Though the interior of the barn is humble — there is no formal tasting room, and picnic tables holding wine bottles and glasses sit side by side with wine tanks and wood barrels — Corison exudes a quiet power when she comes out to meet me. Now in her early 60s, Corison has earned her stripes in the Napa Valley community. After graduating with a master’s degree in enology from the University of California at Davis, the country’s preeminent wine studies program, she started working in the Napa Valley.
In the years following Prohibition, the wine industry in the Napa Valley consisted of a few sleepy vineyards and a lot of sweet wine. The modern wine industry as we know it began to emerge in the mid-1960s, supported by research done at the University of California. Then, in 1976 — right after Corison showed up in Napa — the wine world, dominated by the French, was stunned when California’s wines bested their French counterparts in a blind tasting with French wine critics. Napa Valley became a hotbed of activity with the emergence of new wines and new ways of making wine. Unlike the traditional European vineyards, American winemakers fully embraced technology like cold fermentation: by placing the grapes in a stainless steel vat with double walls, the winemakers were able to pass a coolant through them to control the fermentation, leading to fresher and crisper American white wines.
Corison came of age when these types of new technologies were emerging. She and her fellow UC Davis graduates initially approached wine making through the lens of their technical training, holding the older growers in disdain for their lack of scientific knowledge. Now, four decades later, Corison sees things differently. “There was a lot of wisdom from the old-timers. We were full of ourselves, but the more you know the less you know.”
By the late 1980s, Corison had been making wine for the famous label Chappellet for close to a decade. The vineyards of Chappellet, up in the hills of Napa Valley, had gone through a few seasons of drought, so Corison and her team sourced some additional grapes from down on the Rutherford Bench. This “bench” is made up of well-drained alluvial soils, unlike the rocky terrain up in the hills. Most important, the bench is gravelly loam — composed of roughly equal parts of sand, silt, and clay — so it has great water-holding capacity but excellent drainage. Vines in loam soil get the water they need to grow in the spring and summer. Gravel makes the soil well drained so when the rains stop coming, the vines stop growing and focus on ripening.
“If Cabernet is growing when it ought to be ripening its fruit, it maintains green flavors,” Corison explained. Ripeness in Cabernet Sauvignon is marked by the evolution of red, blue, purple, and black fruit flavors and the disappearance of green notes. “If the vine stops growing and gets busy ripening, however, there is a chance to get grapes fully ripe without the sugars getting too high.”
When Corison and her crew began sourcing grapes from these alluvial loam soils, she had a revelation about the kind of wine she wanted to make. “There was a wine inside me that needed to get out,” Corison told me. “That’s the only way I can describe it. It was both powerful and elegant. Cabernet is going to be powerful no matter what you do, but it’s way more interesting to me at the intersection of elegance. When we sourced grapes from down in the valley, I learned that this wine that needed to get out grows on the Rutherford Bench.”
Starting in 1987, Corison embraced this vision and began making her own wines. She found wineries with excess capacity and used their facilities to create her Napa Valley Cabernet. In 1995, she and her husband bought a small plot of land that runs from Rutherford to St. Helena. Everyone else had turned down the land because they assumed that the vines would need to be replanted and the old property on it torn down. Corison and her husband forged ahead, turning the derelict property into a barn to house their facility. And they did not replant the old vines on St. George rootstock. Instead, they celebrated them.
“Those vines are just wise — they are old and wise. I think it has to do with root depth. They come through heat spells with grace and style when all the younger vineyards are really hurting. They know what to do.”
During this time, the fashion in Napa Valley was big and bold. New World winemakers in California tended to let the fruit sit longer on the vine for powerful aromas and flavors. The alcohol levels of these wines began to stretch well above 14 percent. Some critics lauded them as “lush,” while others derisively referred to them as “fruit bombs.” In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Napa Valley looked less and less like an agricultural community and more and more like a playground for the rich and famous. The lushness of the wines reflected the grandiosity of these drinkers.
The “numbers” of these more robust wines were all scientifically correct. The wines were all technically sound, with structural integrity. The winemakers could clearly state the properties of their “ripe” wines: the sugar, acid, and pH levels of the grapes all measured in an appropriate range.
The aspects of ripeness, however, tell a much more nuanced story. “Ripeness happens at different numbers every year,” Corison explained. “If you are not out in the vineyard, seeing it, you don’t really know. Numbers are just a piece of it. The vines get tired by the end of the ripening season and can give up after a while. And when they give up, true ripening ends. That is the challenge: to make all the components converge at just the right time. A great vintage is when all those factors converge right where you want them. It’s biology and chemistry, but also alchemy. There is so much we don’t understand on a technical level.”
Every single word Corison uses to articulate her wine and her wine making conveys her relationship to the land. These vines are not measured in scientific properties: the pH, salinity, and lime content of their soil suitability, for example. Instead, she describes them as “old and wise,” with “grace and style.”
“We have all the heat and sunshine we need to get the grapes right — even in a cold season like 2011 — but because of the cold nights and the fog coming in, we have beautiful natural acidity too. And the tannins in [this] corner of the world come in feeling like velvet. If you were to measure the tannins, you’d get a very big number. But tannins are not one molecule; they’re a class of molecules that can range from harsh and astringent to soft and velvety and beautiful. And that is what I love about benchland fruit: There are fruit flavors, but the tannins are so luscious. They feel good.”
