Floating Downstream with Justin Smith

Dust Kills. 

Or so says the first sign I see as I enter the Saxum Vineyards estate in Paso Robles. A few days before I visit, I receive an email from an employee asking that I please drive 5 mph on my way in as I head up to the winery. The driveway is feet from meticulous vineyards rows of vines already bearing young, tender fruit, and the ground is dry and powdery. (If you haven’t driven 5 mph of late, it’s worth doing, even for just a short while. It’s a gentle, Zen-like pace and a nice lesson in slowing down). 

When I arrive at the winery, I’m greeted by Justin Smith and his dog, Luna, a sweet rescue Pit Bull mix. The winery is an airy, modern building flooded with natural night that illumines, in the distance, caves carved into an estate hillside. Before entering the barrel room, one passes through a lounge area possessing the bohemian mood of a ’70s-era Laurel Canyon living room with Moroccan influences. A formidable vinyl collection and impressive stereo set-up complete the space, giving it a laid-back, welcoming vibe. Smith, fit and youthful at 49, appears jovial and excited about his new project – Downstream Wines – a collaboration between Smith, Sasha Verhage and Philippe Cambie. 

20190729_104257_Web.jpg

Cambie is a highly-regarded consultant from Southern Rhône, with clients worldwide. Considered a master blender, Cambie brings his nearly savant-like talent to Downstream. Verhage is the conduit that brought Smith and Cambie together in 2015, and his love of Southern Rhônes precedes him. “Sasha put us together,” Smith says. “He told me that Cambie wanted to work me, but he wanted to do something Zinfandel-based. I loved that because it’s kind of California’s heritage variety, and I think he sees a lot of parallels between Zinfandel and the Grenaches he works with so much. He didn’t want to repeat what he does in Chateauneuf du Pape, and wanted to put a California twist on things. So we tracked down some old Dusi Zinfandel.” The Dusi Vineyard is among one of Paso’s most historic sites, farmed since 1945 by the Dusi family. 

“Philippe likes to come through right when things are done with malo, usually in early spring and before we’ve blended up our wines, when things are still in individual lots. We put about thirty-two different lots in front of him in groups of four – four Zinfandel lots, four Mataro lots, and so on. He writes his notes down, and then just says, ‘I want 600 L of this, and 400 L of that and 200 L of that.’” Smith says Cambie’s decisions are definitive, and he doesn’t change his mind. When Smith and Verhage tasted the final 2016 – their debut release – Smith says they looked at each other and said “How did he do that?!” Smith describes it as “delicious and ready-to-go.” And indeed it is. Smith pours me the 2016 Downstream: a blend of 76% Zinfandel, 8% Syrah, 6% Mataro, 6% Petite Sirah and 4% Tempranillo, raised in 400 L neutral wood puncheons.

20190729_104409_Web.jpg

Drinking this wine proves to be an emotional experience for me. I have long revered Zinfandel, and to see it elevated to this degree, as winemakers like Paul Draper (Ridge), Mike Officer (Carlisle) and Tegan Passalacqua (Turley) have done, is poignant. There’s a pronounced vitality and verve to this wine. It’s fleshy and generous, but an underlying strand of salinity keeps it fresh and definitive on the palate. At the back of the palate, and just before the finish, this wine broadens beautifully, highlighting the wine’s spicy and savory notes, along with its high-toned blue fruit notes. It’s a stellar wine.

I find myself wondering how Cambie can blend up such an ineffable beauty, and Smith says, “He writes it down and then drops the mic and off he goes. I don’t make wine specifically for him. I don’t know how his brain works. He finds a way to blend them up that’s approachable. He wants them to be delicious and pleasurable.” The Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel announces itself pretty much from the get-go on the 2016 Downstream. “We did the Dusi Zin whole-cluster,” Smith tells me, “which gets all that spice coming out of the stems. I think that’s unique for a Zinfandel – that cool pepper spice, which we loved in the 2016 vintage.” 

20190729_104339_Web.jpg

The packaging presentation of the 2016 Downstream wine is formidable and delicate all at once. Each order includes three 750 ml bottles and one magnum, presented in a large, wood box with the Downstream artwork prevalent throughout the packaging. Artist Joe Kalionzes, a local Paso Robles Spanish and Art teacher, designed the nearly ethereal packaging. The debut collection is just under $1,000.00 and comes to about $200.00 a bottle. 

I am glad the Downstream wines are priced at $200.00 a bottle. Why shouldn’t a bottle that is largely Zinfandel or Grenache from the United States command that price? If extremely well-farmed and well-made, shouldn’t these wines merit as much as a fine Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir? There’s long been a kind of grape racism that exists among the trade. Unfortunately, certain buyers and sommeliers have tried to pass this perception along to the consumer. It’s silly, really, that people would place a value judgment on a product of nature. It’s like me saying, “Passion fruit juice is really where it’s at. If you like mango juice, then you’re a loser. You don’t have good taste.” Value judgments like these are arbitrary in the end. 

Especially guilty of these types of value judgments are a particular brand of “influencer” (what an awful word) and “gatekeeper” (thankfully, these change nearly every year) who hold Old World wines, particularly Burgundy, in such high esteem that they’d rather disparage other varieties, and domestic wines in general, than step outside of their comfort zone to try something new. When they’re trying to impress colleagues, they’ll show up to an event with an expensive Burgundy. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a gatekeeper arrive at a dinner party or wine tasting with a Zinfandel from California’s Central Coast? Of course, that kind of move takes confidence. 

When I ask Smith about the Downstream name, he says, “We’d been thinking about what to call it for forever, but nothing was sticking. And then I had a dream: I was driving down the 101, past Atascadero, about to get off the freeway to go to In-N-Out Burger, and it hit me.” In his dream, he exclaimed, as he does now recounting it, “Downstream! We’re going to call it Downstream! I can’t wait to call Sasha and tell him that I found the perfect name: Downstream!” When he woke up, he felt it was the perfect name. And though he says the name didn’t hold a lot of meaning immediately after the dream, Smith now sees parallels between the name and his creative intentions. Smith’s portions of the proceeds from Downstream will be donated entirely to local charities. “I’ll be sending that money downstream,” he says. He thinks his subconscious was already aware of hidden meanings in the Downstream name before his conscious mind caught up. He quotes a Beatles lyric from “Tomorrow Never Knows” as another possible inspiration for the name: Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. 

20190729_121811_Web.jpg

The way Cambie create blends has caused Smith to look at his vineyard sources through new eyes. “I don’t spend a lot of time on the crafting of my blends. For me, it’s about the vineyard sources. And we have barrel lots that best exemplify the vineyards I work with, like James Berry. My wines are not so much crafted as blends as they are crafted by the vineyards themselves.” Cambie, Smith says, is less concerned with the vineyard sources. Instead, he assesses the various lots presented to him with regard to how well they’ll go together. Smith appreciates the purity of an approach unfettered by value judgments about a vineyard that one might expect to perform in a certain manner. “It frees you up in a way,” he says. 

Smith shares Cambie’s analogy for creating a blend, a talent Smith regards as Cambie’s profound gift. “Philippe says, ‘it’s as simple as making a sandwich. You taste through, and one wine is the bread. The other is the meat. One is the mustard, and you want just a little bit of mustard. This wine is the lettuce and, this one, the tomatoes. And this one is the butter. And this one is the butter, too, so you don’t need both of these. You’re not going to put five pieces of bread together, even if you like bread, because five slices of bread does not make a sandwich.’ ” As he shares this analogy, Smith’s eyes brighten; he seems genuinely moved by this collaborative project. 

20190729_104307_Web.jpg

His own Saxum Vineyards label has been wildly successful, a critical and consumer darling. I wonder aloud if Smith feels pressure to see the Downstream collaboration succeed as much as Saxum has. “It’s kind of the opposite. I think of Downstream as Philippe’s wine. This is a wine I can sit down and enjoy at the table while wondering about what he was thinking when he created the blend.” Smith admits that it’s hard to enjoy his own wines in that same way, as he’s always tasting them critically. “I’ll taste my wines and think, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have done that, or I should have done this differently.’ With this project, it’s more fun and less pressure.”

We next taste the 2017 Downstream, which is quite different from the 2016. It shares the ’16’s seamless texture, structure and salinity, but departs from there with more Grenache than Zinfandel in the finished blend. It’s another arresting effort, with dried citrus rind and wild plum cherry notes nearly jumping out of the glass. An energetic wine with plenty of tension, it still delivers great pleasure and balance. If these young Downstream wines have a hallmark, it’s their structural integrity, generosity of fruit and a pronounced saline signature. The 2018 is finished but still in barrel. Yet again, Cambie has come up with an entirely different, yet equally lively blend. The three Downstream wines I’ve just tasted have about them an unpredictability. Their enigmatic nature stems from the pleasure principle that is present across vintages and the balance with which that pleasure is delivered. These wines prove that you can experience deep hedonistic pleasure as well as linearity and delineation in a wine. 

Currently only one Downstream wine will be released each vintage, and Smith predicts it will remain this way. And when I ask if fruit will ever be sourced from other parts of California, Smith is quick to point out that he hopes Downstream always finds its provenance in the soils of Paso Robles. “My whole thing is this little pocket of Paso. All of our vineyards are near here. I grew up here and I have a lot of pride in what can be done here. A lot of my impetus behind making wine is to showcase Paso.” 

20190729_121842_Web.jpg

As we wrap up our visit, Smith pours me a Gewürztraminer made by his son Colin, 22, with guidance from Smith’s father and no assistance from Smith himself. It’s a refreshing, bright white, sourced from the coastal Stolo Vineyard, and we sip it as Smith talks about his other creative undertakings. “I’m fermenting hot sauce right now – gardened specifically for the various peppers that go into fermented hot sauce – and we’ll bottle that. And we’ve got bees that we tend for honey. I hunt wild boar and deer and make sausage. I realized I like to make things to share with people.”

Colin Smith has made a lovely (albeit not for sale), delicious wine. The grape doesn’t fall far from the vine in this family. Smith is visibly proud of his son’s wine, and while he sends me home with what’s left of the Downstream wines we’ve opened, he’s quick to grab the Gewürztraminer for himself as he walks me out. “My wife needs to taste this. It’s pretty good!”

Rise Up: The Wines of Bret Urness at Levo

Brett Urness, 28, is a hardworking Millennial. And no, that’s not an oxymoron. Indeed, Urness is just one of many hardworking, creative Millennials trying to carve out their way in this harsh world. I used to be a Millennial, back in the day. When I was Urness’s age my generation were called Slackers by media and marketing pundits. The definition of a Slacker (a Gen-Xer by another name) is “a person who avoids work or effort.” Sound familiar? It appears that any young generation in this country, be they “hippies”, “slackers”, “hipsters” or “Millennials”, are – at least according to “The Man” – just unmotivated youngsters. It never ceases to amaze me that the media and marketing types who are so quick to criticize an entire generation are also relentless in their pursuit of extracting money from the very generation they’re boxing-in with de-humanizing labels. Luckily Urness doesn’t pay much attention to labels. He’s keeping his head down, making good wine.

20190415_114558.jpg

I meet up with Urness at his urban winery, Levo, in Tin City – a grouping of quasi-industrial buildings just outside the township of Paso Robles that make- up a vibrant neighborhood comprised of wineries, tasting rooms, a distillery, a brewery, a bang-up ice cream shop, a pasta maker and a number of other curiosities. It’s a fun place to hang out and popular with visitors from the Southland and the Bay Area. On a recent weekend, the visitors with whom I chatted were mostly from Los Angeles, Big Sur and San Francisco. Levo offers a stellar line up of wines produced from Santa Barbara County fruit. Urness chose Paso Robles over Santa Barbara County for his home-base because Santa Barbara rents proved too high. “I could either have a tasting room in Santa Barbara, or a winery in Paso Robles. With three offices and a tasting room, I only pay $1 a square foot in Paso.”

20190415_120636.jpg

He sources much of his fruit for his mostly Rhone-inspired line-up from Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon, a region coveted for its Rhône varieties from vineyard sites like Kimsey, Stolpman and Harrison Clark – all vineyards from which Urness sources fruit. “All of my vinous heroes are there. Folks like Maggie Harrison [formerly of Sine Qua Non, and now with Lillian and Antica Terra wines] get fruit at Stolpman,” he tells me. He’s also very fond of the storied Kimsey Vineyard. “I love what Matt Dees is doing in Ballard Canyon, at Jonata and Kimsey Vineyard. His wines are classics. And he’s such a great guy. I admire what he’s doing: rich, beautiful, fresh wines.”

