A few years ago, I was wandering through a market in Kyoto, Japan. One of the shops sold beautiful, traditional knives made of folded steel. A sign on the wall revealed that the production process has been passed down through 18 generations dating back to 1560. After an unreasonable amount of time debating about whether I needed a chef’s knife, I bought two -- one for myself and one for my brother. Each knife was taken away for sharpening and to have the blade hand-engraved with the name of the recipient in Japanese.
My knife was brought back ten minutes later by a young man -- an apprentice -- who presented it to me for my approval before wrapping it in paper with exacting precision. He asked, in English that halted not from ineptitude, but nerves, if I would permit him to engrave the knife for my brother. “Of course,” I replied.
He returned a few minutes later to show me his work. It looked great, and I told him so. He then turned to the master and showed him. The master looked closely and had a quick, quiet exchange with the apprentice. The apprentice then apologized profusely to me and said that he could not sell me this knife. He was not satisfied with the result, and the master would engrave a replacement. He placed this apparently unfit knife underneath the counter, then showed me a new one and gave it to the master to be engraved.
There was no way that I, nor my brother, would ever have known about whatever mistake was etched in the steel of the discarded knife, because neither of us read Japanese. That apprentice and master could have easily let me go, happily paying, and saved themselves a brand new chef’s knife. But the apprentice and master would have known. And the cost of making a new knife was nothing balanced against the amount of honor he would have lost if he let me walk out the door. Leaving that store, I was -- and remain -- awed by the beauty that I witnessed, not just in the finished product, but in the unyielding commitment to an almost absurd level of quality.
From my perspective, this kind of beauty has little -- perhaps nothing -- to do with medium. Instead, it finds its footing in esteem for a task and the perpetual struggle to improve. This combination can elevate something beyond the ordinary. However, this is necessarily rare and for every master and apprentice toiling in Kyoto, there are many huge factories around the globe churning out substandard junk.
The proportion of this beauty in winemaking is correspondingly small. Most wine is a paint-by-number affair. Flowcharts are created and followed to ensure palatable and predictable results. Small mistakes are avoided or covered, and out the door it goes. There is nothing wrong with this kind wine, and much of it is reasonably-priced, good quality and enjoyable. But there are also those winemakers who are not driven primarily by what wine quickly moves off the shelves. Instead, they are motivated by their own conscience and esteem for their craft. They aim to showcase the grapes and the conditions that nature has given them each year. And, most importantly, if a mistake is made, it is unlikely that you will walk away with it in a bottle. Like the knife, it will be used as motivation for improvement next year.
While many wineries emphasize this kind of ethos, it can be difficult to discern whether it is sincere, or just smart marketing. However, there are certain producers -- Ridge, Corison, López de Heredia, and Paolo Bea -- that time after time, offer me a glimpse of the determination of that master and apprentice to maintain a higher standard, their own. And it is inspiring.