I first met Maggie Harrison in 2018, when I was on vacation in Portland, Ore. I hadn’t planned to taste any wine, content to take in the city’s peculiar West Coast weirdness, but a friend who worked for a food magazine said that I had to meet this winemaker who worked like an artist. She might have used the word “genius.” I mentioned Harrison to another friend, who’s in the wine business. He echoed the recommendation, describing her ambiguously as a person who had “declared war on wine.” Everywhere I looked online, Harrison was receiving accolades for the results of an unorthodox approach to winemaking, which drew as much from painting — she has a condition known as synesthesia, in which information meant to stimulate one sense also stimulates others — as it did from traditional notions of taste and aroma. Some critics let on that her wines had the complexity, tension and narrative arc of a great artwork. So I sent Harrison an email and received a response that began unenthusiastically with, “Unfortunately it is well known that I don’t like all that many humans.” She seemed to mean it. Still, she agreed to see me.
In the directions she sent, Harrison told me to look out for “a garbage can of a warehouse of a winery.” She wasn’t being modest. Antica Terra, her winery in the Willamette Valley, is in a kind of updated Quonset hut, with two loading bays and a row of dumpsters near the entrance. For Harrison, this serves the purpose of discouraging unwanted attention. Warm, funny and observant in person, she cultivates a persona of a curmudgeon, the way an octopus might disguise itself as a rock to throw off sand sharks.
Harrison ushered me and a few friends into an industrial space filled with fluorescent lights and bland office furniture. Her manifest self-consciousness and owlish glasses made her look as if she were sketched by the cartoonist Roz Chast. We followed her to a dimly lit room where barrels and wooden cases of wine rose nearly to the ceiling. The aroma of oak hung in the air. A farm table was set with candles, a dish of caviar and an excellent grower Champagne (meaning one produced by a grower-winemaker instead of a big Champagne house; they tend to have more character). The scene was so hushed and civilized-looking, after the dinginess of the exterior, that it was like entering a chapel through the back of an airport Cinnabon. (At the time I thought we were getting the red-carpet treatment, but it turns out that this is Antica Terra’s standard group tasting — you and your friends can also have the experience for $125 a person.)
We were there to sample Harrison’s wine, but to our surprise she began the tasting by pouring for us some of the finest wines from France, which is to say some of the best wines in the world, including one I’d always wanted to try, the Gevrey-Chambertin Vielle Vigne from Jean-Marie Fourrier, a pinot noir from a talented producer in Burgundy. (It was glorious.)
“I’m having you taste these wines,” Harrison explained finally, “to create a context in which to taste my wines.”
To grasp the audacity of this statement, you have to remember that Oregon’s wine culture is, relatively speaking, in its infancy. As far as we know, the state’s first pinot noir vines were planted in 1961, whereas the first vineyards in Burgundy date to at least the first century A.D. Harrison’s declaration was akin to my kicking off a reading in a local bookstore by reading passages from Flaubert, then announcing that I’d been creating a context in which to hear my work. Was this woman kidding?
Harrison’s most distinctive wine is a pinot noir called Antikythera (named for an ancient Greek astronomical calculator that is often described as the world’s first computer). The wine comes from a strange little vineyard a short drive from the winery, a rocky hillside watched over by circling turkey vultures. The rows of spindly, stunted vines have only about a foot of soil to grow in, so their roots have to spread out over the underlying bedrock and search its surface for cracks to find nutrients and water. The rock itself is studded with bright white marine fossils from when it was a sea bottom millions of years ago, when all of Oregon was under the Pacific Ocean.
It isn’t surprising to find a vineyard in what may seem to be an unpromising spot. Wine grapes are fundamentally different from other crops. If you grow peaches, you will probably want to give them plenty of water and fertilizer, so the trees bear the most fruit. But the primary consideration in wine grapes is character, so the vines are often planted in places where they can barely survive and have to fight for nutrients. The grapes gain depth in proportion to the amount of work the vine must expend to survive. Harrison calls this process “suffering.” But even given that practice, this place was extreme. Why would someone plant anything in a foot of topsoil above solid rock?