20190415_114147.jpg

His Levo wines are known for their aromatic lift and varietal delineation. The etymology of Latin verb levō means “rise, elevate and lift up.” Urness tells me, “Stylistically, I aim to make rich, structured, voluptuous California red wines that represent the dynamic and vast Central Coast without sacrificing varietal correctness, electricity and ‘lift.’ ”

20190415_143141.png

Naming a wine brand is a tremendous undertaking. First, one must find a name that hasn’t already been taken – an increasingly hard task considering there are currently ten thousand bonded wineries in the United States, and that number increases by the day. Secondly, it’s a deeply personal undertaking, for a wine brand name will, hopefully, last for decades if not generations, so it’s a crucial decision. Urness came about his poetically. “My first wine job was in my home town of Eagle, Idaho. I grew up off a road named ‘Floating Feather’ so I always thought it would be cool to reference my roots in our name. Levo is a small nod to where the journey began, in ‘Eagle’, Idaho, off ‘Floating Feather Rd.’ Then, when I was 21 years old, I was I studying Business at Santa Barbara City College and also taking flight lessons at the local airport. I eventually got to the point where I had to do a solo flight, and it was a day I'll never forget. I remember hearing the tower say ‘172 Bravo Romeo, clear for take-off,’ so I buried the throttle and rattled down the runway in an old Cessna. There was no instructor in the seat next to me as he had been so many times before. I hit rotation speed, pulled back the yoke and the wheels left the ground. The feeling of ‘taking off’ or leaving the pavement that day was a crazy feeling of absolute freedom, fear and excitement all at once. There was no turning back, I was on my own and the sky was the limit. When I began this wine project and needed to name it, I couldn't get the solo flight experience out of my mind as I felt it was so metaphorical to starting a winery. When I came across the word ‘levo’ I knew it was a perfect fit.”

20190415_114519.jpg
20190415_114531.jpg

Though Urness began making wine in Idaho at the tender age of 18, it wasn’t until he moved to Santa Barbara County and got a cellar job in the Funk Zone – downtown Santa Barbara’s urban wine trail – that Urness caught the wine bug in earnest. Carr Winery, where he worked, also owned a vineyard management company at the time, so Urness was able to get out into vineyards to work. “They would drop us off with the crew and we’d prune for about nine hours a day. I did that for three summers, and that’s when I really got into the farming aspect of winemaking. At the same time, I was trying a lot of great wines for the first time: Jaffurs, Whitcraft, Ojai, Tensley. These wines were so inspiring.”

When Urness told his parents that all he wanted to do was to make wine, they encouraged him to apply to a college that taught winemaking and viticulture. “I went to my counselor and told her I wanted to apply to Cal Poly, and she laughed in my face and said, ‘Buddy, you have a 2.8 GPA!’ ” Even though he received all As the following semester, his grade point average only rose to 3.0. He applied to Cal Poly, Fresno State, Davis; he couldn’t get in anywhere. That’s when Urness’s father, who loves wine, encouraged him to take his passion more seriously. With the help of his parents, he purchased four barrels and a bit of fruit. “I’m so lucky to have the parents I have. They were super cool about it. My dad said, ‘if you’re not going to school, then learn by doing.’ ” Urness made four barrels of Sangiovese his inaugural year, but ended up declassifying all of the juice because it didn’t meet his standards. “I learned a big lesson that year. You have to buy really good fruit to make a really good wine. My family ended up drinking most of it.”

Urness was “bummed” at the time; wanting to make wine but also feeling down because college didn’t pan out, so his mother suggested he work a harvest in Portugal, where a family friend had an import business. “I got off the plane and these two Portuguese guys I’d never met before picked me up and literally drove me to Vinho Verde, where they were making wine at the time. On that day, I put on my work boots, and from there on out made wine every day for the next four months.” Urness toggled between the Alentejo and the Douro, where he made red wines, and Vinho Verde, where he made white wines. That was during the 2011 vintage, and Urness learned the ropes quickly, often working by himself in remote cellars. Upon his return to the states, Urness felt more confident in his winemaking, and so with the help of winemaker Matt Brady (formerly of Jaffurs, now at Samsara) he was introduced to iconic grower Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, where he forged pathways towards good fruit sources. He was only 20 years old at the time. Newton pointed him towards Kimsey, a nascent vineyard that has since then produced highly coveted fruit. He told Urness then, “This vineyard is going to be famous!” And indeed, over the past 8 years the Kimsey Vineyard has become one of the most coveted sites for Rhône varieties in all of Santa Barbara County.

20190415_114206.jpg

Urness has a purposeful hand on the aesthetic of his wine brand, from the tasting room design to individual labels that change every year, ala Sine Qua Non. It’s obvious Urness is a creative. He looks forward to working on his labels each year, and they reflect a strong, clear and original creative voice. “In the beginning, I didn’t want to pigeon-hole myself, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to put cool labels on stuff.’ I thought of it as a fling-thing, like I’d always have to work for someone else to support myself. I didn’t really have grand ambitions for my own wine brand at the time. I thought, ‘no one’s really watching what I’m doing so I’m going to have fun with it.’ I didn’t take myself too seriously.” Urness says he doesn’t know, from year to year, what his labels will be. “I just want to go out and live life and hopefully something cool happens, or maybe I read a great book, or a read a great poem, or I listen to a great record…and some idea will pop into my head.”

Now, Urness admits, the process is more intentional. “If I’m in San Francisco and I see a great piece of street art, I’ll take a photo of it for inspiration. Now I’m just so used to rolling with that mentality. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Because winemaking is always fun and challenging, and I’m freakishly in love with wine, but I also love other art – paintings, music, and all of that –maybe even a little more, so for me it’s just been so fun to have that personal challenge every year of trying to be better at being more artistic. And I think you have to be vulnerable if you want to make something special. A lot of people can make good wine, but if you have that aesthetic leaning, too, then I think your label can help tell a story.”

Urness wants his bottles to be “the ones you don’t throw away. Like Devil Proof, their 2015 Rockpile Ridge Malbec, that lady smoking that cigar, or Realm or Sine Qua Non. When you see these special bottles, and then you open them up and the wines are also delicious, well, that’s a rare experience.” Urness says that with each label, “it’s almost like creating a new brand each time, because we have to trademark the name and develop a whole new package.” Urness challenges himself to do one creative thing each day. “It’s like going to the gym, but for creativity.” Urness also finds customer service oddly inspiring and creative work. His business model is nearly 100% DtC (that’s Direct-to-Consumer), and his wines are widely available to consumers around the United States who live in the states he’s licensed to ship to, which are considerable. Visitors who stop by his tasting room adjacent to his winery and crush pad will find a modern, singular vibe all Urness’s own.

“Bret’s just so dedicated,” says his Assistant Winemaker, Alex Baer. “He loves showing people the cellar throughout the day. He’ll say, ‘I just got this wine into tank and we’re about to go to bottle. Check it out!’ ” Urness says he can’t help himself; he loves being with customers, but that makes his job a bit harder, as, at the end of the day, there’s still work to be done. Any work he didn’t accomplish while hanging out with visitors needs to be done in the evenings: pulling composites, making blends, cleaning, whatever the case may be. “We want to level-up this year. There are a lot of things we can do better,” Urness says.

20190415_120931.jpg

When I ask him if he’s a stylist or non-interventionist, he says, “I’m a wine lover. If you give me a glass of Beaujolais, I’m happy. Or a Chablis. Or Natural Wine. I love Natural Wine. But I love big wines, too. That’s the hardest part for me; I love all wines, so for me to choose a style is really hard. It’s also hard to choose varieties. Because I want to make Pinot Noir. I want to make Chardonnay. I want to make Gamay. I want to make everything! So my biggest challenge as a winemaker has been to choose a voice and a path for our brand. That’s what I’ve tried to do over the past few years. Rhônes have kind of grabbed me by the heart; I love them. As far as style goes, I like making California wines as long as they’re not too big. They need to have some electricity behind them. Some verve. It’s easy to be the ripest guy…wait until everyone picks and then wait two more weeks. I like drinking wines that are balanced. They have to be varietally correct.”

My favorite Levo wine is the DreamCrxsher, a 100% Petite Sirah from the iconic Stolpman Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. For its immensity of flavors, it offers a great acid backbone and a tense structure that prevents it from ever being too big or over-the-top. I tell Urness it’s my favorite wine he makes. “It’s my dad’s favorite, too,” he says. Harvest has become a family affair, with Urness’s parents coming out from Boise to reside with him for at least two months, during which time his mother cooks daily harvest lunches for the crew while his dad performs pump-overs, cleans and does whatever else is required to help keep the cellar churning during harvest. “He always asks me how many tons of Petite Sirah we were able to get. He really likes that wine.” By Urness’s own admission it’s a polarizing wine. “People either like it or they don’t like it. Petite Sirah doesn’t have much of a home, and when I do think of it having a home, I think of the United States as its home,” Urness says.

20190415_114432.jpg

For the remainder of a long afternoon, I taste through barrels and bottles of Levo wine, and leave the winery with a skip in my step. Urness, who has been unfailingly polite over the course of our afternoon, is also funny, well-versed in literature, music, popular culture and art, and a terrific conversationalist. Wine seems to provide an intersection for all of Urness’s interests. It’s obvious to anyone who stops by to visit him that he’s found his purpose.

“If I could have for the rest of my life what I have now, I’d be happy,” he tells me.

The next day, I receive an email from Urness wherein he shares with me one of his favorite poems, “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. It hangs in his office in the winery and inspires him. “I just replace peaches with grapes,” he tells me:

From Blossoms

From blossoms comes

this brown paper bag of peaches

we bought from the boy

at the bend in the road where we turned toward  

signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,

from sweet fellowship in the bins,

comes nectar at the roadside, succulent

peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,

comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,

to carry within us an orchard, to eat

not only the skin, but the shade,

not only the sugar, but the days, to hold

the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into  

the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live

as if death were nowhere

in the background; from joy

to joy to joy, from wing to wing,

from blossom to blossom to

impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

The Pulse of Napa Valley’s Crocker & Starr

Pam Starr is game. For anything. While a moody, wintry sky looms above the Crocker & Starr estate, Starr is in a positively sunny mood, wearing a bright yellow jacket that mirrors the color of the wild mustard cropping up between vineyard rows. From the start, it’s tough to keep up with Starr. She meets me in the cellar, but is soon rushing off to meet with an ailing neighbor who’s made his way to the winery to say hello and receive an encouraging hug. While his wife stands by observing him with Starr, the older neighbor shares his health woes while she tells him repeatedly how great he looks. She won’t rush him along, and gives him her full attention. Later she apologizes for the delay as we head to her car for a tour of the estate. She speaks so quickly, she often has to pause to catch her breath. Her hands also do a fair amount of talking, and when she’s not talking, she’s throwing her head back in deep laughter or waving here and there to employees. In other words, Starr is a force of nature.

Starr.jpg


When speaking about the estate vineyards, Starr frequently anthropomorphizes them. “I met these vines in 1996,” she says of a gnarly block of vines that are 45 years old. She places her hand on a vine, as if taking its pulse, and pauses in silence for quite a few seconds. A confident woman, she is unapologetic about her spiritual connection to these vines, and doesn’t seem to care that this practice might seem eccentric. “We need to have a lot of respect for these vines because they have to endure tractors driving past occasionally. I think the vines appreciate that we use sustainability as our form of viticulture, and I think sustainability also encompasses organic farming. You can be certified organic, but you don’t have to be sustainable. You can be sustainable, but not be certified organic. We’re not certified anything but “green.” We don’t use any herbicides or pesticides here. We tolerate high weeds so that we don’t have to drive tractors much. Ladybugs…butterflies…birds… They all love it here.” And in fact, as she’s talking, the wildlife surrounding us proves her right. I see numerous butterflies flutter by and, as an avid bird watcher I can’t help but be amazed by the chorus of birdsongs accompanying our visit. Bluebirds, finches, mourning doves, sparrows, acorn woodpeckers, tree swallows, blue jays, raptors, and crows alight on vineyard posts all around us.

