Wine: Drinkable Art
Recently, in the course of a conversation having nothing to do with wine, I was asked to explain the difference between a talented craftsman and an artist. In the few moments during which my ego (that portion of the brain which concerns itself with how one’s words will come across when quoted) searched for a clever answer, my mouth replied, “Craftsmen strive to perfect and improve upon accepted forms, while an artist strives to invent new ones.” Though inadequate to the purpose of that particular discussion, this statement does begin to describe the winemaking calculus that distinguishes Pierre Seillan, wine master at Vérité in Sonoma County, from so many of his contemporaries.
While the best practitioners of the winemaker’s craft make it their goal to capture their vineyards’ terroir (the unique “placeness,” or a character profile of a wine that results from the influences of soil, light exposure, and weather), this achievement, for Seillan, is merely the first stage of a more elaborate analytical and creative process.
“Pierre grew up on a vineyard and helped his dad when he was 6 or 7 years old,” says Jess Jackson, owner of Vérité, as well as other prestigious California wine properties, including Lokoya, Cardinale, and La Jota vineyards. “He knows all the traditional French winemaking techniques.” After working with his family’s vineyards in Armagnac, Seillan went on to make wines in the Loire Valley, Lalande de Pomerol, St.-Emilion, and Haut-Médoc. He met Jackson in 1997 while the latter was on a trip to France. “I tasted [his] wines, and I appreciated the good viticulture,” recalls Jackson. “Everything he was doing was exceptional. But under French law, he was confined in his winemaking from blending wines between appellations and regions.”
Jackson had acquired, over time, a significant portfolio of mountain estates in California. Seillan, who had apprenticed in California as a young man, was curious to see what could be done by blending superior grapes from different regions in the state. “In Bordeaux,” Seillan explains, “we were stopped from blending a beautiful Cabernet from Pauillac with one from St.-Julien, for example. In Champagne, in Portugal, in Cognac, they choose the best terroirs—what I call the best micro crus—to blend to achieve a specific flavor.”
Here, the craft of winemaking gives way to art. When Seillan visited Jackson’s vineyards, he discovered myriad micro crus—segments of distinct soils within the vineyards that express their individual flavor profiles. “I understood the potential immediately,” Seillan says. “You select grapes from one type of soil; you ferment it in a small tank; you put it in a barrel; and you have one message according to the cru—one message of the fruit, one tannic expression, one color. You have one component. And then you create another with another micro cru.”
These components furnish the building blocks that enable Seillan, by developing meticulous combinations of different micro crus, to arrive at the perfect summary expression of the vineyards in each vintage. “The challenge is to build the wine,” he says, “to create a beautiful architecture for the wine, with a beautiful center of gravity, fantastic power, but with balance and finesse on the end.”
The complexity and beauty of Seillan’s wines have continued to grow since the inaugural 1998 vintage of Vérité (now called La Muse) and La Joie. Those who missed that remarkable first vintage now have the opportunity to acquire these wines, along with every other vintage up to the current 2003 releases, in two six-bottle collector’s vertical gift sets ($750 each) that showcase the different styles of these two stunning wines. La Muse, which emphasizes Merlot in its blend, much like the wines of Pomerol in Bordeaux, has an opulent, velvety texture and rich black cherry fruit. La Joie, a Pauillac-style wine in which Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, has dark berry and currant fruit atop a powerful, muscular structure. These limited-edition verticals (only 120 of La Joie and 240 of La Muse will be made) exemplify the winemaker’s craft. As with all fine works of art, though, expect connoisseurs to snatch them up quickly for their collections.