The first taste of Antikythera brought my thinking to a halt. Red Burgundies tend to be elegant and perfumed, and the ones that Harrison poured for us smelled like roses and fallen leaves. But Antikythera hit my mouth with something primal that contained almost too many flavors and aromas, an overload of the senses. It was the same grape — virtually all red Burgundy is pinot noir — but the wines had little else in common.
I can’t tell you what Antikythera tasted or smelled like. The vines had produced an extraordinary grape, a tiny, tannic berry of intense, almost disagreeable complexity. But the lists of flavors you see in typical tasting notes amount to a kind of bragging about the acuity of the writer’s palate, and they are also banal and dishonest — far more than pencil lead, marmalade or saddle leather, wine tastes like itself. What matters are the things it makes you perceive, feel and think about and how it lives in your memory. Tasting any great wine can be as immersive as watching a film. But Antikythera took me somewhere beyond that. First, it made me see colors: the inkiest indigos and the bluest blacks, streaked with fissures of silver. Then I pictured something lurching out of a cave on a moonless night during a thunderstorm, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And I thought about Jacques Lardière, the great former winemaker at Louis Jadot in Burgundy, talking about the “unconscious of the earth.”
“So what do you think?” Harrison asked us.
Harrison makes some of the most-sought-after wines in the country, and even Michelin-starred restaurants like the French Laundry and Gramercy Tavern have to work to secure an allocation. At the moment, consumers who want to buy from Antica Terra join a two-year wait-list. (Bottles cost $150 to $250, but they can go for much more at restaurants and on the secondary market.) The wines that Harrison creates have won her celebrity fans like LeBron James and Pink, but it is top sommeliers — the curators of the wine world — who make up her most devoted audience. “I can almost taste the colors that Maggie’s trying to paint,” says Hannah Williams, beverage director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, N.Y., who describes Harrison’s winemaking as “verging on the savant level.” Hak Soo Kim, head sommelier at Per Se in Manhattan and a former opera singer, likens Harrison to “an improviser finding a chord.”
Harrison, who is 52, grew up in a suburb of Chicago. Her father was an eye surgeon, and her mother taught cooking classes in the house. Their passion was collecting art. They had good taste. They bought art by painters whose reputations and prices have grown. The walls of their otherwise unremarkable house were crowded with canvases by David Hockney, Alex Katz and Chuck Close. A large painting of a heart by the artist Jim Dine hung in Harrison’s bedroom. “From an early age,” Harrison told me, “I learned that the finest and most exciting thing one can do is be an artist.”
Her career almost went in a very different direction. While attending Syracuse University, she spent a semester in Washington, being trained in nonviolent conflict resolution. That led to the offer of a dream job at the Carter Center in Atlanta. But something in Harrison stalled. “I had to do something else,” she says, “but I didn’t know what.” She asked for a delay in starting the job and went back to Chicago, where she waited on tables in order to finance some world travel. After her restaurant shifts, Harrison often spent her tips on wine, and she began to realize that it was her only genuine interest. Depressed and unsure about her direction, she had a clarifying psychedelic experience with the San Pedro cactus in Ecuador. One day at a bar on an island off the coast of Kenya, a man asked her what she did for a living. Harrison started to say that she was about to start a job in conflict resolution when tears welled up in her eyes, and she knew she would never move to Atlanta.
She stumbled on a way into the business in 1998, when her sister, who was living in California, told her about a winemaker she knew who was looking for an assistant. Manfred Krankl was a leonine, motorcycle-riding Austrian who ran a tiny winery called Sine Qua Non with his wife, Elaine. Neither was trained in winemaking, but they made some of the most acclaimed and expensive wines in the state, and not in a Napa or Sonoma mansion but in an old warehouse abutting a junkyard in Ventura, a backwater down the coast from Santa Barbara.
