Tasting Notes: A Year in Wine and Poems

By Katrina RobertsApril 19, 2013

Tasting Notes: A Year in Wine and Poems

All photographs by Katrina Roberts.

“Wine is bottled poetry.”  — Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters. 


HEADLAMPS, GLOVES, BODIES BULKED in layers of wool and fleece. We move through shadow tunnels, frozen vines and clusters silhouetted like baroque wrought-iron fences, filigreed and fierce. Midnight, mid-December, and a deep moonless dark gives way slowly as our eyes acclimate; then the cloud cover breaks, revealing a rich smatter of stars. Our exhalations lift in gauzy plumes. Over again we reach toward bunches of solid grapes, snipping to drop them into plastic bins. Temperatures have hovered in single digits for two weeks, and an acre of aisles — a grisaille canvas of vines rimed with feathers and ferns of hoarfrost — stretches before us. We have only hours before we risk losing this race to the sun. We’re making fast work of it, though with only three of us, it’ll take four more nights if the weather holds. I work quickly, wordlessly within a frigid vacuum; amplified in my temples: the slick refrain of slice and clip the cutters whisper, our recurrent chuffs when lifting crates, a snap of twig as some vole dives to avoid talons, squeaks of boots on crust, and the lyric booming pulse of my own coursing blood.

Great horned owls (calling “Who’s awake? Me, too”) sound the black velvet between trunks of cottonwoods rising from Yellowhawk Creek. All autumn, waiting for extreme temperatures to concentrate and intensify flavors, we risked losing this fruit to them, to deer, raccoons, magpies, and starlings, but didn’t. We waited, hoping powdery mildew, botrysis bunch rot, phomopsis cane and leaf spot, or one of dozens of other diseases wouldn’t spoil the grapes before a lucky snap of sustained freeze, and a late harvest. Now we stomp, nudge filled crates to row ends, load the old flatbed to idle off; all night this steady rhythm — bearing back to the crushpad trip-after-trip the bounty of a magical convergence.


We take turns warming up inside, noting the far-off embroidery of headlamps through rows out in the crystalline world. Later, we’ll reconvene to shake frozen berries like merlot marbles loose from stiff stems, load them into the age-old basket press, and begin cranking. Pomace (skins, seeds, rogue stems, ice crystals), what’s left of the must once pressed, forms a solid cake in the basket as slowly, drip-by-drip, a vat fills with juice so distilled it’s valuable as perfume. Each congealed grape’s a precious gem; each will garner a drop when squeezed, and together — once slow-fermented in barrels — will become that most rare of all viscous elixirs, a true nectar: ice wine. Such distillation sorcery! This might as well be Mesopotamia, the 2nd millennium BC, and I, the world’s first chemist, Tapputi, distilling her flowers and aromatics.

With a hand refractometer dipped, we measure the juice’s degree of brix (concentrated sugar levels): usually somewhere in the 20s; in ice wine there’s a minimum of 35. A shout: 38! We press on. By morning, we’ll bring the juice inside where it’ll warm to room temperature so the slow natural fermentation process can begin, as random yeast spores do their trick. In a couple of months, sediment will have begun to fall, and we’ll start to sense the beautiful pale-amber-tinged-shell-pink hue the ice wine promises to be. Already, we anticipate the sensation of its balance — an intense, sweet roundness, honey-smooth but not cloying for its brilliant acidity, its flavors (almost tropical) of fruit bursting as though newly plucked for our tongues — strawberry, mango, cherry, peach, lychee, and pomelo — fit for a hummingbird queen.


When does wine begin composing songs it will sing in its bottles? When does the process of writing a poem begin? April may be National Poetry Month, but pick any day on the calendar year-round and know poets and vintners are busy in solitude, fine-tuning. Here in the winemaking valley of Walla Walla in Eastern Washington state, pear trees are adrift in snowy blossoms this morning, and star magnolia boughs — just pewter sticks weeks ago — hoist their unlikely ethereal constellations to shudder in early spring breezes. Gleaming ice still caps the peaks of the Blue Mountains rising over our vineyard, but here below, we’re racing to get the vines all pruned before bud-break.


