How geography and wine come together on the 45th parallel

I’ve always had trouble grasping large outdoor spaces. If I am standing in a field, for example, and someone says, “It’s just over that ridge and at the bottom of a slope that descends for 11 miles,” they might as well say, “It’s that way, and you can’t see it from here” because the two descriptions are the same to me.

The path to what is in front of me but not visible is hard for me to imagine but easy for a lot of people. Otherwise, why would they speak in those terms? If that slope over the ridge is east of me it might as well be in China because the space between Beijing and the other side of that ridge look no different in my mind.

This is probably one reason I love maps — because they allow me to survey so much space in one glance. Standing at the Northern Hemisphere’s 45th parallel would not do much to enlighten me about where on Earth I am — halfway between the equator and the North Pole — but pointing to the 45th parallel on a map would in some strange way bring the larger world into focus in my mind. My imagination can take over at that point. But when I’m faced with an actual ridge or an invisible line, I’m distracted by what is actually before me.

The world’s wine growing areas make sense to me because I can sit in my living room and see the Earth’s lines of latitude on my light-up globe. I can see, in context, where most wine grapes are grown. We’re talking about the bands between the 30th and 50th parallels in both hemispheres.

Within the northern band lies the entire West Coast of the United States and a little extra to the north and south, plus all of the major wine-growing countries of Europe — from Portugal and Spain over to Hungary and Greece. If you were to continue following that band around the globe, you would see wine-growing regions in the Middle East and the rest of Asia. In the Southern Hemisphere, the 30-50 band includes the major wine regions of Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia, along with the entire country of New Zealand.

Merely being inside a band does not guarantee quality wine or even that grapes will grow. There are lots of other factors — climate, weather and soil, among them — that determine the success or failure of a wine-growing area. The 45th parallel travels through Italy’s Piedmont region; the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France; the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, where most of the state’s wine is grown and produced; and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. But it also passes through Maine and South Dakota, and stands in as the northern border of Wyoming. I’m not expecting to hear about great wines from Yellowstone National Park any time soon.

Seeing the bands on a globe or a flat map makes those giant spaces small enough for my brain to grasp them in some spatial way. For me, the bands make the impossible-to-grasp easy to assimilate.

It is important for those interested in learning about wine to drill down to the specific, to taste single varietal wines and try to know them, or to glean as much information as they can about a region or even a single winery. But when you are immersed in that experience, when your feet are on the ground and you are taking in the views and smells of a place, and the particular feel of the sun or air there, it can be hard to imagine its position in the larger world of wine.

One dark night, away from the city, many years ago, I looked through a powerful telescope and saw Saturn as I had never seen it before, or since. It was pure white, a solid circle and ring so crisply defined it looked fake, as if someone had inserted an illustrated slide into the scope. This is what distance can do for you. It can give you perspective and help you see something in a new, more manageable way.

That ring, which is actually several rings, is not much more than a bunch of floating ice and rocks, and that fake-looking image, while technically Saturn, is only what Saturn looks like from roughly a billion miles away through a very powerful optical device. If you were actually “inside” any of those rings, it would be impossible to discern any larger shape. Obviously. Pulling away and surveying everything at once can help us think in new ways. This is why a detective plasters her office wall with a map, timeline of events and headshots — so that she can draw lines between them and see the bigger picture more clearly. Deputy Solverson of “Fargo” knows all about this.

In our case, the bands can also remind us how special wine really is and what a beautiful miracle it is that such a thing comes to life only once a year in so (relatively) few spots on earth. Suddenly the slope beyond the ridge does not seem so far away.

Incidentally, there is another band on Earth. Stretching from the Tropic of Cancer down to the Tropic of Capricorn, both at 23.5 degrees latitude, this middle band is thicker than the wine bands. If the three of them were colored in, they’d look like the stripes on vintage tube socks. The middle band is where another famous beverage grows. It is studied and debated far less than wine, but its devotees are no less fervent. It goes by many different names around the world, but in English we call it coffee.