On Being Incongruent1 or A Very Dry Season

On Being Incongruent1 or A Very Dry Season

It has been a long, dry season.2 This is likely the driest year in Northern California for as long as anyone has been keeping records, coming off of two previous dry years; that we have experienced now only trace amounts of rain since the harvest season has been enormously disorienting and disquieting to me, (and certainly to everyone else in these parts).3 Is this serious drought a function of global climate change? Maybe, (likely) so, but that’s sort of beside the point.4
I’m depressed about the dry weather and depressed about the dry weather in my spirit as well, manifested as a desire but seeming inability to verbally express myself. It’s been a while since I’ve weighed in. I feel that much the same way one can neglect relationships with friends and acquaintances, I’ve rather unfortunately let this liaison with you, dear reader, lapse a bit, though arguably, it may well be the relationship I have with myself that has slightly gone off the rails.5 It is a bit complicated.You know that life at the Doon has been very tough for the last several years on many levels, not the least of which has been financially. I have worried at times that the grand plans to create new grape varieties from seeds and produce utterly distinctive wines expressive of place, may in fact have been the vivid illumination that the (at least fiscally) drowning man experiences just before the end.6,7
Erato (the muse of literature)
It has bothered me that these days I seem to have so very little to say; it’s a worry that the creative well has perhaps at last gone dry. Some of this silent treatment, as it were, has been a function of an incredibly busy harvest, and following harvest, a rather ambitious, if not utterly crazy course of sales-related travel.8 ,9,10 I have been busy, it’s true, and yet, I believe that my relative lack of inspiration – we are not particularly a-Mused – may be the fact that I’ve been feeling less and less myself, and that my company, which is another way of saying my art, seems, at least by a certain measure, to have diverged a bit from its stated values and aspirations. This is not really how I would design things to be, but it is rather a matter of trying to keep body and soul together as one aspires to the noblest ends. How much might one diverge whilst still keeping an eye to the prize?

I’ve heard and read in so many places that the secret to success in business (and likely in life in general) is to become as congruent as one possibly can be with oneself; this will make it ultimately a lot easier to express the truth of one’s brand (and more importantly, of oneself). You are pulling in a single coherent direction, at least as feasibly as you can, the one dictated by your heart. Intuitively at least, how could this not be right?
This is, in fact, what I have sought in recent years to do with the transformation of Bonny Doon. To focus on making better, more “natural,” wholesome wines, eschewing winemaking “tricks,” paying more attention to the infinite details of winemaking, and of course maintaining the aspiration of someday producing “necessary” wines, i.e. vins de terroir, those capable of capturing and expressing a sense of place, as reflected in the wine.11 Our wines are, in fact, better than they’ve ever been, and while there have been some limitations on our ability to achieve an echt enological éclat,12 we have made some real breakthroughs in our practice, to wit, the recent Cigare Volant and Cigare Blanc Réserve wines, wines that utterly knock me out for their coherence and seamlessness (this is no mean thing), but which, to my great disappointment, have been largely ignored by the wine press.13,14 Nor, for that matter, are our wholesalers doing the ecstatic, acrobatic back-flips over these wines that properly they might.15 Not that I’m complaining, mind you,16 but one really does have to wonder what it takes to sell wine these days.17 In retrospect, my “evolutionary” approach toward revamping the Bonny Doon proposition should instead have been far more revolutionary, and I should have worked harder and faster when there were more resources to hand to establish a more singular identity for the company.18 But the ideas and plans for the new Estate at Popelouchum, if it is to be truly revolutionary, must follow the soul’s path, one that meanders randomly and randally and in fact cannot be rushed.19
I am surprised and frankly a bit chagrined that making more soulful wines through better practice has not particularly translated into a significantly warmer embrace from the people who buy, sell or write about our wines. I understand all too well (cf. footnote #13, supra) that the coherency of one’s narrative is absolutely crucial to convey a mental picture of what exactly it is that you’re selling; to my dismay, this narrative is becoming more labyrinthian and convoluted by the moment. We’ve lost a couple of biodynamic growers and haven’t been able to replace them – very disappointing – and it is not so easy to explain why fewer of the wines now carry the Demeter® certification. This is personally quite poignant to me. More people seem to have gradually woken up to the virtue of grapes (and everything else) grown in “live” soils and I wish we were in a position to bring brilliant Biodynamic/biochar enriched compost to all of the vineyards we work with.20 I am troubled by the fact that despite assurances to everyone who would listen that my company was “doon-sizing,” the number of wines in our portfolio seems to be growing both in volume and in number. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that cynical critics may wish to question the sincerity of my devotion to artisanal wines, and I might well continue to be tarred by the corporate or “industrial” Big House brush.21

I suspect that I might still be the most Pollyanna-ish person in the wine business. Wine is (or at least should be) sold on the basis of its quality, but the real business end of the proposition is, as I’m so painfully learning, the business end of it. I am not bothered so much that I must choose between how to spend the very finite amount of resource that we as a company possess; this is just Reality 101 and we are (for the most part) grown-ups. But I am appalled – this is the Kali Yuga, so what should I expect? – that spending money for marketing and sales promotions seems to yield a much greater return on investment than buying compost (biodynamic or not) for our growers or spending the money for a supplemental crop-thinning pass. It is truly doubtful that viticultural virtue is really much rewarded these days (or maybe if ever) apart from the cases of the greatest wine growers in the world. And I look longingly at that rarified world as if through the looking glass.
I seem to understand better every day what must needs be doon at Popelouchum; there is nothing else I would wish to talk about, dream about than this. But as soon I begin I will just as soon grow mute; the voice inside me always reminding me of the increasingly deeper disparity between word and deed. I am approached by people all the time – especially in this recent season of road warriorship – who ask me, “So, Randall, how’s the seedling project going at San Juan?” “How long will it take to get your first harvest from seedlings anyway?”22 “And, when will we see some wine?” I am utterly embarrassed to tell them that while we have some modest Grenache seedlings in our little nursery plot at San Juan,23 the actual, massively ambitious project of the breeding of new varieties is still several years off.24 What do we have on the positive side of the ledger? We have planted a little over a half-acre of Pinot noir – very intensively spaced, I hasten to add – and we’re likely to see some grapes this vintage. And there are some fairly substantial nursery rows of sundry grapes – Grenache of the noir, blanc and gris persuasion; they’re bearing beautiful, intensely flavorful fruit, even at a very tender age, and some other exotics, notably Ruchè and Rossese that look incredibly promising.25 I am half, nay 98%, convinced that truly almost anything grown at Popelouchum will be exceptional. (But, how much San Benito County Ruchè the world is ready to cellar away remains to be seen.)
A Proper Claret
The problem is that the more I say, the more I elaborate, the greater the set of (unmeetable) expectations I begin to create. I feel like the pathological fabulist who begins with a relatively modest fib and every time he tries to explain or clarify, he is compelled to embellish the original small untruth with greater ornament and dissembling.

How far has it gone? Years ago I planted Bordeaux varieties at our estate vineyard in the rustic hamlet of Bonny Doon – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec,26 and produced two vintages (1985, 1986) before grafting them over. (I’m not quite sure I even remember know why I planted the Bordelais cépages in the first place, but the world then was a lot simpler.)27 I laconically called this blend “Claret,” as I had not yet really learned to embrace marketing schtick, but understood well (even then) that there was a certain gravitas to an Estate wine.28 I just loved the simplicity and elegance of the term, “Claret,” tout court.29,30 The two vintages of Claret, even coming from very young vines, were actually quite remarkable.31 But when the wines we were making with Rhône varieties began to click, it seemed wise to simplify our product mix and graft the Bordelais cépages over to “Roussanne” and Marsanne to focus on Rhône-styled wines. Even with my limited understanding of marketing principles, I was trying to create something like a coherent product mix and coherent narrative, after all. At that point, I publicly and somewhat theatrically foreswore Bordelais cépages, and rather immaturely essayed to systematically take the piss out of the Napalese and their Medocian monoculture.32 Cab-burn-net, baby, burn.
Now we’re making a Bordeaux-styled blend called “A Proper Claret.”33 I pretend (somewhat half-heartedly) that I have absolutely nothing to do with this vinous adventurism, that it was in fact Some Other Doppelgänger Dude (this is slightly far-fetched) who has masterminded the whole project. But this little antic has allowed me to have some fun (fun always useful in these stressful times), trying my hand at ventriloquism in the pseudonymous voice,34 and of course working with varieties I haven’t seen in more than twenty-five years.35 We enclosed a pair of red fishnet stockings for the distributors to try on (if they so elect to do so) as they taste the wine. Frankly, I had hoped to put aside this sort of theatrical hijinx with the sale of the Big House brand, and induce our customers to focus instead on the intrinsic qualities of the wine. I am dooned, it seems, to a life of playing the clown.

I must confess that playing around with the Bordelais grapes I pretend to despise has actually been intellectually quite stimulating and the guerilla marketing quite amusing (despite all protestation to the contrary). By all reckoning, “A Proper Claret” appears to be well on its way to becoming a great commercial success. We’ve produced more in 2013, even adding a substantial amount of Merlot to the blend. Merlot! How strange is that? And how ironic would it be if it were these putatively despisèd cépages that saved the Doon?36
What I most want to be doing right now is sending you reports of the Great Work-in-Progress. I want to be spending time communing with the Nature spirits of a wildly promiscuous plantation, following the lead of the utterly strange garden book, “Perelandra.”37 I want to be telling you what it feels like to “castrate” a male grape flower.38 Or, to walk a row of vines grown from seedlings, looking for the outward characteristics that might serve as a proxy for grape quality, and to share these febrile impressions with you. It is unfortunate that I am and most certainly will remain a Luftmensch for the rest of my days, but even if I could learn to “see” if not read just a little bit of Nature’s expressive signage in this lifetime, that would represent an extraordinary personal achievement. Most of all, I want to be doing the things in my life that I feel really matter and are potentially exemplary, especially in the realm of sustainability – producing biochar, perfecting the techniques of dry-farming a vineyard. It still seems to be very far away, but objects in the distance may, in fact, be closer than they seem.

  1. Bear in mind that while this note is indeed a genuine cri de coeur, things could in fact be much worse (for everyone). The title of this piece could have been “On Being Incontinent.” []
  2. I must apologize at the outset for the slightly whiny and at times seemingly self-pitying tone of this narrative. I am, in fact, quite grateful for the incredibly great fortune I have enjoyed over the years: I’ve had a remarkably long and fruitful run (that is by no means over, to be sure.) This little exercise in abreaction is my own attempt to vent some frustrations, try to cleanse them from my system, and get on with the business of bringing some great and important wines into the world. []
  3. That dry-farming is the centerpiece of my intention for the Popelouchum Estate creates yet another rather poignant irony. []
  4. Whether we can ever establish with 100% certainty that the causes of climate change are man-made is moot. It should be compellingly obvious that we must act as if the very survival of the species depends on changing our behaviors to mitigate climate change, as very likely it does. I’ve written about the use of biochar in farming as a strategy to effect carbon sequestration. For the planet, it is likely the most practical, feasible strategy that we can adopt at this point to rapidly mitigate climate change (and enjoy numerous other salutary benefits besides, including but not limited to enhanced soil fertility (and concomitant eschewal of outside inputs), healthier and more nutritious crops, and significant water conservation). However, to my great consternation, neither Bonny Doon nor the planet has seemed able to respond soon enough to forestall a potentially catastrophic end for either entity. []
  5. I mentioned this fact to my shrink the other day, and in fact, she proposed that I consider the opposite proposition. (She is undoubtedly right about this.) It has been so tough in recent years that perhaps I have been unable to really get in touch with my feelings. It is only now that the coast is clear (or maybe more accurately, slightly clearer) that I can allow myself to feel all of the dread and apprehension that I’ve blocked out in the recent past. []
  6. Happily, the company is doing far better than it has doon in years. I am completely certain we will make money this year, not a crazy amount, but some. It is just that some of the things that it seems we have been compelled to do as a company make it a bit more difficult to really line up as congruently with myself as I would ideally like to see. Had I been more skillful in managing things over the previous years, perhaps this slight diversion from the True Path might have been at least partially averted. []
  7. In the last few years I have grown accustomed to relative deprivation (at the very least in the land of capital expenditures) – i.e. anything that did not seem to result in a fairly immediate return on investment or a project that was on some level considered “fun,” i.e. suspect, was immediately relegated to the back burner. Therefore, the recent glimpse of the possibility of now advancing the planting if not planning agenda has induced a slight feeling of vertigo, perhaps even a tinge of panic. I am reminded of the character in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, who throughout the book is working on building a boat. Whenever he is near completion of his boat, he feels compelled to rethink the entire concept and design of the project and must begin again from scratch. This is due, of course, to the fact that he is utterly terrified of going into the water. []
  8. Another enormous feeling of incongruence has come from the observation of what it is that I do most every day and comparing/contrasting it with the misty fantasy of how I imagined my life to be at this juncture in my career. What I had imagined was that I would be able to spend most of my time doing what I loved the most – primarily working outdoors in a beautiful vineyard, deeply reflecting upon and observing how one might fashion a truly original wine, one reflective of a sense of place. And on another level, meditating on how one might fashion a truly sustainable wine, elegantly minimizing external inputs, discovering the potential synergies one might have in fostering a complex ecosystem in what is called a “promiscuous culture.” What in fact I am mostly doing is flying on airplanes (as I am at this very moment), arriving or leaving airports, spending time in hotel rooms, presenting the Bonny Doon range at distributor sales meetings and public tastings, (though sometimes at fancy restaurants, which is not too bad lest there be six enormous courses of Animal Protein’s Greatest Hits, the plates of which I will inevitably polish to a high degree of reflectivity, down to the last pea or baby carrot in fact, to comfort myself and ease the slight feeling of anxiety, because I am (still) nervous talking to strangers, and with too much frequency being driven around by unspeakably and dangerously mindless salespeople, who will talk or text on their cell phones whilst driving – just got to get that very last order in before the warehouse closes – steering with their knees – this has truly happened on multiple occasions – as they navigate lane changes at a heart-stopping rate of speed. []
  9. This explanation doesn’t quite wash, because, in fact, I’ve done some of my best writing while traveling on airplanes, trains, and in the odd hotel room in the odd state. (And some of the states to which I’ve traveled recently have been plenty odd. []
  10. And to my great chagrin, another utterly ridiculous, epic travel cycle will shortly begin again. []
  11. There are really no top secrets to making great wine, apart from paying attention to the zillions of details involved in the process, and most significantly, beginning with great grapes, which can come your way if you grow them yourself (skillfully), or alternately have the wit do discover/discern them and have the deep pockets (likely) necessary to purchase them. Alas, California’s cache of great undiscovered/undervalued grapes has largely (but not completely) been picked over/depleted, with some significant exceptions, cf. infra. I have written elsewhere about the existential Angst associated with the planting of a new vineyard – how it seems like such an utterly random and contingent choice, and one might well live in great dread of the “Curse of the Home Ranch Fruit,” but I am completely over this potentially debilitating fear, I assure you. []
  12. This would undoubtedly be rectified by the appearance of a dry-farmed Estate vineyard, ideally planted to a unique genetic mix of grape varieties (and God knows what else), which I’ve been talking about for years. I think that within the press there has occurred something like “Randall Fatigue,” or to put it another way, a certain wariness of “The Boy Who Cried Terroir, which is to say that unless and until I can stand and deliver the really authentic goods, it will likely continue to be difficult to be noticed much at all. []
  13. Which is not to say that these wines are anything like vins de terroir, indeed they are anything but. Apart from deriving from multiple vineyard sites of diverse geology and geography, the wines are somewhat stylized (what is one winemaker’s stylization is of course another’s transparency); they are just Umami Central, due to the zealous degree of lees conservation and incorporation. []
  14. One hurdle for our future success will be our ability to acquire the skills to market a “luxury brand,” the clientele for which is not exactly the typical BDV cohort. I’m not sure what sort of psychic deformation might occur in the acquisition of these branding skills, but it can’t be pretty. I’ve chanced to recently spend small intervals of time at a friend’s country club; maybe homeopathic exposure to high net-worth individuals will help this effort. []
  15. This may well in part by due to the ever constricting nature of the 3-tier system – wholesale distributors are becoming generally less adept at building brands (and in some sense, BDV is much like a start-up), but equally, a function of our lack of expertise in marketing a “luxury brand” – whatever the hell that is – or perhaps just the seemingly oxymoronic juxtaposition of BDV and the luxe value proposition. (Rebranding is, as they say, a bitch.) I’ve written about this issue quite a bit over the last several years, perhaps even obsessively, trying my best, like Job, to understand why the Order of Nature seems to work in such mysterious ways. Maybe the problem stems from the deeply conservative nature of human perception. It is my operational theory that wine critics who should in fact know better, are largely (and somewhat tragically) incapable of discerning the evolution (especially if subtle) in winemaking styles, and perceiving that our wines (just for example) are in fact much better than they’ve been in ages. (It is a lot easier for them to discover relatively new producers whom they are looking at with new eyes and relatively fresh palates.) I think this may partially be due to what one might call, in Dali-esque fashion, “the persistence of taste-memory,” i.e. you, that is to say, everyone, has a certain idea of how things are, or at least were, and barring a major, shocking re-set of those perceptions (more about that in a second), one continues to “see” things not as they actually are, but largely as they were. Wine tasting and wine judging is actually incredibly difficult to do (not that I really want to take these critics entirely off the hook). There have been numerous studies that show the utter capriciousness of “objective tasting” and the enormous disparity of tasting results at wine competitions. If you are making wine for any of the highly influential wine publications that shall remain nameless, it is, in fact, fairly easy to predict if you have a likely winner or not. You might cynically and somewhat simplistically say, “Just look at the optical opacity and textural density of the wines.” But charming the more subtle palates of the wine press and public and overcoming their preconceived notions about a wine or winemaker is a far more challenging proposition. As percipients, we use the “knowledge” (whether factual or not) we have about the world to inform our perceptions and fill in the vast liminal areas surrounding the generally incomplete and blurry phenomena we are experiencing. Maybe it’s a function of our intuition that we can’t entirely trust our own senses (it’s true, we can’t), and that we really need to rely on something like “objective” data to avoid colossal and embarrassing error. (When tasters are told that a certain wine is more expensive, it consistently tastes better; 1st growths almost always taste better than 2nds, especially if you’ve been privy to see the label.) You can think of this as a sort of perceptual Auto-tune. Therefore, I would gently suggest that while we could no doubt make better wine, and indeed we should continue to strive to do so, our problem is not so much that our wines aren’t quite good, or even quite price-worthy, but that we haven’t properly created the right set of received signifiers that offer the conceptual rationale for a revaluation of our wines. There is no doubt that, irrespective of any real changes in wine “quality” (itself a term fraught beyond words), simply by claiming that the wine comes from old, head-trained and/or dry-farmed vines, or was Estate grown, or utilized 100% whole clusters, or was farmed biodynamically or was aged in 100% new, 4 year-old air-dried barrels from the recherché Romanée-Conti cooperage, (or better amphorae from rare clay dug from the Estate itself,) or was produced from a special suitcase clone from the aforesaid Burgundian domaine, or even resulting from privileged winemaking communiqués via Ouija board from the spirit of Henri Jayer, would likely result in the perception of our wine (or indeed any wine) in a new and more flattering way. Maybe it is beside the point that an Estate grown Cigare would likely be truly extraordinary (though we won’t use 100% new barrels, or indeed possibly any barriques at all), but this sort of dramatic paradigm shift seems to be what is necessary to create a real change in the perception of the brand. []
  16. I am complaining and bitterly about the essential unjustness of the world, which, of course, I am in no position to change. []
  17. I will, in fact, tell you in just a moment. []
  18. But, what’s Doon is Doon. []
  19. This sounds to me, as I read it, like perhaps a bit of a rationalization of my own behavioral limitations. My own process is in fact quite slow, maybe just too slow to accomplish what must needs be doon in the remaining years allotted to me. Or maybe I’m subconsciously just not rushing things (as much as they could be expedited) with the knowledge that when the vineyard is fully planted perhaps my work in this lifetime is doon. []
  20. The virtue perhaps, but not necessarily the value. The harsh reality is that farming biodynamically, while a supremely beautiful and noble thing to do, has not, at least in our case, particularly enhanced our ability to raise prices or to increase the velocity of our sales. []
  21. The public and wine industry still remain remarkably confused about where I currently stand in relation to the entity that is BDV, as well as to the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands; many know that I sold something a few tears ago. (Everyone has a slightly different story, but many just assume that I sold the entire company, and have been enjoying something like a life of leisure for the last seven years. []
  22. For the record, it seems to take three years in the ground from planting at Davis, CA and approximately ten years in Torino, Italy. In San Juan Bautista, I would venture that we could split the difference and say perhaps six or seven. []
  23. Remember these are the offspring of the self-fertilized Grenache vines and as such they carry a number of recessive genes, resulting in the botanical equivalent of hip dysplasia in collies, hemophilia and cretinism in human beings. []
  24. We must begin first with establishing mother vines, and observing how they perform, then make the most thoughtful, intuitive extrapolation possible as far as what sets of parents might make the most felicitous union. This is viticultural matchmaking at a very high level. []
  25. Whether it was the biochar that we used in the preparation of the nursery rows, or (one hopes) the biochar in conjunction with the magical qualities of Popelouchum itself, every bit of produce that we have grown from grapes to tomatoes or strawberries, or olives, has evinced incredibly intense flavor and concentration. Maybe this is too important a point to bury in a footnote, but the disparity of the sheer brilliance of the fruit and veggies that we are growing at Popelouchum and the scale at which it is being grown causes me a level of psychic distress that I can only begin to convey to you in this missive. []
  26. Even then I was drawn to the proposition of blended wines, or perhaps intuitively understood that it made sense to hedge one’s bets. []
  27. I also planted Chardonnay and Pinot noir as well; the former was actually quite nice, the latter rather lackluster. This, of course, turned out to be a rather lucky break, as it led me to the Rhône varieties, which, in sum, have worked out quite well for me. I could have quixotically continued to chase after Pinot for all of these years, and ended up sadder, poorer and likely no wiser. []
  28. I am perhaps greatly belaboring the point here but when you produce an Estate wine you are telling the world precisely (and literally) where you stand. If the grapes you are growing make sense and you do it skillfully, there can be no greater expression of congruity. []
  29. The rest of the California wine scene was becoming rather keen on varietally designated wines at that point. []
  30. I lobbied (albeit not so strenuously) for the use of the term “Claret” as a substitute for the incredibly lame term, “Meritage.” []
  31. The take-home lesson here is that a great site, as the original estate seemed to be, will produce wonderful wines from a vast range of grape varieties. []
  32. There is now at last a legitimate reason to take the piss, as with but a few exceptions, the ubiquitous overripe and overwrought style of Cabernet in Napa and elsewhere is just beyond the pale. []
  33. The predominant percentage of the grapes for this wine derives from a vineyard near the Arroyo Seco of Monterey County, generally considered to be the coolish limit for Cabernet. But another instance of utter incongruity here: These grapes are pruned to a style that is called “box pruning,” which is to say they are mechanically pruned as if to resemble a box hedge. I had seen this style of pruning while a student at Davis and was utterly horrified. The vines are ginormous; they clearly use a vast, presumably unsustainable amount of water for their upkeep. And unless you have spent a lot of time in the San Joaquin Valley, you have likely never seen so many grapes on a vine. Virtually everything about this set-up made it my first impulse to flee in the opposite direction. And yet, looking more closely at the vines I observed that all of the fruit was borne on the outside of the plant, well exposed to the light (but not sunburned), and further, the clusters themselves (albeit prolific) were exceptionally small in size, as were the berries themselves. Most significantly, they all appeared to be more or less uniform in their degree of ripeness. This is quite important because underripe Cabernet, especially in a cool climate will give you very unpleasant vegetal flavors that are the kiss o’ death as far as far as drinkability and certainly, commercial viability. But my intention here was to make an elegant wine, with good natural acidity, restraint in alcohol and tannin; at least based on first principles, it seemed as if this programme might work to achieve this end. And of course, it did. I do feel quite pleased with myself to have identified some perhaps undervalued assets (Cabernet and Merlot[!!!]) and to have added incremental value to them. []
  34. As an example of this self-indulgent foolishness, I reproduce for you here an extract from of one of the pseudonymous notes I sent to the retailers and restaurateurs on our mailing list:

