A common lament from foodies, farmers, and culinary writers is that many of us have become too far removed from the origins of our foods. We have no tangible connection to the land, the farms, and all of the uncertainties and nuances of agriculture.
Certainly the same could be said about tea in the United States, which, until recently, was only grown and processed in distant countries. To connect to the terroir of the soil, the scent of tea bushes on a misty morning, and ancient or modern tea-growing methods required overcoming barriers of distance, language, and culture.
Even “book smarts” don’t adequately convey the challenges of growing tea. One can read about rock cliff oolongs, high-elevation Darjeelings, and perfectly manicured tea farms in Japan and gain a sense of the craft of tea, but it is a sterile overview at best.
Although it doesn’t exactly mirror the specifics of tea cultivation, wine cultivation is similar. A few minutes of conversation with a viticulturist (specialist in wine cultivation) quickly hit many of the same touch points as tea: terroir, plant cultivars best suited for the region, short harvest, processing periods, and the best vintages from year to year.
Grafting varietals to produce the best flavor profile and balancing the quality of taste with the hardiness of the plant are true for both teas and wine. Just as a late spring frost can prove detrimental to the harvest of early teas and buds like those for a Silver Needle white tea, the same holds true for grape varietals. Often, helicopters will be brought in to help circulate warmer air over acres of vineyards to keep the temperature above freezing.
From the vagaries of each growing season to get the tea leaves or grapes to harvest to the intensity of effort of initial production, there are tremendous risks and rewards in both tea and wine cultivation. When, at last, the final product is ready, evaluated at tasting events, and judged in competitions, these labors of the land can transport us after a single sip. It is a labor best understood if we take the opportunity to walk through the fields, touch the leaves, and experience the sense of place from where it all begins. With tea estates being relatively inaccessible, surely it’s not a bad thing to suggest visiting a vineyard? Remember, you’re doing it for the tea.