It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been doing this 6 weeks. I know, actually, that it’s been longer than 6 weeks, but this is the longest that I’ve spent time really trying to be so diligent about doing just about anything, except for carrying a child.
Today, want share something that is not really a reflection on how God has met me this week, but rather it’s a few things I figured out from a road trip that led me to a winery, where I took a tour of their operation.
Our tour guide shared several facts about wine and grapes that parallel some things about Christianity that I would like to share with you.
Before a vintner ever plants a grape, he will send a soil sample away to have it tested. He will get a profile page (or pages) back that tell him what type of soil it is, what nutrients it has, and what it needs. He will examine his land to see where would be a good place to plant the grapes. All crops need a specific type of moisture; grapes are no exception. All these things must be taken into consideration before a grape vine ever goes into the ground if the vintner is to have a good crop.
The kind of wine you want to produce will be dictated by the type of grape you plant. But a Merlot in Maryland will taste different from a Merlot from California or France. Even more specifically, a Merlot from one county in Maryland will taste different from a Merlot from another county in Maryland. The reason: different types of soil produce different flavor profiles in the grapes, which changes the flavor of the wine. Also, different nutrients in the soil will change the flavor of the wine. The vintner chooses which grapes he will plant in which soil. Some soil is rocky; some is sandy, and some is shale-y. But grapes will grow in each kind. A good vintner will only plant grapes where they will thrive because he wants a good return on his investment. After that, where the grapes are cultivated determines their flavor.
However, how the vintner treats the grapes will also dictate how the wine turns out, even to the point of whether the grape becomes wine or just grape juice.
Among vintners, there is a saying: “What’s good for corn is bad for grapes.” When grape vines are matured, the roots extend as deep as 40 feet into the ground and spread out as far as 50 feet. This is what makes the root stock so important. Corn doesn’t do this. It needs much more moisture because the roots stay so close to the surface that the moisture evaporates sooner. For grapes, with a root system that extends so far into the ground, they can hold onto the water for much longer. They don’t need copious amounts of rain to thrive. In fact, copious amounts of rain is bad for grapes. To put an even finer point on it: drought conditions are actually good for grapes. According to our tour guide, drought conditions are good for wine because, though fewer and smaller grapes are produced, the resulting flavor is more intense because it is more concentrated within the grape. The wine that comes from these grapes is often called “Reserve” because of the conditions.
Before wine can ever be pressed, indeed before a grape is ever picked, the vines must be pruned. Yesterday, the tour guide informed us that, after a new vine is planted, for the first few years, the vine will produce no usable fruit. That is not to say that the vine does not bear fruit. It does. However, because the vine is still new and not strong enough to produce fruit suitable to wine-making, the fruit is cut off and left on the ground to decompose and enrich the soil. Unfruitful branches are cut away as well. They must be. Sap dedicated to the maturation of the vine shall not be wasted on a branch that does not produce fruit. Beyond that, even fruitful branches are pruned so that they will produce better and sweeter fruit. Finally, the canopy of the vines is also cut back so that the vintner can ensure the grapes that have been trained to grow on the bottom wire of the frame can get the maximum amount of sun. Without enough sun, the grapes will mold before they ripen.
The type of oak used to make the barrels used to ferment the wine will add to the wine’s flavor profile, as well. Furthermore, the insides of the barrels can be toasted. There are three degrees of toasting used on the barrels at the vineyard I visited. Low-toast, medium-toast, and high toast. The higher the toasting on the inside of the barrel, the less of the oaky flavor imparted to the wine. After the grape is grown and pressed, and the juice is squeezed, it is set aside a while to ferment in yet another place that will change its flavor before the vintner decides it is ready to serve.
White wines are made from grapes whose skins have been removed, whether the skins on the initial grapes were red, purple, or white. Then it is filtered and filtered and filtered, until the wine is crystal clear and bright. Red wines have all the skins, and are filtered less so that the skins and the tannins are not removed; as a result, red wines are also cloudier than whites. A good vintner decides if he wants to produce red wine or white wine, and puts the wine through the appropriate processes to get the product he wants.
Some pretty striking parallels, if you look for them. Beginning with the Vintner.
