Once a year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, Image’s Glen Workshop gathers writers, poets, painters, photographers and artists to a place of respite, an extended Sabbath, where creativity is nurtured in the communal context of like-minded souls. As a child, New Mexico was that perennial escape from the merciless Texas summers, a land of enchantment where Franciscan monasteries and Native American folk art existed side by side. Returning to the Southwest on the mystic mountain drive from Albuquerque to the mile-high elevation of Santa Fe was a journey into my memory of a Georgia O’Keeffe landscape with coneflower blue skies and rugged land.
As an aspiring art critic, I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend the week screening films and learning more about wine and viticulture. Both seminars were phenomenological exercises in contemplation through visual and oral experiences, offering structured spaces to slow down and attend to particular artistic mediums, whether film or food. It was not until midweek that I attended the workshop on wine and spirituality with sommelier Adam McHugh from Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat winery. We began with rosé, not a White Zinfandel blush mind you, but a young French Mondeuse in a sparkling salmon hue reminiscent of a sumptuous Chloé gown. Next came a buttery Chardonnay, followed by an alluring Pinot Noir which interrupted my tastebuds with its balance and all-over silky body feel.
Similar to coffees, my earlier wine selections had been heavy-bodied, bold flavors filled with swagger and bravado, establishing a presence with little nuance. After working this summer for a handcrafted coffee shop in North Carolina, my knowledge of coffee expanded, mapping taste onto global regions. Formerly I had avoided lighter coffee roasts because I wanted a full syrupy body, such as an oily French Roast, that could carry cream nicely. But when I began drinking coffee black (blame it on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), I realized that the coffee I consumed was like burnt baked goods and the wine I drank was reminiscent of arsenic. It was Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with its the floral, tea-like body, that seduced me with its nuanced and sun-warmed flavors. Likewise, it was that Pinot Noir that arrested my palette with those cherry flavors and velvety tannins.
The desert landscape and California wines were immensely pleasurable and they got better with every sip. Whirling the Pinot Noir round in my glass, watching its legs drip down the sides of the bowl, I perceived its variegated, ombré tones ranging from ruby to carmine, tilting the glass sideways to observe its clarity and density. Mindfully sipping and slurping, I measured its complex structure, viscosity, acidity, and its finish—absorbing all its sensuous and erotic materiality.
My mother has often called me a Pinot Noir. Perhaps made recently popular by its appearance in Alexander Payne’s film Sideways (2004), the main character Miles describes Pinot Noir as he might himself: “thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early… not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected.” He elaborates that Pinot needs tender care in specific locations, only by the most patient and knowledgeable horticulturists. Yet the rewards are its flavors which are “haunting, brilliant, thrilling and subtle.” It was there in the wine seminar that the human qualities of the grapes and our own personality quirks and characteristics began to show themselves. McHugh, our resident sommelier, insisted that despite all its delicate and complex needs, if Pinot Noir finds the right terroir—it is beautiful.
Wine’s terroir attends to the specificity of a place, contingent on at least three variables: character, quality and personality. Character is the result of matured attributes in the land due to complex root systems, terrain and rich soils, ameliorated over time. Winemakers are responsible to maximize the quality of terroir by harvesting and aging the grapes according to what the varietal needs to showcase its peculiar attributes. Personality is contingent on the region’s day-to-day weather, giving each vintage distinctive characteristics. Thus terroir is the land’s archaeological memory, attesting to its history of cultivation through smell and flavor.
McHugh explained that wine’s expression of place is much like the color palette of landscape, recreating a sense of atmosphere. Just like Cézanne’s countless painted renderings of Mount Sainte Victoire and Monet’s Haystacks are not nearly as much about a photographic likeness (or mimesis) of a place as it is conveying the true essence, wine is an impression of the land in both mood and personality. What do these many dashes and strokes, sips and slurps evoke in us? A sense of how the light framed the mountain this day or emoted peach and cerulean sunrises the next?
It is the same with wine, in both its fragrance and tasting notes, from one year to the next. McHugh explained that the French organize their wines by region, unlike Americans who label by the grape varietal. In this way, the French allow the place—the terroir—to speak. Wine is the diplomat attesting to the subtitles from its soils through both taste and aromas. Are we listening and attending to what is speaking? Chalk, earth, wet stone, smoke, spice, currant? Minerality and woodiness or grassy and citrus? Are these descriptions superfluous or do they seek to affirm that qualia of being—phenomenal properties of subjective experiences? The “thisness” or “thatness” of the wine (or coffee or color et al) make it different and unique from anything else. This grammar of description from conscious observation cultivates an awareness of what is already there and continually speaking. Perception is primary in our communion in and with the world.
