Echoes of Earth: Landscapes Interpreting the Terroir of Eastern Washington
This series of paintings reflects an exploration of the French enological concept of terroir. The word terroir means quite literally “earth,” and it refers to a discrete set of geological, climatic, and cultural characteristics that make a certain winemaking region unique. However, terroir is an unusual means for measure in that it appears to be unrelentingly philosophical—calling for a deliberate form of habitation and practice, for a meditative relationship to the earth and its cycles, for evocation rather than determination. Unlike specific descriptors such as vintage and variety, terroir is a form of translation: while it describes the land, it also calls forth the landscape—that is, it calls forth the ways that land is rendered by our imagination. And it does this through the marvelously transcendental vehicle of wine.
The act of painting is also a form of translation. In this case, I chose to translate the landscape of Eastern Washington as illuminated by terroir (thus creating something of a mirror within a mirror). These are paintings of and about wine and the act of drinking, about region and the history of place, about the earth and the essence of terrestrial matter. These are landscapes that examine the way they inhabit and are deformed by the imagination when their inception—their material formation—is directed by pigments made of the very materials that the paintings consider. Thus, they are tools for rendering the familiar unfamiliar and in so doing extracting dreams from the solid and concrete.
It is this conflation of the physical and the philosophical that first attracted my attention. It occurred to me that the concept of terroir contained certain similarities to material explorations central to what I seek to accomplish in my own painting approach. In particular, it resonated with my own search for materials that can be simultaneously understood as elemental and as agents of metaphysical transformation. And because the term terroir is primarily evocative and involves trajectories of the imagination, it has become a powerful generative frame for my rather divergent painting discipline.
There are questions about wine and terroir that might be equally revealing when applied to painting. For instance, what does it mean to say that a given wine exhibits terroir? What does it mean to make wine that is of a specific place? For those interested in such questions, terroir has become a rallying point around which to understand and evaluate the success of a given cup of wine. It is as if the wine were an intermediary, a form of lens through which one can look back into a small square of earth, down into the great geological forces that shaped the land and the chemistry of the stones, up into the canopy of a given trellis of grapes and the care given to the vines, follow the sun's summer journey across the land, and gain crucial insight to the vision of a given winemaker. The wine becomes story and storyteller. If one is lucky, a cup of wine understood in this way becomes a means for alignment with heaven and earth. The act of drinking becomes a philosophy: it becomes a statement of spirit. In this microcosm, the dream of wine moves from liquid to earth, air, and fire.
My exploration of terroir began as something of a blend between an empirical study and an intuitive experiment. I decided to see what would happen if I attempted to interpret terroir quite literally in my paintings. What does it mean to say that a painting exhibits terroir? That the very pigments of the paintings came from the vineyards of Eastern Washington, from the rocks and earth, from the vines, from the grapes, from the wine itself? In short, how might I transform the art of wine into art on paper? What does it mean to temper the earth, to make landscape paintings informed by a specific place? And finally, as an aesthetic creature, I am interested in the way this act might inform an understanding of what it means to reside in Walla Walla and indeed of our relationship to the earth here?
To this end, I called two friends who are involved in the wine industry in Walla Walla, both of whom are deeply interested in terroir: Casey McClellan, winemaker for Seven Hills Winery, and Kevin Pogue, professor of geology at Whitman College and consultant to many of the wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. In late spring of 2007, the three of us traveled across southeastern Washington and visited many of the vineyards where Casey gets his grapes. These included Seven Hills, Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Stone Tree, Evergreen, and Clifton vineyards. And as we traveled, Kevin related mind-bending accounts of the forces and events that shaped the land we were seeing. At each vineyard I collected stones and soil, and Kevin identified them and recounted the way they came to be in their present location. Casey discussed the history of the grapes he uses to make his wines, showed us the very rows and vines where his grapes came from, and commented on the qualities that he believed to be significant for each site. Our conversations followed the terrain, and the subjects of our contemplations were often directed by our hands. Upon our return, I ground all of the stones and soils into fine powder to use as pigments for painting. And, with cup in hand, I interviewed Casey about his wines and the structure of his vision.