A good vintner, or vine-dresser, is educated: he knows about his land, his soil, and the weather it gets. He knows about grapes. He knows about wine. He educates himself as much as possible before ever planting a vine. He knows which soil will produce the best quality grapes and, hence, the best quality wines. He chooses the grape for the soil. There is no accident. He knew the soil and the grapes before he put them together. Just like God. He knew us before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs. Not only did He know who we would be; he also knew the family to whom we would be given. It was no accident I had the mother I did, who had the mother she did, who had the mother she did, and so on, and so on. I am precisely where I am supposed to be because God designed it so, and He is not done. What I realize now is: Where God places you to grow you up is going to determine the flavor you present to the world. Some people can better withstand the influences around them without taking too much of it into themselves. Others cannot.
I’ve been around for several years. I’ve had years of producing fruit. I’ve had years of not producing fruit. I’ve had things trimmed off of me that were painful to lose, but I can see now that they had to go. Otherwise, I’d have never produced the kind of fruit that God wants me to produce, and I know He’s not done with me yet.
I have sat on the vine for years. I have wished for action, wanting something to happen, to one day become wine that everyone could appreciate, but still I’ve been left on the vine. Then…when I finally got picked, I found that I had to be stomped and squeezed and pressed, and sometimes skinned, before I’d ever become wine. So, not only was I impatient on the vine, I was now in pain over the process. I found myself wondering how it could be that I had wished for this thing that would cause me so much pain. Who in the world would sign on for this? Then, finally, I was juice. But still, I was not done.
Then, I was placed on a shelf, left alone, stewing, sometimes for months or years, until it was time to be released. In fact, I feel like that now. There have been times over this past 18 months when I’ve felt like I would just explode if I wasn’t released. But, the Vintner has come along and released some of the pressure that has built up, or it has evaporated, dissipating over time, and I’ve simmered down, content that I could make it another day.
I’ve had times of drought, too. There have been times when I’ve cried out for relief and it has never come, and I’ve felt like I would just shrivel up and die. Then, when it was over, I found that my walk with the Lord and my relationships with the people who walked with me through that time was sweeter and deeper than ever I could have imagined.
I remember, years ago, hearing a commercial for a winery (or a line of wines) that had the slogan: “We will sell no wine before it’s time.” A good vintner tests and tests the wine while it is fermenting so that he can tell when it is mature enough to be released to the world. He knows the recipe he used and all the steps that would be involved in getting the wine to just the right flavor and mouth feel. And only the vintner can make the ultimate decision on when it’s time to bottle the wine and release its blessing onto the world. I don’t know how long God is going to have me and my family where we are. I wish I did. But one thing I do know is that God is not going to release me until He’s done with me.
Here’s another interesting fact I learned yesterday. Upon entering the vineyard grounds, I noticed that, at the end of each row of grapes at this winery, grew a small rose bush. Vintners grow rose bushes at the end of their rows because roses and grapes need similar soils, moisture levels and nutrients. As the rose grows, so grow the grapes. If the rose gets a blight or a disease, the vintner knows that he better treat the grapes in order to protect the crop from that same blight or disease.
As I was thinking about this point, I was trying to figure out if there is anything in my life that serves as an early-warning system for other areas in my life that may need some work. That’s when something my pastor said from the pulpit, years ago, came flooding back to me. He said, “if you are a pastor, standing up here, trying to lead your flock and your family life isn’t squared away, you need to step down and get that in order first. If you let that fall apart, nothing else will matter.” Often, God gives us children to help us to see what, inside us, he wants to work on or weed out because, inevitably, our children will exhibit those qualities about ourselves that we find most distasteful. They are our mini barometers. And if you don’t have a family, the thing you can use as a clue to what God wants to work on is what quality in your fellow man that you “hate” the most. What is that one thing that you absolutely cannot stand about people? What is that one character flaw that most annoys you or drives you crazy? Most times, THAT THING is the very thing God is trying to work on in you. You see it because you recognize it, because you look for it, because you are often guilty of that very thing. (Yes, I know this is a blanket statement, but it seems to have played out in my life and in the lives of nearly everyone I’ve shared this with.)
One final thing before I wrap this up: Wineries do not just pop up out of the ground. A grape plant here or there may spring up because a bird eats some grapes and drops the seeds wherever. But row upon row of grapes will not spring up out of the ground in nice, neat orderly rows. Order does not JUST HAPPEN. Order has to be designed. Furthermore, wine also does not just happen. There is a whole process that must happen in order for the juice from inside the grape to become wine. A person with a passion for grapes and wine and the know-how to make one become the other has to impose his will upon nature and make it happen. There is no accidental, coincidental wine.