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? []

“Vitischkeit” or The Doonish Problem

hornsThere is a problem, and it is somewhat unexpected, even counter-intuitive, if you will. When I blurt out to people that my company is not making any money, many tend to be incredulous. “The brand is so famous, you are so famous,” I will hear, and “the wines are better than ever.” “You’ve shrunk the company, cashed out (handsomely, they are thinking but not saying) and you are now focused on your dream. How great is that?” In the fantasy world of compulsory happy endings, following one’s dream, (especially preceded by a presumably generous payday or two), should lead to guaranteed success/happiness… And yet, it is all very mysterious…

Mystery #1, why the company is not making money, may be a bit surprising, but is not inexplicable. The company – certainly I must bear the responsibility for this – just did not make a lot of good business decisions (my own damn stubbornness and myopia) for the last five or more years. We didn’t make hay while the sun shined,1 as it were, failed to rebrand skillfully,2 didn’t raise our prices and lower our costs – all of the things that a company needs to do to achieve functionality and profitability in a highly competitive environment. Mystery #2, why the mainstream press has not been particularly supportive of our recent efforts (indeed, seeming to relegate Bonny Doon and moi-même to a kind of airbrushed Stalin Era-style of invisibility vis-à-vis the late 20th century Rhône movement in the New World) is also not particularly surprising: I have mocked them, I’m afraid, sometimes mercilessly.3

stalingroupI’ve stopped that now (pretty much), but remain an outspoken critic of wine pointillism, of the pervasive overblown, overripe style, of the cult of the wine lifestyle/fetishism,4 and other aspects of the modern wine business that I find particularly egregious. In truth, the mainstream wine media and I are no longer members of the same tribe, if we ever were.

Mystery #3 is a difficult and painful one (and partially related to Mystery #4 as will become clear, or not, in a moment): some (mercifully, not all) of our distributors seem to have lost interest in our wines, or at least suggest, when pressed, that, while they personally like the wines a lot, indeed, virtually all find them to be truly better than ever, they also, for inexplicable reasons, find them somewhat challenging to sell.5 It is difficult for me to understand how our brand is truly perceived in the “market,” or seemingly, multiplicity of markets (if not universes), and it all seems rather Rashomon-like to me; I can hardly believe that people have such radically different perceptions of the same brand, the same wines.6

rashomonIn any event, these distributors (they know who they are) are generally terribly sorry and wring their hands, frustrated that they can’t do a better job for us.7

And in a (perhaps) related phenomenon (Mystery #4), why are many of the cleverest, most switched-on of the wine writers, some of whom I’m happy to count as friends (more or less),8 more than a little guarded or reticent to give a real ringing endorsement of the current or recent lineup of our wines? They seem happy to hang out with me, happy to write lengthy pieces about the fascinating plans I have for the future, but are still, incredibly (at least to me), largely incapable of breaking down and writing the magic words: “The wines are better than ever! Randall is doing important work that should be supported!9 Go out and buy this juice now!” (Exclamation points optional, of course.)

I’ve thought long and hard about this problem, and of the issue of what might one legitimately expect as far as support (putting aside the question of in precisely what form that might be) from one’s friends; obviously, this has something (rather a lot) to do with the degree of closeness, length of association, and a thousand other factors derived from the fabric of human experience.10 We want to help our friends, of course, but generally only to the extent that we are not putting ourselves too much in harm’s way, and if there is some sort of potential psychic pay-off to ourselves at the end of the day. So, why is it so hard for my friends to speak up on my behalf?11

Perhaps they truly are not so impressed with the wines – bear in mind that relatively subtle wines such as ours, not obvious blockbusters, are very difficult for a critic to give that resounding thumbs up.12 This is the fairly obvious hypothesis, and it may be true, but it begs the larger question. If we are producing wines in a style that “enlightened” critics embrace, just why has it been so difficult for them to put themselves out on a medium-sized limb and speak up?RG_CardinalZin

Clearly, I have, in part, been my very own worst enemy. Being the notorious advocate for Bonny Doon Vineyard wines – some good, some maybe less than particularly stellar – for so many years, it is not surprising that there remains some residual skepticism of the sincerity of my declarations.13 Certainly, I was a bit over-the-top with some of my shenanigans – dressing up as Cardinal Zin at public events, accompanied by a coterie of sassy, ruler-brandishing nuns.

Perhaps these behaviors were compelled by a deep-seated, visceral, almost genetic fear of failure, (coupled with a perhaps less-than-perfectly-genteel upbringing). In the absence of any real training in (or even for that matter, real comprehension of) the business of business, I had nothing to rely upon but my wits to stave off catastrophic failure. I was, perhaps still am, in short, the stereotypical rude Ostländer: one who has not properly learned his manners. ordealbookcover

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Cuddihy wrote about the psychic conflict of shtetl Jews suddenly thrust into modernity and the deep ambivalence of the already assimilated Jewish intelligentsia – Marx, Freud and Levi-Strauss – whose cultural critique of the dominant Gentile culture, Cuddihy argued, mirrored their own psychic conflict.14 I have myself been fighting my own psychic battle – mostly a question of whether I truly dare to aim for greatness (and risk colossal failure) or rely on the safer course, producing wines that are good enough and, in some sense, commercial. Well, my friends, that ship has already sailed, and there is no turning back.15

While the reluctance of my friends to speak up for the wines may be due to their slight embarrassment at my earlier behavior, or perhaps, more realistically, they are just afraid of backing the wrong horse, of appearing foolish, or worse, having their hearts broken if I fail to follow through on my putative commitment to real excellence and originality.16 They certainly grasp the audacity and worthiness of my proposed enterprise, but want to make sure that I remain on the straight and narrow; by praising the current line-up, perhaps they are fearful that I might regress to earlier behavior patterns, modify the trajectory of my arc, and somehow, tragically, settle for less.17
While it would be great to receive greater encouragement from the friendly wine critics I truly care about – it may in fact be the difference between surviving and not – at the same time, in the end it may also prove to be a distraction. I used to worry so much about what Parker and the Wine Spectator would say about the wines; they were always the unseen Superego I was trying to please. Learning that there is no way that I am ever going to please them has proven to be utterly liberating. For now, there is nothing to do but focus on the work18 to be doon.

