Let’s Get Dirty
September 19, 2018
With Labor Day weekend behind us, marking the unofficial end of summer in the U.S., I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of jobs that require actual labor, the kind that gets you sweaty and dirty, like farming. My hometown of Brookings, South Dakota is smack in the middle of an expanse of rich, black dirt that produces a bounty of cash crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, rye, oats, barley, and other grains.
There’s romance in our dirt.
Immigrants of the late 1800’s braved ocean crossings for hope of a better life and a chunk of dirt to call their own. File a claim, live on the land for five years, and it’s yours. When the dirt blew away in the 1920’s, replacing hope with desperation, novelists and photographers chronicled the devastation.
You’ll notice our list of Midwestern crops doesn’t include grapes. There’s a good reason for that. Grapes raised in rich, fertile soil are trust fund babies, pretty and enviable but rather lazy. Grapes from rocky, nutrient-deprived soil are the kids who work two jobs to get through college because making something of themselves is their only option for a better life. There are patches of incorrigible dirt throughout the middle of the country that manage to produce some interesting wines, but the Coasts have more antagonistic dirt conducive to growing grapevines.
The Europeans have the luxury of inheriting dirt and vines that have been in families for hundreds of years, with generations of experience in working the hillsides, pruning to concentrate the flavors of the vine and the amount of sunlight smiling on the grapes. Not so in the US. Thanks to the decade-plus rule of Prohibition, most of the grapevines planted in the 1880’s were ripped out 30-40 years later (although some survived to make bulk “grape juice” and communion wine), and had to be replanted at the end of the 1920’s. “Old vines” in America are at most 50-80 years old.
But here’s the thing. Terroir is much more than dirt: it’s the interaction of vineyard, climate, and people. When you don’t have 300 years of tradition to guide you, you innovate. There’s room for experimentation. Mistakes. Personality. Hope. The kind you cross oceans for.
Hope and the possibility of creating a wine so hauntingly beautiful it makes you cry carries winemakers through the five years it takes for new vines to yield enough grapes to make wine. Homesteaders and winemakers embrace unpredictability with both arms. In both cases, droughts, fires, pests, storms, floods, frosts, and hurricanes can all wipe out an entire year’s crop. Letting grapes or grains ripen a few more days must be balanced against the risk of losing them all to waterlog, rot, pests, or frost if you pick too late.
When you taste the terroir of a wine, you taste more than the dirt. You taste the winemaker’s attempt to turn the sunshine, roots, and dirt into a masterpiece.
There’s romance in their dirt, too.