“I’m on a journey of terroir,” Starr tells me. “That’s been my journey. I’m very fortunate to be on a path where I produce wines from a pinpoint on a map. I try to express the traits of this place, and get myself out of the way. I’m a classicist because I think classicists were meant to be guides. To be an effective guide, I have to be where the fruit is grown. I’m in the vineyard bringing wines from a pinpoint on a map into the bottle.” The pinpoint Starr alludes to is “the narrowest part of the Napa Valley. We’re in St. Helena, 21 miles North of Napa. These soils were made by the lower slopes of the nook made by Spring Mountain and the Mayacamas mountain range.” She continues, “It’s all about choosing a path and then following it where it leads. I never thought I’d be a business woman for myself. Never thought I’d co-own a winery because I knew the financials didn’t make sense, but when there’s passion involved, a decision doesn’t have to make sense.”

Crocker Starr was established in 1997 by Pam Starr and Charlie Crocker. At the time, Crocker, now in his 80s, was working out of One Post, an iconic San Francisco office building located at McKesson Plaza. Crocker descends from one of California’s oldest and most influential families. His great grandfather, also Charlie Crocker, spearheaded construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, completed in 1868, which began the extraordinary growth that transformed California into an economic dynamo. Crocker and his wife Lucinda acquired the historic Dowdell property, located at the end of Dowdell Lane in St. Helena, in 1971. Crocker enjoyed slowly restoring the historic property while running BEI Technologies, which specialized in electronic sensors developed to provide electronic stability control in automobiles, and BEI Medical Systems, which developed medical devices for women’s health care. He sold both companies a few years ago, and now enjoys woodworking at the estate, as well as driving his old ’66 Ford truck around the property or occasionally hopping on a tractor.

Starr met Crocker at One Post ostensibly to discuss potentially purchasing fruit. When she got off the elevator at the 25th floor in her best “winemaker jeans” she assumed their meeting would be a very brief one. Three hours later, they had shaken hands and decided to start a winery together. Crocker admired the wines Starr was making at Spottswoode at the time, and Starr immediately took to Crocker’s plainspoken and straight-forward manner. It didn’t hurt that she coveted the fruit coming off Crocker’s estate.

Though all of Starr’s wines are intentional, vibrant and very balanced, I favor the Crocker & Starr Cabernet Francs. They are glorious representations of this underrated variety, and are the very definition of tension, precision of flavors, great structure and a texture that begs for a wide host of foods. This could be because there’s a note of cardamom in these Cabernet Francs, which may be their hallmark. Cardamom is a mysterious spice, often recalling bark, stones, flowers and fruit all at once. So it’s no wonder these wines are welcome at most any table.

Starr’s wines are all remarkably restrained, yet offer the very essence of the fruit that is their provenance. “The reason our estate fruit doesn’t translate into these very intensely sweet, massive wines is that there is such amazing natural acidity at play here. The electrolyte balance of the grape translates directly into the wine, and the wine cannot be pushed past itself that way. To do so would require manipulating chemistry. In the early days I did try to push some wines over the top. And, I have to say, I just didn’t like those wines. They didn’t hold. They didn’t survive. I had to reject them. Wines fall apart when you try and push them in that direction.” Indeed, the wines off this estate seem only to know elegance and fresh flesh. The older wines we try later in the day still possess a lilting moxie and unabashed youthfulness.

“Cabernet Franc has a pulse. The grape itself has a pulse. When it’s is on the vine, it has a pulse. One of the most under-appreciated fruits out there is the blueberry, and the blueberry floats; it has this wonderful waxy quality to it, and that’s how they harvest them. Cab Franc, in a way, almost floats. And it’s the spiciest of the classic Bordeaux varieties. The Cabernet Franc vine itself – the wood – has a sheen to it. It’s a bit silvery compared to the wood on Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which is a darker brownish-black. It does not like to line up like a soldier. It doesn’t like to grow in a straight line.” We’re standing in a block of Cab Franc she has named the “Goddess Block” as she tells me this.

We hop back in her car, and Starr continues to tour me around the estate. We pass an old vineyard shed, inoperable trucks, an old chapel that was built by Charlie’s great aunt around 1910; it is considered part of the Grace Cathedral (and was originally located there) in San Francisco and is registered as an historical landmark. The Crocker family donated a block of Nob Hill so that Grace Cathedral could be built. Starr and her husband Norm were married outside the vineyard chapel. We pass Charlie’s woodworking shop, a cluster of chickens picking at weeds and wild flowers, and an old gravity-flow winery which Crocker converted into the family residence. There’s also a beautiful old brandy distillery, later converted by Crocker into the “Casali”, or party room, which wine club members currently enjoy during private events.

Starr stops outside an 1870s Sears & Roebuck kit home not far from a block of Sauvignon Blanc. It is charmingly rendered in a Victorian style. “Charlie was so happy to get this,” Starr says. “It could have come from Chicago or Wisconsin, because the railway went through here, from Chicago all the way to San Francisco.” Olive, oak and walnut trees that have “passed away” on the property have gradually been repurposed. “Charlie and I have similar minds that way; we like to give things new life. So if a tree passes away, it’s repurposed into a table or door.”

As we pass several blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Starr says, “We’ve created a ‘Napa-style’ Sauvignon Blanc. I was getting tired of hearing people chasing a New Zealand or Bordeaux style in the Napa Valley. I kept saying to colleagues ‘we’ve got this on our own.’ I think you’ll find the wine has tension and flesh. A lot of red wine drinkers won’t pick up a glass of Sauvignon Blanc; they’ll probably go for a Chardonnay first. It’s easy for them to taste the flesh in Chardonnay. I think here we’ve captured the flesh of Sauvignon Blanc. We’ll see.” When later in the day we sit down to taste the Sauvignon Blanc, Starr’s comments turn out to be on the money. The fruit is front and center, fleshy and mouth-filling, while the acidity keeps the wine itself laser-focused, and seems to cleanse the palate as one consumes it.

Visitors touring the Napa Valley will find the Crocker & Starr experience unique. An appointment in advance is required, and no more than six guests at a time are invited to visit. Beginning inside a 1918 restored farmhouse, guests receive a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and then head off for a walk through the vineyards and property. Later they arrive at the Garden Arbor & Stone House, where they participate in a tasting of the estates red wines. The table at which guests are seated is made from those self-same trees they passed on the property.

R.H. Drexel

Stolo: A Hidden Gem along California’s Coastline

One of my favorite road trips is along California’s Highway 1, especially the Northern end of the Golden State’s Central Coastline. Dramatic views of the Pacific set against the bright grandeur of Hearst Castle, resting atop the rolling hills of San Simeon, seem intended to lower one’s blood pressure. The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery nearby, which runs for about six miles, is a great place to stop and stretch one’s legs – a highly entertaining look-out, where visitors can observe these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat.

20180420_132436.jpg

Just south of Piedras Blancas is the small seaside town of Cambria, a historic tourist destination. I used to stop here, mostly on my way to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles, for a notoriously great cup of Mexican hot chocolate at a café that, alas, no longer exists.


Recently, just outside Cambria and heading inland towards Paso Robles, I discovered a small gem of winery that lies within the San Luis Obispo appellation, which also includes Talley Vineyards in the south. Talley and Stolo are nearly 58 miles apart; over an hour’s drive from each other. The Stolo wines bear perhaps a greater similarity with the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation north of them.

When I arrive, I am greeted by Winemaker Nicole Bertotti Pope. Tall and possessed of an unadorned, natural beauty, she immediately comes across as warm and earnest. Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots, Pope welcomes me into the Stolo tasting room, where she shows me pictures of Don and Charlene Stolo, who bought the property in 2002, and their Managing Partner Maria Stolo Bennetti. They are laid out among photos of kids and grandkids; some rest atop a large, stand-up antique radio. Since 2002, the Stolos have committed mightily to their project. In 2011 they broke ground on an estate winery, and in 2012 they hired on Pope as winemaker. By 2013 Pope was still transitioning away from her job at Talley into her new role at Stolo, finding herself commuting between two jobs, while raising a baby and toddler with her husband, Luke, who is a vineyard consultant. At the time, their growing family was living in a double-wide across the street from the Stolo estate.

“When I first started, we were doing things here we’d never done before, like purchasing equipment for a brand new winery. Everything was new,” Pope says. “In 2013 we were raising a little baby and a toddler, who was always running off in one direction or another. Looking back now, I wonder how I ever pulled that all off. Of course, the Talley family allowed me a flexible schedule. They’re super family-friendly. But it’s much easier now that the kids are a little older. Grandparents live in town. My dad is picking my kids up from school today. And family is very important to the Stolo family – they have kids and grandkids – so they will let me bring my kids to work if it’s necessary, and they just trust that I’ll still get my work done. It’s a great relationship to have.”

20180420_113012.jpg

Though Pope acknowledges that harvest is still extremely challenging, with children still demanding much of her time, she credits a strong team as the reason her schedule is reasonably balanced between work and home life. “Now we know how everything works at the winery. I know how everything works. If I need help in the cellar, I can request an assistant. We have a flow now. There is trust among the team.”

Winemaking can be solitary work. Oftentimes during slower times of the year there may only be one person in a small-production cellar at any given time. “I don’t mind the solitude,” Pope says, explaining that at home she is often very busy engaging with the family, cooking, cleaning, etc. The solitude, which begins with her morning drive, offers a welcomed contrast. “When I’m driving to work, I listen to NPR and enjoy the weather, especially the clouds, which are different every day. And I value the time that I spend here in the cellar, because I’m never here for 10-long-hour days, except during harvest, so I have enough time for the wines and for my family.”

20180420_120051.jpg


Pope kicks off our tasting with the 2017 Stolo Estate Sauvignon Blanc. I’m immediately drawn to its freshness, minerality, and a touch of lemongrass and thyme, all wrapped up nicely in an energetically structured body. It’s a Sauvignon Blanc with brightness and a backbone. When I ask Pope what her inspirations were when she began making Sauvignon off the Stolo Estate, she cites New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, simply because they share a cooler climate. Though she enjoys Sauvignon Blancs from the Napa Valley, Paso Robles, and Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara County, she cites them all as warmer locations, and the Stolo Sauvignon Blanc seems destined to respond to its oceanic environment. From there, Pope says, “we’re cold-fermenting in stainless steel, with some neutral oak to round it out. There is no malolactic. The vines know they’re in a maritime climate. At first the grapes taste like nothing; they’re just green. Then suddenly, they becomes very floral; they taste like the juice from the press. You can tell right away that you’ve made the right pick.” At this level of quality and distinction, the Stolo Sauvignon Blanc over-delivers at $27.00 a bottle.

20180420_102948.jpg

The 2017 Stolo Estate Gewurztraminer comprises various separate lots, some of which have received skin-contact. “I always prefer the skin-contact Gewurztraminer,” Pope says. ”It has more interesting aromatics, more interesting florals. I was afraid it might get bitter, because Gewurztraminer skins can be very bitter, but I never got that in our wine, so we’re going to do more and more of it.” At $25.00 a bottle, this is another serious, deeply-nuanced wine that over-performs at this price point.

[Please allow me to provide some context when I refer to these prices as fair: My wife and I love wine. Because we enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner almost nightly, we tend to spend about $7.00 to $10.00 per bottle on our weekday wines. On the weekends, we spoil ourselves and spend more – anywhere from $28.00 a bottle, to $280.00 a bottle, or more, if we’re out to dinner.]

20180420_112916.jpg

The 2016 Stolo Estate Pinot Noir at $42.00 (380 cases made) is an elegant revelation. The 50% stem inclusion in this wine seems to elevate the already bright aromatics of high-toned cherries, violets and a distant suggestion of salinity. It speaks to the terroir of the Stolo site. (If you haven’t yet visited Stolo or are unfamiliar with its terroir, you will enjoy its influence if you favor Pinot Noirs that are interpreted in a fresh, energetic style, with natural acidity in balance and enough structure to suggest age-worthiness.) With regard to sense-memory, this Pinot takes me right back to some of my favorite Santa Cruz Mountains producers, like Jeffery Patterson’s finest Pinot Noirs under his iconic Mt. Eden label. During our visit, Pope mentions that she’s very drawn to Santa Cruz Mountain Pinots, most particularly those of Thomas Fogarty and Big Basin.