Ice wine yields are tiny (generally only about 10 percent of average table wine harvests) which, combined with extreme conditions and a labor-intensive process, contributes to dear prices charged per 375 milliliter bottle; with our almost two tons of grapes, we craft only 100 cases — a pittance (albeit beautiful!) compared to thousands of cases produced by our neighbors just north in British Columbia who can count on consistent conditions necessary for true icewine (one word there) — scorching summers and winters that cut with silver blades. Canada’s VQA (Vintner's Quality Alliance) sets rigorous specifications regulating production (harvests begin only when temperatures drop below eight degrees Celsius), and artificial freezing of grapes (cryogenics) is strictly forbidden. Ontario’s the world’s leading producer of ice wine today, though its roots can be traced back centuries in Germany (Eiswein), and there’s evidence of ice wine even in Roman times. Literature immortalizes wine’s many virtues; during the first century AD, Pliny the Elder, whose Naturalis Historia details hundreds of grape varieties as well as viticultural techniques, coined the familiar phrase, “In vino veritas,” perhaps a kind of truth-told-slant still upheld by wine drinkers around the world.



We’re purists, married to true methods, depending on fate and faith when it comes to the whims of nature and challenges of farming the vintner faces. This artisanal craft is multifaceted — starting in the field where one must take to heart issues of terroir, cropping levels, fruit exposure, irrigation, disease, let alone harvest. Ice wine’s a risky proposition, and I keep my day job — because, of course, there’s such great security in poetry; the stakes are either very high, or very low, or both. As a vintner and distiller (for Tytonidae Cellars — named for barn owls in our rafters, as well as for our Walla Walla Distilling Company, the first craft distillery in this valley, whose appellation’s already praised on maps of discerning oenophiles), I continually “learn by going,” as Roethke says, “where I have to go.”

Why begin here? With the most mystical, mythic rarity of wines we make? Emily Dickinson knew “Impossibility, like Wine / Exhilarates the Man / Who tastes it,” how “Enchantment makes ingredient.” Ice wine’s the unanticipated donneé, and the memory of each bewitching night-through-until-morning, remains engraved for me — the physical labor, the bone-chilling air, the beguiling poetic frozen/fractured world like a fairytale scape, the silent camaraderie as hours clicked by, our epic race against the sun. Ancient traditions flicker, poems kindled and breathed between a committed few.

Just past winter, years later, I’m still dipping the thief in barrels to sample, tinkering and musing. For vintners, each month brings another endeavor; late harvests provide unusual midwinter workouts, though mind-hives hum even during hibernations. Like Janus, gatekeeper, I take stock during January — reflecting on makers’ notes, tending to what’s stored in the winery, as well as anticipating imminent work the vineyards require each season. February’s often measured through glass, still-point of a crystal land beyond, twigs fuzzed like reindeer antlers; then March, a blustery tease here in the high desert where days can wriggle out to luxuriate beneath fingers of sun, but nights plunge back below freezing. But if I listen closely, I begin to hear the trickle of snowmelt, and yes, that’s a couple of mallards nest-building in stalks of wild iris.


“Prune for growth,” poet William Heyen told me one summer day, a lifetime back when I still lived in a Cambridge rental with no dirt to muck around in, no vines “of my own.” One challenge is recognizing which shoots and lines we’d be best off trimming. As poets, vintners, and makers of spirits know, much depends upon balances we forge between syzygies, our nurturings and abandonments, excesses and restraints, our sprints and stand-stills: the bounty of fresh fruits we grow and gather, then the careful articulation of wine through practiced blending and braiding before bottling; the chaotic wilds of fermentation, then the clarity wine finds resting in barrel. Our process is one of honing toward what’s essential. And, like the French perfumer who starts with 660 roses to fill a 7.5 ml bottle of perfume, I recognize how what’s not there — ineffable, intangible — informs the final oeuvre, too. We’re icebergs, really; so much of what we do and are is never “shared” formally, and yet, how crucial are these invisible architectures, how potent these crystallizations of taste, experience, and time.



