Reflections on the 35th Vintage: The Oily Burgundian Days (Part 1)

I’ve had recent occasion to meet up with a number of “old-timers” in the wine biz, guys (mostly) I’ve known in some capacity over the years and with whom I’ve chanced lately to become reacquainted, bumping into them typically at industry trade shows, and even at times in far-flung vineyards I’m sniffing out. (They, sly dogs, are also sniffing). If we haven’t seen one another in a while and the time-frame is somewhat close to harvest, the opening conversational gambit inevitably goes something like this: ((It may not be a surprise to you that wine production and grape guys are not generally possessed of Wildean or Shavian wit (I include myself in this assessment); they tend more toward the Shane-like locution.)) “So, what number (i.e. which harvest) is this for you?” The really old-timers will volunteer, “It’s my forty… or even, fifty-something-eth vintage (This was perhaps before progressive labor laws and pre-OSHA, i.e. a little before my time; many of these guys seemed to have started awfully young.) 1_tankcleaning So, while a number of folks have left the wine business after just a few years after discovering that, for example, carrying a bag (wine sales) was just not for them, or freshly recruited to the cellar crew, learning that cleaning out tanks at 7:00 a.m. in the morning in their rain suit was likewise not their cup of Jo-berg. But, it seems that if you have managed to stick out the first few years of the wine biz, it was quite likely you would more or less stick around this way of life forever.

So, when a recently discovered acquaintance asked me how many years it was for me, I did a brief calculation and concluded that it appeared to have been thirty-five years. “Appearance” being the operative word, as the sheer vastness of this length of time seemed to me both endlessly long, and at the same time, as fleeting as the briefest instant. And of course, the next thing I remember (neurotically) thinking was, “Thirty-five years in the business and what the hell have I accomplished?” ((Expanding beyond the dominant Cabo- and Chardo-centric paradigms to introduce the New World to Rhône grapes? (Yes, a reasonably clever idea at the time, but the smell of garrigue was already in the Zeitgeist air.) Freezing grapes for a less expensive dessert wine? (Cryo me a river.) Making the world safe for screwcaps? Puh-lease!)) 2_Rhoneranger I have learned some things over the years, but it has seemed to mostly about what one should not do. What to not do: Don’t listen overmuch to other people! ((Everyone has an opinion about what you should or should not be doing. Most people told me that I was utterly crazy when I stopped making Chardonnay in 1990. I was still a very young winemaker at the time, but knew enough that making wines that held absolutely no real interest personally was likely going to be somewhat soul-deadening. There remain a number of people in the wine industry who (amazingly) make very successful wines that they personally cannot abide. Somehow, it seems to work for them, and it is not my place to judge. (Perhaps they have kids who want to go college.))) Don’t imagine that wine (as great as it is, and it really is great) will utterly fill up your world. Try to find some other outside interests. (Haven’t been particularly successful in that regard.) Don’t imagine that in your cleverness, you will figure it out for yourself. (Rather, try to figure out how to put yourself in relation to circumstances such that the Universe might possibly teach you something, ((I remain utterly humbled by my experience a few years ago when we mounted an ambitious vertical tasting of twenty-five vintages of Le Cigare Volant (en grand format), and the two most interesting wines of the evening were the ’84 and ’85 vintage, produced when I knew absolutely nothing about winemaking and possibly even less about the wines and grapes of the Rhône. But, I had somehow accidentally put myself into some sort of favorable position with respect to the universe vis-à-vis creating some sort of openness to its instruction. )) or alternately, try to make wine in such a way that you are allowing Nature to do all the real heavy lifting.) ((This is really the key part of my strategy moving forward on the “10,000 New Grape Varieties” project. I will do my best to follow sound “first principles” – focusing primarily on soil health, as I am certain that many wonderful expressions of the grape flow from there. I think that truly the best way I might deploy my human “cleverness” is to try to work out the most interesting ways to leverage Nature’s raw combinative power to create the conditions for a unique, unexpected and strikingly beautiful Gestalt to emerge. But to intend an imagined, particular configuration would be the highest folly.))