  1. Which is not to suggest that the sun was shining consistently throughout this period, especially in 2008 and 2009. []
  2. Note, this is not the easiest thing to do, even for people who are really good at it, and we were, or at least I was, totally out of my league in this department. []
  3. Possibly a function of my own narcissism and inability to take either legitimate or illegitimate criticism in stride, with a certain propensity toward total ballisticity when met with the latter. []
  4. This last item is perhaps a bit disingenuous, as I would likely hesitate for no more than a Beaujolais Nouveau second to trade my brand’s perhaps slightly umbral status for extreme cultdom. []
  5. This is an incredibly complex problem. In a few instances, the problems may have stemmed from the sale of the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands six years ago, resulting in continuing brand confusion in the marketplace. (Most people are finding it hard to take in new information these days.) But as far as the wholesalers, these mega-brands were a rather important revenue source for them, and, in their sale, we hurt some of our wholesalers (with no malice, of course) in the pocketbook. In some cases, especially in the instance of larger distributors, we have become just no longer economically significant to them – nothing more than a rounding error in some cases; for some of the smaller distributors, perhaps it is now harder for them to sell the more esoteric and expensive brands without Big House as the icebreaker. But certainly the bulk of the issue is related to the deep structural problems inhering in the current state of wine distribution. There has been considerable consolidation in many markets – mid-sized distributors gobbled up or squeezed out by large companies – leaving large suppliers with large marketing budgets to have their way with restaurant chains, hotel groups and mega-retailers. Volume, more than quality of placement, really seems to be the byword. (The notion of “brand building” seems to be something like a quaint anachronism.) Small independent retailers and restaurants (and wholesalers) are still, for the most part, continuing to fight the good fight, but they are heading into a strong headwind. It is my conceit that wholesalers, like wineries and essentially everyone these days, is struggling to find a sense of their own relevance. We have to be making a product or offering a service that is truly necessary. (How many of us can claim to truly do that?) []
  6. The problem seems to occur mostly in “red states.” []
  7. Most everyone is scared about the future (and about the present in most cases, too), whether one admits it to anyone, even to oneself. When you are operating essentially on a survival basis, it is hard to remain focused on the potentially sublime, transcendental and inspiring elements of the wine business. In a practical sense, time is money, and you’d prefer not to spend any of those precious commodities, explaining the great virtues of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc grown on gravelly soil with an eastern exposition, and how the resultant wine is so utterly brilliant for gastronomy, viz. paired with a lobster and fennel risotto. []
  8. Important note: I would not characterize most of them as “close” friends, but certainly as “friendly” – respectful and always a pleasure to spend time with. []
  9. It is horrifying for me to spell this out so baldly. I seem to be saying that they are just “not getting it.” (I think that, in fact, they are not getting it.) But in their defense, I would suggest that the reasons may well be due in part to the deep problem of evaluating the real value of New World wines, and, in part, to the psychological issues I will very foolishly attempt to elucidate (see footnotes infra). There is also the very remote possibility that the wines are, in fact, not as great as I think they are. On a certain level, the friendly critics may believe they are currently supporting me by being somewhat parsimonious in their praise of the wines. Perhaps they imagine that the rigorous standards to which they hold me – no easy “A”s or grading on the curve – will inspire me to work harder and perhaps “live up to my potential.” []
  10. It is a source of shame to me that I am generally so self-absorbed as to not take a more active interest in the affairs of my friends and loved ones. []
  11. If there ever was any doubt about the degree of my narcissism, this should settle matters once and for all: while there is absolutely no doubt that my friends wish me (at least with their conscious minds) the greatest success in all of my ventures, it is not inconceivable that their good wishes may be tinged with the teensiest bit of ambivalence. I’m not exactly saying that they are on a subconscious level jealous of my (putative) success, but rather, that I may have triggered an innate competitive response by inadvertently drifting into their No Fly Zone, upsetting the Natural Order of Things. As a published author (who enjoyed some critical success), how could they not want to be a little tougher on me than on anyone else? I am the Winemaker after all, not the Wine Writer, and where is it geschriven that I might have the last word? And then, there is this other thing I do that just utterly pisses guys off. I seem to change my direction rather too often (it’s all utterly consistent from my own point of view), thus coming off as, if perhaps not a weasel, at least as someone whom one has to watch closely and warily. Men, in general (in comparison to women), are far less tolerant of other men whom they perceive to be mercurial shape-shifters. At least I am. It is a cardinal rule among men that we not allow ourselves to be duped or even to look remotely foolish. []
  12. This itself is an important question that I’ve wrestled with elsewhere. I believe that to evaluate the qualities of a wine is an incredibly difficult, often largely subjective, virtually always non-replicable exercise, utterly fraught with many variables (time of day, air and wine temperature, fluctuation of atmospheric pressure, influence of lunar/solar phenomena, physiological and emotional state of the taster, degree of turbidity of the wine, degree of turbidity of the consciousness of the taster, etc.) Because of all of these variables, it is not surprising that most wine critics have chosen to look for certain polestars to which they might orient themselves. For Parker and the Wine Spectator, it has been concentration, “ripeness,” power, low acidity, soft but detectable tannins and the presence of a certain amount of the very best oak that money can buy. These are qualities that can be detected with some degree of consistency, and this is incredibly helpful to the critic who wishes to maintain consistency of his own personal brand. For “counter-critics,” it may well be the absence of the aforementioned qualities that make wines interesting, though the positive presence or sensation of “minerality,” acidity, appearance of optical turbidity and other signifiers (volatile acidity, 4 ethyl-phenol) of non-interference in the winemaking process may also be relevant. []
  13. I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion the opprobrium permanently affixed to one’s name after having enjoyed but one capriotic liaison d’amour. []
  14. I remember Cuddihy writing something to the effect of, “Scratch the surface of an “id” (or “it”) and what you find beneath is a “Yid.” In my case, of course, it would be a “Vit.” []
  15. It just remains for me to perhaps be a lot more convincing, as I am the Boy Who Cried Terroir, and virtually everything else. []
  16. The real commitment is to making the sincere effort to produce a vin de terroir, and to following that resultant path wherever it leads. []
  17. (There is, by the way, no chance of that.) []
  18. “Work!” quoth Maynard G. Krebs. []

