i visited harrison again last year, at the home she shares with her husband, Michael, and their two teenage sons in the hills of southwest Portland. Michael is a soft-spoken graphic designer who works primarily on wine bottle labels (including Harrison’s). The house is cozy and lived in, with lots of plants, a record player, and framed children’s drawings sharing space with its many strange and beautiful objects. Being around Harrison is alternately exciting and difficult. Her quickness and exacting taste sometimes clash with her desire to be generous and carefree, and at such times she seems a bit at odds with herself, like a radio tuned between two stations. I have never seen her completely at rest, a state Harrison would probably find wasteful and disappointing.
During my visit, I sat down with Harrison for a personal meltdown session. We decided to combine 10 barrel samples of his pinot noir. We chose the number simply for reasons of time and sanity, but even 10 was too much for me. Each sample tasted and smelled surprisingly different, but after mixing five of them together, I was in awe. I couldn’t understand what percentage of one wine to add to the others, or why sometimes the blend simultaneously got better and worse, and ultimately the palate. fatigue dulled my purple tongue to subtle differences. In the space of an hour and a half, I lost confidence in my ability to discern much of anything except the need for water. Harrison seemed calm and totally in control.
She attributes her ability to map so many flavors in her mind at once to her synesthesia. The causes of the condition are not yet well understood, but at least one study suggests that synesthetes may have an enhanced capacity for creativity, possibly due to increased connectivity between regions of the cerebral cortex, and are more likely to enter the brain. creative professions. Nikola Tesla, David Hockney, Duke Ellington, and Frank Ocean have reported having it. In “Speak, Memory,” Nabokov describes how he learned as a child that he shared his mother’s condition while playing with letter blocks: “We discovered that some of his letters had the same tone as mine.”
Like Nabokov, Harrison has grapheme-color synesthesia, a way in which numbers and letters are associated with colors, and this is especially useful in his work. As she savors the bottled samples, her brain turns each number into a distinct, vibrant color, until the wines in front of her become a palette of shades, oranges, and Prussian blues that she blends into a final composition that aspires to what she describes it as “emotional transparency” and a “perfect tension between intensity and lightness”. Her synesthesia allows her to hold this overwhelming amount of sensory data in her mind as a palette of colors, “keeping it in the sensory realm,” she told me, “without having to translate it into language.”
The painstaking blending process I observed, which sets it apart from so many other still wine producers, is also why Harrison infuriates some people. Her process violates one of the core tenets of her trade: terroir A French word that can be loosely translated as “sense of place,” terroir refers to all the factors that affect a vineyard: soil composition, climate, elevation, drainage, even the surrounding flora and fauna. In the world of wine, this concept has become a philosophy. An ideal winemaker is not a creator pursuing a personal vision, but simply a steward of the land, whose job it is to allow his wines to express the subtleties of their individual sites through conscientious and largely hands-off work, before to pass the responsibility to the next. generation. The influence of this philosophy waxes and wanes. As demand grew in the 1980s and 1990s for the intensely fruity, smooth, high-alcohol wines that Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic of his day, admiringly described as “fruit bombs,” the terroir became a rallying cry for drinkers and sommeliers looking for more complex and subtle things to drink.