Monday, September 27, 2010

Midnight Chickens and Other Thoughts

There are times in your life when you just have to laugh in sheer disbelief of where and what you are doing. Do you know what I mean? These are the times that require you to reflect on just how you got to this strange and wonderful moment, and yet refuse a rational explanation of cause and effect. I had just such a moment the other night, riding atop what appeared to be a giant mechanical chicken sailing calmly over a sea of vines. I was surfing a wave of future wine under the kind of full moon which you can sense even when you are turned away because it pulls mysteriously at the hairs on the back of your neck, summoning the tidal origins of human life. It was one of those kinds of moments, and what can you do, I laughed…

It was the end of the first day of the harvest. The giant mechanical chicken was not actually a chicken, but rather a mechanical harvester that appears avian as it lowers itself onto a new row of vines to begin collecting grapes. While they may be the most salient technical artifact I have observed, the mechanical harvesters are only one part of the web of scientific and technological tools and practices which enable this sort of winemaking. Before the mighty mechanized hens pluck the green orbs from their sockets, years of research has gone into developing this plot of land, miles of wire trellising have to be skillfully erected, a myriad of chemical treatments are purchased and applied, and teams of experts have conferred their knowledge onto those pruning, planting and maintaining each plant. Similarly, after the grapes are shaken off the vine they are poured into a tractor trailer, hauled to the chai (winery in French), destemmed, pressed and fermented; all processes that have been honed by the précising principles of scientific discourse, both material and methodological. A fully trained oenelogue oversees the project and is always on call, sulfides and enzymes are added in measured dose, and once the grapes lose touch with the vine they are caressed by stainless steel and plastic polymers (or recently Kevlar) until that juice hits the bottle.

Bruno Latour once described picking up a hammer as reaching into a folded garland of heterogeneous times and places, and I would like to extend this metaphor to a bottle of wine. The wine contained in that sturdy glass tube holds together disparate years of toil and soil as tightly as it does the hundreds of places its contents could be argued to have originated. The next time you pick up a bottle of wine at the store, try imagining all of the various requirements which made that bottle possible. You could start with the physical, chemical, and biological since they are innumerate. Next, the materials harvested, mined, melted and forged. The knowledge of viticulture and viniculture gained, traded, passed and stolen. And finally the mixing of all of this knowledge and material goods in the actions, the seeding, weeding, packing and unpacking which allow you to hold exactly one perfectly whole bottle of Pinot Gris in your

hands. Cool huh? Or, you can just enjoy the wine…I have been doing both!

This morning I had my first few hours assisting with the actual fermentation of the harvest in the Chai. We measured the initial concentration of sugars and proteins in the must, checked the temperature in all of the tanks, and even pitched the yeast for a few batches. For the rest of the week I will be doing the same. Check out some of my pictures for more visual meditations on the techniques and technologies I have been encountering.

Next up, I head to Edinburgh, Scotland, to check out mead, whiskey, cheese and more!


  1. Hello Max - I've had NO idea. All these years of drinking wine. None. The bottles of wine line the shelves of various stores and I make my choices based on the cost or the name or the label. I'm fascinated by your descriptions and more than a little chagrined at my ignorance. Thanks for sharing your illuminations and the depth of your understanding. Safe travels to Scotland. Jean

  2. Howdy there you Bacchanalian buckeroo! I say NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT! Long ago I studied wines and winemaking but I have never participated in the way you are now. How wonderful to be a part of this creative process. Love you Max. oxoxox corbin

  3. Thanks again you two. I am happy you guys are along for the ride. At least in virtual form if not in physical...Hope your doing well yourselves...