Waiting for Godello: Bringing an Alternative Variety to Market

I’ve been a partisan of “alternative varieties” for a long time, partially because I am a non-conformist by nature, but also for two significant reasons: 1) I am convinced that so much of what has been planted in the New World is a result of an historical accident1 and/or a function of commercial expediency, not necessarily because it was the ideal grape to be grown on a given site. The idealist/dreamer in me imagines that somehow, with enough intuition/insight, one might be able to work out the specific varieties that might be better matched to a site (though precisely how this would be worked out is perhaps a little more problematic). 2) The pragmatic side of me also discovered that the less fashionable pre-existing varieties were (at least historically speaking) grossly undervalued, relative to the “popular” ones; at Bonny Doon, we have toiled in the obscure fields of Grenache (back in the day when it was obscure), Cinsault, Riesling, Muscat (years ago), Malvasia Bianca and, more recently, old-vine Carignane (still largely undervalued).2 (We’ve also made raspberry wine, “wines of the icebox,” and have worked diligently to seek out any real, interesting, undervalued vinous proposition.) At the time, it was my thought that it would be far easier to establish a small niche in an under-populated ecosystem rather than go head-to-head with every other winery that produced the more popular varieties. We used marketing black magic on these Ugly Duckling grape varieties and wines to add value, much like restaurateurs do to rebrand less popular (and less expensive) cuts of meat.

We’ve certainly had our innings planting “new” grapes for California and the New World – rather more than I can even remember. Trying to establish “new” or unconventional varieties de novo carries unique risks and uncertain rewards. Some of our efforts were viticulturally successful but commercially disastrous (Freisa, for example), some viticulturally and commercially disastrous (Dolcetto in the Salinas Valley is one that comes to mind), some, like Roussanne, accidentally successful on both counts (but only after some long years in the wilderness). Some varieties appear to have great potential on a variety of sites – Albariño and amazingly, Loureiro (but there is no way to divine this fact a priori) – which is exhilarating and alarming at the same time. But the point here is that, if it was risky to try these unusual varieties ten or twenty years ago, it is perhaps even more perilous to do so now.

Everything has changed. The wine business has entered hyper-competitive mode in recent years. The great bargains, at least as far as grapes are concerned, have largely been scooped up; prices this year and next are certainly strengthening. Historically “unpopular” varieties, such as Grenache and Muscat, have suddenly become fashionable – in the case of the latter one, due to supernatural causes. And, very significantly, there has been a severe constriction of distribution channels: distributors are generally not looking for new suppliers or new SKUs from existing suppliers (especially ones requiring significant explanation and exposition that need to be hand-sold). Proposing a New World Refosco, Teroldego, Schioppettino, or even Nebbiolo to one’s distributor would most likely be met with extreme incredulity.3

The problem in introducing new varieties is especially complicated by the fact that the cost of establishing vineyards in coastal areas is much higher than it’s ever been; one is competing with European vineyards that have presumably been paid for long ago.4 And European wines are far more available in the States than ever before. If you’re selling your domestic Sangiovese, not only does it need to be less expensive than great Chianti, it also must be significantly better.5 Then, you are still going to be greeted by retailers and restaurateurs who will not believe their own taste-buds and opt for the lesser, more expensive Chianti, if only from the belief (which is, in fact, reality-based) that it’s going to be a lot easier to sell than your supernal Sangiovese. Trust me, I’ve been doon this road.

It has never been a more difficult time to introduce an alternative variety into a severely Attention Deficit-afflicted marketplace, and we are faced with the equally difficult (if not more so) task of getting it absolutely right. Just how are we going to do that? (We don’t have the time – multiple generations are needed, really – to iterate and observe what precisely does best where and how.) How much Syrah was planted in the wrong location, on inappropriate soils? How much Sangiovese was planted with the wrong clone? Why would you or I imagine that we’re going to get it right? The fact is that you or I likely won’t.

The point is that simply identifying a cool new variety (and there are plenty of them – they usually end in vowels, by the way – Sagrantino, Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Uva di Troia) is not enough, not nearly enough of a recipe for success in these times. The potential market for these wines is largely dominated by the most über-wine geeks of the planet. Yes, there may well be a certain locavorian predilection in, say, Berkeley or Portland, but that salutary trait tends to be trumped by a more dominant Italophilia; these customers are generally skeptical (with good reason) about New World renditions of the Platonic ideals. The main thing we have going for us in the New World is our ability to get things ripe most of the time. To a certain extent, we can exploit that fact, but it only gets us so far. What we don’t do so well, with our often monoclonal, drip-irrigated vineyards, is produce wines with real dimensionality, distinctive soil-ful and soulful characteristics, and (dare I say) terroir.

