Weekly St. Helena Star Column

Wednesday, March 24, 2010



Last week the law up here was noted: One can’t cross a threshold without a bottle of wine in hand. It’s not written. It’s a cultural conceit—known by all—like cooking a ham for the wake of a deceased old timer who baked pies for her neighbors. It’s one of the blessings of living in the wine country. “I never drink alone” because each time a local wine is uncorked, be it a cult wine or something nurtured by a wine buff whose kid we coached, actual real-life memories pour out of the bottle just as surely as the liquid amber.

Along with each wine’s attributes: legs, viscosity, color, nose, fruitiness, complexity, finish, texture, suppleness—whatever—comes the most important ingredient of all—personal memories.

All the wines in our cellar, from cult vintages, to those made in plastic garbage cans and hand labeled with red ink, have one thing in common: They are gifts. The cellar is in constant flux.

Like most rural hamlets, at its core, St. Helena is (or was) a “gift society,” based on wine. Maybe folks in Durham, Houston, or Pocatello Idaho, feel likewise about cigarettes, gasoline, or potatoes. But my guess is that it’s not quite the same.

Don't get me wrong. We are capitalists. Wine is a business. But it is rooted in what Lewis Hyde wrote in his seminal study, The Gift, referred to as a gift culture, or gift societies.

“Gift societies” preceeded mercantile ones. In aboriginal gift societies, the sign of wealth isn’t how much a man has, but by how much he gives away. He’s so wealthy, that he “gives four cows away”—when only one is expected. Tribes gift to one another and “trade” with strangers.

The code in gift societies is strict. The gift must keep on moving. If a Maori warrior gives an amulet its hau (“spirit”) requires that the gift (or one in kind) be passed along to someone else. The gift must be eaten, consumed or passed along to another. (Hence the transient cellar).

Like the Maoris the natives in Napa County are bound by specific, unwritten rules. There is an obligation to give; an obligation to accept; and an obligation to reciprocate. As in all gift societies, gratitude must be demonstrated and be genuinely heartfelt.

Intuitively, gift societies know that one can’t pass along that which he hasn’t received. It is the essence of all art and poetry. And though a business, wine is nothing if not art.

If a gift doesn’t move, it loses its gift properties. A condition of the gift exchange is that something must come back. It is not a gift when one man’s gift becomes another man’s capital. (Beware a wine cellar full of “gifts.” If collected through purchase—fine. But if a cellar is filled with “gifts” someone’s broken the circle—and the code).

“What is given away feeds again and again, while what is kept feeds only once and leaves us hungry.” This notion was popularized by the movie “Play it Forward.”

America is a commodity society. Things are bought and sold for profit. In Gift Societies, status, prestige or esteem take the place of cash remuneration. They know that only when a part of one’s self is given away can “community” appear. You put a part of yourself in a gift. Cash exchanges are “anti-community”— they enrich individuals, separately from the rest.

The wine boom (which took off in the ‘70’s) though definitely a business, was buoyed by gift giving. The Mondavis, Berringers, Martinis and legends like Andre Tchelistcheff, all gave freely of their gifts.

When Jess Jackson sued Jud Steele for “propriety secrets” (using a little residual sugar to make a “sweeter” chardonnay) we were all stunned.

Was there a gift that Bob Mondavi or Louis Martini didn’t pass along to most innocuous outsider who wanted to learn? Did Laurie Wood hold back secrets of vineyard management?

Gratitude is the social binder. When gratitude evaporates, governments step in. The law sided with Jess. The Valley with Judd.

Commodity dealers and gift exchangers often misunderstand one another. The gift society is appealing. Those from a commodity world move in and bring their past with them.

Many of the conflicts in the Valley, from land use ordinances and growth policies, to teaching children, don’t have to do with old vs. new, but more with commodity dealers vs. gift exchangers.

Traders are flummoxed by gifters. If a little tourism is good, a lot is better. As gratitude declines regulations increase. Tribal rites of honor and selflessness become tales old men tell the young. ‘Twas always thus.

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