Where the Land Meets the Sky

Etienne White

I stood atop a hill, rolling countryside all around me, gorging on juicy, sweet edelweiss grapes, feeling the late afternoon sun, and wherever I looked, I saw nothing but metaphors for miles.

A girlfriend just bought a winery, here in the Driftless. Humans have been cultivating grapes for wine since around 8,000 B.C. Why shouldn’t we try our hand at perfecting some Driftless wines, too? I’ve picked grapes at my friend’s new place, I’ve tasted cold climate wine (it’s not bad, some wines were surprisingly good) and I’ve toured the vineyards and fruit orchards of her stunning Wild Hills property. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: Let’s call it viticulture for life, shall we?

When growing grapes, you must both tend to the current vine while simultaneously and in the same place, growing a new one. This is because winters can be hard on the main vine, and after several years it gets old and we recognize its best work is finished. So, in viticulture you grow, foster and nurture a new vine, right next to the main vine that is producing. In my friend’s case, some of the vines in the vineyard she’s just acquired may not be ideal, but it’s what she has available to her, and while she creates what she really wants to grow, she can still benefit from the vines available to her. Settling for the best available option that exists today, while also wishing for, and working to create, a more optimal system in the future is no bad endeavor.

I had no idea that the new vine flourishes by growing alongside the strength and structure of the existing one, benefiting from the shade it provides and the community of vines around it. Once the new system is strong enough, the winemaker will literally cut the cords with the old vine. The newly established vine takes over and grows up the same wireframing that the old one used to lean on, its roots are hardy and well-founded to endure whatever the worst weather has to throw at it, and its bright, green, new tendrils will bring sweet and abundant fruit. The old vine is thanked for serving us well and a new way is embraced with the new vine.

Though some days we might like to agitate, and even rip apart, the old systems we’re in, we may metaphorically feel like tearing the vines out by the roots and starting all over again, it’s good to remember that as in nature, so in life, we can have both growing alongside each other. And that creating an abundant new system can be done without it looking like a revolution; long-term grape growing is simply a series of gentle evolutions, repeating one after another. When faced with any choice that might seem less than ideal, choosing to work with the best we have available to us and simultaneously creating a new option is entirely possible. It’s what vignerons and citizen farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Let’s all drink to that!

Etienne White lives where the land meets the sky on a farm in Iowa County where she raises grass-fed, Old English Babydoll sheep, as well as pastured chickens, a happy farm dog, a wily barn cat and her two spirited children. She works at the intersection of marketing and sustainability, leading efforts to create mass consumer behavior change, for the greater good of both people and planet.