Dust caked my sandals on the walk down from St. John’s College into town, passing adobe walls and turquoise doors, surrounded by lavender and cacti, Spanish gates and iron scrollwork—the aesthetics gems of the southwest. That crisp contracted mountain air, low-hung cottony clouds, the expansive horizon. As the films and the wine marinated my mind, I wandered in and out of contemporary art galleries, perused the open markets of handcrafted Navajo and Zuni Native American jewelry, on the hunt for that ever-elusive thunderbird ring. Quotidian New Mexican staples such as chilies, tequila and chocolate were a part of the daily ritual—whether it was Secreto’s añejo smoked sage margarita or an order of “Christmas” (green and red chilies) at Cafe Pasqual’s over huevos rancheros, or even at a visit to the Mayan chocolate shop Kakawa, for their exotic cacao elixirs. The spicy flavors and punchy colors animated a vibrant cultural energy in the historic mission town.
Walking up to Mass in the Saint Francis Basilica downtown, I thought differently about the wine I would receive in the Eucharist. The sweetness of the port served from turquoise and coral-graced hands before the wooden saint retablos felt simultaneously sacred and as ordinary as the wine I had sipped all week. I thought about monastic horticulture practiced by the monks in order to have elements for the sacraments that we had discussed in the wine seminar. I also pondered an aspect of keynote lecture given by Image’s Editor-in-Chief Gregory Wolfe when he discussed the intrinsic relationship between horticulture and the liturgy of the Mass. When the gifts of bread and wine are brought before the priest in the Great Thanksgiving, he noted, it is significant that they are not merely grain and grapes. Rather, it is the work of human hands to transfigure harvested elements into staples of gastronomic sustenance, which are in turn lifted up and confected as Christ’s body. This moment called the “confection”, is where the art of our making and divine transformation meet, and in turn, states theologian Henri de Lubac, the place where “confection in the Eucharist makes the Mystical Body—the Church.”
After these workshops on the material and spiritual richness of wine and food, one might find it odd that the Eucharist appears so meager, so sparse. During one of the afternoon faculty workshops, professor Lauren Winner read from her recent book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and Overlooked Ways of Meeting God on discovering abundance in the simplicity of the Eucharistic meal: “Some days I wish our Eucharistic meal in church were a bit more like a real meal, thick slices of focaccia and glasses of cabernet. But I have come to appreciate the small wafer, the small sip of wine. In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and a small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.”
Part of the Glen experience is a finding a new conception of plenty through subtlety, remembering to taste and see alongside others. It offers space that the self needs in order to become what it was intended to be. Like Winner’s essay of finding God in artisanal bread and wine, the Glen extends that discovery to chilies and tequila, coffee and chocolate, film screenings and wine seminars, all acting as participatory exercises in relishing delight, wonder and excess. By becoming attentive to the world around me, I fundamentally encounter Being.
In The Zen of Seeing, Frederick Franck names this “an unwavering attention to a world that is fully alive…a direct perception of and insight into the presence, the transiency, and the finitude I share with all beings…a fleetingness that makes this moment infinitely precious.” By learning to savor what is ephemeral, I behold life’s impermanence, and its evanescent flashes of beauty. Observing and absorbing these many saturated yet elusive moments, I acknowledge the sheer gift and divine miracle of being awake.
Moments such as the evening golden hour when Tom and Alissa Wilkinson, Adam McHugh and I sat witnessing the mountains and sagebrush awash in soft dusk tones, the sunset light cutting thru our glasses with its coral hues, incandescent sweat running down the bottle—a rosé-colored lens of the world. As the August monsoon weather shifted its moods into a light rain, I sat unmoved as the droplets increased and distant lightning scampered across the desertscape like an Ansel Adams’ photograph. Those unfolding moments attested to the richness of the southwest terroir, a memory of friendships newly formed and of wine’s intoxicating warmth. Each bottle of Pinot Noir I continue to open will remind me of the New Mexican mountains during that octave of dreamy summer days; its taste arousing me to be gloriously and deliciously alive.