It is however, the Stolo Syrahs that signal a defining moment for this producer. Stolo is a serious contender in the Rhône-variety category. The Stolo Syrahs can stand proudly beside an Arnot-Roberts Syrah (a personal favorite of mine) or other American Syrahs of that caliber. I was fortunate to try a deep vertical of Stolo Syrahs, some of which preceded Pope’s arrival on the estate. It is here that the site ultimately proves its merit, translating the very essence of Syrah through the prism of its own unique terroir. The Stolo Syrahs are iodine beauties, smelling at times like blood crushed from a rock in a spring meadow near the ocean. They are vibrant, sophisticated and rightly claim their place alongside the finest old- and new-world producers. The Estate Syrah retails for about $42.00 a bottle.

Stolo Vineyards & Winery is open to the public and is located off of picturesque Santa Rosa Creek Road, running east out of the coastal town of Cambria, California. It’s just a few miles as the crow flies from the nearby Pacific Ocean, which is viewable from atop the estate vineyard.

R.H. Drexel

The Proust Questionnaire: Mary Maher

For the past 17 years, Mary Maher has managed some of the Napa Valley’s most coveted vineyard sites. Today she focuses her efforts on the conscientious and meticulous farming of the Harlan Estate and Promontory vineyards. Maher is considered one of the nation’s leading vineyard managers, but this Sacramento native, born into a farming family, remains straightforward and unpretentious. She’s done a pretty thorough job pruning her own ego. Here Maher talks road trips, Michelle Obama, and the occasional lie she tells her dogs.

Mary-Maher-edited.jpg

Photo by Matt Morris

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The little quiet moments in life.  Sunday mornings at home with my husband and dogs. 

What is your greatest fear?

Being too busy to notice when someone is in need.

Which living person do you most admire?  

Michelle Obama.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?  

My monkey brain.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?  

Intentional cruelty.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Hikes in the forest with husband and dogs.

What is your favorite journey?

 Road trips anywhere.

On what occasion do you lie?

To our dogs. I tell each they are my favorite. (Thankfully they can’t read this). 

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Lately it’s been f*&k. Not sure why this one is surfacing lately.

What is your greatest regret?

Not being with my mother when she died.

What is your current state of mind?

Gratitude.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

That they all weren’t Republicans.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Less intense at times.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

That I stumbled into this career path that has been rewarding on so many levels.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? 

Definitely a soaring bird.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Lisbeth Salander.

What characteristics do you most like in a man?

Sense of humor.

What characteristics do you most like in a woman? 

Sense of humor.

How would you like to die? 

 Fast.

What is the greatest love of your life?

Kelly.

What talent do you wish you possessed? 

Speak multiple languages fluently.

What is your motto?

A merry heart doeth good like medicine.

One Way Ticket: Another Chat with Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Wine class for 6th graders in Bordeaux with Robert Parker, Jr.

Wine class for 6th graders in Bordeaux with Robert Parker, Jr.

Back in 2014, I sat down with Robert M. Parker Jr. for a long chat. Over the years, I’ve leaned on him whenever I’ve needed to process things that are bothering me. Given the current political climate in our country, I felt I needed to lean on him again. If you missed the first interview we did together, “Getting to Know Dowell," you can find it at Wakawaka Wine Reviews; Elaine Brown’s very fine website. She also wrote a lovely introduction and should be credited with what I consider to be a pretty cool title. Here’s a link to that one:  http://tinyurl.com/zta9on6

RH Drexel:  It's becoming somewhat of a cliché to talk about how awful 2016 was. Most people reference the divisive election as one of its low points. For me, personally, though, there were three things about 2016 that really shook me to my core; the shootings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Keith Lamont Scott and far too many black men and women; the treatment of indigenous peoples as represented by the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, and the passing of so many great artists, namely, for me, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Prince, Sharon Jones, Gene Wilder, Don Henley and the incomparable and brave Carrie Fisher, though there were so many. What about 2016 affected you the most personally?    

Robert M. Parker Jr.: I do believe as we become increasingly older and more sensitive to time running out and our own mortality, the deaths of well-known people seem to jump out in the news more dramatically. Certainly, 2016 was a year when too many valuable and creative people passed away. And well beyond those that you mentioned were significant people in the wine field, many of whom I knew very well, such as Châteauneuf du Pape’s Henri Bonneau, Château Margaux’s Paul Pontallier, Gus Anderson of Anderson’s Conn Valley, the well-known French consultant working in Napa, Denis Malbec, and Denis Dubourdieu of Bordeaux, Etienne Hugel of Alsace, and Sam Beall of Blackberry Farm in Tennessee – one of the bright, young stars of the wine and food scene.

The finality of death just reinforces the fact that creative people and anyone who has made a contribution to a better world are gone. And while their legacies are important, understanding that they can no longer contribute to our joy is a harsh realization of the cycle of life.

However, the question, “What affected me the most personally in 2016?” was probably just the depressing nature of the political campaigns, which were disgustingly partisan, ugly and insulting to most people’s sense of intelligence and civility. It really enveloped the country and evolved in such a negative manner it looked like a carnival of fear and hatred, and it emanated from both Democrats and Republicans. That in itself was extremely distressing and, frankly, a sinister omen for the immediate future.

RMP with future wife, Pat Etzel, Maxim's, Paris, December 31, 1967

RMP with future wife, Pat Etzel, Maxim's, Paris, December 31, 1967

Wedding Day

Wedding Day

RHD: Ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all, on balance, we had some great art in 2016. Across mediums, I found it a very satisfying and inspiring year. 

My favorite film of 2016, though there were so many good ones, was "American Honey" with Shia LaBeouf and Sasha Lane. It was harrowing and redemptive and I find myself thinking about it often. And then there was Ava DuVernay’s “13th”, which I feel ought to be made into some kind of official historical document. I wish it were mandatory viewing in schools across the country, from elementary school on up to grad school. How about you? Any films that grabbed you in 2016?    

RP: My favorite films I watched this year included “The Big Short,” “The Imitation Game,” “Spotlight,” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” the Hollywood account of the bloodbath on the island of Okinawa during World War II. I wouldn’t put any of these movies in a class with some of my favorites of all time, such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” or “Silence of the Lambs,” but they were well worth the time invested watching them.

RHD: After "Breaking Bad" ended, I think we were both left jonesing for another epic television show. In 2016, I very much enjoyed "The Night Of”, “Atlanta” and “The OA." “Greenleaf” was just terrific, too. Somehow the writers of that show found a way to deal with some very complicated and confusing topics in extremely nuanced ways. It’s a very empathetic show, which makes it somewhat captivating to watch, because even the most egregious characters have within them some hidden fiber of humanity.  And the theme of that show is dynamite. And, with so many great streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Acorn, viewers now have access to great international television, as well. My wife and I love "Please Like Me", an Australian dramedy on Hulu. And Fleabag, on Amazon, is a quiet, gut-wrenching revelation. How about for you? What did you and Pat enjoy last year and are continuing to enjoy into 2017?

RP: A list of the best television I saw included many of the original series coming out of Netflix, Amazon, Showtime, etc., “Bloodline,” “The Fall,” “The Killing,” “Paranoid,” “The Crown,” “Wild Things,” “Spotless,” “Narcos,” “The Night Of,” and the Swedish detective series (with English subtitles) “Wallander,” all made for top-notch and compellingly spent time enjoying the development of fabulous characters, intricate and intriguing plot lines and generally top-flight television. All of these series surpassed anything I saw at a movie theater.

RHD: My books of 2016 were Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. Have you read anything recently that I should check out?    

RP: Since I have become addicted to my Kindle, I tend to read significantly more than I ever did in the past. I’m not sure all of these books came out in the calendar year 2016, but I read all of them last year. The list includes: The extraordinary account of children saved from the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto, “Irena’s Children,” by Tilar J. Mazzeo; the novel by excellent fiction writer Ben Coes, “Coup d’Etat”; Greg Iles’ “Mississippi Blood” and Douglas Preston’s compelling “Lost City of the Monkey God.” These are all certainly books I enjoyed immensely. I average 2-4 books a month on my Kindle, so there are many other books, fiction and nonfiction, of which an old classic stands out: “The Embers of War,” by Fredrik Logevall. It won a number of prizes. The book chronicles the extraordinary errors of judgment made first by the French and later by the Americans in the fatal involvement with Vietnam. 

In addition, some books that I have read that were certainly interesting enough to recommend to you and your readers include: Two works of fiction by Don Winslow, “The Power of the Dog,” and “The Cartel”; and several nonfiction books, including my favorite, Jay Winik’s “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History,” an extraordinary profile of the events of that year with a deep focus on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Another fascinating book, “A Torch Kept Lit,” is a collection put together by James Rosen of the best obituaries written by the late William F. Buckley Jr. These are fascinating profiles by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century revealing the lives of some of the most profoundly influential people of his time. I also enjoyed, although it’s somewhat frivolous, the book by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone, “Errol Flynn Slept Here,” a look at this incredible movie legend, his love life and eccentric behavior while living in a now infamous house in Hollywood. I also read Antony Beevor’s “Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge,” about the slaughter that took place in the Belgian forest when the Germans counter-attacked following the Allied successes of D-Day. 

As far as other nonfiction, I tried to read, but am having a tough time getting through, the famous book, “The Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramahansa Yogananda. With all due respect to yogi masters and practitioners of yoga, I had difficulties wading through this book that is considered a classic.

Lastly, I continue to read any books of fiction that come out by authors Michael Connelly, the late Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva, and Brad Thor.

RHD:  What's playing on your stereo at home these days?  

RP: Not much has changed since the last time you interviewed me, but I continue to always find the time to listen to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I spent more time going back to some of the great early music of Fleetwood Mac before they became a different band and their huge commercial success with Stevie Nicks. Also, there is a band that I had discovered in the early 70s. I went back recently and bought their entire collection and was thrilled to listen to their music again, since I hadn’t really heard it since the days of vinyl LPs. It is a British band called Brinsley Schwarz. I can’t help myself, I love classic rock ‘n’roll from the 60s and 70s, as well as the folk music from that era. I also enjoyed more recent efforts from the likes of Jackie Greene and James McMurtry. However, I also spent considerable time listening to Chicago blues, particularly some of the great performers from that city that became national icons, including the late Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Buddy Guy, Elvin Bishop, Hound Dog Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite, and Mavis Staples. Those artists just produce some of the most incredible guitar playing, fabulous lyrics and incredibly soulful music. Many of these artists set the table for the famous soul movement of the 60s, and I love listening to them.

As far as more modern groups and bands, I suppose my age shows through more than it should, but I do love guys that have been around for a long time that continue to turn out fabulous music, including Nick Cave, Mark Knopfler, Cowboy Junkies from Canada and some newer bands, such as the Felice Brothers, and Michael Kiwanuka, whose song, “Cold Little Heart” might be the Song of the Year for me in 2016. Music plays a large part in my relaxation and everyday life and I have invested in the highest quality stereo components to showcase my love of music.

A young Robert Parker, Jr.

A young Robert Parker, Jr.

RHD: I’ve been on a Mike Posner kick lately. I consider him to be a pretty brilliant lyricist. Getting back into Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf a lot these days. And, I dig a little known band called “The Shoe.” 

So, let's switch gears and talk about the younger generation. I'm frankly kind of fed up with pundits slamming 20- and 30-somethings for being an entitled generation. At least the young people I know don’t seem that entitled at all. They seem to be searching for meaning and willing to work for it. If anything, I sense among them some deep-seated fear. Many of them seem very anxious. Do you think this is a function of many of them having been so young when 9/11 happened? That's a tender age to have something like that happen in one's homeland and I wonder if it has created a different level of anxiety among that younger generation?  

RP: Of course, I have a little insight into at least one person from the younger generation, as my daughter is 29 years old. At least in her case, I don’t believe 9/11 created any fear or anxiety, although she is certainly aware of the cultural war going on between extreme Islamism and Western Civilization. 

I think it’s generally unfair and misleading to try and generalize about any generation of people. My generation would seemingly have experienced more anxiety than more recent generations. While we were baby boomers born after World War II concluded, we grew up as the Cold War hit its height. I remember in elementary school practicing diving under our desks in case of a nuclear attack, the sounds of sirens at the local fire house that occurred every day, warning of a possible thermonuclear war. By the time we were 18-20 years old, the war in Vietnam was raging, the draft had been introduced, and the antiwar movement had begun. In addition, the savage violence surrounding the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the mid and late 1960s, followed by assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Those were times when I actually thought that the country was going to be ripped apart by generational, racial and cultural differences. Mostly my generation felt our government was out of control, intrinsically dishonest, deceptive and malicious. Yet our country held together and, I believe, that it was the baby boomers that laid the groundwork for a more progressive and open- minded American society. But, as we’ll discuss later, that seems to have now run its course, and we are backtracking into a new era of partisanship, negativity and hate.