I’m sorry to have to introduce the T-word here. I was hoping I didn’t have to, but this is my point in a nutshell so please pay attention. We must think beyond, far beyond, varietal wines. If you are trying to sell wine in the premium segment of the market, a good or excellent rendition of an emerging or offbeat variety does not offer enough. Without another dimension of complexity – the sense of place, of somewhereness – the wine will just not be compelling enough to compete. If we are concerned about true sustainability, and we all are, we must think about grapes that go beyond the fashionable flavor of the week and have a real reason for being. It is great that we are thinking about unusual varieties – this is perhaps my favorite form of reverie – but instead, or in addition, we should really be thinking about strategies to create a real sense of distinctiveness about the wines we make.

Honestly, we could do worse than to take a page from the Europeans and really focus on the sites where the grapes are grown. Can we identify the soils that impart distinctive characteristics to the wine? Can these soils, if skillfully farmed, support grapes without supplemental irrigation? Are there farming techniques that amplify soil characteristics? (Hint: yes there are.) In this crazy wine market we inhabit, we must learn how to develop a very wide vision of what is needed to create real complexity and distinction in the wines we produce. We can’t, for example, think only about the “best” varieties or “best” clones, but rather about what can be done to create more complexity and depth in our wines: a mélange of clones, most likely, possibly even a mélange of different plants grown together (a polyculture, if you will). We should be thinking very seriously about the farming techniques that create life in our soils and by extension, life, qi, in our wines.

I would like to propose an extremely radical idea, in the original sense of the word. Why not dispense with the idea of varietal wines altogether? Not just an extreme field blend of different varieties, though that could also be interesting, but something even more outlandish. We are trying something in our own vineyard in San Juan Bautista that may be quite mad, and is, on its face, utterly impractical, but may be revelatory if one is thinking along a very long temporal horizon.6 My thought is to hybridize vinifera grapes, making crosses based partially on observation and reason, partially on intuition, using Mother Nature to create a fair bit of diversity within certain parameters. Varieties deemed to be interesting and/or appropriate to a given site are crossed with one another; the paternal plant selected for its growth characteristics and the maternal plant for its flavor profile. Seeds are collected and then planted out, and infertile or non-viable plants are discarded.7 The gist of the idea is two-fold: might the extreme diversity of a population of unique genotypes, all in more or less the same family, allow the possibility of qualities above and beyond varietal character to emerge in a wine?8 And, just as significantly, using the power of Nature to create subtle and not so subtle variation within a population, might one be able to identify unique individuals that are perhaps more ideally suited to a given location? (Better drought resistance, earlier or later ripening, better acid balance, greater flavor intensity, that sort of thing.)

I’ll end with this thought: I’m not convinced that (with a couple of exceptions to be sure) there are such things as good, better or best grape varieties. What is of greater salience is the degree of congruity of a given grape (or set of grapes) to the challenges posed by a particular site. As human beings using only our wits, we are probably not clever enough to work out, in a single lifetime, what it has taken generations of Europeans to do. But perhaps by allowing Mother Nature to do the heavy lifting in the creation of genetic variation, we can accelerate the process of identifying the excellence of fit of a given variety or varieties to a particular site. There may well be some flaws in this reasoning, and the practicality of the project is a bit sketchy. But I think one needs to be a bit ambitious in one’s thinking in order to rise above the rather deafening din of the agora.

On June 19th, Randall will be speaking on this topic at the Alternative Varieties Symposium for the American Society for Enology and Viticulture National Conference (ASEV.org) in Portland, Oregon.

  1. The Old World plantations may well be accidental as well, but they’ve had enough time to iterate and observe which selections were most suitable to their sites, to confer the retrospective illusion of historical inevitability, or telos. []
  2. No need to go into the Carignane paradox. It is a vine that produces essentially miserable fruit for the first thirty to forty years of its existence, but when the vines are old, the grapes are brilliant. Of course, there cannot be such a thing as old-vine Carignane, unless there had been at some point some young-vine Carignane. This sort of long-term thinking is itself pretty much extinct at this point. []
  3. Some winemakers in the New World imagine that oddball winemaking techniques might be enough to establish a sense of distinctiveness in their wines. Ageing wine in amphorae, bottling with no SO2 are techniques that definitely make one’s wine a bit different, but (in and of themselves) are stylistic fetishes. []
  4. Establishing a relatively high production vineyard in the warm Central Valley with certain economies of scale might still be economically interesting, but is fraught with its own unique set of problems (i.e. is the casual drinker who buys his ½ gallon jugs or bag-in-the-box really ready for Uva di Troia di Fresno?) []
  5. Or perceived to be “better,” which is a discussion that is particularly fraught. Don’t get me started. []
  6. Questions of monetization will have to be bracketed. []
  7. It is obvious that this sort of practice can only be attempted in areas that are free from phylloxera; maybe as a version 1.0 they will have a finite life. But the interesting varieties that are identified could be grafted onto resistant rootstock in the 2.0 version. []
  8. This may well be a question related to the phenomenon of the perception of taste; will the diminution of the distinctiveness of varietal characteristics result in the sensation of a greater distinctiveness of soil characteristics? It could also be said that, while there is absolutely no way to predict the flavor characteristics of the projected wine at all, it would seem that the sheer complexity of the blend would likely produce a wine with a unique flavor profile. []

Doon to Earth (Redux)

My company, Bonny Doon Vineyard, is in some danger, perhaps some real danger if we are not careful, and by extension, so are my great and vivid dreams. Yes, the company has had its ups and doons over the years—a fire or two here, a plague of lethal bacterial-laden insects there, some less than favorable write-ups (or alternatively and more problematically, the Cone of Silence) from influential wine critics, but never has there been anything like a genuine existential threat. Through it all, I’ve always imagined that I have always been able to put on my Doonce cap, work out a solution, and have always found a way to land on my feet.

