Although the ability of an affected wine connoisseur to detect that a wine was made from grapes picked by a one-legged man on a Thursday is a stock cliché, the extensive efforts that wineries, such as the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, undertake to produce great wine supports the notion that such subtleties do exist. The location of the winery was selected to take advantage of the rich alluvial soils which contrast with the volcanic soils found elsewhere in the region. For this microclimate, Mondavi chose Cabernet Sauvignon as the grape variety most likely to produce an outstanding wine. Mondavi then divided the several-hundred acre vineyard into a grid composed of fifty-six separate plots. The grapes from each plot are harvested separately. A special winery was built for the Cabernet Reserve vintage so as to permit the movement of the wine through the various steps of the process by gravity alone. Mondavi felt that pumping wine would negatively affect its quality. Fifty-six large vats, made from oak harvested from a particular forest in France, were constructed so as keep the wine harvested from each of the plots separate throughout the entire process. The goal was to preserve the subtle qualities of each individual plot within the vineyard in order to provide a palette of wines from which the final wine blender can blend the perfect wine. In each of these vats the skins of the Cabernet grapes are left in contact with the juice for 30 rather than the normal 1-2 days. The resulting wine is then stored in casks made from the same French Oak. These casks are placed in a vast beautiful cellar and kept at a constant temperature until the wine is ready for bottling and sale. However, even when bought by the consumer, the Cabernet Reserve should be aged for at least 6 years, decanted for at least 3 hours and served slightly below room temperature.
Having learned all of this I was struck by two things. The first was Mondavi’s commitment to chasing after every single variable in order to produce the best possible wine. The second was the realization that only a minority of consumers have a sense of taste sufficiently developed and informed to appreciate the subtleties that result from Mondavi’s efforts. And yet I admire and empathize with Mondavi’s commitment to perfection, which to me is some variety of beauty. Beauty seems like a worthwhile goal to me, though admittedly it is no less an arbitrary objective than producing better berry juice, despite its abstraction. But I was left then, as I often am, with a resident dissatisfaction that there seems to be no objectively worthwhile goal for the human accident in this meaningless world. Mondavi says that he makes wine because he believes that wine stands at the crossroads of civilization, as well as the crossroads between God and man. This geography is significant to him. Is the only conclusion then that we must each leap at that which is merely subjectively significant? Perhaps there are no objectively worthy goals in human existence, just 56 different types of subjective commitment growing in 56 different plots, maturing in 56 different vats, finally blending together into life.
Its 8 am and Washington D.C. is an hour behind us as we race the dawn across the United States to California. During breakfast the sun pulls ahead and by the time we are over Colorado, a vast range of red mountains is already stretching in the warm morning light. The red peaks below have the slightest dusting of snow and I’m getting hungry imagining they are made of chocolate and dusted with sweet baker’s sugar. As with many things that you have never seen before in America, you feel like you have seen it before. I am sure John Wayne is down there somewhere, pouring coffee from a turquoise enamel jug for John Denver as they both enjoy some camp-fire cakes cooked by Yul Brenner. Chief Sitting Bull is in the next Canyon, talking to his agent about his frustration with Westerns. He wants to get into independent film. “I will not be type-cast, Max” he shouts as he hangs up the phone and slurps down his morning Matcha. “Can you believe this guy?” he asks his make-up artist, indifferent as to her reply. “Whata Schmuck!”
We are off to explore the north of the state so first stop will be Monterey Bay and the Big Sur on the central coast, then north to the vineyards of Napa Valley and finally finishing in San Francisco. California always makes me smile. Perhaps it’s the sunshine on my shoulders, or the image of the state etched into my subconscious by Hollywood, but I always feel optimistic in California. Its one of a handful of states in the United States that has presence; New York and Texas being the others. Everybody knows when California walks into a room. People ditch their Cosmos and flee Todd the marketing guy, just to bask in her presence. She is America for Americans. Whereas the entire country is an Ellis Island of hope to foreigners, for the native-born American, California is the second-chance state. Mickey Mouse runs a tattoo parlor on Venice Beach. Every morning he rides his Harley down the Pacific Coast Highway with his girl Maria riding pillion. People ask him about Walt and the gang sometimes as he does tattoos, but he just replies lazily “yeah man those days . . . that was another life dude.” Then he returns to drawing a big-assed pin-up girl on some guy’s arm to cover-up the name of an old lover underneath.