Beauty and Truth in Vineyards

One of the constants in my writing life has been a preoccupation with landscape—with the way it affects us, and with the exact nature of its beauty or ugliness. But part of that preoccupation has been an itch to see landscape in a way that feels authentic. Authentic is a slippery word, and I don’t claim to have a perfect working definition, so I’ll try restating the idea: I have always had an itch to see landscape in a way that feels true to me.

To give an idea of what I mean: 19th-century American landscape painters show so much influence from European romanticism that they hardly seem to have seen America at all. They appear to have seen instead the images they carried in their minds from great European landscape paintings, and also from European romantic poetry and philosophy. I don’t want to see landscape that way, and I don’t buy the idea that we all do, no matter how hard we try.

Here’s how this relates to wine: I spend a fair amount of time in Napa, and I find the natural environment of the Napa Valley terrifically beautiful. The place has a lovely climate, those beautiful hills close by to the east and to the west, and unusual light. Last weekend, during my jaunt up to Cyrus and then back over to Calistoga and down through the Napa Valley, I caught this scene at its finest—that early autumn moment when the light comes low and golden over the hills and the vine leaves range from bright green through gold and into deep reds. But I’m constantly struggling with how to think about the vineyards, how to see them.

There’s just so much sentiment around vineyards, so much of a cultural commitment to the idea of them as romantic (in the contemporary sense of the word, as pertaining to love and the external conditions that encourage feelings of love). Some of this comes from European winegrowing landscapes, where the vineyards form a piece of a larger vision of life, like in those ridiculously picturesque Provençal villages, or among the châteaux of the Loire.

So the other thing that happened, as I was admiring Napa, was a return of a familiar discomfort—a kind of aesthetic frustration, as I try to decide what the Napa landscape means to me, and don’t quite pull it off. This was very early in the morning, my wife and I had left our absurd lodgings at the too-grapy Silver Rose and were driving south toward a bakery/café in St. Helena, and the sun was just burning off the fog. I wanted to let the beauty of the scene sweep over me, and I wondered what my problem was, why I felt my old Napa orneriness coming back. So I tried sorting it out, and here’s the direction the effort went: toward seeing the Napa Valley at dawn as a commercial agricultural landscape that is also achingly beautiful; much of it corporate-owned in the service of an international booze industry, and indeed pastoral and peaceful; groomed and developed and built up with empty faux-châteaus in the spirit of good old American hucksterism, offering a harmless good-life fantasy to wine country tourists. And, again, as pretty a place as I’ve ever seen.

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