In wine, we speak of sampling in “flights” (3 to as many as 50 (!) sips — often arranged around a theme, vintage, region, varietal, maker, or other feature). We base judgments upon sensory observations, obviously influenced by personal preferences of palate and factors of circumstance. These aren’t big hearty glassfuls so much as glimpses into worlds waiting, complex tastes worth returning to. I love that in a lifetime there are as many different poetries to appreciate as moods, meals, and wines; in single moments, I can be moved and sustained by seemingly antithetical aliments, aesthetics, and aims. Some poems and wines take years, decades, to come into their own! How delightful to find something tried in my 20s might, revisited, take on a new bouquet in my 40s. I’m nourished and challenged by words and visions of eclectic strangers-become-familiars, travelling places on pages I could never otherwise be. Clifton Fadiman, who co-authored with Sam Aaron The Joys of Wine, writes:

Wine is alive, and when you offer it to your fellow man you are offering him life. More than that you are calling out more life in him, you are engaging in what might be called a creative flattery, for you are asking him to summon up his powers of discrimination, to exercise his taste, or perhaps merely to evince curiosity or a desire to learn. I know of no other liquid that, placed in the mouth, forces one to think. To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.

Why not substitute “poetry” throughout this passage for “wine”? 

Each of the three poets here invokes in me some of the enchantment of ice wine’s making, the desolate longings of deep winter nights, bottomless belief in the culmination of patient distillation, that near-blind leap-of-faith true innovation takes — all in metaphysical spaces fashioned from the sturdy nuts and bolts of exquisite language. I bow before these poets, stirred by their distinctive libations, and offer the first of some brief tasting notes:


The All-Purpose Magical Tent, by Lytton Smith. Nightboat Books, 2009.
Flint, peat, creosote, petrol, leather, camphor, salt, with high notes of Seafoam.*

How on earth am I just now coming to this book? “All that is left of weather,” begins Smith’s poem, “Manual for Weather,” “is how it is written.” Not the actual experience, but the impression, the after-image as interpreted and captured by long absent and ever-shifting agents. There’s desire in the notion of such a tent (both “all-purpose” and “magical”) existing somewhere, even if only in mind. Smith’s realm is that of a now-desolate scape cobbled from salvaged documents, discarded records, and debatable memories. Visitors to this world, former inhabitants, even we begin to wax poetic about the dying circus, the lost gardens, kingdoms, rituals, and myths Smith excavates. The book’s epigraph, by H.G. Wells, sets in motion this desire to see and to know what came before: “Generation followed generation. They forgot many things, they devised many things. Their tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour and uncertain.”  

Warily, beguiled, we’re drawn in by this poet’s invitation to “Leave your instruments / at the entrance,” to wander the storehouse of his linguistic enchantments, to witness what awaits our arrival beneath the big top where Smith has gathered up sufficient evidence — albeit sepia, thread-bare, bleached, parched, to convince us: “Beyond chalk-white bears: tradition.” And speaking of tundra, of icy pursuits, I’m hardly surprised to learn Smith has translated two stunning novels from the Icelandic: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador and Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s novel Children in Reindeer Woods (both published by Open Letter Books); reading Smith’s surreal dreamscapes, I have the sensation of being wholly present, found, within a fantastical language I don’t speak yet grasp — so simultaneously foreign and familiar is the nuance of his vision. In fact, I see in aspects of my mundane, daily vineyard work during the frigid months some of “The Lost Tin Myth” (in which “What you know of this place — hills // the beaten texture of worked metal, / a winter the white silver of tin // on from cassiterite — are the elements / of something approaching myth.”).

