I (Art) & Soul Winemaking
I became a winemaker and winery owner some thirty years before seemingly everyone else on the planet decided that they wanted to become one too. ((Most recently it’s been film and television stars, pop stars, professional athletes, as well as a range of oral and plastic surgeons, software engineers, venture capitalists, investment bankers, plumbing contractors and other high net-worth individuals, all of whom became seemingly tired of early a.m. makeup calls, grueling concert gigs, oral and plastic surgery, backed-up plumbing fixtures, etc.)), ((And now chefs and sommeliers have jumped into the fray. I can’t really fault the motivation of somms, as it would appear that theirs are not too dissimilar from those that initially impelled me on my own path. I was fortunate enough to have discovered wine while working in a wine shop. I loved the whole aesthetic and culture of fine wine immediately – what a magical world it was into which I had been suddenly thrust – but wanted somehow to be involved in it on a much deeper, more creative, hands-on level than simply drinking it and selling it; that is what compelled me to go back to school, attend UC Davis to learn how to grow grapes and make wine.)) Apart from not particularly welcoming the rash of competition, it has been fairly easy for me to attribute slightly less noble motivations to the arrivistes than I imagine I harbor within myself, although perhaps they are simply a lot more honest with themselves than I have been with myself about what truly motivates them. ((For example, it would be quite surprising for this new crop of winemakers and winery owners to proclaim that they are seeking to produce breathtakingly original wine. If they truly have a ton of money, they might well express the desire to make “great’ wine. (Translation: This usually means that they plan to hire the most expensive winemaking consultants they can find who can guide them in the direction of achieving high point-scoring, and generally pretty formulaic wines.) If they are possessed of slightly more modest means, they have most likely entered the wine business as a way of achieving a certain “life-style,” i.e. eating and drinking well, but most importantly, impressing the shit out of their social peers. But what I am hoping to discuss in this article is the idea of using wine to discover one’s interior life as opposed to a means of achieving a more fashionable “life-style.”)), ((If we are really laying our soul bare here, my best recollection is that upon entering the business I did not have a conscious expectation that some winemakers would ultimately become thought of as celebrities of a sort, but perhaps could have intuited that this might come to pass. (Remember, this was well before the era of “celebrity chefs.”) But after I was on the cover of the Wine Spectator as the putative “Rhône Ranger” and became, at least in some quarters, some sort of wine celebrity, with the silliness that attends thereto; it would be disingenuous to insist that I haven’t, at times, to my discredit, more than slightly wallowed in the approbation. (The primary benefit of this notoriety has been the ability to more reliably secure restaurant reservations.) But being famous (in this petite Mondo Vino) is more than a little bittersweet; in recent years I would happily trade being far less famous for being slightly more prosperous. I do wrestle with the strongest feeling that anytime someone says something particularly flattering to me it’s a bit like taking a bite out of a very rich dessert. It tastes good at the moment, but you know that it isn’t providing any real benefit to you in the longer term, rather the contrary. My less noble self is unfortunately rather self-absorbed and at least mildly if not utterly narcissistic; my career path has likely nourished this less attractive part of me whilst simultaneously feeding the more virtuous bits.))
I was a bit too young to experience the mid-‘60s and its quixotic, neuro-expansive aspirations with full force, which was perhaps a fortunate outcome. But there was still enough residual patchouli (and God knows what else) in the atmosphere in the early ‘70s to cense my sensibility with a healthy skepticism about following any of the prescribed career paths, ((To paraphrase Zappa, I knew then that “brown shoes don’t make it” but was not entirely sure what other options were available.)) as well as to engender a certain kind of naïve optimism that even in the absence of a plan, things would somehow work out. (In our current age, this seems like a belief system from antiquity.) I had studied philosophy and literature (and pre-med among other things) at UC Santa Cruz, ((Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp, as it was known in the day. I was not the only puer aeternis of UCSC who floated like a jellyfish on the surf.)) with essentially no career game plan in mind, and took my very sweet time in ultimately securing a diploma; this just drove my parents absolutely nuts, which was, of course, a secondary gain.
It is hard, at least for me at this remove, to even imagine how I could have simply let myself get carried along on life’s surface, but float I did for several years. I worked for my dad for a year in his wholesale tool and merchandise business. (I helped put together a catalogue of the company’s wares, and did some other odd jobs.) The one certainty I had was that his business – the buying and selling of general merchandise – was absolutely not for me. How could one become at all passionate about selling widgets, or even simply care about the business deal qua deal, which was what seemed to get my dad up in the morning?