Arrival of Maia Song Elizabeth, September 16, 1987

Arrival of Maia Song Elizabeth, September 16, 1987

Clockwise from left:  Daughter Maia with Parker, Parker family with Jacques Chirac 1999, Parker family in Maui 1998

Clockwise from left:  Daughter Maia with Parker, Parker family with Jacques Chirac 1999, Parker family in Maui 1998

RHD:  It's no secret that I love hipsters. I don't like to call them hipsters, though, as I kind of view that word the way the establishment used the word "hippie" in the 60's and 70's. It's not just a descriptor, it's a value judgment. The young people that I know whom the media or pundits might describe as hipsters are nothing more than young folks trying to be resourceful; make their own clothes, furniture, art, specialty products, etc.,  in order to give modern life some soul and meaning. I call them my "hopesters."How do you view that culture? Am I being too idealistic about these young folks? 

RP: I really don’t like labels for anything, and I would relish spending the rest of my life not hearing the word hipster. I certainly get an idea of what the stereotypical poster child for hipsters, male or female, looks like. But I think it’s silly. In every era young people want to authenticate themselves, develop an identity, and respond to the challenges and crises of their time. All of this has a profound impact on any generation. How they react and how they see themselves as different is not unlike the baby boomers regarding anyone “over 30" as inherently untrustworthy. I think some of what you are referring to is the younger generation wants to get back to a simpler lifestyle. We’ve been so overwhelmed with modern technology and creature comforts that one could actually get lost in the excess of conveniences and things made easy for them. Perhaps part of more recent generations are looking for more authenticity and simplicity in life. 

RHD:  These seem like dark and scary times. History has a way of being cyclical, doesn't it? What is your level of pessimism or optimism these days about the future of our nation and the world, in general?

RP: I see the United States in 2017 as heading into very uncharted areas. The extremely distasteful political campaigns of 2016, and I am talking about both sides of the fence, was thoroughly disgusting. So many people have died or been maimed for our wonderful freedoms and democracy. To see the disrespectful and cavalier way so many politicians on both sides of the aisle treat each other and their constituents is shameful. The outright hatred, insults, mocking and partisanship has split the country into at least two large sectors. We seem to lack any leader capable of healing the wounds and bringing the country back together.

As much as I admire President Obama as a father, a man, husband and person, his verbiage, rhetoric and record have caused more division than I would have ever dreamed possible when he was elected. We now have a crude businessman, President Trump, who is not articulate, and who elevates mockery to daily discourse and uses insults rather than diplomacy. But for my part I believe the country needs to support him and see what he can do. But, I am not optimistic, and I do agree that he deserves to have a chance. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed tightly! 

One of the things that has me worried is the extreme division and social inequality and the fascist political correctness which is dominating our schools and universities. It is counterproductive to have social hierarchies that are defined by inflexible and uncompromising straitjackets. None of this even allows for discussion of the true problems that modern society has to confront, resulting in the most surreal destruction of liberalism, freedom, as well as diversity of thought which has to be cherished and protected.

RHD:  I guess I’m even less optimistic about Trump getting even one thing right. That he supported and even aggressively perpetuated the whole “birther” movement disgusts me. In essence, he was saying, “Hey, Barack Obama, you sure you deserve a seat at the table? Are you sure you belong in the White House? Cause you don’t look like “us”. Your skin is a different color.” 

I mean, I don’t know how else to interpret that whole birther movement. So, if he has the nerve to call into question whether or not a remarkable man like Barack Obama, who dedicated much of his life to public service, is fit to run this country, just imagine what he must think of all the other black people, other people of color, Muslims? It’s chilling if you stop to think about it. For that reason, I don’t recognize him as my president. First time in my life. I’m hoping he gets impeached before his four years are up. I will do what I can in my power to protest, not just at rallies, but with my dollars. I’m not buying anything else from Home Depot until they publicly denounce co-founder, Ken Langone, who mightily donated to Trump, knowing full well, even then, about Trump’s involvement in the birther movement. That’s blatant white supremacist thinking. And, while it was nice of Starbucks to send out that tweet about their willingness to hire refugees, I need to see more from them than that. I’ve been in PR and marketing for many years; I know a PR move when I see one. If they really stand in solidarity, I’m going to be asking them to please shutter their doors at their location inside Trump Tower. And, of course, the Trumps are pretty litigious people, so how much money is Starbucks willing to put into legal fees, if it comes to that, to shutter their doors there? How many corporations are really willing to stand in solidarity? I’ve sent a few tweets to Starbucks, but no one has responded yet. If they don’t respond, then I’ll start moving towards spreading the word of a boycott within the local county where I live. 

I mean, make no mistake, this country was built on the backs of slaves, which is why there’s still so much fear of “the other” in this nation. We simply won’t acknowledge that fact. So, if I can’t give up a cup of coffee in the name of solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized, then what kind of weakling am I? And, I bought detergent yesterday, so now I’m doing research on that product…who on their board or at the highest level of whatever entity owns that brand, donated to the Trump campaign, and then, if necessary,  I’ll issue a boycott ultimatum with them, and ask that they publicly denounce these current supremacist policies, and so on. I’ll be taking my protests of corporate entities that supported the Trump campaign to social media, and in my own community. And, the wine business would not exist without Mexican people, and other ethnicities willing to take jobs others just don’t want to do. And our Jewish friends are haunted on a daily basis by the reality of this new white supremacist regime. So, I’m very invested right now in protesting with my dollars. 

 See, I’ve consulted for a lot of rich people in my career; a couple of billionaires and lots of millionaires. And, while, of course, there are very wealthy people out there who are deeply decent, and who put their wealth to good use, some cats with tons of money are super insecure. Their identity is pretty much tied up in what they own and how many fancy people they know. They’re actually very easy to read because they never pay attention to anything anyone around them has to say unless they start to lose money, or fancy people stop associating with them. When that happens, they wig out and start looking for ways to divest and get the hell out of dodge because their egos are no longer being stroked. So, the only way this current administration is going to switch gears or completely collapse in on itself is if they start to lose money, and influence among the moneyed. 

It’s at times like these that I find it hard to look for the sunny side of the street. I’ve been pondering the meaning of life a lot lately, and the barbarity of our species. 

RP: I have always thought about the meaning of life and I’m sure I am hardly alone in that respect. Perhaps it is trying to simplify a complicated idea, but I have tended to believe that all of us are given certain positive characteristics to profit from in life. At the same they are counterbalanced by a set of negatives and potential problems that, if allowed to persist and fester, will derail even the strongest individual. Think of it as a yin and yang. We need to overcome the negative setbacks, the slaps in the face, or whatever they might be – health issues, financial problems, mental stress, economic woes – and stay focused on the good things we can do, we enjoy, and we benefit from. If we stay focused on the positives, as you put it, “the sunny side of the street,” we are likely to have a more enjoyable life than if we let the negatives dominate our daily life. I don’t think there is anyone, from Nobel Prize winners to the greatest actors and actresses, authors and athletes, who has not gone through deep, depressing times when they question their value and what their contribution and role in life should be. Yet it is during those times when we must remain positive.

RHD: Yes, when I used to get severely depressed, I’d reach out to you and maybe tell you I was a little sad, so you’d bombard me with videos of dogs doing silly things. Then, I remember writing you an email saying, basically, why bother with this life? And, you were pretty firm in telling me that I had to find a sustainable way to get through those depressive bouts. Whatever it was; I had to figure out a way through. I remember you said, “You’re smart. You can do this.” And, then my dog, Ruby, died, and all of a sudden I stopped believing in God. That probably sounds like an insane non-sequitur, but there was just this moment of clarity; I found Ruby dead one morning, and in that moment, I knew that she and I were the same, and that I am just another species. I certainly don’t mean to judge anyone who believes in God. What do I know? But, I just found my own sustainable way to make it through those bouts, and for me, finding that way meant losing my religion.

You know, I was raised by Catholic immigrants. Like a lot of immigrant families, Mother Mary was probably the focal point of our family’s worship; of our faith. We’d go to mass and the priests would talk about all this other stuff, but when we got home, we’d mostly just pray to Mother Mary. And, I can’t recall any relative or family member ever telling me she was good because she was a virgin. That part of the biblical story didn’t resonate with us, for whatever reason. I was just taught that she was non-judgmental, loving and raised a fine son. 

After my mental breakdown, I was visiting her statue at our local mission church nearly every day. I’d go by the grocery store and buy her a bouquet of flowers and take them to the altar and just sit and talk to her. Because, it’s hard for me to ask others for help. I like to see my friends laugh, so I used to have a hard time asking for help when I needed it. I just didn’t want to bring anybody down. So, I’d talk to Mother Mary, instead, and sometimes things would work out, but lots of times they wouldn’t. And, I also couldn’t make sense of why I didn’t suffer like so many others do. You know, why are refugees and children dying all over the world, and I get to stream-watch television for shits and giggles? 

Not being able to square the narrative of Mother Mary with the fact that I’m just a highly evolved animal of the homo sapien species was at first crippling. I missed talking to her so much. When I was on suicide watch in college, talking to her was the only thing that got me through.

But, now I’m much better about asking for help when I need it. And, if I’m too depressed to formulate thoughts or talk about what I’m feeling, I’ve put systems in place where I can get the help I need without struggling to find the energy to do it. I’ll just say to my wife, or to a close friend, “I’m spinning. Need help.” And, they’ll step up just be there for whatever help I may need. Which is all I ever wanted from religion anyway; just to feel less alone and to feel accepted, loved. So I found my own little sustainable way to cope. 

But, you know, I’ll always love the archetype of Mother Mary. That narrative saved my life more than once. Especially as translated by a lot of immigrant and working class households; it’s probably the most beautiful piece of fan fiction ever created from an otherwise quite divisive book. 

I should probably be a bit more careful saying all this stuff. The last time I sat down with you for an interview, some folks on a popular wine board, whom I’d never even met, said I had my “screws loose” with regard to my mental breakdown, and other unkind things. I take myself a lot less seriously now, but at the time, when I saw those comments, I felt very humiliated. I didn’t attend wine events for quite a long time after that. I just wanted to stay at home. 

RP: This is extremely unfortunate, but it is certainly the result of unfettered social media and the lamentable behavior that takes place aimed at embarrassing and humiliating others. I love the Internet. It is incredibly efficient and a seemingly infinite source of knowledge and learning. It is also the breeding ground for perpetration of myths, half-truths, innuendo and outright falsehoods. I worried about this a number of years ago, referring it to as Kim Jong-un-ism, or as someone else said, “digital Mao-ism,” where individuals pass off as conventional wisdom ideas that they themselves create and manufacture, then bounce off of hundreds, if not thousands, of people on social network sites in cyberspace. What results is this self-reassuring circle of group-think, where there is little evidence of the truth and the rhetoric is aimed at hurting, humiliating, mocking and insulting not only those that disagree with them, but anyone not considered agreeable with their propaganda or narrative. 

You were obviously a victim of this, but you are hardly alone, and it happens all too frequently. I don’t see any solution, because these voices are often the most frequent and loudest. They should get a life, but I don’t think that’s advice that is ever going to be followed. The snark, the nastiness, is here to stay and the best way of avoiding it is to avoid visiting these sites.

RHD: Yes, I avoid them all together now. Life is less stressful that way. And, honestly, there are more important things to worry about these days. It’s Black History Month, and that’s been on my mind. I guess in honor of Black History Month, the other day I just really tried to earnestly imagine being black; and more specifically; a young black man living in today’s America, given the rise of institutionalized racism.

So, I found a quiet corner in my room and just meditated on that: I’m kind of quirky. I prefer small groups, or solitude. I also like to explore new things. So, I imagined myself walking into the stores where I normally shop, for example. I saw everyone there turn and look at me as walked in. Because I believe that would happen at these stores where I typically shop, to be candid. Then, I thought about going to buy a purse or something for my wife, and I saw myself walking through that store and having the manager of that store watch me, maybe wondering if I was lost or if I was going to steal something...something I had saved up for and was actually proud to be able to buy! I also love to drive to new neighborhoods on my day off, park, and walk around them. They inspire my writing. So, I started to imagine a police car maybe slowing down because I was walking through a particular neighborhood or another. Maybe more than once. Maybe they’d even stop to ask me what I was doing in the area. Well, I can tell you right now, that if that kept up for a week…maybe two…I’d be right back in the mental hospital. I would be in a complete state of paranoia. But, this time around, I’d elect to stay inside that mental hospital; an experience that up until that very moment, I had considered one of the most harrowing in my life. All of a sudden, in that moment, it became my safe place. 