There’s a continual (intentional) slippage between interior and external realms (theaters, armor, metaphors, trap-doors, islands, spirits of animals flowing “within our hollow nerves,”) in Smith’s poems, yet always, also, an attentiveness (albeit off-kilter) to the witnessed details (and limitations) we’ve missed; he tells us three times: “If You Could See the Motorists’ Gloves and Leathers!” and lets the passive voice open out toward infinity in these lines: “It is said there are clouds where sight / does not reach — comma, anvil, torn — / between horizon and ceiling.” I like poems that inhabit work (and language) as these do: “Land from the ocean / is rare spectacle, kindling / tales of the bidding horizon, / then we again to our smelt, // to the infirm anvil and what / weirds such forge and forage.”

Which charms, annuls, catalogs, or directives might call back into existence the desired lives long-lost? In “Interior Horticultural Affair,” “Belief would be an orchard / among furniture (but uneasy)” and later, “Am left with cuttings, // with planters empty, armchair, / with thoughtful of autumn, / with trellis-and-vine intentions.” Smith notes lines from Jess R. Fenn’s essay “On the Ruin, the Riddle-poem, and (not) being there,” (from which he draws one poem’s title, too): “The ruin is a ruin, yet even beyond this convenient status of its material text, the poem raises the spectre of language as an unhomely dwelling place, as a crafted enclosure host to wine-flushed voices yet subject to decay over time and space.”

Smith’s a fabulist whose poems sing with the satisfying tonk of pragmatic (and deliciously particular) knowledge — with the tinkering laborer’s pride in craft: how to fix a small motor, how to dismantle a circus tent; how to soften fur with teeth, how to re-draw the cartographer’s map — and must, for “The audience is meant / To believe.” And I do. In “New British,” Smith writes: “Someone explained once that / the past is the antithesis of burglary // and you ask whether I am ever coming back.” And just when I’ve discovered this, his first prize-winning collection — three years after its publication — I’m stirred to learn that Smith the poet has come back already, with another book, While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It, just out last month, also from Nightboat Press (a press I admire also for its commitment to the Green Press Initiative). Lucky us. I anticipate the transformative heady libation Smith’s second pour promises to be.

(*Seafoam as it’s known in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere in parts of the USA) — that delicious molasses sponge candy whose distinctive texture comes from a chemical reaction between vinegar and baking soda, and is elsewhere known as: Violet Crumble, honeycomb, bonfire toffee/cinder toffee (South Africa, Australia, Great Britain); yellowman (Northern Ireland); puff candy (Scotland); hokey pokey (New Zealand); fairy food (Chicago); Turkish honey (Hungary) — almost a found poem in and of itself).


Goodbye, Flicker, Carmen Giménez Smith. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
Smoke, black cherry, cinder, pepper, briar and cloves; supple and racy, good tears.

Giménez Smith’s third collection braids references to classic fairy tales drawn from a deep well of sources — dark, violent, twisted narratives that ensnare and repeat. “We Shall Now Hear What Happened,” the book proclaims; and we do. Like a layered wine, here’s a speaker who’s multiple — fractured, refracted — who “begins with pushpull,” who becomes in one moment “Owl girl” always bearing “shame/for her mother’s brown / grease uniform,” in another, a girl “unspooled,” “a ring of crumbs / around her like bait,” a “stepsister,” “wild girl,” “princess.” She claims “I’m / Natasha on a black horse in the forest’s / cloak,” or, “I disappear like smoke until again.” Elsewhere, she’s “the doll in the highest turret / where I cast my mother in gnarls / and sire infants who consume / the last slivers of me.” Each self gives birth to a next mouthful, until she’s “Sliver poet”; “Because, / the apple doesn’t fall far from / refinery. The fragility of the girl. / the fragility of the mother.”