Can the winemaking life become a sort of spiritual path or even an avenue for personal development? This was certainly not how I thought of it when I first began. It is hard to precisely reconstruct how I conceived of where it was I was headed when I began, but as a child of the ‘60s-’70s, especially living in Northern California, a sparkly geode’s throw from Esalen Institute in Big Sur, the awareness of the human potential movement (think Abraham Maslow and Fritz Perls) seemed to be deeply inculcated into the minds of those of my cultural and generational milieu. We were all going to have to eventually find jobs, of course, but we also had to find jobs that had Meaning, ideally ones that would nurture us well beyond fulfilling our material needs.
While working on my undergraduate senior thesis on the Heidegerian notion of Dasein (alas, never to be completed), I wandered into a rather swanky wine shop a few blocks from my parents home in Beverly Hills, where I was staying. “Would you like to open a charge account?” I was asked the first time I visited the shop. (I was not yet even of drinking age.) I’m not quite sure how any young person who was trying to find his way to something vaguely connotative of adulthood, if not sophistication, could possibly have declined that invitation. ((A juicy morsel of gossip anent the shop’s well-heeled Beverly Hills clientele: Alas, I did not have a chance to personally witness this (it occurred slightly before my tenure), but I’m mostly convinced of its veracity. Among the shop’s show biz clientele was Frank Sinatra. He (or one of his minions) had asked the shop to send along several cases of the shop’s “best/most expensive white wine.” Several months later, the owner of the shop received a distraught ship-to-shore phone call from Sinatra himself, who was out on his boat. Apparently, the entourage was grilling steaks onboard and Ol’ Blue Eyes was very unhappy with the wine. A rather intoxicated Sinatra told the shop owner through the tenuous phone connection that all of the bottles were no %!@# good; he and his colleagues had thrown one bottle after another overboard as each had proved to be “too damn sweet.” (The shop had sent several cases of a rare, older vintage of Chateau d’Yquem.) )) I did not come from a family that really drank wine, and maybe that was part of the reason I took the offer. It was almost as if a most intriguing wormhole into a different dimension of experience was being offered.
The charge account led soon to temporary employment at the shop (the thesis was bogging down by then), and then to full-time employment, if not complete vinous immersion, that is to say, some pretty impressive opportunities to taste the greatest wines of the world, essentially on a daily basis. In a relatively short time I found myself grown into a full-fledged, insufferable wine person. ((I’ve written on several occasions on some of the telltale signs of extreme wine geekiness, but if you can without hesitation recite all of the Beaujolais crus, remember all of the permitted varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and can eidetically visualize a Bordeaux vintage chart spanning the last 100 years, you are certifiably a wine geek.)) When I left the wine shop a year later I briefly imagined that I might enter the wine trade in some capacity, perhaps as a wine importer. But I happened to take a home winemaking weekend course at UCLA Extension and not long after that the light went on. What I remember telling myself: “Randall, you have some very diverse interests and talents and can perhaps describe yourself as ‘eclectic.’” (This is another way of saying: “You seem to be reasonably intelligent but have the attention span of a flea.”) I have in general not been so clever at making certain life and/or business choices, but in this instance, a certain daimon was definitely whispering in my ear: “Listen carefully now, R.G. Learning to be a winemaker will help you knit together some of these very disparate elements of yourself and give your life a kind of focus, which, frankly, just between us, seems to be slightly lacking.” At the time I never really thought of myself as potentially some kind of artist or even a craftsman; ((Before even beginning to discuss whether winemaking is an art or a craft, it is important to draw a distinction between “winemakers” as we are called in the New World and “wine-growers,” or vignerons as they are referred to in France. To put it rather baldly, winemakers tout court can be true craftspeople, but all too often we devolve into little more than technicians, learning certain tricks to fix winemaking defects or problems, and perhaps (if we’re clever) learning to impose a certain (presumably pleasant and commercially viable) winemaking style on our wines. But the cultivation of this cleverness is also precisely what can inhibit us from ever developing Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship with the vines and the land on which they grow (cf. footnote infra). We can easily end up developing the hubristic belief that our limited human intelligence is somehow cleverer than that of Mother Nature’s and miss the larger Gestalt, which is the breathtaking organization of the unique qualities of the site itself, its terroir, or sense of place.)), ((There are a lot of reasons to think of winemaking as far more of a craft than an art in any real rigorous sense. As a craftsman, a winemaker