The world is different now, maybe not so forgiving, certainly more complicated. It’s not as if no one is sympathetic, that everyone has become hard-hearted, but truth be told, everyone has their own troubles. To remain visible, audible, and above all relevant, within the highly distracted, attention-diminished, deafening agora that is the modern wine business, is truly a daunting work.

The reality is that nothing terrible will happen this month or next month, or on the mid-term temporal horizon, though our bank tells us that we really do have shape up rather sooner than later. In the effort to “right-size” ourselves, the company has sustained some losses since the divestiture of the large volume brands, Big House and Cardinal Zin. I’ve sold off assets—the winery building, a vineyard, and most recently the Pacific Rim brand. Despite the jettisoning of all of this ballast, we are still, in candor, continuing to drift, using some (though clearly not all) of our wits, to catch something like an updraft.

Our costs are still too high, the price of our wine still too low. This is apparently the gist of the problem; it costs more to make less (likely an artifact of our Doon-sizing). Without getting into the nitty-gritty, we need to improve our margins and cut our costs. Moving to a more efficient facility—(¡San Juan; si, si!) might be one way—but the easiest way to improve profitability would be to greatly improve our direct-to-consumer (DTC) business—e-commerce, wine club, tasting room and restaurant sales. It is said that DTC is the Holy Grail for small wineries these days, which is another way of saying that it is something everyone wants to do but few really have the know-how to pull it off.

So, we must become very agile, very adept, at boosting our business with our end user, to wit, the archetypical Doonstah. We have just hired a new General Manager, Jim Connell, who has had great experience managing restaurants and tasting rooms and is the closest thing to a true DTC maven as one will find in California. His consummate wish (if I may put words in his mouth) would be to enhance the experience of visitors to our tasting room and restaurant, imprinting them definitively and irreversibly on the Dooniverse. This is something that we have been able to do unselfconsciously for so many years, especially when we were up on the hill in Bonny Doon. Perhaps it has been a kind an enchantment that we gradually lost a sense of what we effortlessly did so well for so long.1

Jim talks about the need to engage our customers on a very personal basis—to greet them, make them feel welcome with good eye contact, and make the experience about them. This may be Enlightened Hospitality or may be Salesmanship 101, but it is a course that I have never personally attended. It has always been my style to enter a room, declaim wildly, weaving what I trust is a compelling story2 and having said my piece, discreetly slink away.3 Clearly, this is not a sustainable style for the New Era.

My fear is that some of the (tragic) elements of my own personality have become inculcated within the company culture. I write passionately, if not floridly, as you all well know, and have always imagined that I could make the written case for Bonny Doon Vineyard wine—no need for the messy business of actually talking to people in real time or space.4


How this relates to the Land of DEWN: It was a couple of years ago that we came to the stark, chilling realization that we had lost a number of members of our club, some of whom were just not coming back, and most unfortunately, had not been adequately replenished by the addition of new members. (The fact that there was a global economic downturn of profound magnitude may well have been a contributing factor to this phenomenon.) We sent a few e-mails to the customers, inviting them back, half-heartedly attempted to call a few, but not nearly enough, nor with the real spirit and determination to bring them back into the fold.

I have persisted in the notion that, were our errant customers to really grasp the extraordinary things we were planning for the future, how could they fail to reënlist? It came to me in an eidetic moment. The seed! We would be growing grapes from seed in our new place in San Juan Bautista. No matter that no one has done this before, and that it is fraught with great risk—at the same time, it is a potentially extraordinary way to grow grapes and may well hold the key to producing a true vin de terroir.5 But, for our purposes, the seed is an incredibly powerful image—, the unfolding of the future, the fulfillment of latent potential. This is at least the one agricultural image that for me makes me misty-eyed. We would send our prodigal DEWNies a post card with a grape seed affixed thereto, and some stirring language, inviting them to rejoin the fold. Apart from the challenging technical issues of getting the seed to stick to the paper, surviving its postal journey and so forth, there was non-trivial expense in putting the package together, the daunting cost of the mailing itself, and the results in the end were less than wildly successful.6


The message, which has taken some years to penetrate my dense cranium, is that in sales, one lives or dies in the immediacy and intimacy of the human connection with the consumer. It doesn’t work so well to mail, to email, to attempt to initiate a behavioral change in one’s customer at a distance.

I lost my father a little over a year ago, and have, of course, been thinking a lot about him. I remember very vividly that when I was perhaps eight or nine years old, approximately the age of my daughter now, my father decided that I needed to learn certain compulsory life-skills, and for him at least, the key one was that of salesmanship. At the time, he had a store in Hollywood, selling tools and general merchandise to a somewhat disreputable collection of customers, hustlers you might call them, who would resell the goods, out of their car or door to door. This was not anything I wanted any part of; some aspect of this commerce seemed less than above-board. One day, my dad brought home a case of first-aid kits—these were not American Red Cross issue, to be sure—but they contained band-aids, Mercurochrome, the typical gear to patch up scrapes and bruises. My dad “sold” them to my younger brother and myself, with the instruction that we were to mark them up three or four dollars and sell them door-to-door. “Don’t come back until you’ve sold them all,” we were told. Now, I had some difficulty with the whole concept of mark-up—this seemed to me to be something like profiteering to my young mind, but the real problem I had was ringing the doorbells of strangers, and trying to persuade them to buy my slightly suspect first-aid kits.

I was a total failure—I sold maybe two or three kits, but my brother was an absolute natural and sold all of his. My brother went on to join my father in his business, which became slightly more reputable as the years went by. But, I think that my father always harbored a deep sense of disappointment in me due to me absolutely non-mercantile sensibility. I think that he always feared that I could never take care of myself were the chips truly down. I am fairly certain that the trauma of the experience has led to my singular inability to “close,” or ask for a sale, a skill that every salesperson must have in his repertoire.