What fuels her throughout is longing, a “faraway eye glint,” “just deepest starving. / it is melancholy. / all our hunger / beneath the glow / of interior world.” And she’s lured with tricks deployed by many usual suspects: “loose spangles of glow,” a light that affixes her, and in “Bluebeard”: “With bugle and sugar.” She dons roles — Bit Part, Exemplary Girl, The Renegade Fairy, Young Slave — wistful about what’s out of reach (perhaps “The Prince”: “ He was a metaphor for ineffable.” Perhaps not.), or the cost of striving toward what one isn’t (“Medusa ringlets / and stone heart were / the ruin impulses / I bartered for my kindliness.”). In the sprawling “Something Like A Lament Today”: “I’ll fall and fall. I’ll go all odysseus on you and for you because what else is there but the other side of peter pan with a walker. wish on that” — there’s sass tinged with a sorrowful bite, and in “Off,” a speaker so trapped that even falling seems fraught:

I became a small colony in the world upon request,
a gauzy window into coy. I was hooded and set
loose with my colored face, so that someone might say,
hey that’s new, uncharted and fresh. What I wanted:
a way from the careworn. My stories were tattered
rosary beads under my oily thumb. I could barely
fall in without falling out. I could barely fall.

And yet. These poems are edgy, voicey, smart; Giménez Smith paints each gem face of what it means to be female, a daughter, turning, returning from “Once upon…” if not finally to “happily ever after,” then at least to some version of freedom earned, of release, arrived at by way of continual dream, indictment, refrain. We're not promised “The Soft Landing,” (which finishes: “So afraid of owing, she only tells the outline.”); rather, the speaker (in the penultimate poem, “Tongue Cut Sparrow,”) grants herself a small bit of redemption: “Docile girl, I asked of the docile girl / left of me, should I have buried my voicebox? // The voice said, be and bear and wonder the world. / The world can bear & be too, even wedges without all of me.” And with this revelation toward the book’s end, something in “True Events” also seems to give as she recognizes, “This had been / the mothers’ curse and story. Hands gnarled / like gingerroot from clutching at paper towels / and I’m just finding my place in our place.”  

Finally, the girl here is ready to say “Goodbye, Flicker,” as each inherited story shrinks into a dot, recedes in importance on her mind’s screen; she’s prepared to let go of dog-eared pages and nicked beads, to find closure for the narrative arc these jagged lyrics stitch in their attempts to quilt for her a patchwork existence that fits without gaps, pinches, and binds. And she does, at last, in “No more dying then,” (title adapted from a line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXLVL”) in which, like Lachesis, she takes measure of her life, decides she’ll fold the hand she’s been dealt, and instead avows: “I’ll write mother a tale, / […] / Tale is a world / of condition: / hazy stirrings, / nascent threats / in the air and / the cutup body / reconstructed by wish. // No more trap, / designated or fated. / No more dying inside, / figurative or real. / No more pathos.” Giménez Smith has the uncanny, bracing good burn of firewater, and with yet another collection of poems, a memoir, a book of essays all on the horizon, her expansive, visionary work promises to satisfy many hungers.


Book of My Nights, Li-Young Lee. Boa, 2001.
Ethereal, bright, notes of ozone, mica, grass & cedar, up-front yet polished, long to finish, eternal.

Winter nights, spring days — whenever I pick up Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights, though it’s aged over a decade, it knocks me out. Today my inclination’s simply to pour out each poem in full, letting the quiet delicacy and laser-sharp epiphanies speak for themselves. Lee’s metaphors, drawn from nature, accrue line-to-line, poem-to-poem. I catch my breath repeatedly. In “The Sleepless,” he writes, “Like any ready fruit, I woke / falling toward beginning and // welcome, all of night / the only safe place. // Spoken for, I knew / a near hand would meet me / everywhere I heard my name // and the stillness ripening / around it.”

Here’s deceptive simplicity; we’re lulled into thinking this sort of speech is easy, so unforced are his poetic moves. Lee’s a magician of plain speech, of direct expression; suddenly, we find he’s whipped (in one smooth gesture) the whole woven cloth from the table set before us, without upending a single wine glass. Look, for instance, at the brilliant, subtle gaps in, “One Heart”:

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born 

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings 

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Tasting wine and poetry, it’s crucial to consider subjectivity’s contribution; as Lee reminds us “The moon from any window is one part / whoever’s looking. // The part I can’t see / is everything my sister keeps to herself. // One part my dead brother’s sleepless brow, // the other part the time I waste, the time / I won’t have.” Changed contexts foster fresh appreciations: “Is it because the hour is late / the dove sounds new, // no longer asking / a path to its father’s house. / no longer begging shoes of its mother?”    