Several things struck me from my conversations with Kevin and Casey. Primary among these is that terroir is closely tied to observation, and, in particular, it seems that terroir gains meaning principally by retrospection. This looking back (or tasting back as the case may be—retrogustation) follows many trajectories, three of which seem essential. First, terroir asks that we examine the great sweep of geological history that shaped the earth and determined the soils where the grapes are being grown. Second, it asks that we consider the history of the grape (Vitis vinifera), its many varieties, its coevolution with humans, its fruit as the measure of a single year. And, ultimately, as terroir seems to be most potent and clear when it is coupled with the vision of a single winemaker, it asks that we give homage and deliberation to a given cup of wine—understanding that that cup is the fulfilling of a past vision (a vision that was, at one point, a projection into the future) and the agent that carried that vision into the present.
This tripartite structure of retrospection became the compositional foundation for these paintings. To each part I assigned pigments, structures, and momentums. To the earth I assigned the mineral pigments and structures and momentum reminiscent of floods and gravel bars and basalt outcrops. The manifestation of earth is located primarily in the lower half of the paintings. To the vine and the grape I assigned the organic pigments. These pigments became the counterbalance to the earth, forming the vault of the sky and giving structure to wind and air. To the vision of the winemaker I assigned both mineral and organic pigments that accessed light and color. The vision of wine and the swirl of wine in a cup became a luminous sphere and a momentous circle floating in the heavens.
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that wine could be understood as both story and storyteller. In these paintings, the pigments can be understood as mirrors reflecting the multiple stories that make up terroir. However, this metonymic quality only works if the stories are known. So, let me begin with the mineral pigments and some of their stories as related to me by Kevin Pogue.[i] All of the mineral pigments in these paintings derive from the vineyards listed above and include basalt, opal, loess, sand, silt, and petrified wood. I used them to gather the earth and its stories into these paintings.
From the vantage of terroir, the wines of Eastern Washington and the Columbia Valley are steeped in catastrophe. Geologically, this is young earth, earth that still reveals the scars of its violent formation. The bedrock in the region is almost entirely basalt. Basalt is an igneous rock and forms when gigantic cracks open in the crust of the earth and lava flows out in huge molten floods across the earth's surface. Between 16 and 6 million years ago, more than 200 of these floods emplaced some 90 thousand cubic miles of basalt in the Columbia Valley, resulting in areas where these flows are up to 2 miles thick. In certain vineyards, such as Stone Tree and Evergreen, the grapes are rooting through the surficial sediments and into these basalt flows. In several of the paintings, I used the basalt as a pigment, along with siliceous materials such as opal that formed in vesicles in the stones.
It was surprising to realize that there are no native soils in the vineyards we visited. What this means is that, rather than forming in situ by chemical and mechanical weathering, all of the soils were transported to their current locations by wind or water. The rich loess of the Palouse was deposited by wind that swept up fine silts from the surface of the barren mudflats left behind after each Missoula flood. The soil from Seven Hills Vineyard is an example of this loess.
The remainder of the soils from which I gathered my mineral pigments were deposited directly by water. Near the end of the last ice age—between 15 and 12 thousand years ago, near the current border of Idaho and Montana—advancing glaciers repeatedly created a giant ice dam across the Clark Fork River. A huge lake was impounded behind this dam. Every few decades the dam would break, sending massive walls of water across what is now Eastern Washington. These floods, some 500 feet in depth and traveling at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour, scoured everything in their path, creating the giant potholes, coulees, and dry falls that we see today. The floods carried vast quantities of silt, sand, and gravel as well as much larger stones lodged in huge pieces of ice. These icebergs traveled with the torrent of water until the water drained away, leaving them stranded on the barren floodplains. Eventually, the ice melted and the stones dropped out. Known as ice-rafted erratics, these are some of the most unusual stones in the area, coming from great distances. I picked up several of these erratics at Klipsun Vineyard, including a piece of petrified wood that had been deposited during one of the floods. I also collected flood-deposited sand and gravel from Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval vineyards.