So, now the chips are, if not down, at least downish, and I am thinking about the lesson that my father tried to teach me fifty years ago. I have a notion that is perhaps slightly mad. It is my thought to personally call all of the ex-DEWNies and invite them back into the fold. In other words, take out the first-aid kits that my father had given me years ago, and not come back until they are all sold.

I don’t know if I can actually do this; it seems as if it will take an incredible amount of time, and perhaps I will be just as bad at this job as I was with the first-aid kits. But, it is an opportunity to come doon to earth, talk to people (gasp), and maybe set a personal example within the company of the need to really take our business and our wines, seriously.

Maybe this is the message of the new century: We are all vulnerable in some way, and in the end, can rely upon no one but ourselves. Maybe this is depressing news, but it also seems to be a deep existential truth and one that we have to take to heart. But, at the same time, it is also clear that we are ever more connected to others, that our fate is theirs. It has never been more important to not take our friends for granted, nor to neglect telling the ones that we love that we ardently do so.7 Whatever the case, my dialing finger is very itchy.

1 In the past, it seems that we were fortunate to have effortlessly attracted a certain kind of person to our fold, one who was greatly attracted to the downright fun aspect of our value proposition. Now, of course, things are more serious (but not pious, I hope), and there is definitely a more measured tack to be taken.
2 Who was that masked man? Why, the Rhône Ranger.
3 Put this down to unrectified narcissism, preternatural shyness, what have you.
4 There have at times been feints at so-called groundedness or presence, evidenced by the very clever “Doon to Earth” cartoon we produced after the divestiture of Big House and Cardinal Zin. I understood then that I needed to become a lot more grounded and focused. But one’s deepest life challenges are of course a kind of labyrinth and one keeps returning again and again to them until they are resolved or alternately, do one in.
5 If you are a wine geek, the prospect of this wine of the future is unbelievably compelling, rather like Citroën announcing that they are about to unveil a car with a radically new design.
6 As I have mentioned many times, I am a Luftmensch, one whose head is generally in the clouds, abstracted, not exactly connecting with the world in particularly concrete terms. The promotional piece might have worked far better if its audience were themselves all Luftmenschen, i.e. readers of the New York Review of Books.
7 While one might imagine that the content of this communiqué might be a bit of an, ahem, dooner, the reality is that I have never felt more alive, exhilarated about this business that I love than I do at the present moment. The old ways of doing things and the old ways of being—empyrean and aloof—just don’t work so well any more. But, this is just an invitation to really think about everything in a new and vital way, literally from the ground up. One thing I know with certainty: Making wines that are merely very good, even excellent is no longer a possibility for me, if they are not coming from a place of real originality and distinction. Making wines with soul, which also nourish our souls, is what I must always bear in mind.

Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 2)

I’m planting a vineyard in San Juan Bautista; this much we know. It won’t look very much like a vineyard—rather more like an untamed, feral garden of one’s dreams that happens to grow some grapes.1 While it would be nice if this new vineyard/garden were at least nominally remunerative, the primary motive for this project is not monetary, but rather very personal. I’m hoping to bring something of real beauty into existence, as well as express a new range of genetic possibilities while leaving the aforesaid vineyard as some sort of bequeathal to the world. I’m also wondering whether this agricultural endeavor might somehow reconnect me to Nature writ large, and also perhaps to my own nature—that person, whomever he might be, who simply is, when not publically presenting or posturing.

Indeed, the new vineyard/garden/Eden I hope to (co)-create in San Juan Bautista may be my best—and possibly only—chance to learn how to become a lot more present—which is what ultimately I most profoundly seek. This opportunity creates a real sense of anxiety, because the decisions have not been pressure-tested, grounded, and because they require real shifts within myself. I’ll no longer be able to indulge myself in simple edicts like, “Black raspberries! There must be black raspberries!”2 I must now think deeply about all of the implications of any of these choices. There are a finite number of arrows in the quiver, and I must aim as truly as I can.

labyrinth3Still, some open issues have largely been settled since my most recent communiqué here. It’s now very clear to me that the earlier notion of collecting seeds from self-pollinating vines is probably not the greatest idea,3 but hybridizing vinifera with itself might in fact be very interesting. Plant hybridization is usually done with a very precise telos, a specific problem that needs to be solved. It’s imagined, for example, that there’s a potential market for a particular flavor or appearance in a seedless grape variety, but that grape, unfortunately, has seeds, not something that spitting-averse North Americans are really down with. Cross it with a seedless variety multiple times until you end up with something that has the flavor and appearance of the imagined grape but no seeds. Or, the grape has a marvelous aroma and a delicious flavor, but is a stingy yielder. Cross muscat of Alexandria (a relatively shy bearer) with the prolific grenache gris and Bob’s your uncle!4

“Greatness” in grapes is largely contextual—pinot noir is hardly great in Fresno. Moreover, there’s tremendous disparity in the presentation of so-called “great” grapes. For example, the size of the cluster and individual berry of most great grapes is generally modest—this insures proper and even ripening, resistance to such issues as bunch rot, and good flavor intensity in virtue of the skin to juice ratio. And yet, nebbiolo and grenache are both brilliant grapes, but both present a fairly large cluster (cutting off parts of aforesaid is usually most advantageous). And apart from centuries of experience with riesling, say, how would one obviously intuit that it was vastly superior to sylvaner, which is not so dissimilar in appearance? Certainly to start, you would need to see them growing side by side and likely in several different contexts. In conversation with Professor Andy Walker, geneticist and endowed chair in viticulture at UC Davis, I asked pointedly if he reckoned there were any visible characteristics that bespoke greatness in particular grape varieties. Andy posited that in his experience, a number of great grapes—both red and white—seem to share the odd property of exhibiting red striations in their canes. This artifact might well be a function of a red-clustered antecedent in the woodshed, but more relevantly, it might also be an indication of genomic complexity with a super-abundance of biochemical elaboration. Dolcetto and charbono, however, both exhibit red striations in their canes but IMHO produce wines of relative simplicity.5 Maybe the art of grape vine observation is a bit like phrenology, the divination of occult qualities by the observation of the more visible ones.

