Down and Dirty

The Northwest wine business is not lacking in video documentation; I've seen at least half a dozen films full of pretty pictures of vines, grapes, and half-filled glasses suffused with sunlight, accompanied by voice-overs rhapsodizing about the pure, healthy, and (sometimes) profitable winemaking lifestyle. Pretty can get pretty dull after a while, especially when the prettiness is pretty much devoid of usefulness. So I'm glad to be able to announce that there is now a wine video that actually leaves you with something beyond a raging thirst. Its infelicitous title is Washington State: Get the Dirt on Wine. It started out as a labor of love by two west-of-the-mountains filmmakers named Kirk Burpee and Kathy Hall who moved to Kennewick and put their own cash in the project. The resulting film (technically an "interactive video") pleased wine- and tourist-industry heavies sufficiently that the couple were able to recoup some of their investment; they hope to cover the remainder and with luck make a little money by selling DVDs to the general public. I hope they succeed. Their product is not free from clichés (why are shots of vineyards always accompanied by twanging faux-folk?), but it has one great advantage over the mostly lame competition: the presence of Washington State University geologist Alan Busacca as principal host and guide to the terrain. Busacca's a wine buff as well as an expert in the complex fire-flood-and-wind-formed geology of the Columbia plateau, and his kidlike enthusiasm for his subject almost convinces you that you, too, can see the difference between one handful of dry sand and another. Oh, sure, that's loess all right; couldn't be anything else. Busacca's approach pays off because Washington's wine country in general and each of its subregions and microregions are even more geology-dependent than other fine-wine areas round the world. With comments by growers and winemakers filling in the blanks, Busacca is able to convey the crucial contribution of soil, sun, and slope—what the French collectively call terroir—to the distinctive quality of grapes and the wine made from them. He's also assisted by some primitive but still damned impressive computer simulations (created for the film) of the lava floods that inundated the Columbia Basin 10 million to 15 million years ago, and the gargantuan flash floods which repeatedly scoured it 10,000 to 15,000 years back. With such assistance, the usual shots of rolling ridges and dusty sunsets take on a good deal more meaning than they normally do. Every Washington appellation (officially sanctioned growing region) gets its 10 minutes of special focus, and if you weary of the parade of facts and stats before all are accounted for, it's easy to take a break in your viewing, thanks to the unusually convenient "interactive" top menu of the DVD. You may think you already know so much about Washington wine and its regional variations that watching this film wouldn't teach you anything. I beg leave to doubt that; but even if it's true, you should pick up at least one copy to send to a wine-loving friend. After they watch it, you'll be spared having to explain for the 15th time that wine grapes don't festoon the backyard fences of Seattle (though they do on Bainbridge Island), and that some of the best wine in the world is made from grapes nurtured in the middle of a screaming stony desert.

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