is certainly following a utilitarian end – his or her product is intended to give pleasure to its ultimate consumer, but if the winemaker aspires to be a true winegrower, he must engage with his vineyards on a more intimate level, to understand that he is truly a partner with the land, not its subjugator. The true winegrower is always in process of learning how to truly “see” his land and vines, to systematically study what gives his site its uniqueness, and to discover how he might amplify these characteristics and bring them to the fore without other ostentatious elements distracting. (Alas, you really can’t learn any of this in books; it helps to have family that has farmed the same land for centuries.) Like any serious craftsman, the winegrower’s path is one of discovery. Just as a sculptor looks deeply into the qualities of a piece of marble to discover its deepest secrets, a vigneron is always looking for ways – the most appropriate vine treatment, crop yield, degree of ripeness, and of course, fermentation regimen and élevage or cellar treatment – to most eloquently express the site’s secrets and the unique qualities of the vintage. I am always astonished when I hear a vigneron whose family has been on the same parcel of land for more than five hundred years talk about continuing this path of the discovery of terroir. To this extent, terroir is a kind of mantra or meditative object that offers the vigneron an opportunity to become more observant and present with himself.)) I just wanted to find some sort of organizing principle for my life, or even just a vaguely remunerative gig.
I managed to graduate UC Davis and with the help of my family acquired some land in the Santa Cruz Mountains, ostensibly to make the Great American Pinot Noir. I failed spectacularly at making T.G.A.P.N. but was fortunate to discover the wines of southern France. ((The motivation for making Pinot came from a slightly different and more primal place – more like the desire to achieve something impossibly difficult and elusive, thus capturing fame, glory, immortality, etc.)) I didn’t know it at the time but it was a significant imaginative leap to begin working with Rhône grape varieties when I did in the early ‘80s. ((Virtually all innovations in every domain are more or less synchronistic, with the timing right for any number of others to have made a simultaneous discovery.)) Hardly anyone knew anything about these grapes. Blending the relevant ones together was an accidental masterstroke from a winemaking as well as marketing perspective; ((Jury may still be out on the marketing perspective. American customers are not yet sold on the idea of spending weighty sums on blended wines unless it is a bordelais blend, (still believed to hold good resale value). Monotheism and monocépageism both seem to still have a lot going for them as belief systems.)) it seemed that I was able to intuit a basic winemaking truism that if you are working with grape varieties that are themselves less than perfect in and of themselves, you can perhaps find or create complexity in a skillful blend, thus effectively disguising the shortcomings of the individual combinants. ((I must have known on an unconscious level that it was difficult to make a complex wine from a single variety in a reasonably warm climate and that in fact every Mediterranean grape growing area blends different grape varieties together to make a balanced wine of real flavor interest. But, most significantly, the Central Coast of California was indeed this sort of Mediterranean climat. Making this sort of imaginative leap was the first instance in my career of calling upon a different part of my psyche – the deeply intuitive – to summon up a solution to a winemaking problem.)), ((What is also really amazing is the fact that I made among the best if not the most inspired wines of my career when I had so little experience and really understood so very little about winemaking. Whether it was the case that I was looking at the process with very fresh eyes or was somehow channeling the intelligence of the supra-rational mind (because my rational mind was certainly not bringing much to the party), who knows? While becoming a successful winemaker absolutely requires a certain degree of technical expertise as well as experience, of course, none of these alone really propel one to true excellence without the added dimension of imagination and intuition.))
I have been dancing around the theme that I really wished to explore in this essay: Somehow my lucky choice of métier resulted in a chain of events that allowed me to discover myself as a sort of artist, or at the very least, seemed to unleash a spirit of creativity and intuition within me that had seemed to be utterly latent heretofore. I am not entirely convinced that winemaking in and of itself makes most of its practitioners more creative, but its work – the alchemical transformation of a baser material into something perhaps sublime – carries with it a potent metaphorical message: If you can transform grape juice, perhaps you can indeed transform yourself. ((There is far too much winemaking that is simply formulaic, sometimes literally so. In recent years, there has been the fashion of reverse-engineering the palates of the significant wine critics in the industry. To be able to do so is certainly a real talent but not really one that puts one in touch with any sort of artistic vision.))