grapesWine grapes are typically bred for such traits as cold-hardiness, disease resistance, greater yield, earlier or later ripening, etc., but seldom in recent history are they bred essentially for the sheer hell of it—as an indulgence of the breeder’s aesthetic whim or a dedication to an abstract (and perhaps ephemeral) notion of wine quality. So the question remains just how feasible it might be to discover and create something new and compelling,6 or even find the grape that perhaps makes a wine one would most like to drink.7 Ultimately, if the purpose of the exercise is to find a grape or set of grapes intended to optimally express the inherent unique qualities of the site, its terroir, the question really becomes how might one identify those grapes that are optimally suited to it—that in some sense belong. As an example, it was observed long ago that pinot noir was a particularly brilliant grape and generally well suited to the Côtes de Nuits, and with centuries of iteration and observation, an individual grower could find the individual vines on his site that were slightly better suited—they were a little sweeter, a little less prone to disease, or just happened to catch the vigneron’s eye. Through sélection massale, an individual cru could progressively grow more individuated, and better adapted to a particular site. Hand, meet glove.

In the case of San Juan, by allowing such expression of so much genetic diversity through hybridization, there may well emerge a set of individual plants that appear to be utterly at home there—indeed, look as if they’ve been there for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, it may well turn out that the blooming, buzzing confusion of thousands of genetically distinct individual vines, each with its own story to tell, may itself yield an utterly unique wine, a complex tapestry with special qualities that are the result of the accretion of minute differences.

Whichever path I pursue—perhaps it will be logical to pursue them both, the microcosm and macrocosm—it’s clear that the skill I must most assiduously cultivate is that of careful observation, admixed with intuition. My job will be to thoughtfully design arrays of potential interest and then look deeply at them for the appearance of startling new patterns.


Complexity, harmony, synchrony. How to begin? It could certainly be argued that the qualities I’m seeking in this vineyard plantation are not too dissimilar from the ones I’m seeking to discover within myself. As a winemaker, I’ve worked for most of my career with the notion that it was I who was directing or at least attempting to guide the “winemaking” process. But there have been other signifiers. Just a few years ago we mounted a couple of vertical Cigare Volant tastings, sampling wines from every extant vintage (albeit in large format, so the maturation process was greatly slowed). What was most surprising was that the two most interesting wines of the tasting were the ’84 and ’85 Cigares. It could be argued that they were great simply because they were old and bottled in large format, but I’m wondering if there isn’t perhaps a deeper lesson here. When I began producing Cigare, I (along with everyone else in North America) knew very little about Rhône grapes. In retrospect, it is nothing short of miraculous that the first vintages of Cigare came out well at all. I’m not arguing that I was divinely guided to work with Rhône grapes the way that Republican presidential candidates are guided to run for office, but rather that I had at the time something closer to a “beginner’s mind;” I was far more open to the suggestions of my own intuition. I was somehow more connected to something.8

It’s now very clear to me that despite whatever skill I might possess as a winemaker, my wit is in fact remarkably limited, and I’ve lately wondered if there might well be other ways of enhancing my own intuition without careering off in the direction of wholesale self-delusion. I’ve always been intrigued by accounts of those who have managed to somehow communicate with—what shall we call it?—a wider, broader world beyond our ken. At the same time, being a bit of a skeptic by nature, I’ve always imagined that participation in this psychic realm was something that would be forever beyond my grasp. But in holding this attitude, I have come to understand, I may well have created a major artificial barrier to my own personal development as a winemaker and as a human being, and I’m now reasonably certain that to make a wine of great complexity, I must find a way to let go of my own need to direct matters entirely, and somehow call on Nature’s infinite intelligence to assist me.

The name we’ve just bestowed on our property in San Juan Bautista is “Popelouchum,” the Mutsun word for the village settlement around the town. (Its secondary meaning is “paradise,” which can in no way be disputed.) I recently met some Native Americans and explained to them my desired aims for the property, and the Chief suggested I consider something like a vision quest there. At first he suggested that I spend four days fasting, with no food or water, and I’m not sure anyone can actually live four days in the outdoors without any water, but obviously: no computer, no iPhone, no Twitter, Facebook, no interaction with other people—conversing only with oneself, the nature spirits, and the wildlife of San Juan. The Chief finally agreed, to my great relief, that a twenty-four hour period, with access to drinking water, might be a more appropriate way to begin. But certainly an education in the solitary must be central to the practice: the exercise of seeking the True Thing only works if it gives one true joy in the absence of the refractory lens of the Other.

car-rg-melie2Also recently, my friend Jeff gave me a most unusual book called Perelandra Garden Workbook, by Machaelle Small Wright. The basic premise is that one can cultivate one’s intuition concerning appropriate actions to take in the garden (on whatever scale or by whatever metaphoric extension one considers the term). The notion relies on the existence of nature spirits called devas who are only too happy to help guide one toward the most suitable actions that will provide balance, harmony, and order. One might ask the devas about which particular seeds to sow, for example, when and where precisely to plant them, the most appropriate planting density, desired soil amendments, etc. The method is deceptively simple. You allow yourself to enter into a slightly meditative state, thus making the membrane of your own consciousness more permeable to that of Nature’s, and then use a method called “muscle-testing,” in which you ask the devas for guidance with carefully worded yes-or-no questions. Using the reactions of your own body as response—a greater or lesser degree of muscle strength or weakness—you more clearly discern Nature’s intentions; thus you have inserted your own body into a sort of feedback circuit with Nature’s will. The main idea, if I may be utterly simplistic, is that there’s a greater consciousness within and beyond our own, and that we can allow our decisions to be guided by our own intelligence, aided by a supra-rational force within our reach.