In these paintings I use two organic pigments, both derived from Vitis vinifera: carbon black and the anthocyanins found in grape skins. Vitis vinifera is a Eurasian plant native to the Mediterranean and southwestern Asia. Its history is closely wrapped in our own cultural history with evidence of its cultivation beginning nearly 6,500 years ago. When the European settlers came to North America, they brought the grape with them. Thus, the grapes are calling forth Old World memories—wines of the Rioja region, say, or those of Bordeaux or perhaps the hedonistic dances of Bacchus and Dionysius. It so happens that one of the most celebrated carbon black pigments is made by burning grape vines and grape lees. Known as French vine black, it is a byproduct of the French wine industry. I chose to use this pigment to pay tribute to this grand journey of the vine. And I chose to mix these carbons with small quantities of Casey's wines from 2006, including Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah. Red wine gains much of its color from pigments known collectively as anthocyanins. To my knowledge, they have not been used in painting as they are extremely fugitive. However, in these paintings I deliberately mixed them with carbon black so that they would not be visually perceptible, except perhaps as a kind of shadow formed by the knowledge of their presence.
No painting exploring terroir would be complete without the culture and vision of winemakers. Understanding terroir involves a gradual accrual of information over many years. For ancient wine regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, with their distinct enological practices, terroir has become quite clear. However, in Walla Walla, where winemaking has been practiced for little more than three decades, the question of terroir remains open. Casey is part of the vanguard exploring this question. To this end, his winemaking is extremely measured, in part because it allows him to assess his wines and how they change from year to year in a meaningful way, learning incrementally the nature of a given site.
Of all the parts of this project, understanding the vision and practice of another person has presented the greatest challenge, as it requires entering into a rather delicate space where trespass comes easily. Rendering it as an abstraction is perhaps harder still. What I discovered from my conversations with Casey is that his vision is one of evolving taste and smell. And, to make it even more complex, it involves the projection of a living liquid into the future. I began to sense a strong synaesthetic undercurrent to his undertaking: oddly, he rarely talked of taste and smell, choosing instead to speak of sound, light, texture, dimensionality, and structure. It was as if these other means of measure provided some way of triangulating the qualities he sought. He talked of layers within the wine, wine having different notes (high and low), wine as a symphony, wine being three-dimensional, wine as having directionality. And finally, he discussed experiencing a wine as a sphere: “When I taste a wine that approaches perfection, it can be a transcendent experience. It is a form of luminous sphere, perfectly balanced and transparent in its structure.” The spheres and circles found in these paintings are composed of many of the same materials that inform Casey's sense of terroir, including petrified wood, opal, and French vine black. The circle beckons the swirl of wine in the glass, which in turn calls for a return to its origins in the earth.
This is a project that began as a conversation among a winemaker, a geologist, and an artist (another type of triangulation). Each art and field of study can be understood as a separate means by which we can avail ourselves of another way of considering something, in this case, the concept of terroir. The complexities and subtleties of terroir do not give themselves up readily; in a sense, it is a subject that requires multiple levels of interpretation and cross-examination. These paintings provide an interpretation in the language of the materials themselves and the forms they call forward. In both painting and the making of wine, the tempering of earth becomes a statement of light.
[i] Detailed accounts of the geology of the region can be found in the following publications:
John Eliot Allen, Marjorie Burns, and Sam C. Sargent, Cataclysms on the Columbia: A Layman's Guide to the Features Produced by the Catastrophic Bretz Floods in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1986).
Kevin Pogue, Erratics: Photographs by Charles Katz, Jr. (Walla Walla, WA: Sheehan Art Gallery, 2000).
William N. Orr and Elizabeth L. Orr, Geology of the Pacific Northwest (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002).