The End: A New Beginning

I’ve now been back in the US for about a month, but I’m  actually writing this from the international terminal of the Chicago airport, where I await a flight back to France.  As one chapter ends, another begins. I’m headed to start the Vintage Master program in Angers, France (for the first semester, then I’ll move to Piacenza, Italy and then Valencia, Spain, and finish with a masters thesis project somewhere in the world).  It was a whirlwind last few weeks of the Watson year, followed by an incredible returning fellows conference, and a couple of weeks to get everything prepared to head back out again.  But I wanted to share my final report to the Watson Foundation here.

Providence and Planning: Lessons from a Watson Year

“That which you manifest is before you.”[1]

Though originally a bit of an afterthought, it felt almost providential[2] to be standing in the dimly lit cellar at Weingut Hirsch, watching spellbound as Johannes Hirsch pried open an old oak barrel and unburied glass jars of his biodynamic preparations (made from quartz and various types of dung, among other things) from the vineyard soil they’re stored in.  One preparation, in a special take on traditional biodynamics, was itself infused with a bit of vineyard soil in order to further encourage terroir expression.  I was in Austria, homeland of the late scientist and philosopher, and founder of biodynamic agriculture, Rudolph Steiner.  The concept of biodynamics, which I fell into a bit late in my year, functions, in many ways, as the ultimate case study under which to watch the themes of my Watson project play out.

Biodynamics was a concept that had piqued my interest on various occasions throughout the year, as I’d visited several biodynamic wineries in Spain and New Zealand, but my focus at these wineries was never to learn about biodynamic philosophy itself, so it wasn’t until mid-July, when I was staying with the family of winemaker Aleš Kunej in Slovenia (an incredibly multilingual experience – French, Slovenian, Portugese, and English were all flying around between the four of us!), who, in the first of a chain of providential events (okay, not the first, but to recount all of the earlier links in the chain that led me to Aleš would take more than five pages in itself) handed me a copy of Nicolas Joly’s Biodynamic Wine Demystified, which I immediately devoured.  Though I can’t say it was aptly named (if anything I was more mystified after reading it, but also intrigued), but it provided some interesting insight into the philosophical basic for biodynamics.  I was hooked from the preface, in which Joly simply writes:

The sole aim of this book is to forge a link between a knowledge existing since the dawn of time that is profound and endlessly available – but not understood – and a science which, while it knows almost everything, nevertheless understands next to nothing.


What could be more perfect?!  Here he is, explicitly setting the intention of dismantling a highly divisive boundary between science (of which he unabashedly questions the authority!) and a theory which few would consider to be scientific.[3]  And, as I dove headfirst into his dense prose, I quickly saw that this was a goal he managed to achieve.  I came away from his book believing that biodynamics, while certainly not based on the same principles as modern science, shares its fundamental roots.  Like any scientific theory, biodynamics is based squarely on first principles, which are essentially fundamental assumptions about how the universe functions that we must make in order for the scientific system to work.  So maybe biodynamic agriculture isn’t “science” as we know it, but from Joly’s description it seemed to fit into the same genre of activity – if we zoom out one level, we might be able to categorize it as a science, it just starts from a different set of first principles.  In the epilogue to the book, Yair Margalit, a physical chemist, writes that “biodynamic theory does not exactly “cope” with the rigors of the scientific method, its practice in grape growing certainly shows unique results.”  But maybe we shouldn’t just be settling for unique results.  Maybe biodynamics doesn’t “cope” because it isn’t built on the same scientific method.  Maybe we need to reexamine that scientific method because we are seeing great results from a system with a different fundamental basis.

So, seeing as Austria was in a way the homeland of biodynamics, and having no plans as of yet for the time I’d tentatively scheduled there, I began my final emailing frenzy of the year, contacting every Austrian biodynamic producer I could find and waiting until someone was intrigued enough by the description of my Watson project to respond.  Thus it was Slovenia that led me to Weingut Hirsch, which in turn led to Weingut Sepp Moser.  And both of these visits allowed me to see how biodynamics plays out firsthand, how these first principles I was so excited about are put into practice, and most importantly, taste the remarkable results.

I begin with this story about biodynamics because it is representative of how providence, or fate, or intervention by some kind of Watson fairy, ensured that I didn’t return home without first grappling a bit with this fascinating piece of the wine world, something that fits in so elegantly with the project I designed.  But the whole year, and especially this last quarter, was an oversized exercise in learning to balance planning with spontaneity, paving my path flexibly enough that it maintained its freedom to wriggle and wind its way out from under my feet.

I had wanted to “put the year into persepective” during the fourth quarter with a visit to South Africa and then a bit of an overview of some of the regions in Europe I hadn’t been at the beginning.  This is exactly what ended up happening, but, as I should have guessed, not in the way I had anticipated.