So, I had two revelations that day. One is a small, personal-growth one; I’m an entitled chicken shit in many ways and that was a big wake up call. But, the bigger revelation for me was that I actually began to understand the pernicious evil that is institutionalized racism, especially as it is manifested in the reality of mass incarceration in this nation. The way mass incarceration works is very, very sinister. That was somewhat of a mind-bending experience that I haven’t quite recovered from, truth be told. 

Anyway, sorry to get so heavy.  Let’s switch gears again. 

You have a lot of energy and are really inquisitive. Recently, you said that you have a lot of plans creatively for the future. What do you think the next decade or so will hold for you with regard to the world of wine and beyond? 

RP: I have outlined and given a great deal of thought to writing my memoirs, but still have somewhat mixed emotions about doing it. Do I want to open up private areas of my life that are probably unknown to most readers? That said, I would also like to catalog the journey I have taken in life, and the reasons why I enjoyed so much success and had so much joy in climbing the mountain. As I have said to many people: The journey going up the mountainside is much more fun than getting to the top and trying to stay there. 

RHD: So, I only had one resolution for 2017, and that's just to create. Be more creative and keep creating, with no goal or reason in mind. Did you make any resolutions for 2017?   

RP: After making resolutions almost every year, including going on a diet and losing 30 or so pounds, and failing every time, I decided to do “random acts of kindness.” This has entailed acts such as buying a pack of cigarettes for a homeless person at a gas station, to generous tips at restaurants, to being increasingly involved with charitable dinners, wine tastings, etc. I have continued to do this for the last four years or so, and will continue into 2017. I enjoy it, as it is gratifying and the happiness that it gives people is very satisfying. So, other than that, there are no other new resolutions.

RHD:  What was the best moment or moments for you in 2016?   

RP: Being the hedonist that I am, certainly I have had some wonderful trips recently with my wife, for instance, going back to New Orleans – a city I love for its atmosphere, food and general joie de vivre. We also spent time in Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, enjoying the climate and natural beauty of the area. Aside from that were junkets to New York City, which is just an incredible place, with dynamic cuisine, a nonstop, full-throttle, 24-hour vibe and everything from great pastrami to incredible sushi and other assorted cuisines. 

RHD:  What keeps you up at night? What helps you to relax and to sleep?   

RP: I tend to read for several hours before I fall asleep, as that’s the major challenge for me. Reading relaxes me and does seem to help me sleep. When I am traveling and under the stress of general long work days, where sleep is essential, I tend to use a helper such as Ambien.

RHD:  My wife and I have our small daily rituals that really do bring us so much comfort, fun and pleasure. We enjoy sitting on the sofa at night, watching a really good show or movie, sipping on a good wine. On the weekends, we take little drives out to the ocean, or visit with friends. And, we love our pets. They make us laugh so we spend a lot of time with them.  What are you and Pat doing these days that brings you both a lot of joy?  

RP: I like what you are doing, and I have to say that we would be in 100% agreement that drinking a good wine, watching a good movie or television series, having dinner with dear friends and being close to our beloved pets, brings joy and contentment. More and more as I am no longer working full-time, I have been trying to take road trips for two or three days to destinations on the East Coast. I surprised Pat recently with a trip to Niagara Falls. And we really had a blast up in Ontario visiting the falls, taking the Maid of the Mist boat underneath the falls, and doing touristy things. We also did a road trip to Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, which is an extraordinary Relais & Chateaux property, with great casual and formal dining – including an unbelievable wine list. It is a fabulous property at the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This year I am looking forward to going, perhaps, north to Cape Cod and Nantucket Island.

RHD: Though I don’t believe in it myself, I have various friends who believe in reincarnation. In a parallel universe, if reincarnation did exist, what would you want to come back as?  

RP: Believing in nature, and love, certainly makes life about as good as it can be. I have friends who believe in reincarnation. I’m not so sure I can go that far, but I am assuming that if you are already a human being you can’t come back as another human. But, again, I am not persuaded by the ideology of reincarnation. I suppose, if you couldn’t come back as another human, and that would be my first choice, maybe coming back as a bald eagle, or even an owl, would be fun. Or being the king of the oceans as a tiger shark, or a great white shark. Either way, the idea of unrestricted flying and swimming is appealing.

RHD: I’d want to come back as a tree. And if you came back as a bird, you could hang out on one of my branches. Ha! 

I'm big into mottos these days. Just simple little sayings that I tell myself at the start of each day. Some of them I've made up. Others are quotes by people I admire. Currently, when I get up I tell myself "Don’t be a dick.” How about you? 

RP: I have quoted my father many times over the years, and some simple mottos have stuck with me, including “The harder you work, the luckier you get,” and “Good fortune smiles on he or she who is ready to receive her.” I think, no matter what age you are, you should live in the present, make every day count, and try to make a contribution, but also spoil yourself and enjoy life. As I’ve told so many people, “Life’s a one-way ticket, you don’t get a round trip, or a second chance.” As the iconic Nike ad stated – “Just do it.”

 

Happy Nights: A Chat with Don Felipe Hernandez of Feliz Noche Cellars

Since 2001, Don Felipe Hernandez has been producing wines under his Santa Barbara County-based “Feliz Noche” label. “It means ‘happy nights’,” Hernandez tells me. “If you have a good glass of wine at night, it is a happy night.” The label itself is modest – nearly home-made looking – but despite having been advised to contemporize it, Hernandez refuses to make any changes. “It has the moon, sky and stars,” he says. “It’s been the same since day one. I think it’s beautiful.”

Since its founding 15 years ago, Feliz Noches has grown from 50 cases to 600 cases annually. Hernandez hopes to top off production at “1,000 cases. No more. I can put my nose into every single barrel if I don’t grow more than 1,000 cases.” Hernandez anthropomorphizes his wines, calling them his ‘babies’, as we taste through the wide breadth of varietal wines he makes out of a small cellar on the Koehler Vineyards property in the Santa Ynez Valley appellation of Santa Barbara County. “Peter Koehler [the property owner] has a very good heart to let me make my wines here. He is a special person.” 

Hernandez makes all of his wines himself and watches over them regularly with great intention. “It takes a long time to make a wine, so it should take time for it to taste good. You have to wait until the wine is ready to be released. Doing that is insurance. I don’t want to risk what I’m doing. You have to be patient to make it and patient to release it. This is very important. Making wine is very time-consuming. You spend three years babysitting a wine. You have to be on top of things all the time. I top off my barrels every two weeks. That’s like religion here. Every two weeks. Every two weeks. They are my babies so I babysit them. From the day they go to barrel you have to protect your wines.” Many of Hernandez’s most recent red releases are from the 2009 vintage. In addition to the three years they spend in-barrel, he likes to practice extended bottle aging, “You have to release a wine when it tastes good, and this takes patience.” 

Drawing fruit mostly from the Koehler Vineyard, Hernandez produces a wide breadth of wines, including his Mi Pasion red blend – an equal-parts blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo and Syrah. “I was going to call it Mi Locura – "My Craziness" – but my mentor told me to think of a better name, so I came up with Mi Pasion - "My Passion.” 

Hernandez met his mentor, a Frenchman named Ramon, in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1976. Winery and vineyard owner Peter Koehler had just hired a French consultant to “teach us how to grow vines better and make wines,” says Hernandez. The two men could not understand each other…Ramon spoke mostly French, and Hernandez spoke only Spanish at the time, so as Ramon demonstrated how to graft, build a cordon trellis, manage the canopy, etc., Hernandez translated the instructions into drawings he kept inside a notebook he carried with him in his breast pocket. He had crossed the border from Jalisco, Mexico only four years earlier when he was only 15 years old. “I came to Santa Barbara to work in the fields of Santa Ynez, and I helped plant the Koehler Vineyard in 1972. I didn’t even know what a grapevine looked like when I came here. I had never seen one before.” Though Hernandez’s knowledge of winegrowing and winemaking is vast these days, he remains highly inquisitive. “I like to listen to radio stations from other countries, even if I don’t know the language. I was listening to a Canadian radio station and there was a winemaker speaking French on this show, and I could tell he was talking about wine because he started to name barrel makers. So I remembered the barrel makers and I just ordered one of the barrels he said he liked. I want to learn for myself why he liked those barrels.” 

Hernandez at age 15 days before crossing the border from Jalisco, Mexico into the United States

Hernandez at age 15 days before crossing the border from Jalisco, Mexico into the United States

At 61 years old, Hernandez has no plans of retiring anytime soon. In addition to making Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah, to name but a few, Hernandez also makes a Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – a beautiful, delicate outlier in his lineup. A few nights after tasting with Hernandez, I pour two of his Pinot Noirs blind for my tasting group, Wines Without Borders. We’ve been together for just over a decade now and we’re comprised mostly of winemakers, winegrowers and one chef. In blind flights of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, the Sonoma Coast, the Willamette Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, the winemakers in my tasting group guessed that the Feliz Noche Pinot Noirs were the Burgundies in both flights. 

“My wines don’t get older. They get younger every year,” Hernandez says with confidence. And, indeed, his 2009 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir from the Rio Vista Vineyard is fresh, bright and savory. I ask him if he included stems in this vibrant Pinot and, though he does occasionally use stems for some of his wines, he didn’t with this particular Pinot Noir. “If you use the right barrel, you don’t need stems for the fruit from this vineyard. There are some vineyards that need stems – to give them a little body – but not from Rio Vista. The fruit is big and expressive enough.” 

The aging, he maintains, makes all the difference in his finished wines. “The problem is that a lot of people put wines into a new barrel for only 11 months and then they want to sell that wine. The wine tastes nice at the beginning, but then the wine falls apart because it was not well-aged.” Typically Hernandez ages his red wines for three years in the barrel. He also uses a combination of “neutral, old and new barrels. If you use too much new wood, you kill the juice,” he adds. 

When I ask Hernandez to describe his consumer base, he tells me, “All kinds of people buy my wines, from Los Angeles to New York.” His brand manager joins us for our tasting and prods Hernandez to tell me about an A-list actor who buys Hernandez’s wines 10 cases at a time. Though his brand manager drops the actor’s name, Hernandez stops me short of jotting it down, “That is not important. He is just a man. When he first tasted my wines (at a restaurant trade tasting in Los Angeles) he was dressed like a homeless man. He didn’t want to be recognized.” Hernandez maintains that his wines sell mostly from “word of mouth” buzz. “My customers tell other people about my wines, and then they show up here and want to buy. That’s how we sell a lot of wine.” 

When asked to describe his approach to winegrowing, Hernandez says, “Every year is different. First of all, you have to make sure that the minerals are there for the vines, because they eat like us. They have to eat healthy to be healthy. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is you have to read the water gauge every year and see how much rain you get, then you have to be on top of that. If you don’t have enough rain, you have to compensate with irrigation. You have to really manage the water in the ground in order to have the fruit be the same ever year. Otherwise, the fruit is always all over the place. You don’t stress the plants at the beginning of the season. You stress them at the end. Use less water closer to harvest. A lot of people use water right before harvest because they want a lot of weight in the fruit, but that’s not the time to use it. The fruit loses flavor that way.” 

Hernandez’s 2009 Grenache is a restrained, balanced and lovely effort. “A lot of people around here manipulate Grenache because they want more color in it so they add Syrah, but it should have a lighter color.” I tell Hernandez about Rayas, which he has never heard of, and I cite its light color and black tea and citrus peel aromatics – qualities apparent in his Grenache as well. I find it endlessly fascinating that many of Hernandez’s wines carry within them the kind of typicity demonstrated by some of the world’s great benchmark wines, yet he hasn’t had many of those wines. It’s a luxury he cannot afford. “Maybe my wines taste like the wines you’re talking about – from France, and other places – because I make them in an old-fashioned way. I learned from my mentor, a French man. He taught me old-world techniques.” Hernandez didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time spent with his mentor. “He taught me for two harvests, and then he died of a heart attack. He was a great man. He taught me so much.” 

