Viticulture

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

You never know who you’ll meet at a wine tasting bar. Last week, I met a Roller-Derby gal in what you might think an unlikely place. Becky and I were sightseeing in the Columbia River Gorge and decided to stop at the “best winery in Oregon,” at least as rated in 2007. We’ve found you meet all sorts of interesting people sipping small samples of wine.

The renowned theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” Was he was alluding to the physics of swirling atoms held by melted silicates (glass), representing atoms throughout the cosmos? Or was he waxing poetically?

Relax, this essay will not be some slant on physics, though I read a book on the essentials of physics while traveling. One has more downtime sitting in airports and traveling. There seems to be more distractions at home, and there’s always something that needs doing on our farm. Traveling lends time to more worthy endeavors like sightseeing, reading and sipping.

Becky and I are just back from a trip to Portland, Oregon, to visit my daughter, son-in-law and especially my granddaughter. Cleo is the latest addition to the assemblage of grandchildren, aka the “cute ones.” I love my life, I love my wife and I love my two daughters. However, I worship my grandchildren.

Portland lies along the Willamette River, a tributary of the mighty Columbia River. The area has far better conditions for growing grapes than Knoxville and produces some of the finest Pinot Noir in the world. I read a book called “A History in Six Beverages.” Excluding water, which is necessary for life, the author traces civilization through drink. Twelve thousand years ago, at the end of the last ice age, numerous wild grains flourished in Mesopotamia. Analysis showed that a family of four working ten hours a day could gather enough grain to sustain themselves instead of following herds and hunting. “Fortunately,” storage was imperfect and grains inevitably got wet and exposed to wild yeast. And, Voila! Beer was discovered. The Sumerians were beer makers and invented writing around 3000 BC.

Grapes contain higher sugar concentrations than grains, and fermenting the fruit of the vine led to the drink of kings. You may be surprised to learn that Arab cultures discovered distillation of fermented beverages, producing spirits long before Muhammad banned alcohol in the 7th century AD. And finally, according to the author, tea, then coffee and lastly Coca-Cola were associated with civilization’s advancement.

The Master often delivered his messages in association with shared meals, recognizing the civilizing effects of this ritual. Wine was important in antiquity and Jesus made wine a part of The Lord’s Supper, the most important ritual in Christianity.

Anything can be misused, including guns, knives, drugs and, of course, alcohol. Some years ago the label of Mondavi Wines stated that wine was the drink of kings, poets and philosophers. And, if used in moderation, is part of the good life and our culture. I am not a king or a poet, but otherwise I agree with Mondavi.

On our recent travels, we met an old friend around my daughter’s dinner table. And after breaking bread we shared deep thoughts, perhaps liberated by a good bottle of wine. My thoughts are not as wise as the Master’s, but in a setting of mutual respect, you discover more in common than differences.

Just like my oakleaf hydrangea, my grape vines on Thistle Farm are bursting forth with new growth. Recently, I came upon a poem by Robert Frost in another of my “travel books.” Like me, Frost noticed the unique and transient color of spring’s first offering:

 

“Nature’s first green is gold,

The hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only for an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.”

 

I’m not sure I agree with Frost that newness dissipates. My old friend thanked me for a lovely evening, opining “much to ponder – all worthwhile.” Is it possible that Johnny Appleseed-like thoughts are sowing new growth in my friend’s heart, mind and soul?

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars, mere globs of gas atoms,” (Richard Feynman). Again, I disagree. The 18th century was the culmination of the Enlightenment which emphasized reason and observation. Isaac Newton wrote equations describing the movement of planets and Adam Smith described a calculus of economic theory. But science and observation may miss the mark. The 19th century Romantic era pushed back at the notion of a predictable, clockwork universe, asking what good does it do to describe the physics of light, yet fail to recognize the beauty of a sunset? I believe Dr. Feynman saw the beauty, as well as the physics, in the creation.

Many times in these essays I have also asked why must it be one perspective or the other instead of both? I am both a scientist and a Christian. I comprehend the physics of light and fluids yet understand that “wine is poetry in a bottle” (Robert Louis Stevenson). And understanding a bit of the physics and the elegance of creation brings me closer to the Creator.

As I consider the wonder and majesty around me, I ask if there is such a thing as an ordinary life or an ordinary human being? There are now 7.5 billion people on the third rock from the sun. Humans are not rare. Does this make us complacent when we hear of the latest murder or calamity? John Donne answered, “No!” In his Meditation XVII he wrote, “No man is an island” and “Never send for whom the bells toll…”

Wisdom writings hold that we humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and created in God’s image. I understand this to mean we are imbued with reason and a curiosity which drives us to seek our origin and our purpose. However, science is a tool, not a god, and institutionalized religion is not sacrosanct. Whether it be science or religion, dogma and mandated orthodoxy are wrong.

We are told to seek and we will find. I believe this is especially true if we search with an open heart and mind, aided by good friends and a nice claret.

 

 

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