    Dear Stockist/slash/Restaurateur,

    Harumph! I’m writing on behalf of Randall Grahm – Mister Smarty Rhôney-pants – who (to my great chagrin) seems to not particularly fancy the noble Bordelais cépages and the brilliant wines they are capable of producing. Pity.

    Oh, pardon my manners. I’ve failed to introduce myself. My name is Reginald ffrench-Postalthwaite, the loaf behind A Proper Claret Wine Company, temporarily garrisoned at the Bonny Doon Vineyard office in Santa Cruz. I’m currently ensconced at Randall’s desk, while he is still off mucking about with the last of the grapes, as the harvest has well winded doon…

    (The letter goes on and on and closes with the hope for “greater Claret-y.”

    and to our distributors – writing in my own voice):

    …Bonny Doon Vineyard is, as we all know or should know, a strictly Cabernet-free zone, at least it has been for the last twenty-eight years. Personally I have nothing but opprobrium, bordering on vaguely amused disdain for this popular grape variety. I will not bother you with the details of how we came to be entrusted with the distribution of this wine Suffice to say that we grudgingly, harumphingly agreed to do this as a favor to a friend…

    As to the label, what can I say? I am just scandalized. It’s hard to countenance opportunistic wine marketeers who stoop to using lurid imagery merely to sell a bottle of wine. Has it just come to this? It is only because I enjoyed the wine so much that I’m willing to put up with the tasteless monstrosity that is this label. “Proper?” Claret. Indeed. []

  35. This in fact has been quite rewarding and quite useful, requiring me to move far outside my own vinous comfort zone. If the new Popelouchum experimental vineyard is to succeed, I will need to learn how to taste wines that will likely be rather foreign to me, and to develop enough broad-palatedness to embrace them in their (undoubted) strangeness. []
  36. The Merlot is actually, unexpectedly truly delicious, which makes me really wonder if I understand anything about anything any more. []
  37. “Perelandra Garden Workbook” by Machaelle Wright is a rather strange but compelling practicum in guided meditations helpful to communing with nature spirits. It thinks of these spirits as sagacious counselors, informing the myriad number of decisions taken in planting a garden or farm. []
  38. This is an integral, if painful step in the creation of new varieties, and rather tedious, exacting work. []

Terroir and Meaning: An Interim Recap

WDoctorhat do you do with your life to make it as meaningful as it can be? It has been a while now that I’ve realized that I was not cut out for a brilliant career as a medical researcher, who might potentially find the cure for a dire disease, nor, has it turned out that I really have the aptitude or inclination to be a great social crusader or enlightened politico (if that is not too oxymoronic for words). My sole talent, at least as far as I can tell, seems to be that of a winemaker, an eclectic one at that – a métier that might perhaps allow one to make a very small, eensy, discreet contribution to the sum of human happiness. For great wine, even sometimes wine that is less than great, can be a wonderful comfort to life’s sorrows.

Baby Boomers
Now, the problem is that I, as an aging baby-boomer, confronting his mortality, want ever more meaning in my life, and at least for now, I’m trying to achieve more meaning in my chosen work. This might not be intuitively obvious, but there are some real issues with finding great meaning in growing grapes and making wine in the New World, such as I do, and the issue has something to do with our problematic relationship to the Old World; we suffer from the “anxiety of influence,” in Auden’s phrase.
W.H. Auden
In other words, it is not clear what we can do in the New World that is not hopelessly derivative of the Old World, either by attempting to emulate Old World styles or by defining ourselves in our rejection of the Old World aesthetic and sensibility.

The Old World, through the sheer chance of felicitous historical circumstance – geography, culture, and social organization – found fertile ground, as it were, for the development, at least in some areas, of a high wine culture.
Medieval Monk

It was primarily the church, monks to be specific, working over centuries in the same sites, who were able to accrete subtle and detailed knowledge about the practices leading to the creation of the most sublime nectar – all for the greater glory of God, of course. This knowledge led to the identification of the truly great sites for wine growing in Europe – the grands crus, if you will.
Clos Vougeot Vineyard
As a winemaker in the Old World, if you are fortunate enough to be entrusted to care for one of these great vineyards, your job is really two-fold. First and foremost, you are not to screw it up. Secondly, if you have the wit to manage the first part of your imperative, your secondary task is to explore as deeply as you can, discover, as the French would say, your particular terroir, i.e. the individual distinctiveness of your site. By the way, it continues to amaze and delight me that a winemaker whose family has been making wine in the same location for more than 500 years still talks earnestly about continuing to “discover” his or her terroir. The great crus of Europe are a gift to the world and a winemaker entrusted with their care has been given a rare privilege.
Cote Rotie Vineyard
Why are vins de terroir, or “wines of place” so special? The French make the distinction between vines de terroir and vins d’effort, or “wines of effort” that we do so well in the New World, i.e. those that bear the strong stylistic imprint of the winemaker, where the winemaker attempts to control as many variables as possible (drip-irrigation and cultured yeast, for example), and it is his or her intelligence that largely dominates the wine. These wines, to their credit, tend to be very consistent, and generally do not surprise us greatly either positively or negatively. Winemaker in Lab CoatThe problem is that they are only as intelligent as we human beings are, which is to say, not so very. A wine of terroir is one that somehow captures and reflects the great intelligence of nature itself; it opens up a vast breathtaking vista – kind of like the Grand Canyon in a glass – and can awe us with its great depth and complexity. It creates a visceral link to Nature within us and this is a priceless gift. These are wines with life-force, i.e. derived from grapes that have drunk deeply from the soils in which they have grown, imparting a distinctive carte d’identité of their appellation of origin.
Grand Canyon
So, returning to my own existential dilemma. What are we to do in the New World that will permit us to make wines that are as distinctive as the great European wines of place and are somehow also truly relevant to the consumer who is looking for meaning, i.e. real originality? In the New World, we’ve already figured out through winemaking legerdemain how to make wines of superficial charms, better living through maquillage, that fool most of the bright, sunny New World palates most of the time – these wines like Dracula, do not throw any shadow.
Robert Parker
As much as the American wine critics like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator may love these wines and the producers who make them, deep down we know that what we are doing is really throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that some of it will stick.

In California, we’ve rejected the notion of geography as destiny in favor of reliance on our wits – isn’t this the American way? – seeking technical solutions to making “great” wine, wines made by formula and by the obsessive control of as many variables as possible. We’ve being doing this, I suppose, because it’s more or less worked out well for us, at least for now. California wines are consistent and generally absent conspicuous flaws.

But producing a pleasant wine that doesn’t offend anyone is a rather different proposition than wishing to make a wine that will make its imbibers swoon in ecstatic delirium. To paraphrase the famous Meg Ryan scene in When Harry Met Sally, I’d like, please, what that latter producer is having. When Harry Met Sally
So, you want to do something great in the New World. How do you begin? It should be obvious that you have to grow your own grapes, but that begs the fundamental question: “How do you know you’re growing the right grapes in the right place?”

While there are an infinite number of stupid ways to decide what to grow – you grow Pinot noir in Fresno because you love Pinot noir and you live in Fresno and you like it there – there are really only two reasonable solution sets to the problem of what to grow where. Fresno, CAYou either begin with a grape that you love and try to find a place where you reckon it will be happy, thrive and produce expressive wine, or you begin with a place that you love (and love it not the least for its unique agronomic virtues) and figure out what it is that you might optimally grow in your very special site.

The first solution, which is pretty much what most thoughtful growers pursue, apart from the silly ones who are stuck on Pinot in Fresno, is not, I believe, the best way to creating a unique and distinctive wine.

Multiple Layers of Soil
It is most unlikely that we will find a piece of real estate in the New World as congruent to the unique requirements – climatological, pedological, or hydrological – of a given variety, clone or clonal mix of grapes as you’ll find in any of the great Old World vineyards, which have been finely tuned and adapted over centuries.
Burgundian Winemaker
Our Pinots will not se pinot, if you will – the Burgundians really use this expression, by the way – in the New World without a truly Herculean effort. If you love Burgundy, it’s ultimately a lot cheaper to buy all of the Burgundy you’d ever want to drink.

I have of course forgotten to mention the important reason, if stupid one, why winemakers, at least male winemakers, attempt to grow grapes where they do, and that is a question of testosterone titer. We fling ourselves in the direction of pinot, for example, the “heartbreak grape,” knowing how impossible it is to win her heart.

Photo of Cyrano de Bergerac

Or alternately, we hire surrogate suitors, à la Cyrano de Bergerac – they’re called winemaking consultants – to put in a good word with the fickle mistress.

My contention is that while there are indisputably certain grape varieties that are more interesting than others, what may ultimately be at issue is not the superiority of one variety over another, but rather the appropriateness of fit of a grape or set of grapes to a given site, as well as the potentially unique characteristics of the site itself – maybe there are an infinite number of solution sets to the mystery of how to express terroir – and that brings us to what I believe is the superior strategy of first identifying a truly great site and then working out what it is that you are going to plant.
UC Davis
What is a great site for grapes? Even now, there is still a great philosophical divide between the Old World and New, with the Old World remaining staunch defenders of the primacy of geophysical characteristics, while the savants of UC Davis, at least when I was a student there, claiming that the real issue is one of climate and everything else is a work-around. Clearly, both factors – climate and soil – are crucial, but at the very least you want to avoid the need for a vast number of heroic interventions in your farming practice.
Baggy-pants Vaudevillians
As the old vaudeville joke goes, “Doctor, I broke my leg in three places. What should I do?” “Stay out of those places!”

Certain soils are particularly interesting for the expression of terroir – calcareous, granitic, schistous and volcanic soils, for example, probably because they are mineral-rich and have a lot of interior surface area to support a large population of mycorrhizae, the symbiotic fungi that live in the roots of plants and transport micro-nutrients into the vine.

(You can think of these microorganisms as terroir’s amplifiers.) But there is a slightly tortuous path between vibrant mycorrhizal populations and a glass of wine that makes us want to cry out in joy and wonder. I fear I may be getting a little bogged down here in geeky scientific detail.
Dalai Lama

What I really want to talk about is winemaking, or more specifically, wine-growing as a sort of spiritual pursuit – a quest for excellence, but also a quest for balance (personal as well as vinous) and for communion. We don’t have quite the same pathway available to us in the New World – that of the custodianship of a rare treasure – but perhaps there are some aspects of the notion of terroir that can inform our efforts, and maybe even inspire a new paradigm of this seemingly inviolate, sacrosanct ideal.

In a certain sense, the language of terroir has a lot in common with the language of the spiritual acolyte. One finds one’s personal truth in service to an ideal or reality beyond oneself. The great European wines are named after their place, not after the winemaker – often incorporating the unique geographical features of the site. Discovering terroir is a rigorous discipline, a devotion, you might say, that allows the vine-tender to approach, ever closer, the object of his adoration.
I and Thou
You might call it an I-Thou relationship, in the language of Martin Buber; the site is not a thing to be used, but rather to be embraced and honored. Winemakers – they’re not even winemakers, they’re vignerons, vine-tenders – they come and go, but the terroir goes marching on.

In the New World, we have not received The Good Word, the prescriptive code of viticultural virtue. We are perforce all vinous existentialists of a sort, and have to make our own personal choices about what is beautiful, and might only accidentally discover the truly original. In the recent past, the New World has often taken the path of focusing on wine’s superficial charms but to my mind, this is clearly a dead-end; now it’s time to meet the wine and vines in a new way, but how?

There has always been an implicit cultural aspect to terroir – the notion could not exist without the Cartesian mind-set and the Gallic attitude toward property and historical continuity as the nation’s true patrimony – Avatarand human beings, as interpreters, were and are still always obviously required for terroir to speak. But, maybe it’s now time to expand the notion of terroir beyond the strictly geophysical, or allow a new idea to emerge, the idea that perhaps human beings might in some sense become explicit co-creators of terroir. The most obvious problem for the discovery of terroir, of course, is one of time: The elucidation of terroir has historically been something that has unfolded over centuries.

Unless the technology depicted in the film, Avatar, is on the immediate horizon, it would seem one can’t get there from here, at least in a single lifetime.
Deep Rooted Vines
I have not yet told you my own perhaps crackpot idea for enhancing the possibility of the expression of terroir without the benefit of centuries of iteration and observation.

My notion is to grow grapes in a way as to enhance the soil characteristics of the wine – dry-farmed, deep-rooted vines grown in a healthy, vibrant soils, but also to de-emphasize varietal characteristics themselves, by creating something akin to the old field blends of yesteryear, but with a significant difference. I would propose to grow grapes from seeds, the result of vinifera crosses, rather than from clonally propagated material, as is typically done to retain the desired characteristics of the mother vine.
Head Trained Vines

This would yield a vineyard of extreme genetic diversity, each plant a distinctive genotype. But the questions remain: Will you gain subtlety, nuance and complexity in the resultant wine or will you have cacophony? What degree of difference do you want to see within the population?

Sorority SistersDo grapes that are close enough genetically synchronize their phenology, their ripening patterns, as happens with the menstrual cycles of women living in close proximity? Do you cross two varieties that derive from the same geographical area (Grenache and Mourv̬dre) Рones that you know play well together from a palate perspective, or do you cross varieties Рthis is generally a better idea from a genetic perspective Рfrom very disparate bloodlines, as it were? All of these questions are very highly fraught.
Strong Taproot
Seedlings are interesting for a number of reasons – you find a recapitulation of all of the genetics of the forebearers, favorable and less so. The plants themselves, if you plant them correctly, exhibit strong geotropism, or the tendency to root straight downward, which is quite interesting from a drought-tolerance aspect, and should certainly enhance the expression of soil characteristics.
Gestalt Illustration: foreground/background
But what is perhaps most interesting is perhaps the Gestalt phenomenon of the suppression of one set of taste impressions to allow the emergence of yet another.

I’ve ridiculed a bit the growers who allow emotion (or hormones) to cloud their thinking in making good decisions about what to plant, but what I’d like to now suggest is that what is most needed for terroir to emerge in the New World is for wine-growers to learn a kind of deep empathy above and beyond empirical observation.
Tonio, the Clown from Pagliacci

In the same way that we are now seeing an explosion of the possibilities of consciousness through the rapid expansion of our computational capabilities, allowing for a sort of externalization of our minds, maybe we can think of terroir, or actually, something beyond terroir, as no longer reposing exclusively in the actual physical site itself.
Bill Gates
But, the real power of this idea – to create a vast population of genetically distinctive individuals on a single site is really twofold: a) Might one find an unprecedented level of complexity and distinction when you blend them together? b) In the fullness of time, might there be a particular individual or set of individual plants that really stands out as far as its unique degree of adaptation to the site, selection massale on a very vast scale? (Perhaps that observation may require more than a single lifetime.)Great genetic diversity Bear in mind, there is a human being who is making choices about who are the worthy parents in this experiment. This human being has to be guided by intuition and inspiration, and in the end, his choices are perhaps a bit arbitrary. In the end, the resultant wine ideally should be a delight to his sensibility and aesthetic.

Maybe it’s the narcissistic, somewhat pantheistic Baby Boomer in me, who maintains the fantasy that I, or some transformation of me, will live forever.

Cosmic ManMaybe, what I’m really dreaming about is perhaps a bit tangential to a real expression of terroir. But, if this project allows me to developer a deeper degree of empathy for the vines or even just presence – which is the aspiration of every spiritual pursuit – it will have been highly worthwhile. Also, not a bad thing to perhaps create a slew of new germplasm – remember each vine will be a new and distinctive grape variety – as a paying it forward to the future. I have been so incredibly blessed with the extraordinary opportunities I have been given, this is the very least I can do. Thank you.

This speech was delivered to the International School of the Peninsula on October 6th, 2013.

Wine Quality: Talking the Elusive Vin de Terroir Blues

1_Rapper_MuscatI’ve been asked to talk about the somewhat abstract notion of “quality,” as it pertains to wine. Of course, every winemaker or winery owner thinks about or should be thinking about quality in some sense, but I believe that any discussion of “quality” should have a context and arise from a larger value system or a philosophical aspiration. I tend to think about “quality” in a very immediate existential sense, i.e. it is that elusive thing you must figure out how to express in your wine, lest you perish rather sooner than later. Certainly, these days, it seems that unless you are on an upward trajectory of wine quality, you are likely doomed (or in my instance, dooned) to the slag-heap of wine history. The only other alternative, it seems, is to find an ascendant rapper who happens to be particularly sweet on your sacchariferously over-achieving red wine and let nature take its course. (I’m sorry; that’s a pretty unfair comment, at least to rappers.)

