What’s Better Than The Best Wine?

Some years before he passed away, I took a wine tasting class from former Navy pilot and beloved Santa Barbara resident Cork Millner (no joke, his name was Cork.) Cork was a respected wine aficionado and a writer who loved words as much as I do. From Cork I learned my name Brandy is derived from an old Dutch word brandewijn meaning “burned wine.” (Not a bad name but I prefer the Italian version Brandi which is derived from a Venice region surname meaning “sword” or “fiery beacon”—way more cool.) Cork definitely made me understand and appreciate wine in a way I never did before, but I’m not much of a wine drinker (my body chemistry doesn’t agree with alcohol which keeps me out of trouble), although on occasion, I will do a tasting if it is of exceptional quality or the opportunity falls into my lap. This year, I was blessed with the unusual coincidence of multiple opportunities to absorb top wine culture, which set me thinking about wine more than I normally do, both as a writer and as a Christian.

Richard Sanford, pinot pioneer of Santa Barbara county, talks about wine.
Richard Sanford at Sly’s in Carpinteria

In late spring, a restaurant very near where I live featured a multi-course meal with all locally sourced seafood, meat, and produce and every course was paired with a wine from Alma Rosa winery. And Richard Sanford, founder of Sanford and Alma Rosa wineries in Santa Barbara county, was there in person to explain the wines. The price was much lower than I expected so I leaped at the opportunity. Sanford is the pioneer of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County and also the first vintner to be certified organic in the county. Sanford’s love affair with Pinot Noir began while serving as a Naval officer during the Vietnam war. A shipmate of his named Scott Wine (no joke) introduced him to a Pinot Noir from Volnay in Burgundy, France. He was completely captivated. Upon the completion of his Naval service and return to the U.S. in 1968 at the height of anti-war sentiment, Sanford was treated very poorly. Bewildered by the hostility directed towards him after serving his country, he decided to immerse himself in what was an unusual endeavor at the time—growing Pinot Noir grapes on the Central Coast of California. He was the first to plant Pinot in the western Santa Ynez valley—considered impossible at the time—and his pioneering footsteps helped pave the way for Santa Barbara to become a world-class winemaking region. At the time, Santa Barbara was considered a wine-making backwater compared to Napa and Sonoma. Sanford currently crafts wine at his Alma Rosa label. (The Sanford label was bought out in 2005 due to an unfortunate business partnership.) In spite of his accomplishments, Sanford is a very humble man. He shook hands and personally introduced himself to each person at the event and told everyone to ask him any question about wine or wine-making no matter how seemingly ignorant. In his presence, you sense his soulful integrity and his kind, down-to-earth friendliness made me think of my WWII veteran friend Julian Moody. It was such a blessing to meet Sanford and as if this wasn’t good enough, I also won a free pass to the Santa Barbara Vintners Festival. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six people to sign up for the Sanford event won this pass. At the vintner’s festival, all the top wineries in the county were there and being a Santa Barbara event, it was very laid-back with the heads of wineries present and many of them serving the wine themselves. Like Sanford, they were easily approachable and happy to answer any question. And over the summer, I visited a friend in Sonoma county, the birthplace of the commercial wine industry in California, and soaked in the beautiful rolling hills of vineyards. All of this immersion in wine culture very enjoyable and educational…

Rolling hill of green grape vines in Sonoma County, blue sky, farm house.
Vineyard, Sonoma County

Wine has been with humans since the beginning—the history of wine is inseparable from human history. One of the earliest cultures to cultivate wine, the Phoenicians and the Greeks, passed on viticulture and wine-making to the Romans who planted vineyards all over Europe. When the Roman Empire became Christian through the conversion of Constantine, wine was made part of the sacrament and many of the vineyards the Romans planted became the domain of monasteries. The monks, in a structured life of contemplation and no commercial pressure, improved in the craft, art, and science of wine-making, Dom Pérignon being one famous example of a monk who helped develop wine-making to sophisticated levels.* Meanwhile, wine and wine-making spread across Europe and to the new world, Africa, and Australia via conquistadors, missionaries, and colonists. (*For an amusing look at some of the craziness of high end wine culture, check out the the documentary Somm which played at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2013. Somm features Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback who opened Les Marchands on Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara and Dustin Wilson who with Brian McClintic started the Vallim wine label in Santa Barbara.)

Bottle of pinot noir, Slice of Heaven, on auction table at SB Vintners Festival
Slice of Heaven Pinot Noir by Babcock

As someone who appreciates story and myth, I am also aware of the symbolism of wine. In ancient times, wine was a means of purifying water so early on viewed as life-giving. In Greek myth, wine was a gift to man from the god Dionysos, a gift meant to impart happiness and relaxation, as well as peace and freedom—most especially the peace and freedom that comes from loss of self-consciousness and freeing from the strain of social identity and position. (Some interesting similarities exist between Dionysos and Jesus Christ which I discuss here.) And as a Christian I am very familiar with the many references to wine in the Bible, wine in its full spectrum of beneficial use and abuse: as a blessing from God that gladdens the heart and aids in celebration, to a medicinal aid, to an intoxicant that can deceive and inflame tempers, to a metaphor for the maddening effect of idolatry. And references to wine and viticulture abound in the gospels. Turning water into wine at a wedding is the first miracle Jesus performs. And wine is used by Christ at the Last Supper as he spells out the new covenant. In Matthew 26, Jesus takes the cup and says to the disciples, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, His sacrifice and the gospel of salvation and the complete rest and freedom we have in that—complete freedom in Christ—the good news of that. In communion, we take the bread and wine—we remember the sacrifice of Christ and what His blood represents. The taking of bread and wine reminds us we have intimate communion with Him. He is in us. The kingdom of God is within.

