I think this has got to be one of my favourite episodes in the show. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, wine does not exist in a vacuum. It is interwoven into the history and symbolism of cultures around the world. In this episode Joe visits a winery which operates in Israel’s occupied territories, Matthew and Matthew explore the significance of art and wine at a winery which was previously Michelangelo’s private residence and Gizzi Erskine explores California’s turbulent wine history on board the Napa Wine Train. Travel, art, religion, politics and cuisine all combine to create, in my mind, one of the most topical pieces of wine television yet.
If the Napa tourist board is suddenly swamped with enquiries this week, I wouldn’t be surprised. I can’t imagine anything more idyllic then being seated in the restored Pullman carriages of the Napa Train, whizzing through sunlit vineyards and being served high end cuisine made using local produce. The Napa train travels along the same route as laid out by Samuel Brannan and the early California pioneers who brought tourists including writer Robert Louis-Stevenson to the region from San Francisco. I can see why Joe was disappointed not to get this gig – and I must admit I may just be a little bit jealous of Gizzi too!
Aboard this lovingly restored train Gizzi meets David Mahaffey, a winemaker from Heron Lake, and Loren Trefethan of Trefethan vineyard. Whilst enjoying glasses of Pinot Noir and Cabernet from both those vineyards (not jealous at all) they both tell Gizzi about California’s precarious wine history. It was a depressing story, full of vineyard pest epidemics (phylloxera) and then prohibition. As late as 1960 there were only twenty vineyards! This is extremely hard to believe given Napa’s iconic wine status now. What is even harder to believe was that it was the French who enabled Californian wine to be given the respect it fully deserves in 1976 at The Judgement of Paris, a wine competition in which California won first place in each category.
This year on 24 May it will be the fortieth anniversary of this momentous tasting. There are now over 400 wineries in Napa, books and films have been made about the competition and later this month The National Museum of American History is putting on an anniversary dinner with British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier (who organised the original event) and members of Napa’s leading wineries. One could argue though that this anniversary is not just a national celebration; The Judgement of Paris was the making of the Californian wine industry but it fundamentally initiated the concept and identity of New World wines. This is an anniversary which should be celebrated by wineries and wine drinkers worldwide. Being a fervent New World wine fan, I will definitely be raising a glass or two!
Matthew and Matthew’s piece on art and its integral relation to wine also provoked some interesting questions about its context. Joe asks them both before they set off on their weekly Italian wine mission, this time to find out what wine labels mean to them. I had to do my Wine Diploma project on the significance of wine labels which, I must admit, I thought was going to be a thoroughly dull exercise. As I delved into it though, I suddenly realised that there are all kinds of significances and meanings which one can construe from this seemingly small detail on a wine bottle. Most obviously, it has to fulfil legal requirements – these vary depending where the wine is from but most will have to state where it is made, the vintage and the wine producer. Even this legal point shows an interesting cultural divide as Old World wines dictate vineyards and regions on a bottle whereas New World wine producers choose to put the actual grape on the label.
However, Matthew and Matthew’s visit to Nittardi, a vineyard which was once Michelangelo’s residence, looks at wine and art in a more profound light. For the last thirty years Nittardi’s owners have been getting internationally renowned artists to design the label of their top wine. This label effectively symbolises the emotional and artistic connection between the artistry of the wine inside the bottles and how it is represented externally. As I mentioned in my piece on wine and music, I do consider wine as one of the arts. Both winemakers and artists are creators; constantly editing, exploring and experimenting. By clothing the wine in an artist’s work you are effectively curating the work of the artist in a very singular and striking medium. The artist can reveal their interpretation of that wine’s particular story and gives the wine an identity. This allows people to engage with it on a whole other level whilst turning the bottle into a collector’s item. The memories you have whilst drinking the bottle’s contents can live on via the beautifully labelled souvenir vessel.
Joe’s vinous experiences in Israel however evoked by far the most philosophical questions in regards to wine and culture. Joe starts off at Tel Kabri, a palace and capital of a Middle Bronze Age Canaanite kingdom in western Galilee. Tel Kabri has the largest and oldest cellars in the ancient Near East, but at some point around 1500 BC the palace was abandoned leaving over 2,000 litres of wine in forty large amphorae [large pots traditionally used to store wine]. Even back then wine functioned exactly as it does now; to be used when dining with friends and to influence others.
Although it is easy to relate to this concept, Joe’s visit to Golan Heights Winery reveals a very specific mindset when it comes to wine. It may have excellent conditions for wine producing but Golan Heights is only three kilometres away from Syria. It is possible to hear artillery booming in the background as Joe drives through the vineyard. Most people would never dream of running a winery in such vulnerable territory, but Victor Shonefeld of Golan Heights Winery has a connection with this land that is based on something more than simply good soil and topography; this is winemaking in the Promised Land. This view is of course a hotly contested topic, not least in regards to the EU’s export regulation. In terms of wine labels, any wine coming from occupied territories to the EU must now have its origin clearly marked on the bottle.
The connection between wine and religion becomes palpable when Joe goes to have a Shabbat meal with the Gold family in Tel Aviv. Wine is an integral part of this sacred ceremony. It is ultimately perceived as a gift from God – but like any gift, it must be used wisely. Its wonder and power can also be used against us if we are not careful. Too true of far too many other things.
I think the reason why I enjoyed this episode in particular is that through steam trains, art, war zones and family meals, we see how topical and relevant wine is as a subject and how much its identity and context reveals about us.