I suppose that many wine producers may generally have a slightly different conception of “quality” than I have; when I was a student at Davis “quality” was a bit of a slippery entity, the ghost in the machine, in a sense, and at least by implication seemed to have more to do with consistency, reproducibility, and possibly, absence of defect. 3_chateau_pavie_bottle_parker_jancisAs winemakers, we may imagine that we are attempting to create something like a Platonic ideal of excellence—balance, complexity, and perhaps even “intensity” (whatever the heck that means) but often this idealized form is rather tricky to define—remember Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker’s slight difference of opinion (“Jancis, you ignorant slut!”) about the infamous bottle of Chateau Pavie.
At the very least, notions of “quality” seem mutable over time and are somewhat prone to fashion, witness the slight discontinuity of wine style of Continuum Estate with respect to the Mondavi Cabs of an earlier era.

I would argue that “quality” in wine is something like the articulate expression of real distinctiveness (in a good way, of course). Having said that, one very disturbing trend I’ve observed is the alarming degree of sameness in many California wines, especially in the larger production, price sensitive segments. 2_73cab_continuumIt is as if there had been a secret conference (a kind of Yalta Summit on wood chips) that set out guidelines as to what are the acceptable and unacceptable attributes in wine. I’m not wishing to be disrespectful, but larger wine companies do tend to be a little bit conservative, shall we say, and often, considerations of “quality” can be another way of saying, “How can we offend the least number of consumers?” In fairness, if you are driven mostly by economics, maybe offending the fewest number of customers and using your marketing clout to establish product differentiation is a reasonable strategy for the short-term, but I’m not convinced it really works so well for the long term.
I would propose that we think about wine quality in a somewhat different way, but I believe we have to begin with throwing out the idea of “giving the consumer what he or she wants.” For one thing, I’m not really sure that the customer really knows what he or she wants, and the other point is that the customer wants a lot of different things under different circumstances. I believe that consumers generally like everything that is made well—big, powerful, tannic bruisers as well as lighter, more elegant reds; fresh and crisp Rieslings and rich, buttery Chards, depending on the mood, the occasion and the season, of course.

I had a most eye-opening experience a few years ago when I sat on a panel with the head of grape research for an exceptionally large unnamed winery in Modesto, CA., and we were ostensibly talking about promising grape varieties for the future. He was a nice enough guy, but how he talked about the grape research at this very large winery was a bit disturbing. 5_gallo_bldg_logoIt turns out that his group had identified certain kinds of flavors, aromas, textures and visual appearances of certain wines that their focus groups had associated with “quality,” and conversely, a number of flavors and aromas that were associated with lack of quality or in other words, “defect.” So, for example, bright fruity flavors like raspberry, cherry and licorice were all to the good. Good color intensity, weight and persistence on the palate, palpable but soft tannins bravo, indeed extra bravo. Grapes that produced wines that were exceptionally high in acid, lighter in color or had anything like bitter, green or herbaceous flavors were immediately disqualified.
So, as you can see, if pinot noir, cabernet franc or nebbiolo were to be considered de novo, they would likely not make it past the first cut. And yet, these are perhaps the genius red grape varieties—I might add “syrah” to that short list, and we all know how well that has worked out of late, especially grown where it has been grown. The point I’m trying to make is that any consideration of “quality” is enormously contextual. Italian grape varieties generally have a different sort of tannic structure than say French varieties, and stylistically, tend to be higher in acid; they work better with Italian food.
But I would not want to say that French grapes make better wine than Italian ones. I would also argue that if you are only interested in producing wines that are all sweetness and light, without shadow, if you will, you will end up producing something that is essentially banal. It is ultimately the play between all of the elements of a wine that create real complexity and interest. But perhaps more to the point, the congruity of fit between the grapes and where they are grown, as well as their ability to convey a mysterious additional element—the elusive, quasi-mystical notion of terroir, may well be the most important quality consideration of them all.
This brings me to an exceptionally important point in any consideration of wine quality, and that is the tension between the efforts of the winemaker to make a “successful” or at least consistent wine and his efforts to make a “truthful” wine. Put a slightly different way, what is the appropriate balance between the expression of a defined winemaking style and the elucidation of the qualities that somehow inhere in the grapes or wine itself, or more accurately, in the site from which the grapes derive?
The French, a somewhat dichotomous, Cartesian lot, make an important distinction between two kinds of wine: what they call vins d’effort or “wines of effort” and vins de terroir, or “wines of place.” You can think of this as a sort of dichotomy, but I prefer to think of it more as a continuum.
Wines of effort are ones where the winemaker has exerted a lot of control over the many variables in grape growing and winemaking and has made a very strong stylistic imprint on the wine—from the use of selected clones in the vineyard, to drip irrigation, cultured yeast and inoculated ML bacteria, enzymes, wood chips, micro-oxygenation and organoleptic tannins.
All of these interventions are done to create a certain consistency of style and to overcome the putative “deficits” of a particular vintage. These are the sorts of interventions—you can think of them as efforts to improve “quality”—that we in the New World are particularly good at. In a certain sense, this is really what we do best, and for that reason, our wines have great consistency from vintage to vintage and are arguably “friendlier” to the consumer. It’s not just the tannins that are friendlier, but the fact that the consumer has a reasonable expectation of what he or she is going to get every vintage.
But I would argue, that this kind of intervention, this great power to determine a wine’s stylistic fate, is, in a certain sense, a sort of Faustian compact. We have gained the world (and a lot of market share), but have lost our souls, or at the very least, quite often our soils. We’ve created a real glass ceiling as far as potential complexity; our wines are only as interesting and clever as we are, and unfortunately, I would submit, that is maybe not so very.
Let’s consider the other category: vins de terroir. These are the wines where the winemaker strives to somehow capture and reflect in the wine the inherent qualities of the site from which it derives, as well as the characteristics of the vintage, and by extension the great complexity and intelligence of Nature itself. They can offer an extraordinary added level of complexity to wine—literally a sort of extra-dimensionality in several respects.
The mineral aspect of these wines (let’s pretend for a moment that we understand what this really means) deriving from special, particularly expressive soil types—volcanic, limestone, schist, shale, granite, most markedly—can offer a distinctive aroma—whether the flintiness of limestone, the wet stoniness of basalt, or the “hydrocarbure” of schist—and gives the mid-palate a special kind of length or “sustain,” if you will. (This is a kind of structure given to the wine above and beyond the structure provided by the tannins and the other elements of the wine’s antioxidant profile.)

This opens the door to a much broader and ultimately crucial discussion about wine quality, to wit, the ability of a wine to resist oxidative challenge. 14_los_bermejos_vineyardIn very simple terms, you open the bottle of wine, drink a glass or two, put the cork or screwcap back in or on and the wine will be good two days, three days, a week, sometimes even several weeks after it’s been open. I will just come right out and say it:

We, as an industry, have utterly failed in not identifying the essential wine mystery and the key feature of wine quality: Why do some wines live and some wines die? What strategies might we undertake to give our wines greater qi, greater life-force? (Hint: In my humble estimation, this all derives from the vineyard and the practices employed therein to make minerals available to the vine.)
One way I think about terroir is to use the terminology of communication theory—the signal/noise ratio. The winemaker is still working exceptionally hard, but with a different intention—to minimize any sort of jarring element, the noise of too much oak, the pruniness of over-ripe grapes, the vegetative aromas of underripe ones, and also the pleasant but potentially deformative aromas of certain cultured yeasts, and for that matter the deformation from spoilage organisms such as Brett. At the same time he or she is trying to boost the intensity and clarity of the signal, which is or at least should be the distinctiveness of the site, and I’ll talk about that in a moment.
The aesthetic of terroir can be somewhat subjective and every winemaker will interpret his terroirs a little differently. We must remember that the tools in the modern winemaker’s toolbox—cultured yeast, enzymes, the sugar used to chaptalize, the tartaric acid used to acidulate, the organoleptic tannins—are all in some sense “natural” products, or at least analogues of what one might find in the grape itself. But what is “polishing” for one person can be a sort of airbrushing or the application of excessive make-up, maquillage, for another. There is something creepy about faces that are too perfect; they don’t quite feel right or real.
While there is certainly a great degree of artifice in winemaking, you don’t want to see the seams. In a great vin de terroir, the winemaker has humbly painted himself discreetly into a corner; somehow it is the unique qualities of the site that take center-stage—the Musignyness of Musigny, for example, and add an aesthetic frisson to the experience.
So, what are the positive steps that a winemaker might take to accentuate the unique character of his site, its terroir? This is really the meat of the matter. Let’s begin in the vineyard: Lower yields certainly can be dramatically effective in improving quality (but not too crazy low, as that can create a deformation), closer vine spacing while holding yields static (there was a famous study in Chianti that demonstrated this or more accurately, a more favorable ratio of root mass to fruit volume).
This is probably the single most consistent determinant of grape quality, all things being equal. (A little parenthetical note here: Drip irrigation or worse, fertigation, as is our wont in this part of the world, generally works pretty much against the achievement of this critical ratio.)
Then, there is the practice of organic or biodynamic farming, which has been shown to significantly enhance mycorrhizal populations, providing for healthier plants and significantly better mineral uptake. (Ah, minerals…. As I’ve mentioned, this is perhaps the subject of another very, very long discussion.)

There is also just plain old good management practice, beginning with thoughtfulness of vineyard design and meticulousness of management.

Balanced, homeostatic and thrifty growth is what you are looking for: smaller leaves, smaller clusters, shorter internodes—you want to be a kind of viticultural Goldilocks in this regard, and get your vigor “just right.” Old vines (ideally, dry-farmed), if they live long enough, have figured this out by Nature’s innate wisdom. If you can get to a dry-farmed solution sooner than later, I would humbly suggest that allowing Nature to do the heavy lifting will give you a more perfect kind of balance than that which the cleverest agronomist might suggest. Uniformity of ripening, achieved by rigorous thinning, I think, is also a pretty important quality factor.
But, in the end, where you’ve chosen to plant a vineyard and what you’ve planted are the most important qualitative decisions you can make. In general, we’ve planted grapes in areas that are far too warm for the optimal expression of varieties, and we’ve farmed them in a way that doesn’t send the right hormonal signals to the vines, gentle suggestions that they might consider getting on with the business of ripening their fruit.
Dry-farmed vineyards carrying modest crops will ripen three to four weeks earlier than conventionally farmed vineyards, and this of course opens up all sorts of possibilities.
The major work to improve wine quality is, as I’ve suggested, done in the vineyard with the aim of avoiding heroic levels of intervention in the winery—acidulation, de-alcoholization, addition of yeast nutrients, the deployment of sundry microbial inocula, and so forth, but there are certainly things that can be done in the winery to improve quality, and the among them might be strategies to greatly reduce the use of sulfur dioxide.
Cold cellars, delayed malolactics can greatly reduce the total amount of sulfur dioxide required. But why stop there? It’s not inconceivable that with the right focus and intention one could eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide altogether in the winery and still produce wines that were not inordinately funky and remained fresh. Why not think about organisms that might perform a tertiary fermentation, depleting the wine of nutrients that would otherwise support microbial spoilage?
So, to close the loop on wines that express a sense of place: We, in California, generally don’t get there from here. For one, our soils are often not particularly interesting or appropriate for a vin de terroir—the old soils, for example are often heavily weathered and depleted of minerals, nor do we farm them in such a manner that might allow for the expression of terroir. Nor, fundamentally, as a young wine-drinking culture do we particularly esteem the earthy/haunting wines of place; these flavors are subtle, and subtle is not yet a quality that is currently greatly appreciated in the din of the wine agora, but this certainly can change.
And I have not even mentioned how utterly challenging it might be to identify the most appropriate sites in California for a terroir-expressive vineyard at least in a single lifetime, and the difficulty in working out the most congruent rootstocks and grapes to grow on those sites. In light of this disappointing news, why would one even choose to get out of bed in the morning?
Samuel Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And it certainly does make sense for us here to go on. There are in fact extraordinary things that we can do in California to lend distinctiveness to our wines and to truly improve wine quality. There is a company that is working to help wine growers isolate and identify unique yeast strains that exist in their vineyards—those that are perhaps the optimal performers for their site. There are several exceptional soil amendments—one notably, biochar, or activated charcoal, that can really help in the uptake of minerals in the soil, conferring a greater expression of site.
The use of well made compost, especially with the addition of biodynamic preparations and rock dust I find to be among the single most useful things one can do to improve the health and vitality of a vineyard. Myself, I am particularly keen on the idea of growing grapes from seed (phylloxera-risk permitting) and thus creating a tremendous range of new and unique germplasm; this could provide the complexity of a gamut of unique genotypes in a given vineyard. This project will last longer than a single life-time, but ultimately could generate absolute individuality and uniqueness to a wine, as well as enormously accelerate the process of selection massale, undoubtedly the key to enhanced congruity of variety, clone and perhaps sub-clone to a given site.
In other words, how cool would it be to have uniquely bespoke varieties for your vineyard? In the end, the greatest advantage we have in the New World is our relative youth and the ability to see the wine world with fresh eyes.

There is also the other small fact that we are incredibly blessed that our industry is largely unimpeded by the vast tangle of rules and regulations that European wine growers must contend with.
I’d like to mention a fellow I know in the Valais in Switzerland, by the name of Hans-Peter Schmidt, who is doing a lot of work with biochar in vineyards there and in France. (He, by the way, reckons that biochar doesn’t really improve things much in the mineral-rich, glacially deposited soils of the Valais, but could be quite interesting in soils that are more depleted.) Strangely enough, he is producing wines without any SO2, and which also, counter-intuitively, don’t seem to readily oxidize, nor develop any significant levels of volatile acidity.
I’m not quite sure how he has come to this conclusion, but he believes that he has brought into his cellar a particular species of bacteria, an endophyte, through the roots of the vines, that has persisted through the course of fermentation and cellaring and is somehow keeping other competitive spoilage organisms in check—he’s been attempting some DNA profiling to try to get a handle on what it might be. I don’t know if his theory is utterly crackpot or not, but I’ve tasted his wine and it does seem to confound every received wisdom I’ve entertained about immutable winemaking truths.
So, in conclusion, I would suggest that the best course to improve wine quality in our part of the world is to remain open to the possibility of phenomena we can’t explain, and above all, remain humble to the fact that if we want to be particularly clever, we should attempt to leverage the greater intelligence of the natural world. And in this intensely competitive wine world that we inhabit, truly differentiated products arising from the originality of Nature’s intelligence, will ultimately confer the only real sustainable competitive advantage. Thank you.

This speech was delivered July 23rd to a Conference on Wine Quality, conducted at the Asilomar Conference Center, under the auspices of Diageo Wine Company.

“Maybe Not Racked” by Syrah Mix-A-Lot

“Maybe Not Racked”1 by Syrah Mix-A-Lot

I like big butts2 and I cannot lie

You other winemakers can’t deny

That when you taste great wine like the “Hill of Grace”3

And a lot of funked-up esters in your face you get sprung

I’m talking about juice that got da funk

Not the spoofulated shizzle that gets you crunk

Talking anaerobic élevage,4 yo
With some sick cépages, yo, ain’t no mirage, bro

(The truffe will set you free.)

Oh, what am I gonna serve wit’cha?

Some baby-got-back-ribs, pretty as a Bon Appétit picture

My homeboy Marvin, tried to warn me in the Specta-ta

But that 500 liter butt you got – I got to investigate her

Ooh, Horse-rumpo blanket, you ridin’ bareback

Sippin’ on a ‘45 Latour or some other nasty Pauillac5

Well excuse me, excuse me,

I aint no point-score groupie

The palate impression is really dancin’
To hell with sip and swirl romancin’

It’s got dat funky saddle-sweat,6 yeah, wet

Da microbe dat dare not speak its name: (Brett)

I’m tired of those wine magazines

Saying that big fruit and Def Jamminess is the thang

Take the average wine geek and ask him that
If his main juice squeeze is a fruit bomb tease – soft and pHat7

So Wine Geeks


Wine Geeks


Has your vino got the funk?
(Hell yeah!)

Tell ‘em to aerate it!

(Aerate it!)

Aerate it!

(Aerate it!)

Aerate that funky butt!

Maybe get racked!

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

Maybe get racked!

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

I like ‘em dusty and not too big

And when I’m throwin’ doon at a winemaker dinner gig

I just can’t help myself, I like the scent of animal
Now, (pay-atches),8 here’s my scandal

I wanna drink you at home

In UH, a double-mag UH UH!

I ain’t talkin’ bout 95 point wines

‘cause you open them up and next day they’re in steep decline,9

Talking DOA, a perfect flat-line


I don’t want ‘em extra thick and juicy

Like a raspberry milkshake or worse a double

Syrah Mix-A-Lot’s in trouble

When it’s so funked up it begins to bubble

So I’m lookin’ at Nicolas Joly in a Bio-D video

No herbicide, baby, kill them weeds with hoes

You can keep them fancy chateaux
I’ll stick with funk-master, Jacques Reynaud10

(He was kicking some Ray-ass)

Now a word on thick, overripe mixtures; I just can’t seem to get wit’cha

Just can’t drink ya, I gotta spit ya’

But I gotta be straight when I say I wanna UH!

Sip on that fancy space- juice ‘til the break of Doon!

Yeah, that wine’s really got it goin’ on

And forgive the commercial message in this song

‘Cause some critics like to hit it and then quit it

Don’t know if this Ci-gare is on anyone’s radar

(It ain’t from around here.)

So wine-man!



If you can tolerate a little mercaptan


Then splash it ‘round! Swirl it ‘round!

And a clear tone you will perceive

Even white wines got to breathe11
Maybe get racked!

Maybe get racked!

Yeah baby, when it comes to a final arbitrator

It ain’t gonna be the Wine Speculator

Or even Tanzer or the even fancier

Burghound – Dawg, you gots to throw me a Beaune,
Cause I want my wine waiter to be a wine-lover not a wine-hater.12

90 plus point wines? Ha, ha, only if they’re vintage ‘59

So your young Wall St. trader is rolling with the Spectator

And he’s jonesin’ for Screaming Eagle
But the Baby Gangsta is barely legal

And his point spread is more spread-eagle

(He is assuming the position; for that price he could buy La Mission.)

Y’all doon with that?

Spare me new barriques, I prefer old redwood vat

And them yeasties, I prefer them indigenous

As would B.I.G.G.I.E, he was doonright bigamous

I got nothing ‘gainst Saccharomyces

‘Cept without the funk there ain’t no exotic spices.
That little bitta brett can be seen as a threat

But be open to a little nastiness: Get yourself a new mind-set

So the press say your wine gotta be pHat

And loaded with primary fruit; what’s wrong with dat?

‘Cause you’re not just sippin’, your slidin’ in a meal, yo

And you want it to work with the whole damn deal-io

To the spoofulated higher scorers: you ain’t nowheres

You ain’t got that, Mme. Osmose-inverse13

Give me a vin de terroir for a nice long pour

Cassoulet and foie gras – soulfood for the bourgeois

Some knucklehead tried to dis
These funked-up wines, bump ‘em from his list

He brought in a toothless pinot grigio by the glass

Maybe I bust a (screw)cap in his Ass-mannshausen

So, pour ‘em

(Pour ‘em!)
Ain’t no need to score ‘em

Just take a moment to explore ‘em

And if it got da funk you might adore ‘em

If you’ve heard this tune & gonna crack one soon

And you wanna triple X throw-doon

Dial 1-8-0-0-RHONE-RANGER

And kick them nasty thoughts of the Rhône Estranger

Maybe got racked!

Maybe got racked!