I’m also very fond of Hernandez’s Sauvignon Blanc, and tell him so, enjoying its bracing acidity and linearity. “Sauvignon Blanc is very touchy”, Hernandez tells me. “Too many people remove too many leaves from the canopy. The sun beats it up. Then it tastes like Chardonnay. You have to keep the leaves on the canopy. Sauvignon Blanc loves that. Not too much sun. The right word for Sauvignon Blanc is ‘crisp’. It has to be crisp.”

His Tempranillo includes 50% stem inclusion. “There was a couple who came to taste from Los Angeles. They said that my Tempranillo taste like the wines of Spain. They said, “How do you do this?” he says, chuckling. I ask him why he chose to make a Tempranillo in the first place; it’s not a variety widely planted in Santa Barbara County. “A few years ago, an English guy told me ‘you have to plant Tempranillo,’ so I grafted some over. I think the climate here is good for it. I like it very much.” Indeed, Hernandez’s Tempranillo is reminiscent of Spain’s Ribera del Duero’s offerings – regal, earthy, nuanced. His is surprising in its sophistication. 

When I tell Hernandez that I love his Cabernet Sauvignon, he’s seems very pleased. “I play a lot with the barrels for this wine. It either has to be the same every year, or better – never worse – so I play a lot with barrels to make sure I’m using the right ones for each vintage.” How does he like his Cabernet? “It has to be big, but not too big, because it has to go with food. It has to have some spice in it. And it has to go with red meat.” 

We’ve been sitting inside his cold, small cellar for hours when I ask if I can stand and stretch. We go outside, where there’s a chilly breeze blowing, but an early sun peeking through the clouds warms us a little. He pours his Riesling for me. Despite being impressed with Hernandez’s wines thus far, I’m dubious as to how I’ll like his Riesling. It’s hard to find an American Riesling with just the right amount of petrol, feral notes, lively fruit and an inherent balance between acidity and viscosity. Happily, the Feliz Noche Riesling delivers on all fronts. “It’s good, isn’t it?” he asks, smiling broadly. “It’s very beautiful, and it ages well.” I ask Hernandez if he ever worries about whether or not people will enjoy his wines. “If I like them, I know people will like them. This little palate I have – there are a lot of palates like that out there.” I ask him if by “little” he means “inexperienced.” He says, “Yes,” and explains that while there are many people who have never had the world’s greatest wines, they know what they like. “There are a lot of new ways to make wines; people manipulate them with tannins, and other things. For me, if I have good fruit, I know I can make good wine. I make wines the old-fashioned way. With good fruit. And then the right barrels. That’s all.”

We round out our tasting by delving into his 2015 Chardonnay – only the second time he’s made Chardonnay in his life. It’s a real beauty, at least according to my palate, which favors leaner Chardonnays, possessing of some salinity and not a lot of butter or oak. “The clone we grow here is very special for this climate. It’s clone 4. The plants are very mature – over forty years old – so the wine is very high-quality. It’s very important to use the right barrel for this wine. There are barrels that will kill this juice. This was aged in a lot of neutral barrels.” 

A few days prior to our interview, Hernandez attended a seminar about pruning, ever eager to learn something new. “Some Italian farmers came here to teach us how to prune better. They told us what we were doing was wrong, and they were right! That’s important for every human being: to have an open mind and listen to other individuals. You can learn from anyone. Even if you think someone cannot teach you anything, if you listen to them, you will learn something.”

Hernandez (third from left), a devoted family man, pictured here at his son Marcelo's wedding in Cabo San Lucas

Hernandez (third from left), a devoted family man, pictured here at his son Marcelo's wedding in Cabo San Lucas

Through the Fire: Sitting down with Elaine and Manfred Krankl

This interview was first conducted in the autumn of 2015.

 

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” 

― Charles Bukowski

The hillsides of Ojai are still shimmering from a hard rain the night before. The unmistakable smell of chaparral that permeates much of this valley is especially sharp and fresh the morning I make my way up the road to Sine Qua Non.

Manfred Krankl is waiting outside for me when I arrive, ready for us to get in the truck and take a drive through Cumulus Vineyard. This is where Manfred and Elaine Krankl live and where their winery is located. It is also the fruit source for Sine Qua Non’s sister brand, Next of Kyn. 

This past year has been a tremendously difficult and trying one for the Krankls. Last September, Manfred was in a devastating motorcycle accident above the Ojai Valley. “In all reality,” Elaine says, “this recovery that Manfred is experiencing was not the prognosis offered at first. The fact that he can now sit here, he goes to work, he drives a car, he can walk, I mean…it was very severe. Sometimes you’re faced with these more than difficult situations and you sort of decide, I’m not willing to accept the prognosis or the reality of the situation, and I’m going to force him to get better. I will go to any length to offer Manfred the opportunity to recover fully including extensive therapy, finding the best medical care, aides to assist with his needs, anything within our reach to do.”  

Elaine and Manfred Krankl first met in 1989, while both were working at Campanile in Los Angeles, “Very early on,” Elaine says, “I was working for Manfred at Campanile in Los Angeles. Manfred was a newly single man and he was very interested in women and he had a lot of women who would come around to visit him at the restaurant. He was very charming and very flirty, so I kind of stayed away from him. One day Manfred asked me to go on a motorcycle ride with him and I said, ‘No, no, I’m already going on a ride. He probably wasn’t expecting that response.”

Elaine and Manfred on their wedding day

Elaine and Manfred on their wedding day

“Shortly after that I traveled to New York and since it was raining there, I spent a good deal of time reading…this is when I was quite young and I was reading Bukowski.  On my return to work he asked me, ‘What did you do?’ and I told him ‘I read a lot.’ He asked me what I was reading…and it kind of started that way, where we were talking about books, and then a bit later, he brought me a wrapped package, and it was a book, Bukowski’s Post Office, and it was really rather sweet. Our relationship kind of started with this common interest in reading. I remember a time in the beginning when we were in a public place in front of a lot of people, I had an untied shoe, and he was flirting with me, so I said, ‘Tie my shoe,’ and in front of everybody he tied my shoe. That was it.”

While he is driving, Manfred occasionally stops to point out members of their animal menagerie. Two hundred chickens, a herd of cattle, horses, two dogs, a barn cat, a wild turkey and a donkey. At one point, I turn to Manfred and suggest he might want to call one of their next wines E-I-E-I-O. “Our donkey, Rosie, is always with the cows,” he says. Typically, when winemakers show me around their vineyards, they are quick to point out their favorite blocks; they’ll identify one block or another as their best block for this or that variety. They might identify a certain block, the fruit from which always ends up in their reserve wines. Sometimes they’ll make a quick pass by a block that’s been mostly relegated to “blending” grapes. 

Manfred avoids placing value judgments on his estate vineyards, preferring instead to allow each site to surprise him, vintage in, vintage out. Usually wineries simply number their barrels and somehow identify them by which vineyard block the fruit came from. Manfred does not want to be influenced by what certain clones or particular vineyard sections might promise to bring and so he randomly numbers the barrels, such as, for example, Syrah #2, #8, #12, etc. so that he always tastes the vessels without any preconceived ideas. Later in the day, Elaine adds, “Different parts of your vineyard can surprise you each year. You may have a different favorite.”

Each block within the Cumulus Vineyard, or really any of the four Estate Vineyards they own, is named thoughtfully, as is the case with the Jeff Zingg Block at The Third Twin Vineyard near Los Alamos, California, which is comprised of sandy soils. “It’s called the Jeff Zingg Block, Manfred explains, “because he was on our mailing list and a very big fan, and sadly he passed away. Jeff’s parents sent us this really lovely letter and it just said he was speaking about our wine, and it just touched me very much. So we named it after him.” 

As we wind our way through Cumulus, it’s undeniable that Manfred’s a great raconteur, a rare commodity these days, and he demonstrates this over and again throughout the day with funny, engaging stories, “Along with all sorts of broken bones I also banged my head pretty hard during my accident and so during rehab, they check you all the time because they want to see how you’re doing. So, every day they would come into my room and say “Good morning”, and I would say ‘Good morning.’ And then they would say, “Do you know what your name is?” And I would say, ‘Yes, it’s Manfred Krankl,’ and they’d say, “Can you spell that?” and I would say ‘M-a-n-f-r-e-d’, and they would say, “Oh, very nice.” And they’d make notes. And they’d ask, “What’s the season? Where are we?” And all this stuff. And then they’d ask, “And, who’s the president?” And they would ask this every single day and it was very annoying to me, because it was always the same question and they made notes. So, one time I thought, ‘I’m so sick of these stupid questions,’ and so, when they asked me, “Who’s the president?” I looked at them and said, ‘ Nikita Khrushchev.’”  

1MandE.jpg

Later in the day, Elaine jokes that Manfred was a terrible patient, “He used to try and get out of all of his therapies. He even had me put a sign on the door that said “Keep Out.” And, they’d knock on the door and I’d say, ‘he’s sleeping…didn’t you see the sign?’”  

When we arrive at their home, Elaine joins us and we sit down a simple lunch of small baguette sandwiches made with salted butter, cheese and cured meats, cous cous and a fresh green salad. The wines accompanying our meal include Sine Qua Non’s 2006  “Shot in the Dark”, an arresting, beautiful Grenache that is built to age, and their 2004 “Ode to E”, a delicious, compelling Syrah that has great texture and length.  Light spills into their airy, atrium-like dining room where art of all kinds lives on the walls and floors. 

I guess I’ve always thought of Elaine and Manfred Krankl as being a part of the Art world more than the wine business. For me, each bottle they release is a small, captivating, poetic biosphere unto itself. No wine they make is ever repeated, ever re-named, ever duplicated. Their home embodies the same aesthetic that informs Sine Qua Non, Next of Kyn and most everything they do ---unpredictable, quirky, stimulating and heartening, all at once. 

The bond between these two is palpable: resilient and tender. Since founding Sine Qua Non together in 1994, they have gradually developed ways to balance each other and cultivate a family life that complements their mutual artistic visions. 

Original label artwork by Manfred Krankl

Original label artwork by Manfred Krankl

“In the beginning,” Elaine says, “we came to the conclusion that we needed to open our own facility in Ventura. We moved the winemaking to Ventura and had the old warehouse set up for production because Manfred’s oldest son from his first marriage was coming to live with us. I was raising our twins more or less by myself as Manfred’s bakery business in Los Angeles with his partners was quickly expanding. Manfred had three children from a previous marriage; we had the twins and a budding winery.  I said, ‘I can’t do all of this by myself. I need you closer,’ because he was driving from Los Angeles to John Alban’s place in Arroyo Grande, where we were making wine early on, to our home in Ojai.  So in ’97, in the spring, I said ‘Okay, I’m going to go ahead and find us a building, and I went out and found us a building, and started the construction, putting up walls, dropping ceilings, putting in plumbing. He ordered equipment and that was our first vintage together…alone. We only had sporadic help. It was pretty crazy. 

“But, you cannot occupy the same space at the same time, all the time,” she continues. “It’s not good for your marriage, it’s not good for your partnership. You’ll start to butt heads and it doesn’t work. We kind of found a way to make it work where we could both grow and expand and still be partners and be together. And so in our life, the office, the ranches, the children, our home, our animals; that’s more my realm. And he’s in the cellar. We come together and talk about everything and make decisions together, but we found a way we could do the dance and be happy. We just found a way to make it work. As the children are now grown, our roles keep evolving, keep developing, keep changing; it’s kind of like a river in a sense. It’s wider and narrower and you always come together and you just keep going.”

Sine Qua Non winery in Ojai

Sine Qua Non winery in Ojai

“Elaine’s obviously my partner,” Manfred says, “and she has been my partner all along, and she’s done a lot of wine stuff, in the beginning, really a lot of physical stuff too. She’s sort of the ultimate quality control. So, you know, if I had died, who knows what would have happened with the business, but odds are that she would carry on and she could carry on with the staff we have because everyone’s been there for a long time…but, um, you know, luckily, this didn’t happen. I worked this harvest all the way through.” 

Over the years, Manfred has emerged as the more recognizable partner in their relationship and I ask Elaine how she feels about that. “We have different needs,” she explains.  “Attention is a kind of currency, if you will, and we need different kinds of attention.”  Here, Elaine turns to Manfred and addresses him directly, “So, I think you are much more flowery, flamboyant, verbal. You’re a big character. I mean that in a lovely way.”

“We made some decisions early on, to do with the family, and I made certain personal decisions when we started. The twins were maybe five when we started to notice their need for more time, and so at that point, I shifted a little and did what I could at the winery and I took care of our life and the kids and allowed Manfred the freedom to go into the cellar and not have to worry about anything outside of that. I took care of everything else. Which in some ways has been really good.”

