Falling Awake: Wine is many things

Mary Lou Sanelli

Mary Lou Sanelli

It rained almost every day during the week I was to meet Emily Parsons, owner of Eagle Harbor Wine Company on Bainbridge Island. It is raining today. But I don’t mind. It means I got to ride the ferry and then sit here alone in Emily’s tasting room. It’s the first time I’ve been in a winery when it isn’t full of people, when it wasn’t humming with conversation. 

Either way, a tasting room is always a luxury. And like most luxuries, best appreciated in small doses (or tastes, under the circumstances). When it becomes habitual, it loses a lot of its allure. This advice was one of the most useful points of guidance I’ve ever received. 

Not that it did much good. 

At the end of my day, my taste buds ask, what are you in the mood for? Red or rosé? A glass of wine (in a stem glass please and not full to the brim but surely more than a taste) has been my ritual for, like, ever. Does this make it habitual? I’ll say. Which leads me to think, is this too much wine? I think it is. Not. I think it is not.    

Wine can be many things, including a passion, which it is for Emily, that much is clear when you taste her wines. But for some, it can be a trigger. Not emotionally devastating, but a trigger’s a trigger. (I was dealing with a lot at the time, including my dad living so long and well that he has completely outlived his money. He says it’s the wine!). 

Nothing has rooted me in my family’s history quite like the memory of my father’s musty wine cellar. Or how his overalls were stained red. And his hands. This would seem fine today, artful, but as a kid, it embarrassed me because everyone else’s dad wore a suit and worked at Travelers insurance. 

But here is the real trigger: I still feel like I missed out on a lot by not learning how to make wine, or even talk about it, as a kid. And talking to a winemaker made it all the more clear that once I’m triggered, writing helps make sense of how the past effects my present. That’s really it. By writing about wine making, I am trying to hold on to my dad’s tradition.

Most of us need no convincing that all wines are not equal, but fewer of us understand why one wine makes you say, “this is really good,” while another makes you cry, “oh my god, this sucks”—an accurate description sometimes, if not a shining example of sommelier speak. If anything, we take a lot of the process for granted.   

Here is where I can imagine my readers wondering if I am about to compare Emily’s wine to other wines made in the Seattle area. I can also imagine the inner-censor that will try to keep me from saying what I think: Should I say that? What will people think? Should I say that? 

I’m saying it: Emily’s wine hits my tongue in a smoother, softer manner, that’s what I think. 

And it’s impossible to unthink what you think. The first sip I had of her Sangiovese I thought, Oh. Oh, wow. When I served it at a dinner party back in March, I remember telling my guests something like, “Just like I don’t want to read a book that doesn’t come from a person’s soul, nor do I want to drink wine that is not an outpouring of passion.” My friend Mike raised his glass.

When you interview someone, you constantly ask, like a parent, the whys? And why nots? So why is Emily’s wine so good? This is the first question I ask her once she joins me. To begin with, she says, she ferments only in French oak barrels and stainless steel vats, never plastic. She avoids all plastics in production. And that’s huge. You can’t expect the daughter of winemaker to not taste the difference.

Long backstory short: Emily tasted her first “real wine” in Portugal at the age of sixteen. It was a Vinho Verde. To this day, she remembers that wine, that taste, that experience. In the late 80’s, when Emily lived in Boulder, she was introduced to two master sommeliers and “to the language of wine.” 

To make quality wine, I think someone has had to slowly learn to watch, taste, smell; be humbled and devastatingly disappointed, before making a vintage that tastes as if it fills what is missing. Because that’s what it is, what a good wine is. It fills you with childlike exuberance. And joy.

Emily bought the winery ten years ago — because she was ready to and because she could ­— and her anniversary is in October. I hope you’ll take the ferry over and join in the celebration. What a fun time it will be for all of the wine drinkers.

But for the wine maker? 

Well, October is high crush season. It’s hard to relax and enjoy your own party when you are in the throes of how risky risk is.

But I swear to you on my departed cat’s grave, that I will be there enjoying myself. Will it be like sipping wine in Portugal? Or Boulder? I don’t know. I’ve never sipped wine in Portugal or Boulder. But it will definitely be just like sipping wine on a nearby island.

Mary Lou Sanelli's newest collection of essays about living in the Northwest, In So Many Words, is due out in September. A professional speaker and a master dance teacher, she has written a column for this paper.