The Hall of Fame: My CIA Connection


Vintner Hall of Fame at Greystone

It was just about a month ago (March 13th to be precise) that I was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, CA. (( In the very soft underbelly of the Napa Valley bête. Ironicin so many ways as Napa Valley has been my bête noire, or more accurately, the piñata that I have so mercilessly whacked over the years.)) (Dramatic pause here, to let the irony sink in.) I confess that as much as I seek approbation from my peers – perhaps even to a neurotic degree – I often do have some problems in graciously accepting it when it is actually proffered. So, this particular honor has been a real tough one for me. (( There aren’t that many inductees into this vinous Hall of Fame who are still actually still, um, alive. So, this is causing some additional existential Angst about the relative brevity of time still allotted.))

The event itself actually turned out to be just fine. It was not as widely attended as I had hoped, (maybe the CIA had priced the event higher than they should have in these economically challenging times, but Napa will be Napa. What are ya’ gonna do?) I spoke briefly when called to the stage, and as graciously and respectfully as I could manage to the people who were there to honor me. But the event has really set off a bit of an existential panic, albeit one that has been in the making for some time. It’s not exactly that I feel as if they have given the award to an arrant fraud. I have perhaps accomplished a thing or two in the business over the years; I am still incredibly struck by the fact that everything I have done to date has seemingly existed in the realm of “play.” What could be more fun than to see if Rhône varieties could do well in California? What could be more fun than to see if you could make an interesting dessert wine by freezing Muscat grapes in a freezer down in Castroville. (( As well as Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Semillion, Riesling, Grenache, Orange Muscat, and maybe one or two others that I’ve forgotten about.)) And how amusing might it be to restage Huysmans’ “Black Dinner” in Grand Central Station as a funeral for the cork, and invite Jancis Robinson to deliver the eulogy for M. Thierry Bouchon?

Nothing I have done to date has ever appeared to be particularly challenging or hard; it has just seemed fun. And what a great privilege that has been. But, I am reminded, or perhaps I am reminding myself that maybe it is time to put aside the childish toys and now really essay to accomplish something of real significance, of some gravitas. In fact, certainly, this is what I must do. (( I am absolutely bound and determined to plant our new site in San Juan Bautista and attempt to produce a real vin de terroir.)) And yet, moving forward, it is very likely that without some sense of play, my efforts will likely come off as pretentiously as those of some of my colleagues that I occasionally needle. Maybe this the essential challenge of life itself – to live life with a certain grace and ease, not letting the all too real challenges and possibilities of failure discourage you from getting into the game. I am trying very hard to redefine success. It will certainly not be a function of receiving an impressively high point score from an influential critic on a new wine made at San Juan Bautista. Neither will it be the irrefutable discovery of terroir in the aforesaid vineyard, nor even finding that it will be possible to farm the whole plantation with no supplementary irrigation. (( We’ve been told by “experts” that this is just not possible – all the more reason for wishing to pursue the course amain.)) It is difficult to imagine a life that is not spent running from airport to airport, a life without endless conference calls, meetings with bankers, wine writers and candlestick makers. A life spent, being present in the vineyard, ((With a good sunscreen, of an SPF value of 45 or higher. )) learning how to see, and at least most of the time, being able to indulge one’s sincere curiosity, is about as close to bliss as I, for one, can possibly imagine.

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