Greatness (without grandeur).
Just below the letterhead on Domaine Borie de Maurel's price list are the words: "Vignerons - Paysans." Neither word really translates very well, but the rough equivalent in English is "Peasant Vinegrowers." While the French is far more accurate in all its many levels of nuance, both pack a lot of meaning.
Vignerons-Paysans. I like that. Two words. Modest words, humble words, words with their feet planted firmly in the dirt. Words with more nobility by accident than all the money and the marketing in the world could ever imagine. Honest words, direct and and strong as a handshake with a work-callused hand.
There is no word in French (or Spanish, or Italian) for "winemaker." Italian producer Stefano Inama puts it very eloquently when he observes that the closest one can come to "making wine" is to labor in the vineyard, to work the soil, to prune the vines. Ask anyone who makes their daily bread aiding and abetting the transformation of grapes into one of life's loveliest pleasures what it is they do, and they'll reply that the best they can do is to pour love and energy into the vineyard, then intervene as little as possible while the magic happens.
Awhile back, a generous friend gave me a couple bottles from one of Woodinville's more exclusive addresses, an institution whose unabashed self-worth is reflected in both the price of the bottles (if you have to ask...) and the self-congratulatory verbiage on the back label. These, of course, are Wines made by Winemakers. Not to be confused with vine-growers (farmers) and certainly not peasants (anything but). Winemakers. Skilled, well capitalized, equipped with the and capable of turning agricultural raw material into luxury goods.
Wines like this, and the attitude that creates them, are certainly no anomaly. They're pretty standard stuff, really, a universal theme. From the gated faux "Chateau" to the invitation to join the "Select," "Reserve" "Prestige" or "CEO" club, to the Promethean "Winemaker" who boasts of "barrel programs" while name-dropping exclusive vineyard sources, the subtext is that the "right" wine, with the appropriate credentials is one of the trappings of upward mobility. Having an accepted label on one's table is among the de rigueur trappings of having gained admittance to the promised land. For those of us whose Horation alber aspirations may not have yet landed us among the 1%, a familiarity with the proper intoxicants is the wink and the nod that assures onlookers that, if not yet past the gates, we're certainly in the driveway and admittance is all but a done deal.
I'm not likely likely to drink those two bottles anytime soon, and will probably end up giving 'em away. I've had the wine before. All the parts are there in pretty much the properly proportions and there's no denying that it sings the notes correctly. It tastes okay, in a luxury wine sort of way, but it's not delicious in that je ne sais quoi kind of way. Let's just say that it just ain't got no soul, baby.
You just can't make or buy that stuff. You either have it, (or get it) or you don't. It can be anywhere, from Prosser to Lyle to Geyserville to Alba to Regua to Sablet to Félines-Minervois, but it has nothing to do with the right address or fancy digs (it seems to have a lot more to do with farming than finery).
In fact, what great wines have in common is in the people who grow them. Call it character: modesty, humility, strong hands that know the meaning of hard work, and a respect that runs to reverence for sun, rain, wind and soil--the sort of character you'd expect from someone whose business card might say paysan.