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

  1. Anaerobic élevage is not an obvious subject matter for a rap video, but if you are doing parody, you generally remain a bit constrained by your material. In fact, the lyrics would work a whole lot better if the piece were intended as a paean to big, pHat wines. One might then be able to take the piss out of the poncy, cerebral followers of “natural” or “mineral”-intensive wines (such as myself). Certainly, the video (if it ever gets made) would enjoy a much wider, possibly viral audience and along the way, its self-parodic nature would be obscured. (I think I’ll now go soak my head.) In the piece, I profess a certain admiration for “da funk,” but in fact, this doesn’t accurately reflect my view. I love the earthiness and slight reductive aspect that comes from proper élevage, but I am, in fact, not at all doon with microbial funk. []
  2. A “butt” is an alternate, but proper description of a five hundred liter barrel []
  3. It’s the shi(ra)z (from Stephen Henschke), and also known to possess a non-trivial amount of funk []
  4. Anaerobic élevage (or cellaring) is one of the several differentiating winemaking practices between Old World and New. Anaerobic élevage, which generally signifies the retention of lees and minimal racking, (especially in the winter after vintage), allows the wine to develop some extremely interesting earthy/meaty/animal aspects (sometimes confounded with the presence of brettanomyces), though presence of lees can itself act as a nutrient source for microbial contamination []
  5. Vintages of Ch. Latour, especially during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s have had quite a frequent incidence of Brettanomyces. I am given to understand (not having tasted the wines) that the chateau has cleaned things up a bit. []
  6. Most likely 4-ethyl phenol []
  7. Wines higher in pH (pushing 4) are generally just asking for microbial infection. []
  8. A bit pathetic to footnote a (reasonably clever) joke, but in French, pH is pronounced “pay- asch.” []
  9. There is an old adage that wines will either ripen on the vine or in the bottle, but it is certain that wines made from exceptionally ripe grapes have much foreshortened life-spans. This is likely a result of the tannin-anthocyanin complex continuing to polymerize, with the wine’s “fruit” essentially drying up. []
  10. Jacques Reynaud was the late proprietor of Ch. Rayas, known equally for the utter funkiness of his cellar and the sublimity of his wines. []
  11. Most especially white wines that have not been filtered, eg. Le Cigare Blanc Réserve. []
  12. Sohm, the somm, got (some) game, y’all. []
  13. Miss Reverse Osmosis []

Let Me Be Perfectly Frank

Did a vehicle
Come from somewhere out there
Just to land in the Andes?
Was it round
And did it have a motor?
Or was it

–F. Zappa, “Inca Roads,” (from One Size Fits All)

It is shameful to admit, but I am no great shakes as a thoughtful appreciator of music. Most certainly I enjoy it—rock, jazz and classical music (mostly pre-19th century) especially, but I seem to lack both the time and bandwidth to really give serious music the deep and sincere listen it deserves, except for when I am driving, of course, something I seem to do a lot, especially during harvest. Unfortunately, I often lack the presence of mind to carry much of an assortment of CDs in the car.1,2 (I usually have perhaps one or two of them in the vehicle at a time, which I end up listening to maybe forty or fifty or a hundred times before I have the wit to replace them with something else.)
And it goes without saying that like virtually every Baby Boomer, I am compelled to share with my offspring, to wit, daughter Amélie, currently aged ten, the music of my youth and young adulthood, which I, like any BBer, regard as vastly superior to anything produced in the last thirty years or so.3 These are the circumstances whereby, as it happened, I found myself with a couple of Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention CDs in the car; Zappa has pretty much been what she and I have listened to together for the last couple of years.4 She has become a real fan, and I have become utterly obsessed with Frank.5

I didn’t really know his music all that well back when it was first released, and still I have a way to fully acquaint myself with the greater part of his oeuvre. The early stuff—Freak Out!—I first heard when I was in junior high, but some of the lyrics were a bit too outlandish to consider playing at home at normal volume. It was partially my own inhibition to play the music in my parents’ house6—this was well before the day of the privacy afforded by iPods—as well as my modest musical curiosity that gave me but a shallow acquaintance with one of the real compositional geniuses of the 20th century.7

It was a few years later that I was honored to be compared to Frank Zappa by the late wine writer, Jerry Mead.8,9 I’m still not quite sure precisely what he meant by the comment—the article (predating the internet) is likely lost to oblivion—but I take him to mean that I was creative, experimental, and significantly, more than a little irreverent, if not outré, given to épater les (crus) bourgeois, if not to lobbing (or Laube-ing) the occasional cherry bomb on the relevant snooty salle de degustation.10,11 ,12
While I am honored beyond words by the comparison with Zappa, lately I’ve been slightly haunted by the suspicion that there might, in fact, be some darker, if no less apt, aspects in that comparison to Frank.

I’m still not quite sure why I’ve been thinking so much about him these days. Perhaps, it is a gathering sense of my own mortality, and a great trepidation about being able to really get a significant body of important work done before I shuffle off this Merlot coil. When I muse about Frank, I am struck by two thoughts that exist in a sort of ideational Mobius strip: How extraordinary is the sheer volume of his oeuvre, how Olympian his will and fearlessness in pushing himself beyond his own limits.
The other thought that is omnipresent in my consciousness is the simple but utterly jarring fact that as a corporeal body he is no more.13 As human beings, it is hard for us to accept that someone who was once alive and vital is no more, but somehow, with time, we mostly manage to come to some level of acceptance. It’s been twenty years that Frank’s gone, but I for one, am still in major denial, at least as far as the length of time it’s been. It is just very confusing to me.14 For one thing, while he was alive he managed to set up a living trust, a fiendishly efficient institution that continues to release new CDs posthumously,15 continues to wage fierce copyright wars against all potential usurpers, even recently attempting to protect the iconic image of Frank’s trademark “Imperial” beard/mustache arrangement from intellectual property infringement. The Zappa website is alive and well, and his son, Dweezil, continues to play his father’s music brilliantly, exposing new ears to a lot of music that is being heard for the first time. His music does not appear dated at all; with the passage of time, it has become oddly more progressive, receding not into the past but into the future.
Frank does not speak to me directly; I don’t reckon he could be much bothered to do so, or indeed, be bothered to take his eyes and ears off of anything that did not totally possess him or take him away for a moment from his vast auditory playground.16 But the weird timelessness of his music and the fact that he’s already been gone so long tells me every day that it would serve me well (and you, too, dear reader) to become a lot more conscious of the preciousness of the short time we are allotted. Not to panic (it’s organic), but the time is nigh to really buckle doon.
So, what did we share in common? He and I certainly had a lot of difficulty with authority and equally, with what were called in an earlier and less ambiguous day, “posers,” “phonies” or “plastic” people. His early targets, very oddly, were hormone-addled teenagers, disco dancers and squares (this was shooting fish in a barrel),17 later, hippies, yuppies and ultimately, the voice for wholesome, family values, Tipper Gore. For me, the easy targets were initially Chardonnay, Cab and Merlot drinkers18 and then of course influential American wine writers, who, not surprisingly, took some umbrage at my jabs. Frank didn’t seem to have any personal problem at all in offending people—gays, Jews, Catholics and other groups too numerous to mention; on some level, it seemed as if it were his mission to give offense.19),20 I, in my passive-aggressive way, remain shocked whenever I have managed to offend absolutely anyone. (This was probably one of the important differences between us.) There was a combative spirit that we both shared, but, more relevantly, it is certain that for Frank, it was ultimately only the music that mattered. For me, it is, or at least has become, all about the wine; most everything else is but a mere distraction.
It seemed that Frank was often frustrated with fallible human institutions and certainly with fallible human beings—business managers, record companies and record company executives, symphony orchestra musicians (and symphony orchestras), and above all, studio players, who would seldom meet up to his most rigorous standards.21 He burned through a Who’s Who of sidemen over the years, with just a precious few sticking with him for the duration. He was “difficult,” a perfectionist, and did not suffer fools. I’m not sure if I am any less frustrated than Frank was on a daily basis, and there is a rather different assortment of characters that tend to push my buttons, wholesale distributers and grape growers, primarily.22 But, I’ve been able to mostly avoid expensive litigation and ongoing acrimony with the people with whom I interact. Perhaps my vision of the world is slightly fuzzier and more forgiving than Frank’s was and I am slightly less attached to a given outcome than he was.
I often talk about the difference between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—the latter being the only kind of wine that holds any real interest for me—but maybe the vinous analogy to music here does not quite obtain. I am not certain precisely what would constitute musique de terroir. (Is there such a thing as “natural” music, or music created without the strong imprint of the composer?) Frank’s music was musique d’effort, experimental, explorational, in so many respects, “against the grain,” finding beauty in the synthetic, perhaps in the unnatural, or at least in the unfamiliar.23 But what is music if not a communiqué from the celestial spheres? Frank’s discovery of the strange music to be found in “noise,” in the abrupt juxtaposition of varying time signatures, in the practice of what he called “xenochrony,” the blending and harmonizing of music from disparate sources,24 revealed his great genius, which is another way of saying that he heard the music all around us that most of us are incapable of discerning.

In some sense, winemaking and certainly wine blending might be compared to writing, arranging or producing music, with the important difference that music, having an added auditory dimension, possesses a rhythmic and melodic structure that unfolds in a measured fashion over time, in fact, almost defines time itself. (The flavors and aromas of wine unwind over time as well, but at a much, much slower rate; the pulse of the their gradual revelation is not the main Gestalt of the experience.)25 Dubbing and mixing tracks you are seeking the most felicitous polyphonic voices, and Frank was certainly a genius in discovering these incredible voices. The unctuous, New Joisey-like lead vocalist of “Florentine Pogen” (She was duh dawtuh of a well-thee Flaw-run-teen Poh-gun…),26,27 the nasal, snarky, Pachuco-sounding voice in “Disco Love.”28 (It’s dee-sco loff too-nite. Be shoor you luke awl rite.)
In making a wine blend, one analogously looks for the appropriate balance between the benign, gentle elements—fruit, the warmth of alcohol, soft tannins—and the darker, earthier components, that hard, mineral edge, and (if one could possibly control this) even adding (or allowing) in a discreet touch of the Brett-monster (the snark in “Disco Love”). Frank was a notorious perfectionist in his re-mixes, certainly far more fastidious than I am or ever was. And yet, without self-flattery, I must say there was something like fanaticism in at least some aspects of my work,29 though in candor, this was mostly applied to the detail that went into our packaging and marketing efforts, which at times could take on a strong OCD aspect.30,31
Frank was a Libertarian, of all things. I am most certainly not, though oddly enough, there are (or at least were) a substantial number of attendees of Bonny Doon Vineyard winemaker dinners who come up to me at the conclusion of these solemn events and proffer the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead-cert that I am One of Them. The clear difficulty I have with authority being one of the telltale signs. 32,33 Frank and I both love satire and parody, terrible puns (e.g. Sheik Yerbouti), and things that explode, and oddly enough, thought enough alike to come to similar parodic, iconoclastic ploys, at least in once instance, though in fairness, the Sgt. Pepper spoof was a bit of a gimme.
And we both love sofas or at least find them quite amusing.34 I don’t remember thinking of Zappa when we created the Contra label, but it’s not impossible that his imagery was lurking somewhere in my unconscious. (The image of the sofa in the Antioch vineyard was “found,” not composed art.) Since the days of Dr. Freud, sofas (and couches) are absolutely hilarious; they represent a sort of nebulous area between the familiar and the not so safe. (Clearly, what goes on on sofas, kind of like Frank’s music, is not 100% reputable.)

Frank was a public figure but also very much a solitary individual, preferring his own company to that of others, professing to have not much to say to anyone. (I am afraid that I can utterly relate to that.)
Frank and I seem to share something like the self-absorption gene.35 Is it clinical narcissism or perhaps is it that the interior theater is just a lot more compelling than the show going on outside? He and I both share some challenges with emotional literacy,36 but there are (one hopes) some significant differences in our perspectives on some sensitive areas. Frank had no use whatsoever for what he thought of as the fantasy of romantic love, (whereas I remain an utterly delusional romantic naïf on the subject.)37,38 Believing that Frank and I share some personality traits/quirks, the most disturbing thing I read about him was an interview with one of his kids (maybe Dweezil?), who, while clearly admiring, if not adoring his father, stated baldly, “Frank doesn’t do love.” Doesn’t do love? This sent a bit of a chill down my spine. I instantly felt a pang of pity for Zappa (and perhaps one for myself as well). I know that in my own case I can certainly do better. The literature suggests that Frank was at times perhaps a bit exploitive of some of the people with whom he worked,39 but on balance, I believe that he was far more of a giver than taker,40 and was utterly beloved for the gifts he shared with the world.
I hope I’ve taken some cautionary lessons from Frank’s weaknesses and peccadilloes. The greatest positive lesson I have learned from him is the need to truly be oneself (who else can one be?), to think for oneself, and above all, seek to please oneself in the work that you do every day.41,42 In the end, there’s nobody else out there offering final letter grades (or even narrative evaluations).

  1. Part of the problem is that I drive Citroëns, and recently I’ve had a really bad run of luck with them as far as their roadworthiness. It seems I’m always swapping vehicles, and of course swapping the CDs from one to another is a bit more than I can manage. []
  2. It took quite some time for me to get it together to finally install a CD player in the DS-21; it’s located in the trunk (where else?) and therefore being out of sight, a bit out of mind. []
  3. This is not an opinion, but an incontrovertible fact. []
  4. Apart from a brief flirtation with Taylor Swift when she was a couple of years younger (8), Amélie’s musical taste is quite sophisticated, favoring classical music and progressive jazz, and unlike myself, she possesses real musical and rhythmic aptitude; she is a very talented young pianist, cellist and dancer. []
  5. She began listening to Hot Rats at a tender age, and while she liked the instrumental selections on the album, she gravitated to the vocal cut, “Willie the Pimp”; who could not be taken with its surging energy and by Zappa’s guitar virtuosity? We’ve not listened to it for a while, and mercifully, she was still at an age when (at least I trust) the audibility of the lyrics was a bit moot. Suffice to say that as she has become worldlier, more inquisitive and a bit more acute in her hearing, I’ve had to become rather more selective in the tunes she is permitted to hear. []
  6. A few years later in college, I became acquainted with The Fugs, a group that became an instant hit with me. Their music did not have nearly the originality or brilliance of Zappa’s, but like Zappa, they merged a sort of sophistication—in their instance it was political activism and East Coast intellectualism—with a raunchy satiric sensibility. I’m not certain why I find this fusion of high art and naughty humor so particularly cordial, but maybe it is a sort of Walter Mitty-like outlet for a combative, if nerdy guy, who would prefer, of course, that all of the actual combat remain squarely in the verbal arena. []
  7. The other part of my inhibition in delving into Zappa’s music was what I imagined to be the great unevenness of his work. Somehow, at least then, I must have felt threatened by emotionally investing in wild risk takers, who would, perforce, occasionally fail, sometimes dramatically. Failure, in my family, was perhaps the greatest taboo of all, and I could hardly imagine risking that sort of contagion. But I see clearly now that the far more dominant side of my own personality is really to be a great risk taker. I am now only really, truly comfortable with people who can risk significantly. []
  8. If memory serves, he called me “the Frank Zappa of winemakers.” Note that this was still quite early in my career and I had yet to really publicly engage in many zany antics. I maintain, however, that while I’ve said a few provocative things in print, I am, at least in public, behaviorally quite moderate, actually preternaturally shy, truth be told. I am not at all the wild or crazy man that people imagine me to be, nor have done (hardly) any of the putatively wild things I am alleged to have doon. (People are perhaps confusing me with some other longhaired winemaker like Jim Clendenen or Gary Pisoni). I suspect that Mead’s article might have, in part, helped to create the perception of this outré persona, this enfant terrible. Coincidentally, Zappa himself was imagined to be orders of magnitude more outlandish than he ever really was. Apart from his addiction to nicotine and coffee, he was largely an abstainer from alcohol and utterly eschewed drugs. There was a popular myth that he would do anything onstage to “gross his audience out,” even once eating his own feces, a rather outlandish legend that he many times had to dispel. (Quoth Frank: “The closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973.”) []
  9. As mentioned, I am, by far, the great beneficiary of this comparison. Zappa was truly a musical genius. He was a genius composer, a brilliant guitarist, and very clever with a musical synthesizer, whereas I am but a very clever synthesizer, tout court []
  10. The irony of the cherry bomb in lieu of the fruit-bomb would be a bit anachronistic. []
  11. The basis of Zappa’s animus toward the Establishment, Authority, and Received Wisdom would presumably have derived from the relevant psycho-dynamics of his youth and family of origin, but I have read that his stance against Authority may have been permanently hardened by his grossly unfair conviction on a trumped up pornography charge and spending ten days in jail. (Like any great artist, he was able to recycle the traumatic experience in service of his art.) My only real brush with the law was when the winery accidentally discharged about 60 gallons of grape juice into the creek up in Bonny Doon and the Department of Fish and Game was called out. (Was this event presaged in the tune, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”?) []
  12. We once released to our DEWN Club a Syrah that we called “Macho Nacho,” for the simple reason that it had a rather distinctive aroma of bell pepper (“Call Any Vegetable!”), which I hoped would over time eventually resolve into a more agreeable minty aroma. (Miraculously, it did.) We couldn’t figure out how to easily apply the topologically complex, virtually Cubist labels to the bottles, so we sent the labels out along with the bottles to our customers and asked them to put them on themselves. The arrant chutzpah of the nomenclature of the wine (what could be cheesier than “Macho Nacho?”) along with the provocation of the customer-applied topologically challenging label, was a gesture (both in form and in content) certainly worthy of Zappa. Frank was no stranger to Dada nor to cheez. []
  13. He died at the absurdly early age of 53 from prostate cancer, which should certainly have been detected well before it reached an advanced and untreatable stage. One simply assumed that Frank would ultimately succumb to lung cancer; the omnipresence of the cigarettes could not but presage this sort of end. But the way he died strikes me as ironic (“Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” was a song he wrote many years before the onset of any symptoms of his illness), and a particularly tough way to go. If one were to imagine there were a celestial pantheon—something that Frank could never do—one might think that Frank was on the receiving end of a thunderbolt, a sign of immense displeasure from the gods for his hubris. []
  14. There is another more obvious aspect to this conundrum, and that is that I’ve come to a lot of the music quite recently—kind of like buying a new used car (a Citroën, even) that while thirty years old, still seems quite new (partially because of its strange futuristic aspect). []
  15. This is in some sense an echo of the inherent creepiness of the Internet itself, where nothing or no one ever totally dies, and the “fact” of someone’s dying is just another bit of information with the same weight as the thousands of other bits of information that will persist perhaps forever (who knows?). []
  16. It is a great illusion—a granfalloon in Vonnegut’s parlance, or perhaps just an intellectual parlor game—to look for correspondences in the respective biographies, especially given the fact that Zappa was truly gifted, and I am on the outside looking in at the illuminated world of true genius. My “experimental” period—the crazy number of DEWN wines we produced, the brandies, eaux-de-vie and picaresque adventures in importing wine from France, Italy and Spain—might well correspond to the highly productive, somewhat manic time in Zappa’s career, where he was doing a massive amount of touring, attempting to mount elaborate performances with various symphony orchestras. I can’t really speak to the grandiosity of Frank’s ideation, but in my own instance, the apogee of this sort of intoxication was achieved when, in 2004, we mounted “Born to Rhône,” a sort of rock opera. (Frank was himself either composing rock operas or making fun of those who did so.) One thing is for certain: While mounting the performance was a wonderfully creative exercise, it was at the same time a massive ego trip, that carried with it some doonside, if you will (not to mention an enormous price tag). Critics at the time of this theatrical production were not so utterly enamored with the Bonny Doon vinous line-up; this would be a way to show them all how clever I really was! This madness (a kind of bipolarity?) could not, of course, sustainably continue and not too long thereafter, I put an end to this febrile adventurism with the sale of Big House and the other large brands. []
  17. It is a curiosity to me that Frank would single out the lamest of the lame for his opprobrium. Maybe I’m reading far too much into it, but it strikes me a bit like bullying. On the other hand, I don’t think Frank really worried much about fighting fair. He was just looking for an appropriate medium that would allow the music to get out. []
  18. If I were musically adept, I might have written a tune called, “It’s As Easy as ABC.” []
  19. I am myself more than a little appalled by the jaw-droppingly offensive lyrics of “Jewish American Princess,” and can’t help but believe that on some level, Frank actively sought out censure and opprobrium, i.e. part of his definition of self was that of an outsider. (There were a number of lawsuits that ensued from this little number; he not only touched but seemed to intentionally caress the third rail, ideally in a lightning storm, his own tragic compulsion toward a Camarillo Brillo ‘do. []
  20. If I were one third as naughty as Frank, I might well have taken some advantage of the satiric possibilities of deploying Monica Lewinsky (or her Doppelgänger) as a possible spokesperson for Le Cigare Volant, but I can’t say I never thought of it. For the candid historical record, when the Clinton scandale royale was hitting, my colleagues and I briefly toyed with the idea of engaging a sort of M. Lewinsky look-alike (ideally we would get the real Monica) to pour Cigare at the Wine Spectator Grand Tasting, an event to which we assuredly would never be invited back, had we been successful in our recruitment. Mercifully, the real Monica was not available and ultimately, better sense prevailed. []
  21. I’ve gone through more than my share of assistant winemakers, sales managers and general managers, it must be said. []
  22. The three-tier wine distribution in this country is a total mess, far too many wineries and wines being pushed through an ever-constricting channel. As far as the other source of my eno-tsuris: Many grape growers, who, over the years, were admittedly victimized by opportunistic, often unethical (mostly very large) wineries, are now taking their sweet (one hopes, short-lived) revenge, raising prices to profiteering levels, as well as cutting back on supply. []
  23. He would certainly have felt totally at home in conversation with J.-K. Huysmans. []
  24. This is essentially precisely what the winemaker does in a “composed” wine such as Le Cigare Volant. []
  25. The unfolding of wine over time is not exactly like watching grass grow, but does require real patience. The real drama is in the tension between the tonal registers of the flavor elements, and how each element releases on the palate. []
  26. I am not certain who actually sang the lead on this tune, but in my mind at least, he looks precisely like Ron Jeremy. []
  27. I had the odd experience of reading Murakami’s 1Q84 at the same time as the “One Size Fits All” CD was stuck in the player of the Citroën wagon; I was struck (as would be any true paranoid) by how resonant the tune, “Florentine Pogen,” was with the dystopian, friendly/sinister, paranoid theme of the novel. But it is the novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose wacky, obscurantist literacy (it’s frankly, more musical literacy in Zappa’s instance) and paranoid world-view the composer most vividly evokes, despite the obvious differences in temperament—Pynchon is an entirely private person and Zappa was (when he was not being utterly private) a far more public person (or at least a projection of our respective fantasies of who he might be. They are more or less from the same vintage (Pynchon was born three years earlier), and were clearly both formed deeply by the music and overall cultural sensibilities (especially Beat/hipster) of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In their young adulthood, both gentlemen lived in Southern California (my appellation d’origine as well), Pynchon more littorally situated and Zappa an iconic denizen of the Inland Empire. One could perhaps argue that spending any significant time in Southern California in the ‘50s would turn anyone into a surrealist (think of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” as well as SoCal’s truly bizarre outré architecture). And the fact that one can’t help but imagine that one is not just living one’s own actual life, but rather that one’s life is in some sense also a movie. This kind of double-consciousness seems to pervade Zappa’s work; there is always a sort of fourth wall with the auditor that is continually being broached. Pynchon’s characters, for his part, are often unselfconsciously breaking into song, usually of the slightly cheesy variety. Pynchon and Zappa share an interest in Zoot Suiters, cars (especially with fins), rockets, dopers, television, and strangely, talking dogs. They both (rightly) share a deep revulsion for the increasingly controlling power of the State. I can imagine Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49, as one of Zappa’s personages. She would, of course, be “deep in the city,” catching a joyride in the Florentine Pogen’s Daughter’s ‘59 Morgan. []
  28. Again, I’m not sure precisely who is the actual person behind this voice, but it is certainly a component of one of Frank’s multiple personae—the mocking, wise-ass, ironic one. []
  29. It goes without saying that these days I aspire to a level of fanaticism in our grape-growing and winemaking efforts that heretofore was evinced primarily in the realm of marketing. []
  30. I wish that I could say that this was entirely a function of my own efforts, but a good deal of this brilliance may be laid squarely at the foot of my former colleague, John Locke. John was a brilliant collaborator—his brain does not really work on any of the known, well-trodden neural pathways—and a creative catalyst. I think that whatever good work I did at the time was largely doon with the intention of pleasing/impressing John. []
  31. One of the tenets of Chuck House’s work—the designer who gave us Le Cigare Volant and a myriad of other labels—was to add value in every aspect of the design (maybe a bit like Steve Jobs in that respect), to embed wonderful, evocative and unexpected nuggets. In his music, Frank would do something similar by artfully inserting a bit of Stravinsky in a doo-wop tune; being a bit of an obscurantist (and show-off) myself, I might drop in an allusion to Kant, Kierkegaard or Heidegger in the back label text, to delight the perhaps .0002% of the customers who would appreciate the reference. []
  32. I’m not sure I would even recognize the lines within which we are instructed to color. []
  33. They also (though not recently) proffer joints to me, certain that I will appreciate this toke(n) of their appreciation. It is certain that many people also (erroneously) imagined Zappa to do his most creative work with the help of some psychotropic enhancement. []
  34. There are two songs devoted to sofas in One Size Fits All, one sung in German. The sofa is one of the great Dada-esque dream-like objects; it can stand for anything one wants it to be. The challenges that we’ve experienced with our “Contra” label perhaps mirror some of the challenges that Frank encountered finding commercial acceptance of his music (or at least his album covers), and suggests perhaps that Dada is not at all well. []
  35. One indication of this pathology we both share is our reliance on a cryptic, private, self-referential language, clear to ourselves and possibly to a small band of confederates, yet largely opaque to everyone else (unless one has been paying very close attention). Just as Zappa had a roster of characters and objects that populated his universe—Suzie Creamcheese, sofas, weenies (burnt), polkas, ponchos and plastics, I have populated my “Dooniverse” with my own recurring iconic objects: flying cigars, old telegrams, labyrinths, Marcel Proust, the town of Gilroy (perhaps my San Ber’dino?). I am known to be a serious user of Twitter as well as a notorious blogger; is this not prima facie evidence of acute self-absorption? []
  36. The songs, “Ain’t Got No Heart,” and “Heartbreak is for Assholes,” present good evidence to support this assertion. []
  37. One hardly imagines Frank being emotionally “available” to his wife, Gail, and yet I want to believe that he treated her and his family well (if slightly unconventionally). He was certainly a lot better with money than I am, jealously guarding the family fortune, making triple sure his family was well cared for after his demise. []
  38. I am thoroughly mortified (might I protest too much?) by the arrant misogyny of some of his lyrics, “Crew Slut” and “Fine Girl,” being just a couple of examples among, frankly, many (pretty cute Tom Swifty, eh?). Zappa clearly had some serious “issues” with women. Women represented sex, sex represented danger, and danger (and women) could only lead to big trouble. While not having any formal training in psychiatry, it is dicey for me to pronounce on this, but women apart, it seems that Frank had some real problems with sexuality itself. Like Swift and other satirists, he seemed to be morbidly fixated on the somewhat mechanical absurdity of the mysterious act (he may have a bit of point there), and tended to see human beings as pathetic prisoners of their own hydraulic mechanisms. It seems he wanted to assume a sort of Olympian detachment from his own body and its ruinous imperatives. I do share some of Frank’s Luftmenschlich tendencies, being a somewhat scuzzy tenant in the Temple of my own body. []
  39. This was in fact alluded to in 200 Motels. []
  40. Can we realistically aspire to anything greater? []
  41. I’m honestly not yet quite sure what to make of Frank’s very late work, which was composed and produced largely on his beloved Synclavier, that is to say, al solo, without the ballast of human interaction provided by his musical cohorts—the sidemen who had previously driven him crazy. I wonder at times if he did not in his later work drift off into musical solipsism, or, alternately, was he, without the ten thousand distractions, finally allowed to hear the ever more rarified celestial voices? (Perhaps it will have to be a more advanced humanoid species that will render the final judgment.) I look at my own case, and note that Bonny Doon’s Great Creative Ferment (which was, from my perspective, largely a marketing exercise) took place with a much larger team, who were true collaborators. My (relatively) recent obsession with producing vins de terroir, and the notions I entertain for a methodology by which this may be achieved, may well be the result of angels singing in my ear, or alternately, the onset of onanistic madness. []
  42. Since this is in some sense a sort of elegy to Frank, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with one last pithy lesson to be extracted from his example; I feel a bit like the Woody Allen character at the conclusion of “Love and Death,” trying (with just a few seconds remaining on the clock) to distill the meaning of life. Frank was not a great fan of proverbial wisdom, precepts, or pious apothegms and above all, he detested corny. I think that if he had but one bit of advice to give me from wherever he is now, it would be, “Shut Up ‘N Make Yer Wine.” []

