The Terroir of Eden: September Book + Bottle Pairing
Welcome back! Happy September. As this is being written, St. Petersburgers are planning their Labor Day weekends. Beach? Barbecue? Hurricane prep? Hurricane Dorian, which for a moment seemed to be coming right toward us, has now been predicted to veer east, potentially not even making landfall in Florida at all. But it’s too soon to know what the weather will be. So, with a cupboard full of dried goods, reusable jugs filled with water, and a coffee table piled high with books, we wait and see.
One book in that TBR stack on your coffee table should be John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Whether you’ve always wanted to read it or you’ve already read it several times, it’s time to pick it (back) up. Not only is Steinbeck the author of one of the most banned books, Of Mice and Men (September boasts Banned Books Week), but East of Eden is also a classic piece of American literature that like many of Steinbeck’s other works, includes tropes of im/migrants, laborers, and farmers — fitting topics for Labor Day. Did you know Steinbeck himself labored in farming, painting, and construction before achieving success as a writer? Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 as a means for factory workers to get a break from tireless seven day work weeks. Now, many of us are able to celebrate it with a barbecue, a book, and a glass of wine. To go with the theme of labor, we’ve picked a wine from Steinbeck’s home county of Monterey that gets the hands-on treatment from its farmers. And, we’ll give you a free lesson in “terroir” to boost your wine cred.
East of Eden is special for so many reasons. As a biblical allegory of the fall from grace, a discourse on the establishment of original sin, a story of brotherhood and father-son relationships, and an ongoing battle between good and evil, East of Eden does it all. There’s so much to dig into here, but this isn’t a college seminar, it’s a fun blog about books and wine, so we’ll keep the synopsis and analysis short and focus on why you should read this book: characters who will haunt you long after the book is closed and a moral challenge straight from the old testament.
The story is about two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The patriarch of the Hamilton family, Samuel, is an Irish immigrant who with his formidable wife, raise nine children on meager earnings from their dry, dusty farm. Each of their kids follows a different path toward the American Dream. One of the Hamilton kids, we find out, is John Steinbeck’s mother, Olive, which explains why he’s telling this story (see quote at right).
Samuel’s character persists as the wise man, who, while he cannot make glory for himself, is the savior of so many other characters in the book. Sam is the voice of reason that saves his friend Adam’s two children, who sets another friend Lee on a path of freedom and self-fulfillment, and whose knowledge about an evil woman sets in motion the major events in the book.
Cathy, who later renames herself Kate, is the manifestation of evil in the book. Samuel, in his seeming omniscience, believes she is a demon rather than a human. Kate is a master manipulator and marries Adam Trask for his money and because she thinks he is weak. She’s powerful, but wicked, murdering those who get in her way and scheming to ruin the lives of those she despises for being weak. For Kate, people are evil, and she she prides herself in her ability to make otherwise good men fall, proving her point. She is finally defeated when she meets someone at the end of the story who is truly good.
Earlier in the story, Kate runs away after giving birth to twin sons, and her husband Adam is heartbroken and neglects the children out of grief. Samuel comes to knock some sense into Adam, forcing him to name his now one year old twins and become the father they need him to be. The naming ceremony is a central part of the book, where Lee, Adam, and Samuel discuss the origin story and Cain and Abel, and understand that God has given humans the choice between good and evil. It’s true art when an author can show you the familiar and make it feel profound. The three men discuss the translation of the Old Testament, Lee going so far as to learn Hebrew to make a correct judgement, and together they decide that God tells Cain “thou mayest” prevail over sin rather than “thou shall” or “thou must.” Human destiny is not predetermined, nor is it directed by God, but rather humans have a choice of actions. This theme persists throughout the entire story, where each character grapples with overcoming an evil in themselves. In this vein, Samuel, perhaps as the snake in the garden of Eden, makes the choice to tell Adam the whereabouts of his estranged wife - a notorious brothel in town - which allows Adam to finally dismiss Kate as an evil person and move on with his life. His sons are less lucky - when Caleb finds out the truth about his mother he uses this knowledge to justify his own wicked thoughts, eventually causing the demise of his good brother in a replay of the Cain and Abel story.
