Not long ago I was privileged to join a Food and Wine Tour in France with my wife and two good friends. We spent time in the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions, tasting, learning about and appreciating the delicious wine of the area.
One thing we learned is that the best wine comes from grapes grown in poor soil. The reverse would seem more logical, that good soil would produce good grapes. But instead, the best dirt for great wine is rocky, or sandy, or clay-heavy, or dry. Why? When the soil is poor, the roots are forced to push deeper in search of water. The roots branch out, or “ramify,” to have more root area reaching inaccessible nutrients. This rooting is hard work.
It paralleled the hard life of early growers. When European land was first available and villages began to grow, the wealthy and powerful invariably took their first choice of land. They chose property by the rivers and streams, the lush, fertile and shadier tracts. The peasants took what was left over – the harsh, rocky land along the hillsides that bore the hot sun directly. They had to work this unpromising soil in the full heat of the day and the chilly breezes of the night.
Like the cliché “Hard work builds character,” the grapes of southern France grew by the same truth. If nutrients and water were readily available at the surface, the grapes would grow fat and plump. They would be what the vintners call “characterless,” bloated and watery like an over-juicy melon. Grapes in poor soil don’t concentrate their flavors by growing luxurious leaves and extraneous branches. Their essence intensifies by struggling for the basics. The sommelier told us, “The grapes have to suffer in order to produce great wine.”
I have a good friend who lost his wife to cancer not long ago. The two of them were optimistic as they saw early signs of healing. Dan found comforting wisdom in ancient Chinese poetry and philosophy. But Becky’s cancer returned and metastasized. Her declining weeks were full of mutual love – and her husband’s anguish.
Dan shared with me one of his poems that included the lines…
I have never walked this walk
I am happy to watch your figure
as you pick
your way among the rocks
approach the receding tide
turn and wave your little hand
which I know as I have
never known anything
that I will
never hold again
I love our walk and you
and yet I am glad
I have no gun
In their final days together Dan was suffering, and in the days after Becky’s death he continued to suffer. Being forced to wrestle with the powers of love and death and grief is never something we choose. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, preaching on the death of his son, said, “We are not naturally profound; we have to be forced down.” Dan’s soul had to root itself ever more deeply beneath the surface. To find the spiritual nutrients he needed, there was no other place to go.
The details of a spiritual journey are rarely understood fully, even when it’s our own. But over time different conversations linger in our mind. Coincidences happen. Insights begin to accumulate; they rearrange into new meanings. Perspectives shift a millimeter or so. And one day we’re aware that something is different.
Not long ago Dan wrote:
“Something [has] happened inside me. I believe it. The Christian good news miracle feels true to me now. I have spent my life trying to be ‘intellectually respectable,’ so having Christian faith always seemed like the dumbbell sell-out. But I don’t feel or think that anymore. … I feel like God in Christ is becoming real to me, somehow. And that does make me happy!”
Dan’s testimony ratifies the profound truth that’s in great wine. When we suffer, we send our roots down deeper and find, well below the surface, the nutrients we need. We become people of character not when our most basic needs are within easy reach, but when we fight our way to the place where God becomes more real.
I’ve learned within a glass of fine wine there is great wisdom.
In vino veritas.
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