A Special Blend of Writing and Wine

By By Kristi Berner

A fascination with the process of how food and beverages are made began with a visit to a potato chip factory, says Natalie Berkowitz '56, adding, “In less than five minutes the potatoes were washed, sliced, fried, salted, and bagged. It was a ‘Wow!’ moment.” She was 14 at the time.
Now, after more than five decades as a teacher, writer, and wine enthusiast, Berkowitz has published her first book, The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir(Columbia University Press, 2014), which details the complex and varied process of converting grapes into wine, as described to her by winemakers. She spoke to more than 40 vintners from wine-producing regions around the world about how they practice their craft, focusing on lesser-known vintners. The book includes conversations with winemakers—as well as their favorite recipes—from such diverse places as England, Greece, and Portugal, and from traditional wine-producing regions of France, Italy, and the United States. 
Winemakers must possess a wide range of talents. They are farmers at heart, because, explains Berkowitz, “If there is no crop, there is no wine.” During the growing season, they are pruning the vines, checking for bugs, and doing everything they can to ensure a healthy crop of grapes. Once harvest time comes around, it’s a full-court press into bottling, and the vintners turn into chemists. “They must decide how to ferment the grapes—in what kind of barrel and how long—how to blend them, to what level to toast the grapes, and then taste and adjust the elements until the wine matches their vision,” she says. “Each of them has a picture of what their wine will be.” 
Deciding when to harvest the crop can be a challenging decision for vintners such as Tuscan Filippo Rocchi. “He tests the grapes by chewing on the seeds,” she says. “It gives him one flavor component about readiness.” For all farmers, weather is a major issue. “They try to harvest the grapes before a major rainfall, because too much rain dilutes the juice.” 
The best-known winemaker Berkowitz documents in her book is 90-year-old Miljenko “Mike” Grgich of Grgich Hills Winery in California’s Napa Valley. Grgich was only 3 when he began stomping on grapes at his family’s winery in Desne, on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. “Mama switched me from breast milk to wine when I was 2½ years old, the youngest of 11 children,” he told Berkowitz. “Stomping grapes wasn’t Lucille Ball’s [idea]. The only energy in those days was our hands and feet.” 
The inspiration for The Winemaker’s Hand came from the author’s work as an artist; she has created about 200 paintings over the years. The question inspired her, “If Matisse and Van Gogh used the same colors, why are their paintings different?” Then one day it dawned on her, “I could do a collection of interviews about wine, and explain why all cabernets are different.” 
Berkowitz graduated with a degree in political science. “In a way, Barnard is responsible for this book, because the education helps you understand why you should travel,” she says. “I am grateful to Barnard, which helped me form as a person. It was enlightening to be in the company of so many smart women.” From her first job out of college—“I started out as an inept secretary”—Berkowitz quickly moved on to teaching and received a graduate degree from Teachers College. She taught history, economics, and art at a Manhattan high school and a New Jersey junior high. Berkowitz took a break from teaching when raising her family—she and husband Phil have a son and a daughter. During that time, she began freelance writing for various lifestyle publications, and found herself writing more and more frequently about wine. For more than 20 years, Berkowitz and her husband visited winemaking regions around the world; during the three-year process of researching and writing the book, Berkowitz reconnected with winemakers she had met on her travels. 
Berkowitz also taught a wine appreciation class to Barnard and Columbia seniors for over a decade; she speaks about it with pride. “My mission was to teach women about wine, because if they went into business, they should know how to handle a wine menu.” 
She now writes the blog Winealicious, and is working on a book about the process of cheese making. She also travels to Napa frequently with her husband, who is on the board of directors of Frog’s Leap Winery. Berkowitz is proud that her book goes beyond the classic wine book offering food and wine pairings. “It shows you how the little grape jumps into the bottle.”

Latest IssueSummer 2022