Doon with the Ship: A Restauration Adventure

It broke my heart to close the restaurant. Actually, my heart was broken many times over in the course of the life of Restaurant Le Cigare Volant, m>né Cellar Door. We had built the most extraordinary tasting room at the winery facility on Ingallsstrasse—did you see the great airship, fashioned after Jules Verne?—after selling the old, original winery facility and tasting room up in Bonny Doon.

Our former tasting room

Our former tasting room

I had really thought that a complete decampment from our mountain aerie there would be a clever move. We hadn’t really used the winery building as a proper production facility in years. The old place, and it’s primarily the tasting room I’m talking about, once a biker bar called The Lost Weekend Saloon, was filled with magical charm, and history—our history. But it had its share of structural issues, to be sure: foundation pretty sketchy, septic even sketchier.1 It had been a real pain in the neck to operate the winery building as a production facility—we needed to schlep the wastewater offsite for disposal, and after the Piercèd Estate Vineyard was sold, that was proving to be somewhat of a logistic nightmare.2

So, I sold the old place not long after I had sold off the large brands, Big House and Cardinal Zin. My thinking was that we could now get our customers closer to the wine—where we actually made the stuff.3 The Westside of Santa Cruz where the winery is located is in a slightly funky part of town—industrial chic, I’ve been told. But there had already been some glimmerings of gentrification. Housing prices had gone way up, and these modest abodes had become populated by long-boarders (aka arriviste Old Guys) who worked in start-up companies in Silicon Valley. We saw the welcome arrival of a first-rate bakery, (Kelly’s), and soon thereafter, a great butcher (El Salchichero), and then the sudden proliferation of other little micro-wineries, distilleries, brew pubs and tasting rooms in the area. Was our funky little neighborhood en route to becoming a true gourmet ghetto?

El Salchichero

El Salchichero

The tasting room was/is astonishingly beautiful. Did I mention that? We located it in what had been the former bottling room when we were once a mega-ginormous winery. Not requiring any longer such a large area for the bottling line, this seemed the perfect space for a tasting room and a more immersive tasting experience.4 We brought in a clever design team from Holland and they worked with a local architect, Mark Primack, and our builders and craftspeople; there was the delicious dreamy, magical feeling of a true, authentic collaboration. Note well, the design for the space began with a dream. I had dreamt that the tasting room would be constructed of a series of monk’s cells, much like a chambered nautilus; this, of course, was the Fibonacci Series, phi, or the Golden Ratio, the salient proportionality that governs so many natural processes, from spiral nebulae to the bracts of a plant stem. I loved the idea of customers being able to sit in private chambers or “pods,” and experience the wine in a more intimate setting, ideally paired with some light comestibles. While it had been lovely to observe a crowd of people bellying up to the bar at the old tasting room, I wanted to tell our new story in a quieter more thoughtful voice, ideally one-on-one.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio

I had recently sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, and now it was crucial that I do what I could to show that there had been a real change chez Doon; I wanted to tell the world how serious I was, or was soon about to be, about terroir. Could there be anything that signified the structured complexity of a vin de terroir or the majesty of Nature herself, better than the Golden Ratio, arguably, God’s Greatest Hit?

We couldn’t put in quite as many pods as I would have liked, but we did try to incorporate the Fibonacci motif into the spiral tasting bars, as well as in the beautiful sculptural flow-form water feature that we had created. Michael Leeds, mad genius metal sculptor, fashioned a Victorian era spaceship for us virtually entirely out of scrap material he had in his studio.



The cost of the construction ran way over budget; floors and countertops were poured and re-poured so they would be just so. We gave the very skilled craftsmen latitude to build the wonderful “pods,” recycled from antique wooden tanks, and they created beautifully interpretive, organic, sculptural forms.5

The food service aspect started modestly. Sean Baker, a local chef,—yet to be propelled into super-stardom, opened for us.6 We offered some small plates, proffering an “upscale” tasting experience to our visitors, such as one might find in Napa Valley. Alas, Santa Cruz ain’t Napa, as we learned well, and it was hard to really attract the prosperous customers who would support this sort of enhanced tasting experience. So, what did we do? We doubled doon.7

I am fortunate to be friends with the very famous, brilliant chef, David Kinch, of Manresa fame. He lives in Santa Cruz, surfs, and is actually a pretty regular guy, given his outsized fame. He was gracious enough to help me reconfigure the restaurant when we expanded the kitchen, and further fitted out the restaurant. Most significantly, he brought me a young and brilliant chef, Charlie Parker, who had previously worked for him. Charlie was an extremely charismatic figure—a bit volatile in the kitchen, it must be said—but there was real star power and there were a lot of people in Santa Cruz who were really excited about what we were doing.

Chef David Kinch

Chef David Kinch

Alas, we didn’t really have much in the way of a management team at that point. The restaurant really was neither big enough nor was really doing the volume (at reasonably profitable margins) to afford a manager. Properly, this might have been the responsibility of the owner, at least at the scale at which we were operating. Needless to say, this was not really my thing, given the fact that I had no experience at all in the restaurant business, nor possessed a single skill that was appropriate for the position.8 (This is also not considering the fact that I already had one full-time job.) The food was truly magnificent—vibrant and inventive, and the food costs were staggeringly out of control. And, there was another very real problem.

Maybe this is the dangerously quixotic aspect of my personality, but there had always been one feature I wanted to see in the restaurant of my dreams, and that was true communal dining. In my imagination guests would sit together and platters of food would be passed and shared. I had seen this once before at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a beloved restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and was just in awe of the extraordinary quality of fellowship and amity it seemed to engender.9 Customers would line up outside the restaurant and were seated more or less in the order in which they showed up.10 You observed all social strata—black and white, rich and pour, sharing food and conversation. It seemed obvious to me then as it does now, that our society is terribly fractured and there is very little occasion for people living in a community to actually converse with one another.11

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room

I told David that this was the kind of restaurant I wanted. He thought I was completely crazy, and told me, if memory serves, something like, “That’s fine, but it’s your funeral.” I do remember him telling me, “When I go to a restaurant, the last thing I want to do is talk to strangers. I want to be just left (the heck) alone. People go to restaurants to spend time with the people they want to be with, not with strangers…” And, “Y’know, Randall, we have a fair share of some pretty funky people in Santa Cruz. Do you really want to sit down with some of these characters, or worse, have them touch the food you’re about to eat?” He dilated further, “Aren’t you going to have some people just go hog wild and eat a disproportionate share of the food on the platters?” These were all very good points that David brought up, but I truly believed that if we were to have this kind of community dining experience, it would not, in fact, devolve into the Lord of the Flies scenario he imagined. The gentle guiding hand of peer pressure and societal expectation exerted by adult human beings (there were still a few in Santa Cruz) would insure that the customers would be relatively civilized and temperate in their behavior. This was a tenet of my belief system.

So, the food costs were out of control—we’d get around to fixing that at some point—but the restaurant was pretty busy, and there was definitely some buzz in the town. I got a call from a stringer who was doing a story for the New York Times. This seemed pretty fortuitous. I was unfortunately out of town when she visited the restaurant, but I chatted to her on the phone, and she seemed pleasant enough. Granted, I should have known better, but really had no glimmering whatsoever that her angle for the story would be the supposed feud between Charlie, David and myself. Charlie was pretty chagrined to see a somewhat intemperate quote of his in print.
It was not very long thereafter, Charlie left the restaurant to seek real stardom. I knew that it would be unrealistic to imagine him staying indefinitely, but we were now on to the next phase.
(Read the New York Times article)

Jarod, Charlie’s sous, became the next chef, and he certainly had his share of followers. Gone were some of the emotional outbursts in the kitchen under the slightly volatile Chef Parker. I really enjoyed Jarod’s cooking, but the restaurant was still foundering, and if anything, we were continuing to lose traction on the idea of communal dining. At my insistence, we had originally installed a number of large tables, and really encouraged our customers to share a common meal at these tables with other guests. But, how were we to present this idea to people as something positive? Guests who came to the restaurant generally just did not want to eat with strangers. So, we had the rather dysfunctional outcome of big tables with two groups of people sitting on either end, with an imaginary cone of silence separating them. Things were not really moving in the right direction.

Guests generally did not want to eat with strangers.

Guests generally did not want
to eat with strangers

The winery itself was also under a lot of financial strain. We had not done a very good job in recruiting new club members to replace those who were lost through natural attrition. I hired a new general manager for the winery, someone who had a strong restaurant and tasting room background. He and I did not really see eye to eye on a number of philosophical issues, but I figured, hey, he’s the maven, at least in this domain. I was a bit surprised when on one of my sales trips he reported to me that he had hired a new chef.12 “You’re going to love this guy,” he promised. “He’ll bring the quality of the food to a whole new level. We’ll get some very serious customers and we’ll sign them up for the wine club.” This appeared to be a reasonable plan; we already had a reasonably loyal local following, but it seemed that anyone who was amenable to club membership, we had already signed up. What we really needed was some fresh blood.13

We gave the restaurant a new name, Le Cigare Volant, and it appeared that we were off to a new start. The new chef, Ryan, was an extremely nice man, indeed, and came with an impeccable pedigree from a Bay Area two-star Michelin restaurant. But the question was: Was the Westside of Santa Cruz really ready for fine dining? As a chef Ryan was not lacking in ego (this seems to go with the territory), but he was no prima doona, and that was a welcome relief. This might actually work out, I imagined. The general manager was, like Kinch, no great fan of community dining and complained bitterly that the “community table” was just a losing proposition. At his insistence, the big tables were replaced with smaller tables. On another one of my sales trips I returned home to learn that the Wednesday night “Community Table,” the last relic of my quixotic vision, had been summarily discontinued.

The Community Table. Photo by Ted Holladay

The Community Table
Photo by Ted Holladay

We did some very cool things at the restaurant at various times. I loved our very brief fling with bringing in guest chefs and introducing their food to our customers. Ari Weinzweig, nice Jewish boy from Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, presented a porcine love-fest that was so popular that it ran two days. I myself had the idea of presenting a special wine list, featuring vins de terroir, organized according to soil type. This attracted quite a bit of national attention, and piqued the attention of our guests, at least for a little while. But in the end, there were just too many obstacles to success: the location of the restaurant—at the back end of the building (very, very feng shui-challenged); the challenge of what was perceived as an exotic (at least for Santa Cruz) menu. Or, maybe it was just the ordeal of navigating Highway One at rush hour that discouraged the prosperous customers from South County from visiting. Whatever the issues ultimately were, it was just a Sisyphean labor to fix them all.

Sisyphus. Photo from wikipedia.org


I enjoyed Ryan very much and felt he had real talent, as I said, but he and I had a very different vision of what the restaurant should be.14 He had trained as a pastry chef and had a keen interest in molecular gastronomy. Now, I’ve been to Alinea in Chicago and enjoyed it immensely—was greatly entertained by the playfulness and theatricality of the dishes, but it was not a place that I wanted to dine at on a regular basis; it satisfied the intellect very well, but was not something that satisfied the soul, at least as a constant diet. The winery itself was now—as long as I could continue to propel it in a coherent direction—about putting aside winemaking legerdemain—no flash and no flash-détènte15—and pursuing a sort of simplicity or purity in our product. The proposition was, at least aspirationally, about terroir, the eloquence of unadorned nature. I wanted any chef I had at the restaurant to love the ingredients more than the technique, however brilliant it might be. Step away from the nitrogen canisters.