And finally in Revelation—wine and the winepress represent the wrath of God and the execution of His justice. A common misunderstanding of people who don’t know the Bible very well is that the God of the Bible is a very angry, vengeful God. Anyone who has spent significant time sincerely studying the Bible knows that the God of the Bible is merciful, slow to anger, full of compassion and kindness. The anger expressed is not simplistic moral retribution but a disappointed response towards the refusal of the love and grace that is so freely available and a continued persistence in darkness, idolatry, and sin. And this disappointed response is after much patient endurance, correction, and repeated chances and opportunities of redemption. The people who refuse to receive this love and grace, refuse to repent and change, have to face the tough love consequences of that choice. Maybe all of this is an irrelevant distinction in the minds of some (especially to those who refuse to believe in God), but really a huge difference that means all the difference in the world—a difference between life and death.

There’s always a choice—the choice between light or darkness. One can choose to abide in Him or not. Jesus used the analogy of the grape vine to show what life or abiding in Him looks like, as well as His abiding in us in John 15. “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

The grape vine in its natural state, as I learned from Cork, is unruly, wild, prolific in its growth, easily spreading and growing to over a hundred feet in length, and it will climb anything in its path. It’s no coincidence that the informal communications network through which gossip and juicy news of scandal travels quickly is called the grapevine. In cultivating grapes, the vine needs to be trained on a trellis and the vine needs to be pruned. And as I learned from Sanford and other winemakers, pruning results in much higher quality grapes and a stronger root stock. The quality of wine is dependent on the quality of fruit and the quality of fruit is proportional to suffering. The most sought after wines in the world are made by Frenchman Henri Jayer—a single bottle of his wine can cost as much as a car or a house. Jayer explained, “To produce great wines, the vine has to suffer and dig deep for resources…”

To truly walk as a Christian is not an easy thing—following His commands is essentially dying to self everyday. Dying to self and selfishness, crucifying the ego, can be excruciating, especially in an “it’s all about me” culture that worships comfort and convenience, and in which narcissism and toxic striving almost passes for normal. I get that some people thrive on achievement, “being the best of the best,” and competition, but any compulsive attempts for self-created worth contain the seeds of their own destruction which is evidenced in the self-destructive lives of many “successful” people, whose best efforts ultimately end up being branches burned up in the fire, so to speak. If not abiding in the true vine, then they’re probably drinking the wine of Babylon. Following Christ is not easy, but fruitfulness comes from fully abiding in His love. And when abiding in His love, then we have something authentic to give to others (and not a performance) in the form of the fruit of the spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

I heard or read somewhere that alcoholics are ultimately seeking in the physical consumption of wine or any other “spirit” is the spirit— what they long for or lack in the spiritual—the feeling of being at ease, at peace, freedom from anxiety and worry, and in some cases, an attempt to blot out shame and guilt. Addiction often starts off innocently or casually as an attitude of: “Drink and be merry because time is short,” or some heathen variation of “There is really no meaning in life, no morality at least for the duration of the drunken revelry, so why not completely lose yourself and give yourself full license to this experience?” But then the hangover and nasty, icky feeling follows, and for the alcoholic the degrading compulsion and downward spiral of an addiction. Which begs the question, is it possible to have all the positives without any of the negatives?

It is, if only one fully accepts it. (And for the alcoholic or addict, if one makes the full and determined commitment to healing.) Dying to self is no fun, but the walk with Christ is intimacy with Christ. Dying to self, suffering, as with the grape vine, forces us to dig deep for resources, dig deep into God, and this abiding will allow for a deep abiding in the love of Christ, to be rooted and established in His love as Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:16-19: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The fullness of God—the love, rest, peace, joy and freedom we have in Christ—amazingly all of this is freely available. All one has to do is partake, fully receive it, accept it, and believe it. And it’s sad that something so freely available can be completely ignored. Which reminds me of when Jesus was staying with Martha and Mary in Luke 10. Jesus noted, “Mary has chosen the better.” Mary sat basking at His feet, enjoying His presence. Meanwhile, anxiety-ridden Martha fretted about everything that needed to be done, completely oblivious to the divinity in her presence. Which goes to show you how two people in the same company and in the same situation can choose to have completely different experiences. Martha failed to appreciate that Jesus Himself was in her midst, while Mary truly “got it” and sat soaking in, abiding in, and enjoying His presence. Which brings to my mind John at the Last Supper. John reclined on “Jesus' bosom” (as the King James and NASB versions word it.) And this disciple is also described in the same line of scripture as the one “whom Jesus loved.” I had read that passage many times and without thinking about it too much, just assumed he was allowed to rest on Jesus’ chest because he was the “one loved.” It never occurred to me until I was writing this that maybe he was the “one loved,” a favorite, because he chose to rest on Jesus’ bosom, chose to rest in Him. Like John “got it” like Mary “got it” and his reposing on the bosom of Jesus is a simple picture of how we are supposed to fully rest in and enjoy that love. To repose on the bosom of Jesus—I imagine that must have felt so wonderful—so sweet, warm, and comforting (even knowing his earthly ministry was coming to a close or maybe more so because of it.) And so blissful and peaceful, like the blissful, peaceful, relaxed feeling you associate with drinking the best of the best spirits, only way better, with of course, none of the negatives. To fully abide in and enjoy the fullness of God—most especially the rest and peace we have in Christ—and to be rooted and established in love, the true vine, is better than the best wine and more.

(Posted 8/21/2017)