The best way to enjoy wine is with a friend, along with the stories that are the fragrance of life.

Dinner was being served in the barrel room. I love the barrel room. I would like to live in the barrel room. The aroma of wine permeates the room, saturates the air. I can almost taste the wine as I inhale it. In my dreams, I would take a nap in the barrel room… or better yet, in the wine caves. But Noble doesn’t have wine caves, so this will have to do. If my battle plan is not secure, I might be asking the Noble family if I can move in. I’m planning where I’ll put my bed when they arrive.

Don and Jack found me at the table with my eyes closed.

“Are we disturbing your nap?” Jack was taking liberties.

My eyes opened slowly. “Does this get old for you? The aroma of wine in a barrel room? Do you even notice it anymore?”

Don’s eyes moistened. “When you grow up in a vineyard, it becomes a part of you. I’ve never taken it for granted. That’s why I asked for dinner in this room.”

Jack was poised with a thought, lowered his head, and then decided to comment, “Really what you smell in here is not wine… yet. It’s must.”

Don nodded in agreement. “Tonight, we want to talk about what happens in the barrels when we’re done fiddling with it.” On that note he picked up a bottle and started pouring into three glasses. “The oak wine barrel is probably the most significant symbol of winemaking. At least the most recognized. Most people don’t see a wine barrel until it’s turned in to a picnic table. How long do you think this wine aged in barrels?”

Shoot! I didn’t read that chapter yet. The stunned look on my face was all the permission he needed to keep talking.

“For a few thousand years, Egyptians aged and carried their wine in clay amphorae. They discovered the wooden barrel by accident,” Don storied.

“The clay was heavy,” Jack filled in. “The Romans discovered oak barrels used to transport beer and were surprised how water tight it was…”

“Not to mention easier to bend into a barrel,” Don finished Jack’s thought in a way that was so natural to Jack that he didn’t seem to notice. “After using the oak for some time, they realized they added some pleasant qualities to the wine. Softer. Smoother. Better tasting.”

“That’s when they learned the longer the wine stayed in the barrel, the better it tasted.” Jack droned. It was easy to tell he had told this story a thousand times.

“This red aged about two years before bottling.” Don wasn’t one for torture. “White wines are fermented in new barrels. We use stainless steel.”

“Except for Chardonnay, right?” I have an impression that Chardonnay is aged in oak.

Jack took the ball with enthusiasm. “Yes, but new barrels. You see for reds we reuse seasoned barrels. Chardonnays go into new oak barrels to pick up more of the oak character.”

“Speaking of character,” Don signaled with his eyes toward the door. Loaded with a tray of bruschetta, Syrah entered silently. It was then that I noticed the table was set for four.

Jack broke the ice first. “My favorite. Did you make this all by yourself?”

Syrah rolled her eyes. “I’m not licensed to touch the food, and you know it.” As soon as she set the tray on the table, Jack scooped her onto his lap. “I don’t know if you are going to take over the family business or become a lawyer.” He mussed her hair and kissed the top of her head. Syrah fell against him like a sack of flour.

I broke the reverie. “How many generations has Noble Vineyards been in the family?”

“My grandfather bought this land,” Don launched in without flinching. “He married the daughter of a winemaker who had no sons, nobody to inherit the family business. Things were different then.” He nodded toward Syrah to acknowledge that there is no dearth of female leadership in the wine industry today. “A fire destroyed all the vines one year. They thought the whole family legacy was lost. The vines were blackened as far as the eye could see.”

Syrah decided to cut in this time. “But great grandpapa pulled out the root of the oldest vine and saved the vineyard!” Don chuckled. “There was this stump enshrined in a garden – the original vine. He summoned all his strength and pulled that stump out of the ground. The roots were still alive! They replanted and saved the whole vineyard.”

“I saw a movie that sounds just like that. A Walk in the Clouds. From the 80s or 90s I think.” The scene from the fire made a vivid impression in my memory, especially how complexity in life enhances even when there is destruction.

“Inspired by my grandfather,” Don beamed. As if on cue, two servers entered with rib eye steaks and artichokes. The sight and the smell brought back such a vivid memory, a tiny cry burst unexpectedly from inside me. Both men turned my way. Syrah was oblivious. That knot in my solar plexus moved into my throat. It got tight and hardened and I had to swallow to talk. The complexity in my life was provoked by this visceral memory of my childhood. Freaky.

“My father used to grill rib-eyes and serve them with artichokes. That was his favorite meal. It’s been … many years.” My voice started to crack.

Jack broke the awkward silence with a pronouncement. He patted Syrah on the back as a cue to climb into her chair and lifted his glass, “To traditions and new traditions!” Everybody clinked glasses and salivated for a very short time before diving in.

Two glasses of wine later, I didn’t hold back finishing my steak. It was a childhood flashback that summoned my childhood appetite. Don pushed back from the table.

“This is my cue to exit.” He stood and bowed to Syrah. “May I escort you to the hacienda?” Syrah was barely holding her eyelids open and responded, for a change, without a word. She stood and took his arm like a lady escorted to a ball. Just before they crossed the threshold leaving the barrel room, she yelled, “Wait!” and ran back to kiss Jack good night. These two were tight.

When the two were halfway to the hacienda, Jack launched right in. “You were close to your dad?” The words hit me like a gut punch. He must have noticed because he immediately apologized. “I shouldn’t pry.”

“No. I don’t feel that way at all,” I responded reflexively. “It’s just that nobody has asked me about my dad…or my parents, for many years.”

“Are they still with you?” His word were innocent, but if only he knew.

“They live in Colorado.” I decided to take an old tactic and switch gears.

“And Syrah’s mom? Where does she live?” I volleyed back.

Jack stiffened and shifted. “She died.” I didn’t respond, let the silence marinate to allow him space to continue. “We met in Washington. She died after Syrah was born. Made the most sense to move back home to be with family.”

My emotions were playing hopscotch. I was scraping my soul for empathy and at the same time feeling a defense rise up in me for the argument that I knew was inevitable if he discovers that I had a child and abandoned her.

I can’t let him know…ever.

“Jack, I’m so sorry for your loss.” I’m an expert now in shifting the internal to a safe outer layer. “It must be a great comfort to have her grandfather here.”

“And Juanita. She’s been with our family since I was ten. I’m so grateful to have her.”

I bravely tread further in. “Was your mom still living when you brought Syrah home?” I imagined that the reason I don’t see her here is because she’s passed away.

“My mom is still alive.” Jack stared into his wine glass and grabbed the bottle for another pour. “She moved to France about 15 years ago.”

I was stunned. Not just because of the abandonment of his father and their family. I’m afraid I’m looking in a mirror… because his mom sounds so much like me. It felt like time stood still for a minute or more. He mistook my silence as indifference and shifted the conversation.

“Dad and I have been running the estate since then,” Jack continued. “The vineyard has been his love ever since. That’s why this vintage holds so much significance.”

rushed in to defend. “It’s not his last. He’ll still be here.”

“You don’t know much about pancreatic cancer, do you?” Jack swirled his wine and stared at it. “There’s not much of a chance he’ll see next October.” He rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.

“You’re right. I had no idea,” I stood and wrapped my sweater tight, unsure how to tread here. “Better make sure I get to bed. Don’t want to oversleep again.”

“See you in the morning,” Jack grunted, with his eyes still shut.

 

DISCUSS

What aromas transfix you, transport you to another time?

Can you think of a smell or a food that would remind you of a person or a moment?

How do you think barrel aging applies to your leadership development?

Have you ever experienced a fear, like Nora did about the decision she made to leave her daughter, that keep you from experiencing authentic relationship?

How has complexity made you stronger?