Let me back up a bit.  South Africa.  A magnificent, overwhelming country, stunning in its natural beauty, shocking (to a post-Civil Rights movement American youngster) in its social idiosyncrasies, and bountiful in its wines.  I profited from the generosity of a winemaker in Bot River, an area outside of some of the most well-known wine regions but rightfully gaining a name for itself, who allowed me to live with his family, work in his winery, taste every barrel of his wine, attend a meeting of the Bot River Vineyard, meet and visit many other producers in the region, and utilize the open space of the farm to practice driving a stick-shift ‘bucky.’[4]  But mostly, PJ Geyer was generous in conversation.  We talked for hours on end, weeks on end, about everything relating to wine.  And he taught me what it is to make wine from the heart.  His motto is “Taste and feel, don’t think and do,” which I found to be, in a turn of irony, a perfectly logical methodology.  After all, why would you overthink your wine, when your product is one meant to be experienced?[5]  Our favorite thought experiment became to assess the explanation for why his friend’s wine matured in 500% new oak[6] doesn’t, supposedly[7], taste purely of oak.  He verbalized what I’d begun to see during my experience in Chile, when he told me the first prayer he made as a winemaker:  “Dear God, give me patience. NOW.”  And he started me thinking about the importance of marketing, even for someone whose primary role (on paper, at least) is to make the wine, something that became a bit of a theme throughout the weeks that followed, as I also paid a visit to Wharton alumnus Anthony Hamilton Russell who owns a very successful micro-wine empire in Hermanus, South Africa, and continued to explore marketing in the small winery context upon my arrival in Italy. 

South Africa wasn’t without its challenges, however, which came mostly in the form of the quite significant social differences between it and the US.  I spent the vast majority  of my time with white people of relatively high to very high economic status,[8] and just the seeming definitiveness of the social/racial stratifications made me a bit uncomfortable.  But nothing irked me as much as the recurring conception that people of different races have different capacities for understanding.  I struggled a lot hearing this idea come up, as I didn’t want to judge the people making these comments for having an opinion so drastically different than my own (which I recognize to certainly be a product of my own upbringing – for goodness sake I even took a course in college that was entirely focused on debunking exactly this idea), but also with breaking bread and, frankly, being associated with these people who held an idea which I find to be fundamentally wrong.  This is something I’m still grappling with, but I think an incredibly important thing to have experienced, especially for an American raised after these issues, once so prevalent in our own society, are seen to be on the decline.  I think, and hope, that seeing social and racial stratification in such a more pronounced way will help me recognize the more masked and hidden manifestations of the same issues in my own country.

            After South Africa I headed back to Europe, and after a brief but determinative detour to France (more on that below), I resumed my tour through regions new to me.  I crossed through the north of Italy, where I visited some amazing wineries, and an incredible wine museum that changed forever how I will think about public displays of wine-related knowledge.  I spent a day touring the Valpolicella region – vineyards, wineries, historical monuments and all – with the technology director of the enormous Bolla winery, with whom I discussed not only science and technology, but also history, marketing, environmentalism, and much, much more.  All of these experiences exactly fulfilled my goal of putting some perspective on how science and art relate to each other in the wine industry, and reminded me of the infectious zeal for wine that permeates the industry.  One night spent in the home of an Italian family who spoke no English, and another of Italian wedding crashing ignited a sharp craving to learn to speak the language in order to integrate into this incredibly rich, resonant culture without any translational middleman.  My lack of understanding in Italy confirmed just how key language was in defining my experiences in France and Chile.

Pour arriver jusqu’au trésor, il faudra que tu sois attentif aux signes.  Dieu a écrit dans le monde le chemin que chacun de nous doit suivre.  Il n’y a qu’à lire ce qu’il a écrit pour toi.[9] 

I mentioned above that I took a bit of a detour to France when I first returned to Europe.  I quickly learned, during my year, that some of the most enjoyable and valuable moments, weeks, and months were unplanned, and thus I felt confident arriving in Rome with five weeks remaining in the year and exactly zero plans.  This confidence was shaken a bit when I arrived at the hostel and found that the two nights that I’d thought I had booked had not even gone through, and this, combined with an unexpected Malaria scare (which, fortunately, a five-hour stint in the hospital revealed I didn’t have), confirmed that my newfound spontaneity had its limits.  This realization led to a semi-impulsive decision to return “home” to where I’d stayed in France, as I felt that the influence of familiar faces and places would help ground me enough to decide how I really wanted to spend my final Watson weeks.  And if this decision wasn’t providential, I don’t know what is.  The weekend I spent in my old ‘pigeonnier’ (former pigeon house-turned-apartment where I’d lived during harvest last fall) turned out to be one of the most emotionally tumultuous of my year, as I stood back and watched all of the post-Watson plans I had made tumble to the floor as the rug was yanked out from under them.[10]  I couldn’t have been more grateful to be surrounded by one of my Watson families, especially to have the distraction of two most adorable French children to keep me busy.