Chef with nitrogen canister. Photo from julianaloh.com

Chef with nitrogen canister

Watching a restaurant die a slow death is a bit like watching a living creature die. You feel as if you are in a dream, watching a story unfold, the outcome of which you are powerless to change. You hope irrationally that things will turn around, that you can, in the case of the restaurant at least, with some brilliant marketing insight, or by the great fortune of a big review unexpectedly bestowed, somehow breathe a vital infusion of spirit into a moribund creature.16 In the last few months of the restaurant’s life, I was spending a lot of time focused on the core wine business (we had some challenges there as well), and in a certain sense, the restaurant was the least of my worries. I can’t really say that the decision to close the restaurant was a relief; it was more like the realization that I had but a finite amount of life-force to spend, and that I would really need to apply it to the parts of the business that were absolutely mission-critical. The village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape had sixty years ago worried about flying saucers and “flying cigars” crash landing in their vineyards. This flying cigar was just looking for a proper home.
Molecular gastronomy. Photo from alinearestaurant.com

Molecular gastronomy

  1. We had famously run afoul of County regs and touchy neighbors when we had once done a series of al fresco acoustic events; that was more than a little traumatic. There was also the instance of an employee failing to properly set a diversion valve that resulted in about 60 gallons of red(!!) grape juice going down the creek; that led to the Dept. of Fish and Game coming out and issuing me a citation. While not wishing to minimize the incident (I am quite warm and fuzzy on the subject of protecting the environment), there was a certain Alice’s Restaurant-like aspect to this whole episode. “Whatcha’ in for, kid?” “Grape juice.” []
  2. Our great Estate Vineyard in Bonny Doon was afflicted with Pierce’s Disease in the early 1990s, infected by a less voracious insect vector (blue-green sharpshooter) than the monster, glassy-winged sharpshooter that had been more recently discovered. It seems that I greatly overreacted in selling off this wonderful estate, but the specter of re-infection with Pierce’s was just far too frightening to me at the time. In retrospect, this was an extremely shortsighted move, to put it mildly. []
  3. Obviously, my first choice would be to locate the winery directly proximal to a magnificent Estate vineyard and show our customers the things we did that really differentiated the wine we would be making. Winemaking is itself relatively banal, at least compared to grape-growing, and where’s the real thrill, après tout, if you can’t descend into a cold, dark and musty cave? Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity to taste the wines in barrel, a thrill for many, as well as observe some of the unique aspects of our élevage, most particularly the Great Wall of Bonbonnes. []
  4. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a perfect spot, at least from a feng shui perspective. The area fronted on the rear parking lot and railroad tracks. Apart from the slightly less than inspiring vista, the space was seemingly a bit difficult to find, even for locals. There’s no question that the slightly problematic location did not help matters. []
  5. I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved the pods, and what an enormous feeling of serenity one felt when one was ensconced there. We talked about it but never got around to equipping them with privacy curtains. I’m not a smoker of any sort, but I honestly could almost become persuaded to take up the water-pipe, had we the wherewithal to equip the pods with hookahs (and privacy curtains). []
  6. He is currently chef at the highly acclaimed Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and has received very serious critical éclat. []
  7. It seems likely that I have inherited from my mother a certain sort of stubbornness or single-mindedness when it comes to pushing forward my agenda. (She is nothing if not relentless.) This can be both a strength and of course, tragic flaw, as will soon become clear. []
  8. I am preternaturally shy and awkward when it comes to making conversation with strangers (even often with close friends), have very little capability to direct employees in the appropriate direction, and tend to become dizzy and confused when I look at spread sheets. []
  9. The food at Mrs. Wilkes' was of course a lot more rustic than what I aspired to present. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, don’t serve any alcohol (it’s the Baptist South, remember). But they are an institution in Savannah and the place is always packed. My conclusion is that the only real way that you can get people to eat with one another voluntarily is not to offer them any real choice in the matter. The value proposition of the restaurant must be so compelling that the customers consent to do something that they would not under ordinary circumstances agree to do (but thank you later). []
  10. One obvious problem we had at Cellar Door was that we didn’t have an enormous population lined up outside our restaurant, awaiting service. []
  11. Apart from the demise of social clubs, church and community service organizations, we are all now terribly wired in to electronic media. The phenomenon of two people sitting at table, not conversing with one another, but instead, texting into the ether, is well documented. []
  12. I really hoped that I could try the food of any new chef that we brought in before we hired him, if only to see if we had palates and aesthetic visions that were more or less in synch with one another. []
  13. There is a most interesting paradox at work in the evolution of our business. Bonny Doon Vineyard wines have incontrovertibly improved greatly over the last six years since the sale of Big House. And yet, unexpectedly, we seem to have lost some of the stickiness of the loyalty of our truest blue Doonies. Yes, our prices have gone up a bit—they’re still ridiculously fair, and this has led to some attrition—but there may well be another dynamic or two at work. Many of our early customers loved the goofy, cartoonish labels, the irreverence, the theater and the schtick. Our wines are in some sense less entertaining than they were. They are now more serious. It’s a bit like one party in a relationship changing in a way that the other party can’t follow. Whether I have been successful in educating our customers or we are now attracting more sophisticated customers, the reality is that truly sophisticated customers understand very well that it’s a great big wine world out there. While they may well love what we do, they are equally, intrigued by, say, a crazy Rotgipfler or exotic Cornalin from the Valais. In short, they are a lot like me—not exactly fickle, but essentially just curious about everything that they great world of wine might offer. []
  14. It is utterly pointless and destructive to ask a chef to change his style, his aesthetic. One is far better served in finding a chef whose aesthetic and vision is more or less congruent with one’s own, (and who also has the administrative capacity to manage food costs). []
  15. Flash-détènte is a special high-tech machine that extracts a deeper color from grapes, and is quite the rage in some parts. For me, it turns the wine into a goopy mess []
  16. I cannot discount the possibility that my insistence on the community table format might well have set the restaurant back in terms of gaining acceptance in the community. There is still a (somewhat irrational) part of me that clings to the notion that perhaps I should have insisted more stridently that the format be exclusively communal or family-style dining. Withal, I still believe that this idea is an extremely powerful one, and one that has enormous potential to be a benign presence for a community. The restauration bug is a little bit like malaria; you never quite get it out of your system. I do hope that someday if circumstances permit, I can revisit this idea again, maybe even at Popelouchum, our garden paradise in San Juan Bautista. []

Contra Contra or How I Lost my Marketing Mojo

This post(mortem) is a bit of meditation on the 2009 Contra, a wine I have utterly adored (we’ve just recently sold out) but has been, in spite of very favorable press, very favorable price, and a strenuous, if not Herculean marketing effort—we really pulled out all the stops on this one—a bit of a commercial disappointment. We’re looking to bottle the ’12 vintage sometime this summer—the wine will be great, b/t/w, a worthy stylistic successor to the ’09—but I’m wondering, through the benefit of hindsight, what precisely went wrong, and what we can do to fix the problem if it’s not the world itself which is in need of repair—a possibility not entirely out of the question—hence this meditation. But, this musing arises from a decision that came just days ago to change the Contra label for the upcoming (summerish) bottling.
The decision to make the change came rather quickly, rather like a driving maneuver one must hurriedly execute as a result of some hare-brained driver unexpectedly pulling out in front of you in traffic. This was far from an idealized outcome. In a properly staffed, properly capitalized, properly profitable wine company, decisions to alter the look of one’s label, indeed decisions to significantly change any aspect of one’s presentation to the world, are taken deliberately, thoughtfully. One attends meeting after bloody meeting, debating the pros and cons of any substantive change in the basic design features and one’s presentation of wine-self to the world, and then with lots of discussion and anguish, gnashing of teeth, rending of garment, etc., one comes to a decision.

In our instance the proximal cause of the label change—contra-etiquettage, as it were—came about due to the unexpected problem we encountered in trying to obtain glass for the imminent Albariño bottling—the manufacturer was temporarily out of stock of the particular champagne green claret bottle we use for the Albariño as well as for a number of other wines we produce.1 We were told that if we placed a larger order for the same Stelvin-accommodating 750 ml. glass the company might fast-track the bottles in their production schedule, lest we wait months and months for the arrival of the order.2 Of course, when you order bottles from a manufacturer you also need to specify the printed artwork for the box itself in which the glass will ultimately repose. You don’t want to incur the additional expense of having to put bottles in a “content” (unprinted) box, only to then just throw the plain boxes away after you’ve transferred their contents to a nice artistic printed case, one that will inspire customers to stop abruptly in the aisles of retail wine shops and put a bottle or two or six of your wine in their basket, now then, would you?3 Are you still with me? Such is the skein of disparate elements—the wine business itself is just a tangled web of these sorts of seemingly random nexus—that compelled the decision to change the label.

Some background: Just a few short years ago I bethought to introduce a less expensive wine into the portfolio, one that would potentially allow us to do some reasonably good volume and add a modicum of black ink to the balance sheet, a color we hadn’t seen on the aforesaid for some time. Thus was the conception of “Contra.” I had accidentally discovered the brilliance of old vine Carignane in the old head-trained, sandy vineyards of Antioch and Oakley in Contra Costa County many years back when we began working with old-vine Mourvèdre for our Old Telegram and Cigare Volant wines. Indeed many if not most of the vineyards in Antioch and Oakley were interplanted—crazy-quilts of Carignane and Mourvèdre, often with Zinfandel and occasionally Alicanté in the mix.4 The vines were very old, even then—pushing eighty or ninety years of age at the time—not irrigated (who would spend money on irrigation?), non-grafted and pruned in the lovely goblet form.5
Quite significantly, the grapes were not too expensive (that’s changed a bit, alas) and to be perfectly candid, of all of the grapes I’ve met in California, these I believe to deliver the most favorable ratio of intensity/complexity per dollar. Old-vine Carignane was (now it can be told) the secret ingredient of Big House Red, the strong tenor capable of carrying the sometime wayward chorus.

So, with some superior Carignane vineyards identified and some advances in winemaking6 —we have learned a few things over the years—and what I hoped was an interesting story: the old vine “field blend” was more or less congruent with the overall focus of the winery, vis-à-vis an emphasis on southern French cépages but more importantly, on wines of life-force.7 Moreover, the wine would be priced at a competitive price-point, and was seemingly the perfect entry-level wine for those preparing to enter the Dooniverse. All seemed in readiness for the launch of “Contra.” As we often say around here, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, we haven’t had a lot of new labels in the Bonny Doon Vineyard line-up since the downsizing of the company. In fact, the overall direction has been the gradual diminution both in number of products and actual case production of our one-time compendious portfolio. At the same time, we’ve also observed a rather radical shift in the nature of the wine business itself, especially in regards to wholesale distribution. Because there have been so many new brands entering and crowding the market, and that, compounded by the consolidation and net shrinkage of the number of distributors, has created immense pressure—both psychic and fiscal—on distributors to resist with every fiber of their being the impulse to take on new products from suppliers (that’s us), even ones with whom they enjoy a warm and fuzzy relationship. I have heard tell that among larger, Brobdingnagian distributors, there is something like an internal bounty system for purchasing agents who are able to successfully trim the number of products within the company’s portfolio.
There were a couple of false steps in our launch. For one, I forgot to mention on the label the essential value/sales proposition of the wine itself—that it was an “old vine” field-blend.8,9 I also neglected to mention the grape varieties contained within the blend. (Old-vine Carignane, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, along with some younger vine Grenache and Syrah), though it certainly would have been very clunky or at least graphically challenging to indicate all of them on the front of the label. But, certainly, we might have mentioned them on the back. Some of this was a mental lapse, especially in light of our proclaimed commitment to transparency, though we never indicated the grapes that went into the colossally, almost criminally successful Big House blend. In retrospect, I think it was mostly a function of the fact that I had already written so much copy (very clever, I imagined) for the back-label, there was just no room at all for anything more.
The label itself: It’s not really a secret that we had been experiencing a financial crunch at the time we were designing the label (and still, for that matter), but for good or for bad, in the interest of saving a buck, we had gotten in the habit of designing the labels in-house. Philippe Coderey, our viticulturist at the time, had taken a photograph of one of the vineyards in Antioch, and couldn’t get over the fact that a) someone had had the poor form to dump their trash in a vineyard, and b) even more worrisome, one of our growers had not the wit nor wherewithal to pick up the trash from aforesaid vineyard. Philippe was just appalled. For me, the picture perfectly captured the terroir of Antioch, CA, home of meth labs and rusted muscle cars up on blocks, which I sometimes refer to as “Appalachia by the Bay.” We Photoshopped the picture a bit, mostly removing some (additional!) unseemly trash from the photo, and tweaking the color value of the cover-crop a bit to get the most felicitous contrast with the color of the type. As you likely know, I am pretty much a total sucker for visual puns, and I just couldn’t resist the joke to be found in the militaristic typeface, “Exocet” with its sniperscope “O.”
It’s often very difficult if not impossible to be objective about one’s own work, and truly grok its possible artistic deficits. I think the label is a pretty clever juxtaposition—the cool shades of the bucolic vineyard and the anomalous sofa (ever since Freud, sofas are funny, at least in my book) with the subtly militaristic Exocet font and its intimation of a hot, shooting-war/ passing reference to Contra Rebels. While we have in fact gotten a number of positive comments about the label, it’s certainly possible that there are some folks out there who are significantly less keen.10 When we did not experience the home run with the bases loaded success with the wine that I had anticipated, we looked hard for answers and the culprit that was most often mentioned was the label itself. A number of people were luke-warm to it, but were somewhat hard pressed to describe precisely why. “Too obscure…” “Why a couch…?” No one mentioned the Exocet font, but if there’s a tragic flaw in the label, it is perhaps that women (whom I’m convinced, absent scientific study, mind you, are the primary customers of our wines) who are put off by the aggressive, if not militaristic font. Read blog post “Chick Vit”

But, if in fact, it wasn’t the label, might it have been something else? The obvious culprit would have to be the wine itself, especially as it presented upon release. Carignane, when bottled early, surtout en Stelvin, has a certain tendency to express a sort of stoniness—maybe this is the reductive tendency of the variety itself, or a manifestation of the phenomenon of “minerality,” especially in virtue of the age of the vines (perhaps these phenomena are one and the same?). In any event, the taste was presumably not for everyone, especially those tasters who favor ripe fruit as the primary signifier of hedonic excellence. 8_tattooIt seemed as if many were slightly put off by the aspect of austerity, though this quality of “stoniness” is what I live for, a signifier of “life-force” or qi in wine. Perhaps I am in the minority in this regard, but I think that it is this stylistic differentiation that is really the wine’s greatest strength, not its weakness. Oddly enough, my thoroughly contrarian friend, Clark Smith, when he tasted the ’09 upon release, felt that it was “too fruity, too pleasurable,” hence not quite European enough.
As I mentioned, we really tried everything possible in the marketing the wines. Because I thought that the iconography of the wine’s presentation was itself a little edgy, I imagined the wine might track to the biochemical radar of the younger imbiber, the Millennials, soi-disant.11 So, we made Contra tattoos in various sizes, which I observed, in fact, to go over rather well at tastings.12

But we didn’t stop there. Oh no. We made Contra berets—again, reinforcing the quasi-militaristic association, and of course we had to make Contra tee-shirts to complement the ensemble. These were done by the brilliant designer, Steven Solomon, who has done all of the graphics for Terroir Wine Bar in New York.13

Back to the subject of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments: After scores, I mean scores of iterations, in collaboration with Mr. Solomon, we also produced an incredibly handsome, limited edition silk-screen poster of Contra. It’s absolutely beautiful, as you can see, and I think we still have some in stock.
And in the interest of creating a more viral presence – the apotheotic outcome envisioned by the gurus of social media—we made and posted a Contra video, which I think was reasonably clever, though I confess that here I was more or less channeling Woody Allen in Bananas.14) 10_postersteven

The reviews. There were very good reviews to outstanding raves about the wine pretty much all around, including one from Robert Parker, who has historically not been overly lavish in warm and fuzzy sentiment vis-à-vis Bonny Doon wines. His review was so positive that I took its appearance as an incontrovertible validation of the likely accuracy of the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. We liberally circulated to our distributors and agents these splendid reviews, and again, how these glowing accolades did not seem to really move the needle much at all, also deepened the mystery.

Undoubtedly, the issue is multi-factoral, and one might require the services of the late Jack Klugman, in a turn as the fictional Dr. Quincy, to really properly diagnose the relevant malignancies. While the dysfunctional label hypothesis is really yet to be fully tested, perhaps we might yet be able to exclude it (alas, too late for the purposes of the new boxes!) if we observe a strong uptick in sales with the new vintage (2010).15 We’ve gotten some nice reviews for the new wine, though perhaps not quite as many as for the ’09. The earlier vintage was perhaps a wine critic’s (or winemaker’s) wine, but the ’10 may be more of a typical wine drinker’s wine, a (God help me) crowd pleaser. It’s a bit early to tell how it will do, but if it does fare well, this might be an argument for the decline of the power of the wine review. Alternatively, it may be that people who buy $15 bottles just don’t have much time for wine reviews. Maybe they buy the first time for the label (or in spite of the label), and the second time by how much they’ve enjoyed the wine.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the 2010 and 2011 vintages of Contra. They’re not precisely my preferred style of an extremely restrained, taut red wine. In both vintages we ended up picking the grapes a little bit riper than I might have wished—harvesting in a timely fashion can be a tricky proposition in Antioch, CA, with the intermittent availability of labor crews and other logistical snafus that seem to be endemic to the area. Luckily, in ‘10 we had the wit to take appropriate evasive action on the potential alcohol level by blending in some cool climate, lower alcohol Syrah, which added some much needed coolth to the cuvée.16 Maybe I’m becoming far too neurotic about the whole thing, and worry that the ’10 and ’11 will be wildly successful. Then what?
I’ve taken the ’09 out a lot personally on sales calls to all sorts of venues and I’ve observed consumers reactions up close. If they really know and love wine and also happen to work in a store or restaurant that appreciates and can sell real wine, they will virtually always purchase the wine. At least when I’m around. The whole exercise reminds me a bit of what is called in quantum physics the phenomenon of Schrödinger’s Cat. There is almost a sort of quantum effect (which is in fact not supposed to happen on a macro level), i.e. when I attend/observe the wine, the wine presents one way, which leads to a certain discreet outcome (a sale), but when I don’t attend/observe the wine, the wine presumably presents a different way (how would I know?), resulting in a rather different and decidedly less agreeable outcome.
The proposed new label, based on the poster that Steven Solomon did for us, is quite beautiful, certainly far more interesting from a design standpoint than the present “sofa” label. But I can’t help but think that the decision to go with the new label represents a sort of personal failure, a capitulation to the reality principle, a principle I’ve never much cared for, rather just on principle. The sofa label—one of the few Bonny Doon labels featuring a photographic image—despite looking nothing like any of our other labels, strikes me as if it could only come from Bonny Doon.17 There’s a certain sensibility present (albeit warped). The new label, in some sense could really have come from any of the supremely clever marketers—ones far more clever than we—who’ve emerged in recent years, honing their marketing chops through the Darwinian brutality of the insanely competitive environment in which we work. The new Contra label, for example, could easily have been made by the ultra-modernist/hipster Charles Smith of K Vintners, a very clever marketeer, indeed.18
Perhaps I have become too dualistic in my thinking—imagining that one has to choose between a slick label and a somewhat ordinary wine or a more idiosyncratic label with a more original wine. Or, maybe I’m just imagining that an overly slick label—so slick that it might verge on the generic—would slightly undermine the case for the unique and distinctive wine? Perhaps I’m overthinking this. For a $15 bottle of wine, maybe you just suck it up and put on the flashiest label you can conceive of, swallow your pride in that you are not the cleverest marketing person on the block, and move on (whatever that means). The other possible lesson of this inquiry may be that in fact there are few lessons any more, simply occurrences that behave according to rules that are too complicated for us to predict; perhaps we live in a universe of Black Swans, pace Nassim Talebian.19
There has definitely been a real paradigm shift in the wine business, which now more consistently resembles the real world. The wine business was, not so long ago, more like a large pond; it is now a vast ocean and one has to deal with the associated peril.20 Put another way, you can no longer really make waves, but there are still plenty of waves to deal with; you now have to learn how to surf them. It is a new skill for me, but one that appears to be Contra-indicated.