The first year out of Davis I worked for Dick Smothers at his Vine Hill Vineyard in Scotts Valley, just outside of Santa Cruz. I had loved “The Smothers Brothers” television show as a kid, admired their anti-war stance, and empathized greatly with their extreme difficulty in dealing with authority (a problem I’ve continued to wrestle with, pretty much consistently since then). 3_SmothersbrothersDick wasn’t terribly involved in the winery at that point; he pretty much left all of the winemaking decisions to Bill Arnold, his winemaker, whom I had known briefly when I was at Davis. Bill was a singular character, a personage seemingly from another century – tall, lanky, slightly stooped, with sharp Yankee features, vaguely Ichabod Crane-like in appearance – misanthropic, cynical, anguished, embittered, but arguably one of the funniest humans I had ever met, with a great love of ornamental language and the exquisite mot. ((I owe him a great debt, not least for being my first winemaking mentor, but as well for creating a certain persistent association in my mind between wine and humor, (or maybe it was work and humor). In any event, while Bill certainly took his own work very, very seriously, he alerted me to the rampant pretension of the industry, and since then I’ve been a bit cynical myself – maybe it’s part jealousy – with regard to the fancy-schmancy wines produced slightly to the north of these parts. I still, of course, believe in wine. Great wine itself is (or can be) utterly sublime, but we mortals are always making fools of ourselves in presenting ourselves as infallible arbiters of its merit. We properly should adopt an attitude of gratitude and humility for its great gift.)) Something rather disturbing clearly must have happened to him somewhere along the way – I suspect it was his experience in the Army – which by his account was unspeakably traumatic. (His issues with authority were even knottier than mine.) His obsessive and continuous kvetching anent the imbecility of former bosses, wholesalers, growers, vendors, or other winemakers – “Butchers!” or better yet, “Bouchers!” – was equal parts Ignatius Reilly and H.L. Mencken and endlessly entertaining to me – maybe, it was not to everybody’s taste – and I imagined that it wasn’t easy being Bill. ((He and I both shared a great admiration for S. J. Perelman’s withering wit.))
4_H.L. Mencken
What I remember most about my time at Smothers were the preternaturally long, virtually hallucinatory nights of pressing white grapes in the tiny pneumatic press, ((I can’t help but add that wineries then and now largely now operate on three essential elements, a sort of vine qua non, as it were – bungee cords, Visqueen (polyethylene sheeting, for the uninitiated), and, of course, duct tape, the universal method of plugging leaks and adhering Visqueen to whatever surface was required.)) Bill was very insistent about cleanliness and hygiene, so every nook and cranny of the press would have to be scrubbed and hosed out both before and after the press cycle. And of course the stainless steel tanks would have to be thoroughly scrubbed before they would receive any juice or wine. 5_tankwasher(This was before the days of relatively easy cleaning presses and the ubiquity of automatic tank washers.) ((You were given a scrub brush, a pail of soda ash dissolved in hot water, and a hose, and you didn’t leave the tank until all of the wine-stained tartrates had disappeared from the sides of the stainless steel tank. Apart from arachnophobia and apiphobia being non-starters for cellar workers, claustrophobia also would instantly disqualify you. If a young intern at a winery found that he or she were beset by any of these psychological issues, he/she would generally be consigned to work in the tasting room, where it was warmer, dryer and significantly less insect-intensive. )) I’m not sure that Bill’s obsession with cleanliness greatly informed my subsequent winemaking efforts, but it certainly brought home the message that winemaking is really all about great attention to detail. You can certainly use your time more productively than manually cleaning a tank, but you were never going to make great wine without attending to the infinite details.