Harrison faxed the Krankls a résumé and a cover letter saying she had no experience but was interested in learning about wine. There was no response. But Harrison was undeterred. As she tells it, she called the couple at their three phone numbers and left messages several times a day for nearly a month, until on the 30th day Manfred picked up. “OK,” he said, sounding resigned, “OK.”
“At the interview Maggie wore lipstick and high heels, and that just wasn’t going to work in a winery,” Manfred Krankl recalls, laughing. “But I liked that she didn’t have prior experience in winemaking, so there was nothing harmful to unlearn.” He ran the popular La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and often left Harrison in charge of the winery, forcing her to learn on her own. “There were so many things I didn’t know how to do,” she says, “and sometimes I called a wine lab using a fake name to ask a bunch of dumb questions.” But she admired the Krankls’ untutored, independent-minded approach, which relied not on formulas but entirely on their palates and intuition.
She had been at Sine Qua Non for eight years when a friend of the Krankls told her about an unusual vineyard in the Willamette Valley and encouraged her to check it out. But Harrison had no interest in Oregon. By 2005, she was engaged, making small quantities of her own increasingly acclaimed wines under the Lillian label and busy and content in Ventura. But the friend kept calling, and eventually she relented, flew to Portland and drove to a hillside in Amity. It looked dismal. “There were piles of black plastic and rotting hay everywhere,” Harrison recalls about the vineyard that would take the name of her winery. “The site was so beautiful, the potential so clear and the suffering equally clear. I knew that I could do the work to heal the place and make the wines this land was capable of.” Standing among the vines, Harrison called her soon-to-be husband and told him they were moving to Oregon.
In 2019, she began offering an annual seminar for wine professionals that she named Beauty School. Unlike pretty much every other type of wine seminar or educational “experience,” it sets out to train a group of wine professionals not in the finer points of tasting or oenology but in how to live an aesthetic life. To this end, she presses into use not only wines from around the world but seemingly unrelated objects: a vintage trailer, local wildflowers, Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife, Véra. If this sounds unbearably precious, it’s partly redeemed by Harrison’s seriousness. She teaches beauty in the way another person might teach natural childbirth or taekwondo.
In her pursuit of maximally beautiful wines, Harrison has devised possibly the world’s most laborious way of making them. Over the course of about 10 days, she, Mimi Adams (her associate winemaker) and her friend Nate Ready, an owner of Hiyu Wine Farm in Hood River, Ore., sit around a table and taste as many as 150 unlabeled samples, each representing a barrel and identified by only a number, incessantly combining them, Harrison says, “like little meth addicts.” (Barrel aging changes a wine in any number of expected ways, but it also has an element of unpredictability, so even the same wine racked into two barrels will eventually taste different in each.) Harrison believes that blending blind is the only way of dispensing with bias — her grapes come from eight of the top vineyards in the Willamette Valley, including her own, and two more in California, and she told me that being aware of a wine’s origins would influence her sensory experience. The combinations result most often in failure, but they allow the tasters to gradually feel their way toward the final blends. They sit around the table with rows of tiny bottles in front of them. Adams and Ready take copious notes. Every time they add another sample, they taste and spit and discuss what they’re tasting, smelling, sensing and feeling. This goes on all day, for 10 days. It’s an improvisation. They assemble each wine in their minds like a song. This blending period is when Harrison’s wines find their identities. “Though they can be punishingly difficult,” Ready told me, “those blending sessions are about trusting yourself, believing in the process and letting go of the desire to second guess.”
Punishingly difficult seems to be Harrison’s thing. During harvest — the roughly monthlong period in the fall requiring the most physical labor and the longest hours — she often works through the night, punctuating the round-the-clock vigils with 20-minute naps and endless pots of oolong. Harrison says that harvest is her favorite time of the year. She also told me that every year, on the days leading up to harvest, she sobs in the kitchen, dreading the work and the weeks she will have to spend apart from her family and friends. “Even so,” Adams says, “I think Maggie enjoys the blood bath of it all.”
