Call it beginner’s luck, but the first places I ever visited wineries were in Italy’s Piedmont region and the Napa Valley. I was, on both trips, a twentysomething travel writer whose bank account laughed at the prospect of buying premium bottles from either place, but that’s not the point.
The point is that I experienced two extremes of the winemaking world that have shaped my understanding of it.
In Piedmont, I didn’t visit one of the great Barolo or Barbaresco houses. This trip was meant to display the many tourism offerings in the province of Alessandria— hot springs, castles, truffles and, yes, a little bit of wine.
My group visited a small winery that mostly distributed locally. Our van pulled up at the gate, and the guide hopped out to talk to a gentleman in a pageboy hat.
“He wasn’t sure if we were coming today or tomorrow,” the guide told us as the gate opened. We went straight into the barrel room, its doors wide open, and that deep, astringent aroma of fermentation and grape skins was like a solid object thrust in front of me. I was in love. A cat watched us from between barrels, a dog just outside wagged its tail without bothering to get up. The air, the stone walls, everything was cool and damp.
My lingering impression from that visit was that wine was a natural, living thing and a casual component of daily life.
Four or five months later, another trip showed me a different side of wine.
This time, the van pulled up in front of a building where staff stood outside awaiting our arrival. We saw the property’s art collection and heard the story of the titans who started the business.
The winery tour commenced, with a guide giving explanations about technologies used in automated optic sorting tables and temperature control. It culminated in a tasting in the clean, odorless blending lab.
Here, I learned that wine is science. It can be manipulated and precisely calibrated while still expressing terroir. (I’d later learn this same spectrum exists in vineyard management, and how viticulturists balance precision and nature.)
Maybe it’s because the wines I tasted in both places were excellent, but I’ve never felt any conflict between these approaches. In both cases, people are using what’s available to them to make the best wines they can. Of course, I have my own preferences along that spectrum; tasting and discovering those has been half the fun.