I vividly remember my first press-load of Riesling. You might call the set-up “semi-manual.” A 6” diameter nalgene hose fed by a must pump, that behaves more or less like a python in extremis, is bungee-corded to the doors of the press and the grape must is peristaltically egested. ((In those days, “whole-cluster” pressing of white grapes had yet to be adopted as standard practice. These were the days of “skin-contact” for virtually all white grapes; the real question was for how long.)) (Visqueen must also be deployed in some fashion, duct-taped, to be sure, to re-direct the flow of precious errant juice, which might otherwise land on the non-food-grade pavement. 6_Visqueen The cellar hand usually stands on the press in some non-OSHA-prescribed fashion, raking the must into one vacant corner of the press or another. But, what was extraordinary about pressing the Riesling was that I just couldn’t believe that, apart from discovering an actual hive, how could there be so many yellow jackets in a single place? ((Bees and wasps are very highly attracted to aromatic grapes, notably Muscats or other high terpene varieties. (I’m told that when Muscadelle de Bordelais grapes are picked, every wasp on the European continent comes out for a sniff.) When you’re pressing aromatic grapes, you hope for a very cool and foggy day, which seems to keep the swarm at bay.)) The unfortunate junior member of this small crew was compelled to put himself squarely in the thick of things, which turned out to be, most relevantly, an apian swarm. ((I’ve never really had “pressing duty” since then. The closest thing in recent history has been my routine presence at the sorting table, where one is systematically subjected to spiders, earwigs and other unexpected forms of insect (or other life forms.) Thank goodness we no longer deal with machine-harvested fruit at the winery; then you really have the opportunity to see the outer limits of MOG (material other than grapes).)) Again, I’m not quite sure what life-long lesson I derived from this: You have to suffer for your art? Wasps (of the buzzy variety) know the good stuff? Stop complaining; you will always get stung in life, whether by bees, yellow jackets or by the reviews of misguided wine critics, who might erroneously mistake elegance for wispiness.
I loved my time at Smothers – maybe it was partially due to the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be there forever – and if the dominant sense memory of it remains the sense of being continually cold and wet, my memory of what was to come next was perhaps its inverse. I was incredibly fortunate to have persuaded my parents to purchase some beautiful land in the magical hamlet of Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is where I lived for almost twenty years, and for me was really a kind of paradise. ((It really did feel as if I was being kicked out of paradise with the arrival of Pierce’s Disease in 1994. )) I had previously studied Plant Science at Davis, and while I had gained some rudiments of viticultural knowledge (mostly theoretical), I was still largely in the dark about most of the practical issues of operating a vineyard. ((Farming is really in the details – when to plant your cover crop, for example, to be prepared for the torrential rains. One year (1982) we weren’t really properly prepared and suffered substantial losses due to erosion. I was not winning any awards for most switched on/ecologically-minded farmer that year.)) Let’s face it: I was Eddie Albert in “Green Acres.” ((The locals saw me coming from miles away and were quite prepared to “help” me for a very modest fee.)) 8_EddieAlbertApart from a few slightly misguided efforts in driving the Kubota tractor to disc the vineyard – I should, for the record, never (either then or now) attempt to drive a tractor (it is a miracle I did not kill myself) – my most vivid memories of the vineyard are of the long summer days, and the magic of working at near-dusk, when the passage of time was semi-suspended. There was endless repetition to the work – mostly suckering, shoot-positioning and tying – but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment; I was gently guiding my charges in the right direction and making what I imagined was a positive, if incremental contribution to wine quality.