It was a harsh but potent reminder of that key fact that I’d thought I’d learned so well – nothing works out the way you plan.  This had become a sort of Watson-mantra, but still I’d managed to become a bit complacent and fall into that trap of false security that laying plans seems to pull us into.  But those Watson fairies, or perhaps it’s the ghost of Mr. Thomas J. himself, seemed to have a way of keeping me on track.  When I’d made the decision to go back to France, I’d also fit in appointments at the two schools that I’d been considering to apply for Masters programs (both to begin in 2013, as the application deadlines for this year had already long passed).   I headed to Angers, agenda for the next year suddenly blank, and was given the opportunity to apply to start the Vintage Master this September.[11]

At first I was a bit wary of spending Watson time make post-Watson plans, but visiting these schools and deciding what to do next turned out to be a hugely important aspect of my last quarter, as this decision-making process actually allowed me to process and integrate many of the changes to myself that had occurred during the year.  All of this was put into practice as I had to decide whether I would take the offer from the Vintage Master or wait until next year and apply to another program which, ostensibly, would be the more ‘appropriate’ choice given my background in chemistry, as it is more science-driven and technical than the Vintage Master which has a large marketing and language component.  But, looking at this past year, it is clear that two aspects stand out above all else as the most important, the most enjoyable, the most influential – people and languages.  And from that I’ve leaned that I want, even need, communication to be a key aspect of what I do, and that must take precedence over what I think I “should” be interested in pursuing based on my academic background.  I’ve struggled throughout my life with making decisions based on what I think I “should” do, and the Watson year has given me the unprecedented opportunity to make a year’s worth of decisions solely based on what I want to do, and in doing so I have finally allowed myself to begin to learn what, exactly, that is.

It seems a bit wrong to call this a “final” report after coming from the conference where we all came away with an understanding of just how non-final this moment is – the juncture between a Watson Year and a Watson Life.  I am so glad that I don’t have to say goodbye to the Watson, but rather hello to a new manner of interacting with my year.   And what a year it was.  I cannot begin to thank you, the Watson Foundation, enough for this opportunity.  For the opportunity to explore, observe, learn, play, work, love, hurt, laugh, cry, and discover myself.  For the blind faith, the support, the validation to do what I love, without stipulation, without expectation.  I have always been my biggest critic, my biggest hindrance, and your support finally allowed me to fully support myself.  There is no greater gift.  Thank you Watson Foundation for this incredible Watson Opportunity to have seized, this incredible Watson Year to have completed, and this incredible Watson Life to live.

[1] Quote from The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, which I was reading on my first planeride of the year, from Seattle to Barcelona.  I wrote down the quote on the front page of my journal in hopes that I would look back today, writing my final report, and it would ring true.  It does.

[2] My favorite of a list of ‘key terms’ we came up with in a weighty discussion group at the Returning Fellows conference, this word, in various forms, will be recurrent in this report.

[3] In fact, in the book’s prologue, wine critic Joshua Greene admits that many find the principles of biodynamics to be “romantic or foolish.”

[4] The South African term for a pick-up truck.

[5] Overthinking something meant to be experienced? Hmm… that sounds like a mistake on par with, say, overthinking the Watson 😉 But in all seriousness, doesn’t that make perfect sense?  Why ruin something sensorial by complicating it with the mind, which isn’t equipped, on its own, to fully enjoy the wine.  This is exactly the challenge I see with reductive techniques that attempt to understand a wine by analyzing its individual components.

[6] He aged the wine in a new oak barrel for a year, then removed it and put it in a new barrel again each year for a total of five years.  The explanation involved a metaphor using basketballs and tennis balls to express his theory that the wine becomes saturated by tannins more quickly than by smaller molecules, which continue to be extracted.

[7] The bottle goes for about $350, so naturally isn’t poured during a tasting.

[8] Such as the day I spent with the women I dubbed the “Real Housewives of Durbanville” – which was also the day I decided I never want to become rich.

[9] From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I read, in French, for the first time this year, continually finding myself amazed by the inspiration and clarity I found for interpreting my own experiences.  Here I quote the book in French, because that is how I read it, but this means, “To come to your treasure, you must be attentive to the signs.  God has written in the world the path which each of us should follow.  You must only read what he has written for you.”

[10] At least no earthquakes were involved, this time.

[11] This meeting occurred on July 10, a mere 50 days before I’d be heading back to Angers to start the program.  And yes, somehow, I have [almost] everything ready.

3 thoughts on “The End: A New Beginning

  1. That’s a truly amazing and wonderful report – Alissa! Thanks much for sharing that — and wishing you all the best for your next adventures!
    Love, Bev

  2. BRAVO, Alissa!! Tremendous report for a tremendous year. Love the
    Coelho quote. And YOU! Godspeed on your new journey!
    -Aunt Jan

  3. Pingback: WAC 2014 Recap Series: Holistic science? The study of Biodynamics | Noble Route

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