And even as they question, Lee’s lines affirm: “Everywhere is home to the rain. / The hours themselves, where do they hide? / The fruit of listening, what’s that?” As though this speaker’s lifting his head to whisper intimations, Book of My Nights launches its apparitions (in “Pillow”) like this: “And night begins when my mother’s fingers / let go of the thread / they’ve been tying and untying / to touch toward our fraying story’s hem.” This poet’s continual project seems in part to be that of plumbing precisely the depth between “Echo and Shadow,” calculating the significance of each of the minute “Degrees of Blue,” excavating the “Buried Heart,” so “The Eternal Son,” might be “new to myself, and stranger.” Isn’t everything often about stories we craft from our messy, insufficient, human (faithless/faithful) interactions with each other?:

Who lay down at evening
and woke at night
a stranger to himself? A country

wholly unfound to himself, who wondered
behind closed eyes
if his fate meant winter knitting

outcome underground, summer
overdue, or spring’s pure parable, the turning
in every turning thing, the fruit and flower,
jar, spindle, and story?

(“From Another Room”)

Every life’s burnished, Lee seems to suggest throughout these pages, by some confirmation of our (even minimal) significance in the vast wheeling of life. Here’s the final stanza of “Little Father”:

I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won’t drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of-night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life.

Lee contrasts the continual, inevitable fall of fruits with the constant lift of birds, who “Build by Flying’; in “Praise Them,” he notes, “The birds don’t alter space./They reveal it. […] / … It is our own / astonishment collects / in chill air. Be glad. / […] … See / how three birds in a winter tree / make the tree barer.” We find ourselves in the spaces between sips. In “Fill and Fall”:

As long as night is one country
on both sides of my window, I remain a face
dreaming a face

and trace the heart’s steep path: Night
and falling.


And the way to the crowning grapes lies sealed
to all but one who’s heard
what nights are for: Falling,

as water falls
to fill and fall, overwhelming
basin after basin,

as each must kneel
inside himself to find
the tiered slopes
only brimming masters.

Simply by “draw[ing] a window,” Lee creates worlds for us to enter, locates us time and again in that realm of wonder the finch hitting our kitchen pane must feel moments after when — shaking stars from her grape-sized head, she finds her wings still work, and so flies up and off over the silent vineyard, her day made bigger for all that might, in that single startled moment, have been lost. This isn’t Lee’s latest collection, but like wine grown more beautiful with age, it's a vintage well-worth returning to, to savor.




From countless remarkable possibilities worldwide, I offer here a flight of four Canadian Icewines of note:

Henry of Pelham Family Estate 2008 Riesling IcewineHenry of Pelham Family Estate. “First Vineyard Certified by Local Food Plus, Canada’s Local Sustainable Food System Organization”.

Nk’Mip 2010, Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine, Nk’Mp Cellars. “North America's first Aboriginal owned and operated winery,” in the town of Osoyoos, a singular pocket desert region of Canada’s southern Okanagan Valley.

Inniskillin Niagara 2007 Oak Aged Vidal Icewine, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. “A tale of two wineries. Two regions [Niagara and the Okanagan]. Thousands of miles apart…but united by a singular commitment to quality and innovation.”

Mt. Boucherie 2008 Summit Reserve Pinot Noir Icewine, Westbank South, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.Named for West Kelowna's landmark -- the remnant of a former volcano, created more than 60 million years ago.


LARB Contributor

Katrina Roberts is the author of four collections of poetry: Underdog; Friendly Fire; The Quick; and How Late Desire Looks. She and her husband, Jeremy Barker, own and operate Tytonidae Cellars & Walla Walla Distilling Company, in Washington State, where they live on a farm with their three children. She teaches at Whitman College.


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