I’ve really only just begun the work. I’m still developing my technique to establish clear signs of “strength” or “weakness” in my muscle reactions; this is very challenging to me, as I tend to overthink things and second-guess myself. I’m horribly self-conscious of what I’m doing, certain that I must appear to be utterly foolish to any outward observer,9 and vaguely worried that I’m on a path of self-delusion.10 And of course one can certainly get a bit caught up with positing of the mere existence of “nature spirits” in the first place, each with its own particular personality, specialty, and even sub-specialty.

But one need not visually or auditorially observe these spirits nor even initially believe in their literal existence for this methodology to be effective. What one begins by taking on faith may gradually take on a greater degree of substantive reality, and the existence of these spirits (a reality in virtually every culture apart from that of us Westerners), represents a powerful metaphor for Nature’s intelligence. One can empirically observe the results of gradually following the advice of the nature spirits, as well as the changes in oneself, as one becomes more sensitive, observant, and intuitive.

This methodology is perfectly suited to the work that must be done at San Juan.11 As I’ve mentioned, there will be very different rules for this place—it won’t look like a vineyard, but rather like a garden. And yet, of all of the possible plants that can be planted, one must still choose. If you are going to hybridize vinifera vines, there are truly no extant guidelines; you only have your intuition as to what might make the most useful cross in your unique location. The whole notion of a mixed or promiscuous plantation is to find the most appropriate biotic balance for ongoing sustainability, and this is not something that a mortal human being, or at least this particular one, is likely to just accidentally hit upon.

Whatever we end up planting at Popelouchum, it will be an opportunity for me to become more present, more deliberate, and to push myself into strange and unfamiliar areas. Will I end up hearing voices only audible to myself? In some sense, I truly hope so. The greatest impediment to my growth as a winemaker has been the internalization of the voices of those I’ve wished to please. It’s time to listen to another set of voices.

  1. This is sometimes piquantly referred to as “promiscuous culture.” []
  2. Or olives, pêche de vigne, quince, mirabelle plums, pomegranate and exotic varieties of figs and diverse citrus of every stripe and hue. If I’m not careful, the laundry list of desired produce will read a bit like the Song of Solomon or perhaps Noah’s Ark. We did in fact plant a slew of black raspberries, a plant known to be very difficult to grow and susceptible to all manner of disease—only because I know them to be the most delicious raspberry of all. We obtained the plants from a nursery in New York (maybe too late in the season) and disappointingly, had a rather poor stand. The plants that did survive, however, are looking very good (touch brambly wood). []
  3. If you collect the seeds of a self-pollinating vinifera grape, there will be a significant number of genetic anomalies in the offspring, depending on the variety and how genetically stable, i.e., how old a variety it is). This holds true for any species—collies or Hapsburgs—which has become too inbred, and leads to all sorts of genetic defects—hip dysplasia, idiocy, hemophilia, etc. []
  4. You end up with “Symphony,” a very nice grape that expresses discreet Muscat character and yields like crazy; it has not, alas, set the wine world on fire. []
  5. We know in fact that the pinot genome is longer than the human one—intuitively, at least, this is a partial explanation of its greatness. I have no idea how complicated it would be to measure the relative length of the grape genome, or even if this ultimately correlates to anything, but it would be an interesting avenue to pursue. []
  6. And indeed, by a certain logic, why would one want to or need to create new grape varieties, as there are already a dizzying profusion of grapes, many (most) of which have not been adopted commercially? It could be argued that the only real logical reason for continuing to breed vinifera grapes is to look for new strains that solve particular problems—and the biggest problem is that disease organisms themselves evolve, growing progressively more virulent over time, whereas the genetics of domesticated grapes have largely been unchanged over the last thousand years. The New York Times published a piece recently suggesting that the potential problem with domesticated (vinifera) grapes has been that they have not enjoyed a particularly active sex life over the last millennium. I am afraid that the scope of this particular exercise will probably not permit me to introduce non-vinifera species into this particular pool. Finding grapes that are most sublime when turned into wine and are also more resistant to powdery mildew, phylloxera, Pierce’s Disease, and nematodes might well be just too wide-ranging a brief to address this lifetime. []
  7. A writer is faced with a similar conundrum. There are certainly plenty of books—some of them great, some less so—out there to read. But only the writer knows what is the book that he most wants to read. If he can’t find such a book, he has no choice but to write it himself. []
  8. But how does one know if one’s connected to a higher intelligence or simply to one’s own propensity for grandiose thinking? []
  9. And of course worried about failure in the material realm. What if the wine that I make from the new hybrids tastes just utterly dreadful? []
  10. This blog post itself has been incredibly difficult for me to finish, undoubtedly due to the fact that I have my own fears of appearing to be utterly foolish. But meeting these fears is no doubt essential to one’s spiritual growth. []
  11. I’ve also been privileged to spend some time with several indigenous people in the area. For them, our world is utterly alive with spirits that walk along side us. []


Wine Styles Virtual Winemaker Tasting

Saturday, April 18
6:30pm est

Join Randall Grahm for a LIVE virtual wine tasting event hosted by WineStyles.  In real time, taste 5 wines along side Randall and ask him your questions online.  Seating is limited – call your local WineStyles to RSVP.
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2009 Le Cigare Volant RéserveElective Affinities

"Brilliant matchings of wine & literature"

CIGARE of the FUTURE | pg 253
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