In 2013, journalist and 425 contributor Chris Nishiwaki put his writing career and his life in Seattle on hold to move to work with winemaker Aryn Morell in Walla Walla. Morell, who has makes wine for Matthews Winery; Tenor Wines; Gard Vintners; Mullan Road Cellars; and his own new project, Alleromb, lost his assistant winemaker to a debilitating injury just before harvest. Nishiwaki had a professional relationship with Morell only as a wine writer but called to offer his condolences. The two got to talking, and Nishiwaki ended up offering his services to the experienced winemaker. Nishiwaki shares his thoughts on harvest and how the behind-the-scenes job has reshaped his perspective as a writer and wine drinker.
“In the middle of harvest last year, I realized that there are these movies or novels out there about middle-aged professionals leaving their jobs to pursue their dream careers. I got to do that, and I’m not middle-aged yet. That wasn’t originally my motivation, but it struck me, and I realized how fortunate I was.”
“My initial approach as a wine writer, a food writer and a restaurant writer was to better understand how the wine was made and what goes into the business. Understanding why a wine tastes a certain way. Is it the cooperage, the kind of oak, how it’s being treated? I’ve become a lot more technical, rather than analyzing it on a more visceral level.”
“You write for the reader. Not for the producer. It’s especially critical in wine writing. Wine is so mysterious. So the role of the journalist in advocating and educating the consumer is more heightened because there’s so much room for interpretation. There’s plenty of hocus-pocus marketing.”
“I expected it to be physical. And it has been. I got into terrific shape during harvest. But what has struck me was the balance required to do this job. Its numbers-driven, it’s administrative and it’s not as romantic as you think.”
“During the height of harvest, at the end of the day, we’re spending at least two to three hours just cleaning up. I’m a messy guy, a bachelor, and at home I don’t have to worry about that, but when you’re working at a winery, cleanliness is really important. Now after working harvest I’m paranoid about being clean.”
“This is really personal, but I’ve gotten to be really good friends with Aryn and his family. He has three kids, and I’ve grown close to them. It’s been a big part of my personal growth.”
“I’ll be 43. I wasn’t sure if I still had the capacity to pick up a new skill at this age, but it happened and I took comfort in that.”
“Winemaking is very humbling. You’ll never learn everything there is to know. Just because you did something last year, or did something with this vineyard or this fruit in this style, doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to make that into a template. It’s constantly evolving. Which is why I’m really happy that I’ve gotten to work two harvests. The first year was simply an orientation.”
“Winemaker personalities get so much credit here. I’m not sure all of them deserve it, and that may not be what they want to hear. What’s different with Washington state versus France, Italy and the Old World in general is that a lot of winemakers here buy the fruit directly from grape growers. I think the growers should be the stars, or at least get more attention than they do.”
Photo by Will Foster.