I visited Harrison again last year, at the house she shares with her husband, Michael, and their two teenage children in the hills of Southwest Portland. Michael is a soft-spoken graphic designer who works mainly on labels for wine bottles (including Harrison’s). The house is inviting and lived in, with plenty of plants, a record player and framed children’s drawings sharing space with its many odd and beautiful objects. Being around Harrison is alternately exhilarating and difficult. Her quickness and exacting taste sometimes clash with her desire to be generous and easygoing, and at these times she appears slightly at odds with herself, like a radio tuned between two stations. I’ve never seen her fully at rest, a state that Harrison would probably find wasteful and disappointing.
During my visit, I sat down with Harrison for a personal blending session. We decided to combine 10 barrel samples of her pinot noir. We chose the number purely in the interests of time and sanity, but even 10 proved too much for me. Each sample tasted and smelled startlingly different, but after blending five of them, bewilderment set in. I couldn’t figure out what percentage of a wine to add to the others, or why sometimes the blend became better and worse simultaneously, and eventually 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 a need for water. Harrison looked at ease and totally in control.
She attributes her ability to map so many flavors in her mind at the same time to her synesthesia. The causes of the condition remain poorly understood, but at least one study suggests that synesthetes may have an enhanced capacity for creativity, possibly because of increased connectivity among regions of the cerebral cortex, and are more likely to enter creative professions. Nikola Tesla, David Hockney, Duke Ellington and Frank Ocean have reported having it. In “Speak, Memory,” Nabokov describes learning as a child that he shared the condition with his mother while playing with alphabet blocks: “We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine.”
Like Nabokov, Harrison has grapheme-color synesthesia, a form in which numerals and letters become associated with colors, and this turns out to be especially useful in her work. As she tastes her way around the bottled samples, her brain turns every number into a distinct, vibrant color, until the wines in front of her become a palette of umbers, oranges and Prussian blues that she combines into a final composition that aspires to what she describes as “emotional transparency” and a “perfect tension between intensity and levity.” Her synesthesia allows her to hold this overwhelming amount of sensory data in her mind as a palette of color, “keeping it in the sensory realm,” she told me, “without having to translate it into language.”
The painstaking blending process that I observed, which sets her apart from so many other producers of still wine, is also the reason Harrison makes some people irate. Her process violates one of the central tenets of her craft: terroir. A French word that can be translated loosely as “sense of place,” terroir refers to every factor affecting a vineyard: soil composition, climate, elevation, drainage, even the surrounding flora and fauna. In the wine world, this concept has evolved into a philosophy. An ideal winemaker is not a creator pursuing a personal vision but merely a steward of the land, whose job is to allow her wines to express the subtleties of their individual sites through conscientious, largely hands-off work, before passing the responsibility to the next generation. This philosophy’s influence waxes and wanes. As demand grew in the 1980s and 1990s for the intensely fruity, unctuous and highly alcoholic wines that Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic of his day, admiringly described as “fruit bombs,” terroir became a rallying cry for consumers and sommeliers searching for more complex and subtle things to drink.
Harrison’s techniques seem, on the surface, to be the antithesis of terroir. When my friend told me that Harrison had “declared war on wine,” this is what he meant. Blending so many different barrel samples, and doing it blind, is virtually unheard-of in wine production, and it appears to cast doubt on the vineyard’s sanctified place in winemaking. Harrison recalls a presentation she gave at Oregon Pinot Camp, a kind of convention for industry buyers of Oregon pinot noir held annually in the Willamette Valley, after which the scion of a famous estate in Burgundy stood up and in a thick French accent denounced her wines as “abzoord!” for obliterating terroir.