Corison could never gain this type of perspective from a spreadsheet or an office on the 87th floor of a skyscraper. She knows the tannins feel like velvet because she has been tasting them for close to 40 years. Ultimately, she can hold this aesthetic judgment because of how specifically she is situated in her context. To put it simply, Cathy Corison gives a damn: “I cut my teeth on European wines. And I tasted enough of the old Cabernets from that neck of the woods to know elegance. It’s a moral imperative for me to make a wine that will be long-lived and do interesting things in the bottle.”
When you have a perspective — when you actually give a damn — you intuitively sense what’s important and what’s trivial. You can see what connects with what, and you know the data, input, and knowledge that matter. Caring is the connective tissue that makes all these things possible.
Conversely, a lack of care is often at the root of many of the business and organizational challenges I encounter in my consulting. Over time, as management has become increasingly professionalized, you can sense a kind of nihilism or loss of meaning in the executive layers. This nihilism is strongest in large corporate cultures where management is seen as a profession in and of itself, with no strong connection to what the company actually makes or does. What happens when satisfaction in work comes from managing — reorganizing, optimizing the operation, hiring new people, and making strategies — and not from producing something meaningful? How do you feel when it doesn’t really matter whether you make beauty products, soft drinks, fast food, or musical instruments?
Without care, everything is “correct” and nothing is “true.” Martin Heidegger claimed that care — or what he called Sorge — is the very thing that makes us human. He didn’t mean “care” as an explicit emotional connection with things or people, but rather in the sense that something matters to you, is meaningful to you. It is this care that enables us to interact with stuff in very complex ways, and it is also this care that enables us to see new ways of interacting with the world.
If you are in the beauty business, you simply can’t make sense of cultural insights regarding beauty ideals if you don’t care about the meaning of beauty products. If you are in the car industry, you have to care about cars and transportation — otherwise, the human phenomenon of driving will not make sense to you. Without care, you stop seeing the bigger picture of meaning and insight and you only see discrete data points — what Isaiah Berlin referred to as “so many individual butterflies.”
Care is what allowed Cathy Corison to hear the call of the wine trying to “get out” of her. And care is what gives her the courage to continue to make it, year after year after year. Today it is in fashion. Ten years ago, it was not. Care provides her with a North Star so she doesn’t get distracted or waylaid throughout these cycles of wine and culinary fashion.
Consider Leo McCloskey, founder of a wine consulting group called Enologix. Whereas Cathy Corison’s wine is never just about the numbers, McCloskey has developed an entire business model around the belief that wine making is all about numbers. With the world’s largest wine database, he tastes hundreds of wines a year and then breaks all of them down into the individual compounds that give them their unique color, flavor, and fragrance.
What does he do with all this information? He begins by running computer tests for his clients to help determine the most important moment of the season: when to pick the grapes. This reverse-engineers the wines, stripping them down to their component parts and atomizing each and every element. These results get compared with his vast database — calculated along with captured data about conditions in the vineyard, such as the rainfall and water levels and wine-making process details like the types of barrels used and the length of fermentation. All of these models give winemakers a way to create virtual versions of their wine: playing with different factors to tweak particular elements, akin to creating a Fantasy Football League.
When the wine is ready to go in the bottle, Enologix has one final offering: Their calculations can predict with a fair amount of accuracy how the wine will score on the infamous 100-point scale in Wine Spectator.
It’s a Moneyball approach to wine making, an audacious move in a culture that holds firmly to its identity as an artisanal craft. McCloskey does not reveal the names of his clients, but he primarily serves the smaller vineyards attempting to stay close to the traditional methods of wine making made famous in old-world cultures like Burgundy and Alsace. These clients, and several sources in the industry, believe that McCloskey has something valuable to offer winemakers. But anyone who spends time with Cathy Corison knows that this value is a mirage. Nothing in McCloskey’s “black box” has any lasting point of view. By taking an entirely objective approach to the data — and treating the compounds in a bottle of wine as atomized elements discrete from their greater context — McCloskey has every chance of helping to make good wine today. But he will never come close to making great wine that endures. This is because there is no integrity, no aesthetic — there is no person who cares — behind the choices. It is technical precision with no soul.
If Cathy Corison tried to game her bottles using a data-crunching algorithm in the Enologix system, she might optimize a single year for a better wine score. But it would be at the cost of a much more compelling — and impressive — trajectory. “One of the things I love about wine is that it speaks of time and place, and marches forward speaking of time and place. These wines are still talking about what was happening,” Corison told me. “I feel a moral obligation to make wines that let the dirt speak.”
By making such wines for 30 years, Corison’s vintages have remained remarkably consistent over the years. She doesn’t add acid, tannins, enzymes, or any of the oak flavors. The wine that was dying to get out of her was based entirely on the grapes themselves. When you drink Cathy Corison’s wine, you are experiencing everything she cares about: a profundity of data that can never be captured in an algorithm. Machine learning can never understand how she prevailed despite falling in and then out of style. And entering all the sense data possible wouldn’t get at the meaning of her perseverance. Computers simply do not give a damn; they will never understand that caring is the whole point.