There was one season, when the vines were still getting established, that I undertook to do all of the hoeing of the vineyard – approximately twenty-eight acres, to be precise – myself. Granted, hoeing weeds is not precisely rocket science, maybe even its exact opposite, and I certainly could have found some minimum-wage workers to do the job, 9_zenmonk but this had become a sort of obsession. Take it from me that there is perhaps nothing as mindless/Zen-like as hoeing; it had become a personal challenge to me to see if I could subject my Monkey Mind to this sort of rigorous discipline. ((Could I ever become a (Sl)hoe Learner?)) (Maybe this little episode in my life was as close as I have ever gotten to something like a spiritual practice.) ((There was another unexpected spiritual practice I was accidentally roped into learning – PVC pipe repair. I am not what you might call the most gifted person as far as manual dexterity, but one skill I was compelled to learn was the installation of irrigation systems, which primarily consisted of the gluing of PVC pipes and sundry fittings (elbows, tees, reducers, valves, etc.) and their inevitable repair when a disc nicked a valve manifold or a ripper shank encountered a sub-main. While in fact there are some “real” engineering guidelines for the design of an irrigation system, visualizing how it works is a bit like pruning a vine. Instead of visualizing the nutrients flowing to the sundry parts of the vine, you want to make sure that the system is designed to allow for the even flow of water to all of the farthest rungs of the system. You begin to internalize a certain sense of balance and proportion. For someone who generally has a pretty scattered mind, this enforced discipline was enormously helpful in gaining important lessons of patience and calm. Even now, I can still smell the pungent scent of purple PVC pipe primer.))

The hamlet of Bonny Doon, at an elevation of 1800 ft., receives quite a bit of rainfall, typically twice the amount of Santa Cruz, and it takes quite a while for the soil to dry out. What this means is that even if you start hoeing in the early spring, let’s say mid-March, to get slightly ahead of the problem, as it were, by early May a new crop of weeds will likely have grown back. 10_WaitingforGodot I don’t really remember for certain whether this actually happened – my memory is notoriously unreliable in this regard (many of us will inflate our modest accomplishments to epic proportion over time) but I do seem to recall a slightly Beckettian moment of completing one complete pass through the vineyard (which took months), only to find that it was my work now to do the precise job again, taking, as it were, from the top. ((Ever tried. Ever hoed. No matter. Try Again. Hoe again. Hoe better.)), ((Waiting for God/Good-hoe?))

So, I don’t know that I could ever really properly call myself a farmer, but I do know that there is one truth about farm work, whether it is plowing a field or pruning a vineyard. The tasks are enormously repetitive and at a certain point, at least for me, life began to merge into a kind of dream-like state. To remain happy, you have to give yourself over to this repetition, exult in it, in a sense, almost as a deepening of your spiritual practice. ((As I think back on the time when I lived at the Estate vineyard in Bonny Doon, another memory came up. You walk up and down the rows so many times a day, you develop a route, and this becomes a sort of mental map. But not just a mental map, but a map that seems to become deeply imprinted in your very being. Perhaps in the same way that we come to identify and in some sense internalize the house in which we live as an extension of our bodies, we do the same thing with the land with which we are so intimately connected. You always know, as a sort of proprioception, the location of the avenues, the fences, certain significant trees, the swales and valve manifolds, the artesian springs, the poison oak patches and wasp nests.))

(This is Part 1 of a longer article.)

    26 Responses to “Reflections on the 35th Vintage: The Oily Burgundian Days (Part 1)”

    1. Bill Bishop says:

      Randall, Great read. Here’s to your 1st 35 years in the wine biz and on the next 35! May they be as rewarding.

    2. Rick Moonen says:

      I, unfortunately, relate to so much of your reflections of the past 35 or so years my friend! I love you and everything you stand for!! I feel a great sense of privilege to know you and completely enjoy your overly humble interpretation of your life and accomplishments. I have very similar memories…

    3. John Michaelsen says:

      Man, it’s really hard to believe it’s been that long, but I guess it really has. Still remember those early days, sampling Bonny Doon pinot noir, from grapes sourced from Oregon, with Randall and Bob Marsh at the old Pearl Alley Bistro.

      Some of my fondest old memories… tasting wine in the tasting room with my then GF, and having a very merry Randdll come in from the orgnanic garden/nursery, and asking everyone to try some of the white strawberries he’d just picked… and laughing at everyone’s expressioin (they were incredibly delicious). “yeah, pretty good, aren’t they?”

      Or back in the day when there was live music on the knoll next to the tasting room, and asking Randall (who frequently poured his own wine in the tasting room) if I could borrow a couple of glasses for us to use while we listened to music outside on a beautiful afternoon.. and asking him if he wanted some sort of deposit for the glasses. I remember his smiling and saying “Why? You’re not going to steal them, are you?”