“Terroir is a myth,” Harrison told me. She considers wine, like art, to be “cultural, not natural,” and she doesn’t see herself solely as a servant of the natural world. It’s not that Harrison doesn’t recognize the importance of the land. She just doesn’t believe that great vineyards magically create great wines. For her, wine is an entirely human undertaking requiring intense effort and artistic commitment. Blending frees her from the limitations imposed by particular vineyards, grape varieties and climatic downturns, allowing her to rely instead on intuition and aesthetic vision, an approach that results in wines that are more distinctive and sometimes stranger than just about anyone else’s.
In our discussions about her work, she often brought up favorite artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Louise Nevelson and Ruth Asawa and almost never mentioned other winemakers. Fans liken her wines to the readily recognizable work of stylists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joan Didion. “If I didn’t drink Maggie’s wines for 20 years and then tasted them with a blindfold on, I’d recognize them immediately,” Mimi Casteel, the winemaker at Hope Well Wine in Hopewell, Ore., from whom Harrison has sourced grapes, told me. I heard variations on this from nearly everyone I spoke to. “In my lifetime, if I’m lucky, I’ll get 25 or 30 chances, once a year, to make something beautiful,” Harrison told me. “And I’m not going to settle for what a particular vineyard gives me if I can make something better.”
Recently I opened the 2016 Lillian Scissor Series syrah, a wine Harrison makes from grapes grown in the hills near Santa Barbara. It reminded me of one of those 1950s wide-screen film spectacles, like “Written on the Wind” or “Rear Window,” in which every visual detail bursts forth in a riot of ultrasaturated color. It had an intensity and vividness — an almost electric quality — I simply hadn’t experienced, but without any heaviness. A friend, tasting it across the table, compared it to a well-designed neon sign. These images remained in my head long after I swallowed the wine, which made me think not about syrah or California but about Harrison herself.
It turns out that like pretty much everything Harrison makes, the Scissor Series syrah involved a laughably impractical amount of labor. Harrison had wondered what would happen if instead of loading her grapes into a destemmer — a machine about the size of a golf cart that does its job almost instantaneously — she removed the stems by hand, snipping away each individual berry with a pair of scissors and leaving the berries intact. It was a patently absurd idea: Making a barrel of syrah requires about 950 pounds of grapes, and Harrison realized that in an hour, a person working by hand would be able to destem about four pounds. Even with every person at the winery snipping away, having enough grapes to fill that barrel would take a week.
Nevertheless, she drove to a nearby Walgreens, grabbed seven pairs of manicure scissors — every pair the store had — and flung them on the counter in front of the cashier. Then she asked if they had any more. The young woman behind the cash register took a hard look at Harrison — who was dressed in a juice-stained smock and yellow rubber boots, and whose eyes were wild with inspiration — and must have concluded that she was deranged. “Ma’am,” she replied in a consoling voice, “you don’t need any more.”
In December, Harrison came to New York, and she suggested that we meet at the Alex Katz retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Katz was a painter her parents loved. Harrison wore a smoke-colored blouse under an ankle-length dark gray coat. We were both struck by Katz’s late paintings, which are transcendent — nearly abstract studies of light that appeared to be in motion. We slowed down to take them in. Earlier, Harrison had spoken about her work as trying to create “moments of illumination.” I asked about differences between her and artists working in other mediums. “People who make things for the sake of beauty speak the same language,” she said. “What I envy in visual artists is their ability to revise. When I bottle a wine, there are no more chances to rethink or change.”
It was bracing to hear Harrison speak like an artist so confidently, there inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic reinforced-concrete spiral. It occurred to me that making something that’s sensed by the nose and tongue as transporting as a work of art is no trivial matter. More than anything, what Harrison shares with other artists is a stubborn specificity. As Hannah Williams put it: “The terroir of Maggie’s wines is Maggie.”
Alex Halberstadt is the author of “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union,” which was named one of the New York Times book critics’ top picks for 2020. He teaches writing at New York University. Frank Ockenfels is a Los Angeles-based photographer, director and artist with an upcoming exhibit at Fotografiska in New York City in November.