Lee is another favorite character. He’s a servant who works for Adam and speaks pidgin and shuffles his feet - a true derogatory stereotype of Chinese immigrants in that era. Soon, Samuel in all his knowledge, discovers that Lee in fact speaks beautiful English and is extremely educated. Lee hides his true identity for the majority of the story as a means of protecting others - it makes people feel more comfortable seeing Lee as the “other.” Lee says most people don’t understand who he is when he speaks proper English. Lee’s an interesting counterpoint to Samuel, as Lee is truly American (born in the US, went to University of California), whereas Samuel is a poor immigrant from Ireland. Why then, does Samuel receive more respect from the community than Lee if not the color of his skin? Lee is the intellectual ballast for Samuel, allowing for the discovery of determinism, he’s the parent figure to Caleb and Aron helping them reflect on their decisions to be good or evil, and he’s the reason Adam redeems himself at the end of the book by finally blessing his son Caleb with the notion that he, too, can make the choice to prevail over evil.
Steinbeck knew that East of Eden was THE BOOK he always wanted to write, and he knew how special it was. This is saying a lot from the author of Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. While he won the Pulitzer Prize for Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden is bound to stick with you the longest. The complexities linger like a fine wine.
Less than two hours south of San Francisco, on the coast of California, is Monterey County. Home of John Steinbeck, great wine, and basically all the veggies you could eat. Picture this - the gorgeous California coastline slowly growing into a green mountain range that drops off on the other side into a cool, rich valley. In this valley now are rows and rows of lettuce, but in Steinbeck’s time, this valley was just starting to be cultivated by brave farmers, most newly arrived from the east coast or overseas; farmers like Steinbeck’s characters Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton.
We picked a wine not only from Steinbeck’s home county of Monterey, but one that puts an emphasis on the farming of the land as much as the winemaking. The wine industry is complex and can often be divided between the vine growers, the winemaker, and the brand that sells it. Carmel Road does all three in house. If you drink this wine while reading East of Eden, you’ll taste the place this book is about. That sense of place is called terroir, and we’re including a bonus lesson on terroir below. California’s terroir is the reason it has catapulted into one of the most respected wine regions in the world. Cool breezes from the Pacific keep the grapes balanced while long days of hot sunshine allow them to ripen and become full of sweet juice. Here in Monterey, the cool fog prevails creating a lighter bodied wine with complexity that can stand up to those in East of Eden.
The wine we’re pairing with East of Eden is Carmel Road’s First Row Pinot Noir from the Panorama Vineyard in Arroyo Seco AVA, 2013. The grapes for this wine are grown in a single, small vineyard in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterey County which is located forty miles into the Salinas Valley, home of John Steinbeck, and where East of Eden takes place. In fact, these grapes are all from the first row of the plot (hence the name) which means they get an extra beating from the strong winds, adding oomph and complexity to the wine. What you first notice about this wine is the crystal clear, pale ruby color of the wine in the glass. It is beautiful, but it doesn’t look like it will promise much flavor. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the first sip. Black cherry, vanilla, and pleasant smoke on the nose open up to baked strawberries, baking spices, vanilla, red cherries, milk chocolate, and black pepper. There is some pleasant bitterness reminiscent of small, black olives, and tannins that blend in so well you hardly notice them. What you get is a smooth, pleasant mouth feel. On the finish, the earthiness is prevalent with dusty rockiness, potting soil, and black tea. The wine holds up with good acidity from those cool ocean breezes and decent alcohol (14.5%) from the California sunshine. This wine is great served with a slight chill on it, but will be equally delicious once it’s warmed up in your glass.
While Steinbeck may have been inclined to wash down his tuna salad crackers with gulps of red wine, we recommend a roast chicken, barbecue sandwiches, or grilled cheese instead. Particularly, we think you should lightly coat a whole chicken in barbecue sauce and roast it in the oven, and then take your glass and your meal outside to enjoy.