      Great memories Randall… here’s to the next 35 years!

    4. Isabelle says:

      Randall, thank you for this very nice story of your harvests; always enjoyable and instructive ! I am looking forward to the next part. Your comment about hoeing reminds me of the japanese monks raking, everyday, in the same way and impeccably, the gravel of the zen garden.

      • Thanks, Isabelle. Indeed, that may well have subconsciously been my model. I feel that in many ways I am at a point in my career that is very much resonant with how I felt at the very beginning of my career, and I am so very thankful for that feeling.

    5. Micah Stupak-Hahn says:

      Great piece, Randall. You’re perhaps the best example that those who love wine tend to love things with a boundless, messy, just-sink-in-to-it kind of love (Visqueen might come in handy there). I have no years in the wine business, and I only met you once, but I’m glad your presence is still out there and in my wine fridge.

    6. Peter Fargo says:

      Man, it has been awhile. I remember tasting Pichon Lalande vintages at the Pearl Alley Bistro with their fondue. Good conversations, and you helped me discover new dimensions in wine. Well, maybe not the orange muscat… sorry.

    7. William I Hollingsworth says:

      I bought from the Litchfield Wine Merchant what he told me was one of two cases of the 1985 Le Cigar Volant in Connecticut. What a treat. Pleased to have the 2009, for which I waited a year for its release. Now waiting for the 2012 Syrah.

    8. Ruthie Grahm says:

      Modestly do I declare that despite the fact I never invented a computer, presided over a country nor won a Nobel prize or Oscar (still waiting for one of my songs to land in a movie), I was serendipitously blessed with the good fortune of giving birth to a gifted winemaker as capable of churning out words as awesomely as his wines.

      Winemaker’s Mother and Bonny Doon Salesperson Emeritus

    9. Renée Tafoya says:

      Greetings old(ish) friend. You have always been a great wordsmith as well as winesmith. You say you haven’t found enough outside interests but that’s what makes you so interesting to read.

      • So lovely to hear your voice, Renée. Thank you so much for your efforts in the day. I am completely convinced that the newsletters that we did in printed form carried a much more substantial gravitas than the aetherial content that is now generated digitally. #ohwell Maybe time to return to the Old Skool.

    10. Tom King says:

      Congrats on 35 years, Randall, and many more. I miss my Santa Cruz/Papa’s Church days, when the Cigare flowed freely. Many happy memories of dinners at the old winery. I will always be interested in your doings.

    11. mark evans says:

      There there…your sounding a bit too reflective. Let me cheer you up a bit. Don’t forget a good experimenter spends most of his time proving himself wrong. We were trying to remember the names of some of those wineries around Fremont and you said Mirassou…the other one I was trying to remember was Weibel…do you remember the Green Hungarian they used to make. And then there was Paul Masson Champagne cellars and Almaden Winery in San Jose…oh yes my friend..I have to agree with the fellow who was urging you to please start killing some yeast. Stop prancing with mother nature and start dancing.

    12. You hoed 28 acres by hand? I bow down. Now I enjoy weeding and all, and I definitely reveled in the spiritual zen trance of which you speak … but I also just bought a tractor.

      All the best Randall, and please keep the wonderful prose and spectacular libations flowing freely.

      • Thank you so much. Yes, hoeing 28 acres by hand was a great accomplishment. I don’t recall how long it took – maybe a month, maybe two. As I said, it became a bit of an obsession for me, and largely a symbolic, if not Pyrrhic victory.

    13. Donna Hutchinson says:

      Looking back on my accomplishments I think of the joy, as a lowly buyer of domestic wines at a very Eurocentric wholesaler, of convincing the eccentric alchemist Randall Graham to sell us some of his magical wines. Golden Years. Thank you Mel Knox for the great “tip.”

    14. Mark,

      Remember the Green Hungarian quite well. Used to occasionally order it when I really wanted to impress a date. But, no question, despite two left feet, I am definitely dancing.

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