and always ready to show you something about him and yourself.”
Going back to 2009, when I had that wine dream, in that moment the maps on the wall would have a different meaning, they would be not only made of paper and ink, they will become a photographic memory with a texture, vivid colors and aromas, giving me a chance of finding a wider meaning to them. It took dedication and several years to learn about the basics of wine such as geography, regions, names, wine tasting, and everything led to understanding a little more about this complex concept. For some reason that concept created an inner force within me pushing towards a striking realization, it is not enough to dream about wine, one must shape its life into it, it meant that in order to learn and become acquaintance with the sea of information I would have to begin eating and breathing wine, otherwise it would be impossible to know the information that comes with a simple sip.
The sensation was intoxicating and when 2012 arrived everything changed. The month was June and it only took two weeks to shape my life in a way I could have only dream of, full of magic and surprises. I manage to contact a winery who gave me the great opportunity to be a winemaker assistant, trainee or intern. The title did not matter as in fifteen days, for the beginning of the harvest work of that sunny 2012 I would be inside of that map made of paper and ink hanging on the wall.
I remember thinking about already knowing everything that the books had to offer about the wine process, come on! I read the information countless times, taught and explained it to others, studying over and over again those things, I saw movies!... what else can there possibly be? How difficult could it be? But nothing could ever prepare me for the wine rush that I was going to live.
As an eager girl I arrived two weeks before scheduled, decided to take advantage of the trip by exploring, and getting to know the place. Nothing prepared me for the experience that would be driving from Los Angeles to North coast. As I started to watch the greenness of the landscape made by the more frequent appearance of vines, I felt like a cartoon character trapped in the wine map on the wall. The feeling of that moment was overwhelming; grapes all over the place filling the blank space of my sight and the unthinkably full spirit of wine aroma in the air. Crossing the mountains in the morning, passing multiple AVA’s every corner, such a great way to experience a morning texture of cold, silk and freshness, tall trees covering the road passing by in every heartbeat. The names I read on the map began circling in my head, and suddenly, in a humble way, they began to make sense.
"...I felt like a cartoon character trapped in the wine map on the wall."
Every day of that journey led me to experience an important lesson about the climate of the area and the importance of the terroir in it, yes, the terroir…something that I will confirm during my second time at Napa the following year during my time studying the CWAS Certification, that extra information wasn’t part of my knowledge yet but for some reason a dot in my mental wine map was marked at the first time telling me about the importance of those factors, a year later everything will make better sense reaching a wider meaning by connecting the dots drawn during my classes, giving a better meaning to the experience that I was enjoying during those days.
As magical as that moment was it became harder to accept that it was just an ephemeral moment in my life, crossing every road, around every corner letting me fall in love of that place. A place with such magic that it was hard to know if it was innate or created for the visitors to enjoy. In the end it really did not matter if it was natural or fabricated, for I felt like a little kid in a dream place, wide eyes, joyful smile, just the happiest place on earth without a doubt.
When I finally arrived at Petaluma in Sonoma County to meet the crew of the winery and the place that will be my home for the next three months, everything aligned at the perfect place; the map was coming to life, and the sights were incredible, making me eager for the beginning of the harvest. The view of the winery was almost as if it was taken from a picture of a book, the most colorful winery in the middle of lavender fields, surrounded by vineyards and olive trees with extra white clouds painting the blue sky, like a brushstroke of an impressionist artist, something I never saw or imagined before. That place with their unique location, the influence of Petaluma's gap with their coastal breeze has an extra emotional meaning once you experience a morning with its white veil covering the vineyards. Today they have early plans to achieve an AVA, I just can say that if such a place can give an emotional nirvana, as it did to me by transforming myself so deeply at such different levels, what can it do to the grapes growing there? But maybe is just my heart speaking.
My heart was beating too fast, as it would burst from my chest, I met the owner of the cellar, its crew and its winemaker, who took me to meet my new house, the “Snoopy house”, such a name, it was given for the charming size and shape. The amenities where great as I realized there was no TV, no phone, no internet, nothing connecting me to the world, in the middle of nowhere. Such changes are hard for a person coming from a big crowded city as myself. Nevertheless the quietness of the place was intoxicating, I thought I would go nuts by the end of the harvest, I saw myself in my mind running in the vineyards completely crazy because of the lack of human contact, screaming and laughing, but even with these abrupt changes I was ready to live the adventure that location was giving me even if it felt completely surreal, at least at the beginning.
During that time I was completely focused on the process to learn everything about the wine, to have an affair with it, and most of all put a dot in my mental map that belonged to the experiences lived in that place. I almost immediately started breathing and eating everything related to wine, in all its textual or figurative senses. Every day was an amazing and crucial lesson: about safety tips, about the grapes, about the vineyards and their clones like who likes what kind of particular factors, learning how to drive a small truck in the vineyards, to clean barrels and move them after the steaming using your body - quite an achievement for a small girl as myself- taking brix, doing some chemical reactions to know the pH or the tartaric acid values, and the most important, a great lesson about me. Every day that living thing, the wine through all its forms, was teaching and preparing me for the beginning of my transformation, living and experiencing things that you never read in books.
During the next days I was living between reality and fiction, sometimes thinking if I needed to pinch myself to appreciate this new reality and how I was being part of it. Everything was surprisingly new, and even though not all was as a fairy tale it was in its way covered with magic. It is funny how reality sometimes is very different than one’s imagination. For a long time I fantasized about the transformation of the grape into wine, picturing it as a magical and romantic process, ironically by witnessing it I appreciate it as the chemical transformation it is, without celestial music coming from the sky, just as the mundane and worldly process by which it is made, following steps and changing variables according to the needs, it made me feel like the little girl when she finds out that Santa isn’t real. It was still amazing and profoundly interesting, just not fairy tale, heaven singing magical.
One thing was certain above all, that trip was revitalizing and dangerous at the same time, in the end, after a few weeks I just realize that the person who arrives there will never be able to be back unto its former self, it was a high price for the experience. Of course I know that change is a good thing, nevertheless the sensation of not being able to find myself in any other place than there, in those vineyards where I was happy has lasted in me for several years after my first trip. Starting a journey of an inner search which purpose is to find the person that you can be, your soul becomes attached to that land in a private way, as that land is attached to you in some ways as well… that is the real romance of the experience in those lavender fields…
Check out Part 2 of this story.
Michelle is a sommelier based in Puebla, Mexico who works with the Mexican Sommelier Association as Wine educator, she completed CA winery internships in 2012 and 2013 and passed San Francisco Wine School's California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) program in 2013 and now she is pursuing the opportunity to compete this year at the category emerging wine writer of the year sponsored by Champagne Louis Roederer.