  1. The 2011 Albariño is sold out, has been for some time, and getting the ’12 into bottle and into the arteries of commerce sooner than later is a fairly critical proposition. []
  2. In the Dooniverse screwcap bottles are rather normative, but it must be remembered that they are still a minority in the larger world. []
  3. Like it or not, Contra is very much an “off-sale” product in the lingo of the wine trade—one that is largely sold in retail wine shops rather than in restaurants. Because the agora is now so large, crowded and noisy, flashy artwork on the cardboard case itself will draw attention to the wine should you or your wholesaler be fortunate enough to succeed in getting the account the floor-stack (ideally “end-stack”) your wine. []
  4. The original customers for the grapes from these vineyards were home winemakers, primarily of Italian and Portuguese origin, who insisted on a “mixed” load of grapes, as they felt it would produce a wine of better balance. []
  5. Phylloxera will not propagate in sandy soils, chiefly because the soil does not crack, as it would were there were a significant percentage of clay in the mix. Ungrafted vines (in the absence of phylloxera) often live much longer than grafted vines, as they have not suffered the grafting wound, a sometimes cause of microbial infection and foreshortener of vine life. []
  6. Not all old-vine Carignane vines are created equal. Counter-intuitively, equally old vine Carignane from sites in Mendocino County, a cooler region than say, Antioch, generally fails to provide the same quality as grapes from Antioch vineyards. I’ve imagined that perhaps it was a question of clonal variability, but I now believe that it is likely a function of the fact that most of the Antioch vineyards are ungrafted whereas most of the vines in the Ukiah area are not. Alternately, maybe it’s the higher rainfall and heavier, richer soils of Ukiah that produce higher yielding vines. Whatever the case, the Carignane from the Antioch area is decidedly superior. []
  7. It would be far too much to imagine that our stable of growers in Contra Costa would ever farm these great old vineyards biodynamically, We’ve tried at times to bring them along, but we have to get them to the 20th century before they’re ready for the 21st. It is of course quite challenging to express the idea of “wines of life-force” in words that would make sense to most wine drinkers, but one taste of the wine should get the point across. []
  8. These really were seriously old—100+ years, and this is truly important information. Wines made from old vines most often have a real depth of character that cannot be achieved any other way. While no one really understands the mechanism of the phenomenon of “minerality,” old-vine wines often have this attribute in spades—a certain density of the mid-palate that makes them compelling. I’m not sure if a “field blend” itself is the world’s most interesting selling point, but it is also quite descriptive and further differentiates this wine from the squillions of others on the shelf. []
  9. We hastily remedied this faux pas with an after-market application of a strip label. []
  10. We polled a number of our wholesale distributors, not all of them fully qualified as art critics, and approximately 40% of them were less than enthused about the label. []
  11. The pursuit of this demographic is one of the several holy grails in the wine business at the present time. But, alas, there is a great ontological abyss the separates the fact of customers applying Contra tattoos to the actual purchase of bottles. []
  12. By going over well, I mean that people applied them liberally to various body parts. I first observed the phenomenon of the popularity of decal tattoos at wine tastings years ago when I was pouring alongside Ravenswood Winery, who have without a doubt the most iconic logo in the business. I was told that they thought to pass out decal tattoos of their label when they observed the substantial number of customers who had the Ravenswood logo actually tattooed permanently on their body. One might only dream of this kind of customer loyalty. []
  13. Steven’s hipster credentials are in order. []
  14. Everyone in the wine business imagines that these videos are incredibly helpful in raising awareness about the brand, especially among the younger social media-savvy young ‘uns. I did it, of course, primarily because it was fun, though it did carry the risk of potentially re-igniting the opprobrium of James Laube, senior editor of the Wine Spectator. (Mercifully, I don’t think he saw it. []
  15. Or we can just chuck all of the fancy, shiny new case boxes we had printed and continue with the old ones. []
  16. In Chinese medicine mint is “cooling.” A minty character in wine (from the Syrah) seems to have a similar effect on the perception of the heat of the alcohol. []
  17. In the old days, a Bonny Doon label was perhaps more discernible, even if there were absolutely no clues whatsoever as to its provenance, as it was virtually the only one out there that embodied visual humor or was perhaps a little edgy. The fact that virtually all labels now look like Bonny Doon labels causes me no end of anxiety and confusion. The subtle shift in our labeling in recent years—to more discreet images and less over-the-top presentation is meant to signify a similar shift in our winemaking style, in the direction of more subtlety and depth, but perhaps this subliminal message is just too subtle for anyone’s good. []
  18. Irony fully intended. You will note that I bristle under the ascription of my (former) talent as a marketer or in Parker’s parlance, marketeer. []
  19. Or alternately, that the lessons are so utterly occult as to be impenetrable. []
  20. It was not so long ago that we were able to slightly modify, or at least influence wine consumer behavior, at least as far as acceptance of screwcaps. []

Digital Wine Communications Conference Speech, Izmir, Turkey

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to a group of wine bloggers in Portland, OR recently – some of you may have been there – in which I reflected somewhat pensively on the state of the wine business in the U.S., mostly lamenting a certain palpable loss of innocence and idealism. The gist of my remarks was that the recent great success of the wine business has at the same time sowed the seeds of its spiritual demise. Partially, it has been a function of people entering the business with more strictly business motives – every single orthodontist, plastic surgeon, former athlete, television star, musician or reasonably successful plumber with some disposable income has simultaneously decided that the wine business is the most appropriate vehicle for the expression of their “artistic side.”2_slide_blog3_vinferno

Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, we are now observing some of the well-known dynamics of an extremely overcrowded ecosystem; this does not bring out the most meritorious behavior in individuals, whether in rats, cellar rats or winery owners.

Because of the tremendous level of competition, you can see a sort of tragic level of self-consciousness on every level; one begins to consider the economic consequences of every winemaking decision that one makes. Do you dare to produce an “elegant” wine that speaks in a quiet voice? How will it be heard over the deafening din of the agora? If you are a winery owner blessed with significant means, you are sorely tempted to hire the best consultants that money can buy, ones who have the capability to reverse engineer the Robert Parker/Wine Spectator palate and instruct you on how you might make a wine guaranteed to get a high point score rating. 4_rollandmichel

Not express originality, mind you, but rather land squarely in the stylistic range of what passes among some tastemakers at least as real “quality.” It is not surprising that some successful winemakers, at least in the New World, are experiencing something like a sense of malaise; they’re bored and perhaps even vaguely ashamed of the decadent state of affairs. Or perhaps they’re not. The mere public mention of the word malaise, by the way, in a speech thirty some odd years ago, led to the undoing of the hapless American President, Jimmy Carter. 5_Jimmy_Carter

It is good for all of you to understand that there is a ubiquitous American allergy – nowhere better expressed than in the American wine business – to acknowledging that all might not be exquisite sweetness and light within our perfect world. This neurosis carries through to our wine criticism, and our most influential critics seem to embrace wines that have no dark side at all and cast not a shadow. Not a sustainable proposition, which we ignore at our own peril.6_stepford

I don’t wish today to speak entirely of the Gloom and Doon scenario that besets the New World. But, before I dare to imagine with you an alternate reality for the improved trajectory of New World wines, allow me to express a sincere moment of heartfelt longing from the far side of the existential abyss – that gap that separates what might be called “vins de terroir,” original wines that truly matter, from vins d’effort, or wines of effort, that voodoo that we do in the New World so well. I won’t belabor the point but wines of terroir, wines that express a sense of place, deeply satisfy both our more refined aesthetic sensibilities and offer something like a visceral, emotional connection to the earth, to Nature’s Order, and by extension to ourselves. 7_sacred-geometryYou just feel differently when you taste a wine that comes from a place rather than one that comes from the laboratory of Dr. Faustus.

In the Old World, at least in many sectors (with some conspicuous exceptions that will remain nameless),1 terroir is taken more seriously than ever, especially by many younger vintners. This is very good news indeed. These winemakers are looking backwards to older techniques and varieties, to gentler practices, more respectful of their terroirs, excavating their patrimony for depth and meaning. The notion of terroir is no longer mere marketing legerdemain fueled by Gallic cynicism, but seems at least to me to be mostly the real deal. 8_drfaustus

Allow me a parenthetical meta-message here, which may come off as a little New Agey. First, you should know that I am not in fact a New Agey kind of guy – more of an Old Agey kind of guy, if anything, truth be told. But, my sense is that we are living in a strange and magical time, where a style of wine or a grape variety that has languished for years can suddenly become popular due to a mention in a hip-hop tune or by being featured in a popular film.

Obvious causal relationships like the one between high quality, fair price and respectable sales volume no longer seem to obtain. Nevertheless, there seems to be something like an alchemical transformation taking place, a winnowing, if you will, in virtue of strong but highly erratic evolutionary pressures; we are living in our own vinous Ice Age with the craziest kind of extreme weather. 9_Drake-MoscatoVery disparate sorts of species appear to be prospering, both the very pure and the very impure exemplars, you might say; maybe we tend to embrace the former as we recoil in horror to the latter? It’s enough to turn one to the extreme Manichean world-view. I can’t explain why cynical, spoofulated wines are ascendant, nor can I explain the presence of evil (or oenvil) in the world.
I don’t wish to prognosticate on the future of the fake and banal, I can only offer my own thoughts on how we in the New World, absent pedigree, provenance, warrant or credential, might proceed to find our way to sit at the same table with the grownups – that is, with wines expressive of a sense of place. Let’s meditate a bit on how one might begin to approach what would appear to be an impossibly quixotic project, one that would seem to take literally multiple lifetimes – and we all know how mindful we Americans have been about taking pains to insure a sustainable future. 11_humveefleet

So, I will only talk about the wines that we might call “real,” in the sense of possessing unique characteristics that differentiate them from everything else. This class of wines will not resemble the current crop of “great” monster wines of the New World, few possessing real distinctiveness and many of which are already essentially caricatures of themselves – impressive in their own way, but at the same time, grotesqueries.
In broad terms, I envision that in the future the model for great wines in the New World will embody a major paradigm shift from wines of effort to wines of terroir. To that end, the methodology of their production will have to significantly change. What we have done so well in the New World is to control things – from the clonal selection of our vineyards to the way the vines are irrigated, to the designer yeasts and enzymes, to the cosmetic “enhancements” that impart “improved” texture, color, etc. But, while the wines are “impressive” (at least to some), they do tend to all look and taste alike. Perhaps this is a little unfair but many of the “great” New World wines possess as much natural beauty as, say, a Las Vegas showgirl. 13_showgirl_megapurple

Real wines of the future will derive their beauty and complexity from the genius (if it exists) of the site where the grapes are grown, and to achieve this I believe there has to be a fundamental shift in approach, which, as luck would have it, aligns with the new reality of limited resources, as these resources begin to approach their real costs. Maybe it will not be the right solution for every vineyard, but for me, I envision the return of dry-farmed, head-trained vines – no wire, trellis or drip system, an elegant low-tech solution.14_vinesYou won’t get the preternatural yields of an irrigated vineyard, but the wines will likely have far more depth and personality. Which brings me seamlessly to another topic that I believe will have enormous relevance in the future, indeed if there is to be anything like a future for us.15_hans

This subject is the material called biochar; the most extraordinary research on its application to vineyards is being done by a fellow called Hans-Peter Schmidt, studying its effects in the vineyards of the Valais in Switzerland as well as in southern France.

Biochar is essentially activated charcoal, which when mixed with high quality compost takes on some extremely interesting agronomic properties. First, at high rates of application, i.e. 20 tons/ha, it can greatly enhance the water holding capacity of soils – by as much as 30-35%.16_biochar In dry areas, this can really make the difference between being able to farm without supplemental irrigation or not. It also greatly enhances the fertility of the soil, building more organic matter, further enhancing the water holding capacity. The other aspect of biochar is that it seems to greatly stimulate beneficial microbial activity in the soil, specifically the mycorrhizae, or symbiotic fungi that actively transport minerals into the root hairs of the plant.2
While the subject of minerality is certainly fraught, there is no question in my mind that wines made from grapes grown in mineral rich soils, as well as those possessing a healthy soil ecology, whether farmed organically or biodynamically, will exhibit what might be called a greater life-force, or ability to tolerate oxidative challenge.18_decanter

Put another way, I would suggest that it is impossible to think about greatness in wines absent the ability of those wines to age and gain in complexity. So, if the presence of biochar and higher levels of organic matter in vineyards support mycorrhizae and the uptake of minerals in the soil, we can perhaps think of them as terroir amplifiers.


Another way of thinking about terroir, specifically the criteria for a great terroir, is to understand that this site is one that has managed to educe a greater degree of finesse and articulation from its grapes in comparison to its neighbors, and so much of this finesse is a function of buffering against extreme conditions – drought or excessive moisture.3


Biochar has the capacity to in some sense make soils “smarter,” i.e. not only to enhance nutritional availability and disease resistance, but also to create a greater sense of homeostasis for the plant, i.e. more moderate growth, and a buffering against stress; this is especially valuable in light of global climate change, and the dry conditions that we already experience during the growing season in California. 21_master

Now, here is a very interesting point that we might all meditate on. As I was learning more about biochar, I asked Peter Schmidt, “So, Peter, by the addition of biochar, aren’t you in fact deforming the expression of terroir?” Of course you are,” he said, “but actually no more than if you were, say, plowing a field, which is itself a deformation.4

While in some sense terroir may be thought of as a collection of the inhering qualities of a site transcending the stylistic imprint of the winemaker, at the same time it is inextricably linked to the human beings who are there to discover and express it. 22_plow

So, we can’t help but meddle a bit; if we are clever and elegant, our meddling and muddling seem to fade seamlessly to the edges in the vins de terroir that we might produce. But, again, in the New World, absent hundreds of years of iteration and observation, how might one shine the light on the uniqueness of a given site, to allow its voice to be heard and not get drowned out by other voices? I think that it is ultimately a question of the signal to noise ratio, i.e. how much information is transmitted against the background of irrelevency. What are the practices that amplify the signal of terroir, but do not create excessive noise?523_SNR

I have a theory, which may or may not be right and that is: If you can identify a place to grow grapes where there is a strong and articulate terroir – one with appropriate water holding and fertility characteristics, and an expressive mineral profile – perhaps it is not absolutely necessary that you be supremely clever or preternaturally lucky enough to identify the “perfect,” most ideally matched grape variety to that site; maybe it is really just the gross phenology you need to get right – ripening time, Brix/acid balance, etc.24_jeanmichel

To go even further, perhaps the presence of strong varietal characteristics may actually work against the expression of soil characteristics. I would cite the wines of Jean-Michel Deiss, whose mixed field blends of varieties that ripen at approximately the same time with an appropriate balance, support the idea that a great terroir trumps the precision of the articulation of a single variety.

Further, witness the wines of Los Bermejos in the Canary Islands, grown on pure basalt rock, made from the somewhat ignominious Listan negro variety; the wines are brilliant and complex, certainly not because of the inherent genius of their constituent grapes. Further, it is a basic tenet that multicépage wines are just the way to go in warmer, Mediterranean climates. A single varietal wine cannot create the complexity and balance of a well-conceived blend in warmer, dryer sites, (and I will argue in a moment that we human beings cannot conceive of blends quite as complex as Mother Nature can potentially create for us.)
So, if you take the idea to its logical conclusion of reordering the Gestalt of the experience of a wine such that its varietal aspect is in the background and its soil characteristics are in the foreground, you will want to maximize the practices that reinforce that soil expression. My very radical (in the original sense of the word) idea is that perhaps by growing grapes from seed, you might end up with a much greater expression of soil characteristics than if you were to grow the grapes from conventionally grown rootings or grafts. This has not been studied in grapevines, as no one apart from breeders grow from seeds, but in fact, seedlings of virtually every woody plant exhibit different rooting behavior compared to plants grown from cuttings, i.e. they exhibit a greater degree of geotropism, or the ability to root straight down to China.


But, I think that greatest advantage of growing grapes from seeds is in the creation of both minute and gross diversity in the resultant seedlings, thus leveraging the raw combinative power of Nature to iterate enormously over a relatively short period of time. As an aside, you don’t really want to collect seeds created from self-pollinating vines, as the seedlings will express deleterious recessive alleles, resulting in inferior progeny.
One will likely do much better to cross varieties with one another, which will lead to healthier plants, and, when viewed as a population, potentially allow the emergence of certain individual plants with unique characteristics, or simply ones that clearly are a lot happier growing where they are than their confrères.

So, you try to be as thoughtful as possible about the qualities you are looking for and the suitability of certain varieties for your site. How you do this is perhaps a little tricky.6 How you do this is perhaps a little tricky. I think that you need to start with something like a baseline value, beginning with “standard varieties” – it could even be something as recherché as say, Ruchè – on your site and seeing how they perform, imagining how they might perhaps be nudged one way or another to become more felicitously matched to your unique conditions.
It is the female part of the cross that largely transmits the varietal characteristics to the progeny, so you want to make sure that this is a variety that seems to express well on your site. The male part of the cross is the one that carries the growth characteristics, the form of the vine to the progeny. In my own case, growing grapes in a slightly warm, fairly dry climate, I’m looking for an extremely vigorous male parent, one that has good drought tolerance.
The bet, in a nutshell, is really this: If you begin with a variety that performs particularly well on your site, by creating minute variations between the diverse genotypes that are the offspring of that parent, might you have the wit to discern a particular individual or group of individuals that seem to be better suited to the site than the others – ripening a little earlier, or later, or being more drought tolerant or disease resistant, through whatever criteria seem to be important in growing grapes on your site?

The other part of the bet is that even if you do not live long enough or have the wit to discern real genius ensconced in your midst, will the sheer number of variations on a theme as it were, (after you’ve culled out the too early or too late ripening or too sickly individuals that are clearly not with the program), 31_oldmancreate something like complex polyphony or something more like cacophony? Put another way, in a genetically diverse vineyard is there something like the collective wisdom of a crowd?7

I honestly don’t know if my idea for growing grapes from seeds is the world’s best idea or the world’s worst idea, but if it were to work, i.e. the soil characteristics coming through in the wine itself, it would seem, at the very least, that this would be a wine that came from the closest thing to a bespoke vineyard, and would not taste like anything else around. It seems, especially in light of global climate change, and the incidence of new disease pressures on vines, that creating a rich, diverse planting stock for one’s unique vineyard would be both a reasonable strategy for true sustainability as well as a wonderful gift to give to the future. Thank you very much.

Keynote Address delivered to European Wine Bloggers Conference, Nov. 9, 2012

  1. Bordeaux []
  2. I should add that the incorporation of biochar into the soil, has also the salutary effect of sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide for approximately 5-10,000 years, depending on the various estimates that you read, essentially being the only probable realistic solution to the problem of global climate change. []
  3. The other more obvious aspect of a great terroir is its ability to express the unique characteristics of its soil type; some soils (calcareous, granitic, volcanic, and schistous for example) seem to be uniquely gifted in transmitting this secondary dimension of a wine. []
  4. Cultivation by discing disrupts the topmost soil layer, killing off the beneficial microflora. []
  5. The use of new oak, drip irrigation or use of over-ripe grapes would be good examples of extraneous noise. []
  6. This, I believe, lands squarely in the realm of art (or perhaps mysticism) and not science. Certainly some sort of deep intuition or inspiration is here required; my experience has been that when you know, you just seem to know. []
  7. You can argue that new, “modern” varieties bred within the last one hundred years (with the possible exception of Scheurebe, which has recently been shown to have an “unknown” maternal parent – itself exceptionally strange), are generally far less interesting than their parents. This may be due to the fact that in general, modern grape breeding has selected for very utilitarian criteria – in many instances, enhanced yield – rather than for excellence of wine quality. The success of my project may well be contingent on what is still just a belief – as yet a far from confirmed fact – that the multiplicity of voices will yield great complexity and nuance and not just noise, or worse, flavors that are unpleasant. My greatest nightmare is that after all of this heroic effort, I may well end up with essentially the equivalent of Pinotage (which undoubtedly seemed like a great idea at the time, at least to someone). []

Napa Valley Girl

Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Napa Valley Girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl
In a tasting room
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a…

LIKE, OH, MY GOTT (Napa Valley girl)
LIKE – TOTALLY (Napa Valley girl)
St. Helena is like SO BOUCHAINE
There’s Tra Vigne…
And like all these like really cool restaurants and balloon rides and stuff
I like to buy the most expensive cabs
It’s like so BOUCHAINE ‘cause like everybody’s like
Super-super rich…
It’s like so BOUCHAINE
In St. Helena, there she goes
She just found some Bouchaine Merlot
Now she’s on the prowl for some cougar juice
The kind of stuff that makes her feel real loose.