Winemakers are often in the position of having to do many disparate things for their job, calling on very different sets of skills, if not exactly at the same moment, then certainly in the course of a given hour or day; we must become bricoleurs par excellence; ((There is no great English translation for this word – putterer, maybe, or Mr. Fix-it, but it conveys the idea of being able to cleverly connect and integrate disparate bits together, using the elements the present themselves to hand.)) I think that this may make us in all better problem solvers and sparks creativity in other realms. (At least it seems it did for me.) The impetus to solve problems creatively also exists when you are a small business owner/entrepreneur, with the attendant level of psychic investment that this position entails. If contemplating the gallows concentrates the mind, as Dr. Johnson suggests, then contemplating the potential demise of one’s company enables one to discover hidden internal resources – in my case, humor, a sense of artistic design, both in the visual and organoleptic realm, and even a kind of literary sensibility I didn’t know existed within me.
As the “Rhône Ranger,” I gained notoriety in the wine business as the champion of Rhône-styled wines, a category that was essentially unknown in the U.S. Having no background at all in marketing and a positive allergy to hard-core sales, I realized that like a Paleolithic hominid it would fall to me to fashion my own unique tools de novo to bring down the wooly mammoth that was the burgeoning wine business. I worked (intuitively) on first principles: I knew I had to create a certain context or point of reference for this inaugural New World Rhône blend, what was ultimately to be called “Le Cigare Volant,” a sort of homage to the French Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Amazingly (and rather fortunately) I discovered a truly bizarre ordinance adopted in 1954 by the town council of C. du P., prohibiting the landing of flying saucers and “flying cigars.” By obliquely referencing this ordinance on the label, I could contextualize the wine for the uninitiated, while not appearing to be a complete Frenchy-French copycat, and offering a slightly ironic commentary on the whole business in the bargain. I had somehow intuitively grasped some of the basic principles of marketing.
So, I accidentally discovered that wine drinkers who also happened to be readers could appreciate a wry and slightly subversive attitude toward the presentation of wine. Because I had such an aversion to “asking for the sale” ((I still have this strong aversion. It was possibly due to a childhood trauma whereby my well-intentioned father (who felt that his children needed to have the certain survival skills of salesmanship) set me out at the age of nine or ten with a case of first-aid kits, more or less instructing me not to come back until I had sold them all. I failed utterly. (This was possibly my “wound.”) )) or even to being so crass as to trumpet my wines’ singular virtues, I was compelled to find another way to ingratiate myself with customers, and to present some sort of value proposition. I found to my surprise that I was, with a little practice, able to write literary pastiches – these were stylistic wind sprints – in my quarterly newsletters, proffering a vinous take on the prose of such figures as Garcia Marquez, Kafka, Shakespeare, Poe, Pynchon, Salinger and others. As literary parody it was not exactly weapons-grade satire, but it gave me a sense of swimming in blue water, away from most of the competitors, and emboldened me to take further creative risks.
I didn’t really think of myself as possessing a great innate aesthetic sensibility, but was fortunate to be able to work with Chuck House, the great label designer, who certainly did and does; he gave me a great deal of confidence in my own judgment. Together we created a number of memorable labels, having great fun in the process. ((Chuck is a great guy and fabulous designer, but in the day (he’s much better now) not always the most organized person, often showing up to our label conference meetings at coffee houses in Sonoma County, forgetting to bring some of the relevant materials and tools needed to advance the design process. We would often prevail upon the neighboring customers to loan us lipstick (to use for red ink), eyeliner for use as a pencil. Napkins stood in for labels and catsup or other condiment bottles often stood in for wine bottles in these exercises.)) Maybe Malcolm Gladwell is right in his claim that it is largely repetition that enables mastery; in my own instance, it has not become mastery, but marginal competence. I have approximately one half of an aesthetic brain – I can’t draw or paint my way out of a corner, but can sometimes come up with reasonably clever design ideas and can usually tell if a particular design works or not. When I am fortunate enough to collaborate with a real artist, some sort of aesthetic completeness and magic can occasionally occur.
The winemaking path has not made me a true artist (though provided numerous opportunities to cultivate something like an artistic or at least aesthetic sensibility), nor maybe even yet a real craftsman, though I have hope that that may yet come to pass. (It has enabled me to hone my marketing chops, for what it’s worth.) But, analogous to the dissatisfaction I once experienced in being a mere wine consumer, which compelled me to become a winemaker and to engage on a deeper level, likewise I have in recent years grown unhappy with being a simple winemaker who is still largely a technician (with a few marketing skills) but not yet a craftsman in any meaningful sense.
