‘Jessica H. Green came to wine via a background in scholarship and journalism. During a high school year in France, she toured a vineyard for the first time and developed a life-long interest in wine. She was a Morehead-Cain scholar at the University of Chapel Hill and earned an MA in Renaissance Studies at Yale. She studied at the University of Bologna and later spent a year in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. For five years, she lived in Lyon, France, between Beaujolais and the wines of the Northern Rhône. She has pursued a career in publishing, as a book and magazine editor, a literary agent, and now as a writer. Her articles on wine have appeared in trade and consumer publications including The Wall Street Journal, American Express Publications, and Beverage Dynamics. She earned the WSET Diploma in 2009 and is a candidate for Master of Wine. She was recently awarded the inaugural SommFoundation David A. Carpenter Master of Wine Scholarship to support her studies. At the International Wine Center in New York, she teaches WSET Levels 1 through 4 (Diploma).’ Her (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition follows.
It wasn’t a celebrated vintage. It wasn’t in a bottle. In fact, I didn’t even taste it—I felt it.
One fall morning in the Languedoc, a bus struggled up a winding, dusty road and brought twenty-odd classmates and me to a small patch of vines on an arid plateau where little else grew. I was 16 years old.
As we tumbled out of the bus, unfolding gangly limbs, we shielded our eyes from the unfamiliar sun. We were visiting from Brittany, where it hadn’t stopped raining for a month. A farmer, the vigneron, shook each of our hands as we got off the bus—a gesture that seemed more formal than we deserved. This was a serious visit. I was excited.
I didn’t grow up in a wine-drinking family. In the United States in the 1970s, wine was an exotic rarity. My parents bought an occasional bottle of Matteus or Blue Nun for parties in our home, served alongside beer or cocktails. Later, though, my step-mother, Sylvie, whose father was French, introduced me to the tradition of wine with dinner. Even as a pre-teen, I was allowed a glass of wine mixed with water at the table, and by high school, I was served a proper glass alongside them, in modest quantities. It felt civilized and grown-up. Most of all: it was delicious.
On my school year abroad, I lived with a French family who also drank wine at dinner, and to my delight, I was offered a small tumbler as well. Most days, the wine was poured from unlabeled bottles that we filled in the basement from two large casks—one for white wine, one for red. We mostly drank red. On special occasions, like New Year’s Eve or an engagement party, a glass of Kir would precede the still wine, and it would all be followed by an eau-de-vie with a handwritten tag—pears from Madame le Bayon, apples from grandmother’s house. The spectrum of delicious expanded, but still wine delighted me most.
I had never considered the source of the flavor, though. It sounds silly, but wine struck me as a kind of magical elixir, rather than a man-made product. In New England, I never saw a vineyard. I saw orchards with cider presses, maple trees and sugaring houses transforming sap into syrup. I loved to pick wild blueberries in Maine and raspberries from prickly bushes in Connecticut. I once picked all the cherries from a tree at our Massachusetts home and proudly baked a pie with them.
But here in Southern France, the landscape was wild. It looked like a place you would find a cactus rather than a vine—but what did I know? Nothing at all. Here were rows of little knarled trunks with spindly wooden arms and some colorful leaves—no fruit. The grapes had all been picked already. I suddenly had the naïve realization that wine began with a plant, and one that grew in a specific place, with specific challenges of weather and soil. One that needed tending.
The vigneron then brought us out of the sun into the darkness of the chai, which looked like a barn. The smell enveloped us. You know the smell--but I had never smelled it before: fermenting grapes. Strong, unique.
We followed him single file past harvesting equipment, sinks, and large foudres on the first floor up a creaky wooden staircase to the loft, where open wooden vats were lined up near the open barn windows. The thrilling smell grew stronger. A gentle sound came from the vats: bubbling.
It is difficult to explain how engaged all of my senses were at that moment: the cool dark air after the bright arid vineyard, the sound of wooden boards groaning underfoot, the mysterious gurgling—and the almost overwhelming aroma. We all stared at the vats.
The vigneron then did something I will never forget. He grasped my wrist and thrust my hand over the nearest vat. Chaud! I said. It was hot! Are they heated? I asked stupidly, and the kind vigneron smiled. That’s fermentation, changing the grapes into wine, he said quietly, with respect for the awe I was feeling.
It has never left me, that awe.