Anyway, he goes are you into hard tannins?
I go, oh RIGHT
Could you like just like picture me drinking a wine that was
Not fruit forward, I mean like ASTRINGENT?
Yeah right, HURT ME, HURT ME
I’m chard! NO WAY!
He told me my wine smelled like a sweaty saddle
That’s ‘cause like he was totally blitzed
He goes like I’m gonna pour you something from a bag-in-the-box
Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Okay, fine…
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl
With a scoring card
Okay, fine…
For chard, for chard
She’s a …

It’s really sad (Napa Valley girl)
Like my English sommelier…
He’s like … (Napa Valley girl)
He’s like Mr. Minerality (Napa Valley girl)
We’re talking LORD KING BIODYNAMIC MINERALITY (Napa Valley girl)
And like sits there and swirls his decanter
And consults his biodynamic calendar

Last idea to cross her mind
Had something to do with where to find
A case of cab from Silver Oak
And making din-din rezzies at La Toque

So like I go into this like wine bar place, y’know
So, I wanted like to get a really cool Helen Turley or Caymus wine
3_Wine_boxes_Caymus_275pxwAnd the lady like goes, OH MY GOTT, YOU PICKED OUT A SYRAH!
It was like really embarrassing
I’m like chard.
She goes, uh, I don’t know if it’s got a handle on this, y’know
I was like really embarrassed

Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl7a_cat_box_275pxw
And she finds her pairings hard
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl
With a scoring card

Like my mother drinks MOUTON CADET (Napa Valley girl)
That’s made from SAUVIGNON BLANC (Napa Valley girl)
IT TASTES LIKE A CAT BOX! (Napa Valley girl)
IT’S LIKE GROSS LEES (Napa Valley girl)
BARBARESCO OUT! (Napa Valley girl)
OH, MY GOTT (Napa Valley girl)

Uh-huh… (Napa Valley girl)
My name?
My name is Margaux Liebowitz (Napa Valley girl)
That’s right, Margaux (Napa Valley girl)
I know
It’s like…(Napa Valley girl)
I’m chard (Napa Valley girl)
I am a Napa val, I know (Napa Valley girl)
But I like can get reservations at the French Laundry so it’s okay
(Napa Valley girl)
Uh-huh…(Napa Valley girl)6_michel-rolland_275pxw
So like, I don’t know (Napa Valley girl)
I’m like freaking out totally (Napa Valley girl)
OH, MY GOTT! (Napa Valley girl)

Hi- I have to go see my consulting enologist (Napa Valley girl)
I’m getting a customized blend made, y’know (Napa Valley girl)
But Michel has insisted on such a big retainer
That’s going to be really like a total bummer
I’m chard.
It’s like those dump bucket things
But like, I don’t know, it’s going to be cool, y’know
Riding in the limo to the wine train
And I’m on one of those cool mailing lists, y’know
Where y’know somebody’s gotta die
For you to get in
The wine is just so awesome
It’s got no aftertaste; it’s like tubular, y’know
Well, it’s not like really tannic or anything
It’s just like
I don’t know
You know me, I’m like into like the clean stuff
Like Colgin and Harlan Estate, y’know4_napa_valley_train_275pxw
Like my husband like makes me drink SUB-90 POINT Syrah
And it’s like, it’s like SOMEBODY ELSE’S WINE, Y’KNOW
Its like really nauseating



I find it more or less ironic to be standing in front of you, talking about anything pertaining to the business side of the wine business, because, in spite of my notoriety as a clever marketer (or marketeer as my detractors would have it),2 I feel that these days I hardly understand anything at all about the biz; I am a stranger in a strange land, in the words of my former neighbor in Bonny Doon, Robert Heinlein. I am acutely aware of the great, possibly infinite disparity between what you might call the “wine speech act” and what might be called the “wine sales act,” i.e. a flesh-and-blood customer actually purchasing wine from you as a result (efficient or proximal cause, or whatever the Scholastics would have called it) of something that you have either recently written or said. For I am, for all purposes, a wine blogger manqué, at least one who has not been able to successfully monetize his wine blog qua blog in the service of his business. I’m not a particularly successful poster boy for the mission of communicating the unique value proposition of the product I am flogging. But presumably, that is not necessarily all, or even primarily, what a blog is for.


For the record, I don’t think that a blog is really for anything. It is just something that we do, and there are as many motivations for writing a wine blog as there are bloggers. Very, very few of us have figured out how to monetize our efforts; there are clearly much easier ways to make a buck, like flipping burgers or even selling “orange” wines. We blog because in some sense we must, like the salmon around here, returning to spawn. Maybe the desire to blog stems from coming from a slightly dysfunctional family of origin, where we were never properly heard as children (at least, that’s my motivation).
So, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about my own history as a wine blogger, about wine bloggery in general, perhaps also proffer some gratuitous remarks about the bizarre state of the wine industry, then share some thoughts about where I imagine wine journalism might go, and lastly, offer a sincere cri de Coeur to encourage you all to support originality and strangeness, two features that the wine business, especially in the New World, desperately needs.

I got into the wine blogging business, as it were, as an outgrowth of the printed winery newsletters I used to write and mail out. At some point, someone in my organization pointed out the shocking dollar amount we were spending on postage and, as a cost-cutting measure, we abruptly stopped sending the newsletters out by post. As wasteful as the newsletters were of natural resources, as carbon footprint positive as they were, and as expensive as they were to send, I’m virtually certain that we have never quite connected with our customers as completely as we did back in the day. Our Doon subscribers got sixteen or twenty four pages of faux Dante in faux terza rima, or sincere renditions of faux Kafka or Joyce or Pynchon, along with obligatory purple wine prose, gobs of ripe fruity metaphors, with hints of hilarity, subtle suggestions of sarcasm, tinged with verdant notes of envy.

Please don’t think of me as a spy in the house of digital wine love, a turn-Côtes-du-Rhône, a Benedict Arnot-Roberts, if I say that it was the palpable presence of the newsletters in people’s mailboxes that was the important meta-statement, the improbable extravagance of something like a precious gift. (I run into customers all the time who have told me that they held on to the newsletters forever.) I’m not sure precisely what lesson is here to be learned. Maybe it is (or was) that, despite the fact that my wines then were largely vins d’effort, confections, if you will, perhaps the extravagance of the prose, coupled with the extravagance of the weighty tome in the customers’ mailbox communicated the message that I was, on the page at least, giving my all and then some.

I should also mention that at the time we produced a minimum of twelve new and distinctive wines and labels every year for our wine club members – utterly crazy and impractical – which communicated the message that we were trying harder than anyone out there. This cannot count for nothing. I think of Salinger’s character, Seymour Glass, who admonishes his younger brother, Zooey, to “shine his shoes for the Fat Lady.” To show up with all of one’s running lights on.

So, if there is perhaps an incidental take-away in my somewhat frothy remarks, it may be this: We are living in a time of shattered attention spans, trivial to non-existent bandwidths, and communication with one another generally limited to a sound-bite or a brief text message (often sent just before the stoplight turns green). Customer loyalty, as such, indeed any kind of loyalty these days, can best be charitably described as Commitment Lite. But, the person who, somehow through all of this, can express an allegiance to his customers or, in your instance, to your readers, with a certain generosity of spirit, must gain our attention and, maybe, even respect and fidelity.
In truth, it’s been a tough one for me and for my company. We conditioned our customers to expect the world from us, and now, when we’re only delivering really good wine at a fair price, along with a modest dose of piety, it’s not quite enough. Lessons learned? Rebranding, as they say, is a bitch. Be careful how you present yourself, especially if you are a joker, as you may, eventually, not be laughing quite as hard. The initial constellation of memes that surrounds your brand and public persona, especially in the day of digital immortality, will persist to the end of your days, which, of course, brings up the old joke about the peril of having carnal relations “with just one goat.”
Myself, I’m hoping to someday become less of a cartoon, but perhaps this may be to my own detriment. I sometimes wonder if cartoons are the only things that are noticed anymore. But I don’t want to go back to being a cartoon, nor am I particularly in favor of decimating forests so people can read my deathless prose. The lesson? I scratch my head every day, trying to work out just what it might be. Maybe in the branded universe, you can’t change things up too much. People liked the wacky labels and the putative madcap winemaker image. I was a Rorschach inkblot; people saw in me the person they wanted to see.

As a parenthetical aside, I will tell you something very odd that used to happen to me on a fairly regular basis. I do my share of winemaker dinners, and at the end of these dinners, customers would often approach me – usually to tell me about their personal history with the wine – but often on a slightly different mission. Either they would lay a joint on me, dead certain that the gesture would be appreciated – after all, I’m a long-haired person from Rasta Cruz, sorry, that’s Santa Cruz – or alternatively, they would give me the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead certain that I, breaker of rules, non-accepter of authority, dedicated colorer outside the lines, was undisputedly One of Them. In some sense, I was the Peter Sellers character, Chance, in the excellent film and novel, “Being There.” Maybe this is one depressing secret for success – allow your audience to imagine you or your product to represent what they most want it to be. My customers, many of my older ones at least, however, are just not yet ready for the latest incarnation of thoughtful and measured. Thoughtful and measured doesn’t go Boom Boom!, like some wines and winemakers do.3

boomboomlabelSo, what are the lessons that I’ve learned? Well, this is not exactly a lesson, but more of an observation, and maybe not even an observation so much as a generalized kvetch. I don’t like the wine business as much as I used to. It’s not just the crazy amount of competition we now have and the exclusionary and lowest common denomination practices of large distributors. The wine business was, at least for me and for my colleagues when we started, about possibility and discovery. We were all learning, and wine drinkers and wine writers were learning along with us. You could make mistakes and be forgiven; there was, like the World Series, always next year. There was an enormous diversity of wine styles, at least domestically, none obviously “superior” to another. The wine business and wine culture thirty five to forty years ago was a sort of Garden of Eden, relatively unspoiled.4
Wine critics existed, of course, and their praise was useful, but no one really understood then how to game the system for high point scores. It was an age of innocence (relatively speaking), where a winemaker made wine to please him or herself. Winemakers, and not merely the Walter Brennan-like old coots, would say things like: “I make wine to please myself. If people don’t like my wine, &#@!% ‘em, I’ll drink ‘em myself.” These days, nobody says that because nobody can afford to drink his own wine all by himself; it’s too damn expensive. Modern winemakers live in an era of tragic self-consciousness about the economic consequences of their winemaking decisions, utterly aware of the peril of somehow falling outside of the stylistic parameters of accepted wine styles. The principle consequence of the great “success” of our industry is that it now seems to be just about business; it’s all business.
Great wine was not so expensive then, and anyone who entered the business – as a retailer, wine writer or wine maker – did not harbor the illusion that the wine business was going to make him or her rich. We did it because it was something that we loved. But some “visionary” individuals and companies perceived the possibility of unlimited sustained growth and began to build wine brands and wine empires.5 This, coupled with the consolidation and tumescent growth of a few wine wholesale companies and mega-retailers, has led to a sort of seamless virtual vertical integration of the wine business, with relatively few players controlling essentially the lion’s share of the game – a pretty good mirror of what has happened in the rest of the world economy.

Parenthetically, it is alternately amusing and horrifying to observe how large wine companies attempt to engage with social media; they understand well its power to influence large populations and, at the same time, understand that their message cannot be entirely controlled, which just freaks them out. The inherently random, slightly anarchic aspect of social media, which somehow recapitulates the anarchic quality of nature itself, I find incredibly appealing (and sometimes horrifying); the germ of an idea, a good one or bad one, can take root and like kudzu, take over. The key is to keep planting useful seeds and hope that some of the more interesting and viable ones will take root.

But to return to the thought: these days it seems to be all about the money. When resources become scarce or threaten to imminently become scarce, we all tend to follow the money. The few wine bloggers who are making a profitable go of it are the ones who are, with a few exceptions, in some sense following the money, i.e. acting as trusted advisors to the wealthy individuals who don’t wish to be caught not Napa-ing and can’t decide between this vintage’s Screaming Harlan, Screaming Colgin or Screaming Eagle. Forgive me, but I almost see wine bloggers (myself included, to be sure) as Gene Hackman figures in The French Connection, with our noses pressed up against the restaurant window in the rain, looking in at the shady characters inside, who are eating and drinking and having the times of their lives.
But I didn’t come here merely to kvetch. We’ve established that none of us is going to get rich doing what we do. No use crying over spilled Merlot; what’s doon is doon. If we can’t find monetary gain in this work, then certainly what we must do is find more meaning for ourselves, and possibly even try to make something like a contribution to the larger world.6 So, what can I possibly say to any of you about wine or wine writing that has not already been said a thousand times over?

First of all, since we’ve established that, at least for us, it’s not about money, let’s then talk about beauty. What voice might we lend to illuminate wine’s strange beauty? Allow me to very gently suggest, my friends, that the compilation of sensory descriptors, the shopping list of scents and schlugs, the catalogue raisiné (sic) of sundry roots and berries, enumerated by the urban hunter-gatherer/wine writer, while amusing to read, at the end of the day, is not particularly edifying. It just presents us with the outer garment of the wine, and doesn’t speaking to its essence, that which is cloaked beneath. Whether the nose is more loganberries than boysenberries, it just doesn’t really matter. In fact, I would suggest that it’s not even a question of the critic finding le descriptive mot juste for the wine; it’s really about something else.
I’m thinking now of J.D. Salinger again, who in his, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” retold the Zen story of a simple hawker of fuel and vegetables, held by those truly in the know about these things to be the very greatest judge of horses in the land. One bit of evidence of this Master’s great gift for the appraisal of horseflesh was that the he often seemed to be a bit confused about things. In fact, he was utterly indifferent as to the more obvious outer trappings of the horse’s appearance and qualities, paying scarce notice to whether the equine was a sorrel mare or a bay filly. He was, instead, looking deeply at the horse at the level of its essence. Somehow, I would suggest, dear friends, that it is the quality of deep attention paid to the wine, looking beyond the fleeting epiphenomena, that truly matters. It is believed (falsely) that wine is but an inert object. How empathic of this very strange, alchemical liquid can we become?

The real dirty secret of wine criticism is that we are incredibly fallible tasters, fooled just about all of the time, and that our own subjective states, a function of more factors than we can imagine – time of day, air and wine temperature, fluctuation of atmospheric pressure, influence of lunar/solar phenomena, our physiological and emotional states, degree of turbidity of the wine, and degree of turbidity of our own consciousnesses – play an enormous role in how a given wine presents itself to us. Instead of ignoring this inconvenient truth, I’d like to see us look at it squarely in the face and then meditate deeply on what are the implications of that knowledge.
I would love to see wine criticism really turn into something more like wine phenomenology, as we look more at ourselves and what we bring to the experience, not only to the analytic skills we bring to understanding a given wine, but rather to the changes the wine is able to elicit in us. We, as writers, imagine that we are writing about the wines, but we are, in fact, always writing about ourselves; even the descriptors that we choose tell the reader far more about us, the taster, than they do about what has been tasted.
What I’m suggesting is that the real opportunity for us is to think about wine as an occasion for meta-discussion. What can the experience of a wine teach us about being human? What does it teach us about beauty? How does it help us connect to the natural world? Just as it is said that philosophy begins from the sense of awe and wonder, I would like to suggest that wine writing might also take its cue from the same source. Let me put it another way: it behooves us to show up for the wine. If the wine is indeed magical, let it work its magic on us, give us supernatural powers of descriptive speech, inspire us with synesthesia, with extravagant poetic tropes.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that “wine is bottled poetry,” and we should absolutely take him at his word. Right now, we tend to imagine that the greatest wine is the most powerful one. But I would like to see a wine that is incredibly powerful – not so much in tannin, alcohol, depth of hue and dry extract, but powerful in its ability to move human beings to poetic language, or just to move us to wordless wonder.

On the subject of wonder, let me share with you a rather odd experience I had not too long ago. I was in Hong Kong, invited to speak at a wine conference and sit on a panel with the dueling Michels: Bettane and Rolland (that was quite bizarre). Pancho Campo had organized the conference and it was taking place just as Pancho-gate was beginning to unfold, so that added another level of complexity to the proceedings. Mr. Parker was, of course, the real draw, the reason that everyone was there. He was to lead a tutored tasting of twenty of his top selections, “magical” Bordeaux from the great 2009 vintage. You can only imagine how utterly over the moon the assembled guests were.
So, I was imagining that hearing Robert talk about his favorite Bordeaux in Hong Kong to an adulating audience was going to be a little weird – but guess what?7 He was absolutely incredible. He spoke out for “elegance.” And he presented a number of wines that were absolutely, undeniably elegant just before the very end of the tasting, when the Big Guns like the 15% Cos d’Estournel came out. But what was most remarkable was that Parker himself, despite his jet lag, and possibly still recovering from his surgeries, was incredibly passionate and animated in his presentation. He spoke from a position of humble reverence, sincerely grateful to have been given an opportunity to taste these remarkable wines. In some sense, you could say that he was the least jaded palate in the room. He was really something; he allowed the wines to deeply nourish and inspire him. This is a lesson that we can all take away.
There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. We have to recover our curiosity and recharge our passion (or find it in the first place) for the wines that rock our world and, most importantly, we have to discover or create a language that will translate beyond our own private, solipsistic sensorium and connect to the life experience of our readership, ideally a readership still in the process of discovery. (We, who are utterly wine-immersed, thoroughly macerated, you might say, tend to live in something like a fairly self-referential universe.) A thorny problem: how to allow the ripples to spread to a wider readership without diluting the message and rendering it banal? Here’s a crazy idea: pay more attention to the language. It’s language, after all, that we’re trading in. We can’t, as much as we might want to, taste the wine with another’s palate; we can, however, lovingly offer up our words for their delectation.

We need to speak up on behalf – this is maybe a little self-serving here, forgive me – of those who are innovating new styles, or preserving something precious: an old style, an old variety, respecting the authority of a great terroir. The reality is that with the consolidation of wholesale and gradual disappearance of fine wine retailers every day, great and maybe just very good producers are losing access to markets. We have to speak up for those wines that don’t have goofy, eye-catching labels, flavor profiles that are not squarely down the Middle of the Road, and will never be floor-stacked in Safeways.8
Most importantly, we must realize that despite the essential, almost Sisyphean absurdity of what we do, the format of the wine blog is perhaps the perfect form for wine writing. The act of opening a bottle of wine is typically something that is done with a certain degree of spontaneity. All you need is a corkscrew, or sometimes, if the winemaker has had the wit to seal his bottle with a screwcap, you don’t even need that. But you open this thing up in the privacy of your own home and, suddenly, you find yourself in the midst of a great, wild adventure , or maybe it’s just a pleasant walk in the park. But, wine, when it is great, is all about the long form, as a wine blog can be as well. It – the wine I’m talking about now – wanders, like a meandering river. It doesn’t have to make a point (or points(!), for that matter). It is just there to transport us to a slightly different reality, as I hope we can do with our words. Thank you very much.

(Presented as a keynote speech for the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, Portland, OR., August 17, 2012)

  1. Perhaps it’s little too precious to footnote a title, but in case you have forgotten, Bonny Doon Vineyard once imported a Syrah wine from the Languedoc called, Domaine des Blagueurs. I have gone from being a blagueur (joker) to bloggeur.. []
  2. I have publicly acknowledged that I am going to Wine Hell for my zins. []
  3. I’ve observed a striking phenomenon, especially among certain highly successful winemakers of the Central Coast (who shall remain nameless). The formula for success seems to be to make reasonably good wines (in whatever style), and to publicly be a “character,” i.e. outlandish, provocative, profane, and excessive in one’s remarks (facilitated, of course, by the generous consumption of one’s own product). Maybe these winemakers are channeling Bacchus, the God of Excess, or maybe they are just representing the thoroughly uninhibited person many of us aspire to be. In any event, I am somewhat in awe, and truthfully, a bit envious, when I observe these characters in action. []
  4. There were still beaucoup bad wines – think Mateus, Blue Nun and Wente Blanc de Blanc, and even dreadful Chianti that came in a fiasco, the chief virtue of which was that you could put a candle in it after the execrable contents were emptied. The known universe of wine seemed bounded then and this was comforting; it was largely knowable and navigable. European wines were what they were – great (except for the ones that weren’t) – and New World wines seemed to be getting better and better every year. []
  5. Interestingly, before the Robert Mondavi Winery set out on a campaign of voracious acquisition and growth, the company was fueled primarily by the sincere passion of Robert Mondavi and his great love of wine and the wine business. []
  6. It is worth remembering, by the way, that there does exist a greater world beyond the metes and bounds of our blogosphere. []
  7. The reader is undoubtedly aware of some of the ups and doons I’ve had in my relationship with Mr. Parker. []
  8. I recently participated in a symposium on upcoming grape varieties here in Portland, sponsored by the University of California, and presented along with the Director of Grape Research and Development for a very large, unnamed winery in Modesto, CA. He talked about what criteria his company looks at in considering the suitability of a new variety. Apart from the obvious criteria of viticultural ease and productivity, the company was looking, presumably through the agency of the execrable focus group, for certain desirable sensory profiles that customers correlated with wine “quality”: deep color, full body, bright and fruity flavors, specifically cherry and raspberry. What was considered utterly unacceptable were highly astringent varieties, anything pale in color, and, of course, anything, God forbid, that hinted of an herbal or vegetative aspect. They wanted sweetness and light varieties without any “dark” side, Stepford Wife cépages, if you will. If we don’t speak up for these oddball varieties, who will? []



Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!

Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)

Breakout Session:
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)

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Our crowdfunding campaign "Popelouchum Vineyard: 10,000 Grapes for a New Vine" is now over, but you can still buy perks, or donate to the cause.