I mentioned that I am a child of the ‘60s, a boomer, true to type, always looking for more meaning, if sometimes a bit confused about precisely where to find it. In the wine world I have achieved a certain amount of professional notoriety, though in candor, what I’ve done to date has really been of the most ephemeral significance in the scheme of things. ((I would strongly argue that the only real things that matter in the world of wine are vins de terroir, or wines of place. These enrich our lives in a very real way, like the discovery of a new species of bird, flower or star. They connect us with the world, with Nature’s intelligence in a special way that a “wine of effort” can never match.)) Nevertheless, I have learned to appreciate that with this métier I have been given a very special gift, a tonal range through which I might creatively express myself. ((My slightly autistic self was equipped with less than optimal connectivity to this world; without this career choice God only knows to what far orbit I might have been flung.)) But, I would suggest that success may not be merely about learning how to express oneself; it may well be tied up in the commitment to express something so much larger than one’s own point of view.
In Santa Cruz, where I live, we never quite completely grow up. For so many years I seem to have been stuck in the Kierkegaardian “ aesthetic” mode. As a winemaker, this has meant the opportunity to create a lot of interesting wine labels, to make some clever blends, to experiment with new and exotic grape varieties and some unusual wine styles; at best one might think of all of this as a form of performance art, at worst, the occupation of a dilettante. Perhaps in recent years I’ve gradually meandered into K’s “ethical” mode; as a company we’ve recently adopted the practice of transparency in wine labeling, i.e. scrupulously indicating all of the ingredients that touch the wine in the production process. Further, I have developed a deep commitment to meaningful sustainability in farming, to farm with minimal inputs and the lofty ambition of farming grapes without irrigation, for example in an area – San Juan Bautista – that is very, very dry. ((The thought here (without being overly pious) is to really do my best to be exemplary.))
Maybe it is because I have personally experienced such an extended term of adolescence that it has been only recently that I have been able to imagine what Kierkegaard’s “religious mode” might look like to a winemaker. Maybe the holiest sacrament of this church is a clod of dirt – one imbued with life, microbial life, at the very least. As a true craftsman in the highest sense, one might be given the rare privilege of becoming a translator of the humblest materiality – dirt and some bunches of grapes – into a great elixir that can move human beings to poetry and other unexpected deeds of great moment. ((Burgundy wine is believed to promote courage; I believe this with my entire being. When I’ve drunken extraordinary Burgundy, I cannot but help believe in the overwhelmingly benign character of the universe.)), ((My work in wine has been like a mystery that continues to be revealed. To this point it has perhaps been like a narrative that has been overly expository – a lot of telling with maybe not sufficient showing.))
I’m currently working on a new viticultural project, extending into the unknown and indefinite future, proposing a rather unorthodox methodology, the creation of a vast population of new grape varieties from seeds and planting a genetically diverse vineyard, thus effacing varietal characteristics. The presumption is that soil characteristics might therefore emerge, and perhaps one might seek to express that very elusive creature, the vin de terroir. ((This will also require a major shift in my own life-style. Currently, I spend a lot of time in wine sales, traveling the world, schlepping wine. I will need to very soon shift the onus of this responsibility to other members of my organization.)) Maybe this febrile dream is truly the fantasy of a Luftmensch, but its intention, at least, is to return myself to the vineyard, where I might somehow learn to “see,” and then at least partially transcend my Luftmensch nature. ((While it would be nice to eventually learn how to read and talk to human beings, my true ambition at this point is to learn how to begin to learn how to read nature.)) What could possibly go wrong? Perhaps everything. But, it feels to me as if I am at the very beginning of my career, connected (at least I imagine I am) to something much larger than myself.
Wine is largely made in service of the ego – you want people to know just how clever you are. Artists (or craftsmen) are or can often be egomaniacs; their art is the drug that gets them high, but it also allows them a sort of transcendence of their own baser impulses; it is transformative of everyone it touches. I don’t reckon that I will escape the prison of my own ego, but at last I am satisfied that some of the work I am doing will potentially have a usefulness beyond my own solipsistic horizon. And, (if I play my cards right), I’ll at least get outdoors more and breathe some healthy fresh air.
(This article appeared in a slightly different form in Catamaran Magazine.)