BONUS: LESSON ON TERROIR
Terroir is one of those finicky French words that doesn’t have a great translation in English. Terroir includes the climate, the weather, the soil, the microbiome of a place, and so much more. Terroir is important because it causes grapes grown in one place to have a different character than grapes grown in another. This is why people pay more for a Cabernet that comes from Napa than from other places, for example. If you’re a winery on an excellent plot of land with superior terroir, you want you potential consumers to know it, which is why wine growing regions designate particular places that are united in their sense of terroir to create appellations of controlled origin or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) as we call them here in the states. These AVAs can be large swaths of land - Napa makes a different kind of wine than Paso Robles, for example - but they can also be tiny. In the Napa Valley AVA, for example, there are sixteen tiny AVAs, including some you may have heard of: Rutherford, Stags Leap District, and Mt. Veeder. That means that there’s something specific about each of those designated areas that if you make wine only from those tiny regions, an experienced taster can distinguish between them.
In terms of the wine we’re drinking in this pairing, let’s start at a big scale and move our way in. Most broadly, we have California wine - that means the grapes inside can hail from multiple places in California. They can still be good grapes, and the wine making can still be well done, but it’s going to taste the way the winemaker wants rather than being a reflection of the place. Going down a level, you have Monterey County. This now describes an area with a climate and geography that is markedly different from other places in California, like Napa or Sonoma County, for instance. In Monterey County, you have vineyards that are adjacent to Monterey Bay as well as deep into the Salinas Valley. It makes sense that those grapes would grow differently and develop different characteristics. Even more narrowly, we have the Arroyo Seco AVA which is a smaller designation within Monterey County. Arroyo Seco is known for its much cooler climate than other parts of Monterey, which gives the lightness and earthiness to the First Row Pinot Noir. Finally, we make to the individual vineyard or in this case row of a vineyard. As we mentioned earlier, these grapes all come from the first row of vines in the Panorama Vineyard that receive the strongest winds coming over the hills. Now you know why the First Row Pinot Noir would taste different from one of Carmel Road’s other Pinot Noirs from another part of Monterey County or from a Pinot Noir from somewhere else entirely.
Terroir also includes the soil that the vines grow in. Here in Arroyo Seco in Monterey County, the soil is gravelly, sandy loam. The gravel holds the heat from the sun overnight so the grapes don’t freeze on the vine, the sand allows the water to drain through quickly which forces the vines to struggle, putting more energy into creating rich fruit than lots of leaves. The loam has a slightly alkaline chemistry which helps keep the acidity in the grapes which gives the wine structure and balance.
You could spend a lifetime learning about terroir through climatology, geology, geography, and microbiology, but we hope that this short explanation gives you a little bit more appreciation for where your wine is from. You may also find yourself finding favorite places for certain wines that you like because you know they’ll share a characteristic that is called terroir. Next time you buy a bottle, check out where the grapes are grown and see if you can taste the place through the glass!
BONUS COCKTAIL RECIPE
Like so many authors, Steinbeck was a drinker. He had four life mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.” (Independent). While Steinbeck was known to chase a tuna cracker with some red wine, his favorite drink was a Jack Rose. Here’s the recipe: 2 ounces Applejack, 1/2 ounce Grenadine, juice of 1/2 a lime; shake with ice and strain into a glass.
If you love Steinbeck and want to learn more about the man behind the books: As an ex-Nortonian, myself, I have to give a shout out to the upcoming biography of Steinbeck being published by W. W. Norton later this year. Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century, authored by William Souder, will highlight Steinbeck’s frustration with injustice, poverty, and prejudice as well as his roller coaster of medical issues and quirky personal pursuits, bringing life to a complicated man (Independent).
Other recommendations: If you want more like this, try Cannery Row, Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, all by John Steinbeck. If you prefer white wine, we suggest a crisp, unoaked Chardonnay, also grown in the Monterey area to give you a sense of place as you read this book.