“Looking at the situation with this accident, aside from the emotional part, I could handle any of the other stuff; all of our finances, running of the ranches, any of that, I can handle. So I think that what has occurred by me taking care of those parts of our life and freeing Manfred up to really focus in the cellar has helped me in the long term. From the outside people would look at us and say, it’s like a one-man-show and there’s one guy and he’s doing all this stuff, and he single-handedly does it, but he’s very quick to acknowledge the group participation.” Again she turns to Manfred, “You never had to worry:  ‘I have to be home at a certain time, or I’m going to miss something with our family, or I have to take care of this appointment.’ I just made sure that he was free to do what he needed to do.” 

As driven as they are, and as hard as they have continued to work, it is still impossible to maintain a wine estate of this caliber without an estimable team. Many times during our two-day visit, Manfred and Elaine talk fondly, almost reverentially, about their team. “The best part of this,” Manfred says, “to be honest, is, again, the people. The people who work for us work with the vineyard, they work with the cows, they work with the chickens, they work in the winery, they package the wine. They see the whole process; what actually happens: meaning, whenever you do pruning, whenever you do green-harvesting, whenever you do leaf-pulling, whenever you do something, and then you make the wine…they see how that all translates. How it all comes together. That’s certainly beautiful. 

“When you travel, say, to Hong Kong or Shanghai, and you go to a restaurant and they have your wine there—I always wish our employees could see that, because they would just die of excitement, of pride. We have that going big-time, which is great. Our people are our strength, I feel. That’s what makes the difference during stressful times because you can say, we can plow through this.”  Elaine is quick to add, “They care about every little detail. We have a very strong core of people. Trustworthy people.”

Once the wines have journeyed through their era of elévage, Elaine and Manfred continue their collaboration in the cellar. Manfred explains, “The way it works now—and this has obviously evolved over time—you know, let’s say I make a cuvée now…a Syrah for example. I might have 16 different Syrah lots. Then I have to assemble the wine. Make the actual cuvée. So I taste and taste and make notes and then I come up with the idea. I then taste with Elaine and it’s really nice to have someone like her for input because I keep her notes. They are unadulterated, but with this knowledge and care. She doesn’t get bogged down as much as I do.” 

“The goal,” says Elaine, “is to come to the best possible end product, and so my criticism is not an attack on him, it’s about ‘how do we get to the very best place?’ The investment is different. Turning to Manfred, Elaine adds, “Your investment, I don’t mean to sound odd, but you’re aware of every problem your little child has. I go in there and just taste the child. You’re hung up on, ‘oh, I was frustrated with this, I was frustrated with that….’ I can go in and just say, ‘this is what I think.’”

“Her thoughts mean a lot to me because I know she cares about me and what we do,” he says, “and she cares about the wine and I know she is honest. She doesn’t get sidetracked by wine geek minutia.  Sometimes with a winemaker, they get macho about it, but she says, it’s too acidic, or too oaky…it’s very helpful to have a discussion about it.”

Fans and collectors of Sine Qua Non and Next of Kyn wines often cite the wines’ youthful approachability and their ability to age. I’m intrigued by the Krankls’ ability to create this kind of innate balance in their wines, “Of course,” Manfred says, “wine changes and evolves and becomes something different, and that’s good, but it should be fairly, pretty decent all along.  Our business is such that we do sell a product. You can romance the death out of it, and I like the romance of it. I like to chat with people about wine and blah, blah, blah. But, it is a product. At some point, someone gives you money and you give them a bottle, or two, or ten, or whatever, and I always think, at that point, when this exchange happens, I gotta have enough security in my head that says ‘what I’m giving you for your money is worthwhile.’ I try not to come up with some stupid excuse.  I mean, when you buy a case of Bordeaux, and if you drink it three years later, and you were to say, ‘Ah, well, no wonder it was too harsh. You have to wait ten years or twelve years, or whatever. And you drink it again in twelve years, and now it’s over the hill. . . . I always think that, ‘There’s no other product that you could bloody sell that way. You couldn’t say to someone, ‘I sold you this shirt and it’s way too big now, but in 15 years, you may gain weight and it will fit you.’ That would never happen.”

The Krankls own four estate vineyards. They are: Eleven Confessions Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills near Buellton, The Third Twin Vineyard near Los Alamos, Molly Aïda Vineyard in Tepusquet Canyon near Santa Maria and of course the home vineyard Cumulus near Ojai.

The next day, I meet Elaine and Manfred out at their Third Twin estate vineyard, located in Santa Barbara’s North County. A split-rail fence lining their driveway leads me to their modest homestead there, a small-ish, unassuming farmhouse near a duck-friendly reservoir that provides water to the vineyards. When I arrive, smoke is billowing from their chimney and Elaine comes out to greet me. “Ignore the two dead mice on the porch. This is the country!” 

Once inside, we enjoy a little more conversation over some soup and sandwiches. It seems to me that in the past decade or so, I’ve been very drawn to risk-takers. I especially admire people who take great creative risks to express themselves or to explore parts of themselves that are unfamiliar to them, and sometimes even a little scary. For me, risk-taking is one of the greatest virtues a person can possess because pushing oneself to create or engage with something outside of one’s comfort zone can be a profoundly frightening, lonely, yet exhilarating experience. In other words, engaging in the creative process is a great way to feel fully alive, at least for a time.

So, as a mist envelopes their little farmhouse and the rain outside falls harder, I ask Elaine and Manfred to talk to me about how they’ve embraced risk-taking, “I was scared to death, to be honest,” Manfred says of launching Sine Qua Non with Elaine, “because I knew it was a risky undertaking and it cost money. I would not have likely taken that risk had it not been for someone like Elaine, because Elaine is an incredible partner; a strong person and incredibly encouraging, and a great, great partner to have. She was extremely receptive to the idea at the time, even though she was scared also. At the beginning, we didn’t have very much money at all. So, buying $3,000 worth of barrels, which now probably doesn’t seem like a lot, seemed like a real burden. And, there were times when she was crying because, ‘how are we going to pay the electricity bill?’ Now, many years later, you see this big winery building and this and that, and nice cars or whatever, and you sort of forget. If you have somebody that you can truly lock arms with and say ‘let’s make this happen,’ then everything changes. You become stronger and more encouraged.”

“I remember at the beginning – our first wine ever – I bottled a half-bottle and I took it home and I was nervous and happy, all at the same time. I poured it and I gave it to Elaine without her knowing what it was.” Elaine says, “I didn’t know what he was opening, he just brought it into the other room. I think I was folding laundry.” Manfred continues, “She said, ‘oh, that is so good.’ And, I was so happy. God dammit. It was really fun!” “By nature,” Elaine counters, “I’m slightly more cautious than Manfred. We take a lot of risks. I take risks differently than Manfred does. But I think together, we both may be slightly manic, we push hard.”

“I disagree with you,” Manfred says, “I don’t think you’re more cautious than me, I think you approach it differently than me. By that I mean…you know I am sort of more of a bully, I hate to say. So if you say, from the risk respect, if we’re both running down a hill, I will run as fast as I can, and probably fall on my nose. Elaine would say, ‘There’s a tree over there, so I will go around that tree,’ and, she may outrun me, but it will be a different style. I think that’s why we make a good team, frankly, because you’ll say ‘put the brakes on.’”

“Manfred has every intention of riding bikes again,” she says. “And, it horrifies me, but I will never tell him, you cannot ride bikes. I have a lot of opinions about it. If those are the practical realities, if we’re going to do this, how do we better prepare ourselves in the case that something bad were to happen?  And, in all reality, if something happened to me, you should be much more prepared in other ways.”  Manfred responds, “Yeah.” 

M. Krankl

M. Krankl

“So, it’s just practical,” Elaine adds.  “It’s unfortunate that you have to look at it that way (unforeseen tragedies), but there’s nothing worse than standing in that position and thinking, from every direction, how to keep all those balls in the air.” Here, Manfred draws an interesting analogy, “It’s like you’re a bobsledding team and you say, you take the brakes and I’ll take the steering. And, that’s great, but at some point, if you keep doing it, you have to say, let’s switch positions at some point, right? Just to see what it’s like. So we have more understanding now.” 

E. Krankl

E. Krankl

“I’ve always loved art,” Manfred says. “I always loved music, I’ve always loved wine. I’ve always thought, somebody that drinks a $500 bottle of wine and can detect every nuance and every smell has to be someone who loves art. I couldn’t imagine that one sense was hyper-developed and in every other sense they’re nearly blind. I find it difficult to imagine someone who says, ‘Oh, I love the finest wine, but I don’t give a shit about food or I don’t give a shit about painting.’  It (the wine business) is a very weirdly old-fashioned business. There are good old-fashioned parts to it. It’s fun for me that we’re still using barrels like they were used a few thousand years ago. But from a marketing perspective, it’s odd to me how staid it is. It’s not that creative. 

“If you’re sitting down with a bottle, looking at it all night long, drinking, eating, it’s supposed to be fun. We’re not inventing a cure for AIDS. It’s just about a good time, and being happy about something that’s tasting good and smelling good...all of it should have something that enhances our sensitivities, whatever they are. 

“I got a fair amount of criticism from people who would say (of Sine Qua Non), ‘It’s all marketing.’ And I always thought that was odd because when you think of Thomas Keller’s restaurant, he gives you one plate that is triangular and one that is long, and one that’s . . . he doesn’t think he’s going to put one over on you. He doesn’t serve his food on paper plate to show how good a chef he is. He wants to make a creative statement. He might think his tuna tartare, or whatever, looks better on an oval plate. Now, you can argue about that, whether it would have been better on a square plate or something, but that’s his interpretation. And, it’s good that somebody does that, because it sort of makes it more interesting.

“I pick bottles that way; because a particular bottle fits this or that wine better. Not every bottle is meant for every wine, in my mind. Just because you call it a Bordeaux bottle doesn’t mean a Cabernet has to go in it. So what? In our case, it’s just Elaine and I, and we consider it our own, and we have our own ideas. It’s just ours. You have to make it yours, because people relate to that.”

Indeed, people do relate to that; to the creation, and then sharing of, a singular expression of one’s true self with others.  As dusk settles on the hillsides surrounding their home, I’m feeling motivated and I’m eager to get creative myself. By the time I get back home early that evening, my mind is almost fevered by inspiration. I want to grab a pen or my drawing pencils, sit at the piano, prepare a good dinner. I think of that word…inspiration.  It comes from the Latin, in-spirare: to breathe into or to breathe upon. And so I take a seat in my writing room, take a deep breath, open up a blank notebook and begin to draw something that has yet to reveal itself to me.  

 

R.H. Drexel

Ashes & Diamonds: A Love Letter to the Napa Valley

After toiling for a couple of decades as a creative executive in the media and advertising landscape of Los Angeles, Kashy Khaledi finally landed what he had long romanticized would be the ideal job. Now, seated at his desk inside the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood, he instead felt creatively bereft. It was the autumn of 2013 and Khaledi was ready for a change. “There’s this famous quote by Hunter S. Thompson from the 70’s,” Khaledi tells me: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” 

By the time Khaledi really sank his teeth into the music business, it had changed dramatically. “Now,” Khaledi continues, “it’s like selling jewelry out of a liquor store during an armed robbery. The labels have all consolidated because they’re selling music that’s essentially free. Streaming music is pennies on the dollar. What ends up happening is a conveyor belt effect of artists being fed into a machine that’s not equipped to handle the load. That machine is a downsized workforce and artists suffer.” 

As part of that machine, Khaledi’s responsibilities were to develop and oversee promos, advertising and music video production for various artists – sometimes a baker’s dozen at one time. “It’s a lot easier to do when you’re selling widgets for Virgin Mobile or Intel, which I had done previously,” says Khaledi. “But Elvis Costello, for instance, is not a widget, and I would end up spending too much time and overly humanizing the process. I was lost in my own private myopia.”

Whenever he needed to find some creative inspiration, Khaledi would turn to Hulu’s Criterion Collection. While he grew increasingly disillusioned by the music business, he came across a film one night that would alter the course of his life. “I was stuck on a music video I shot for this big mega pop star, which would ultimately be shelved,” says Khaledi. “I kept coming back to this ‘50s Polish film, Ashes and Diamonds. There was this haunting scene where the protagonist, who was an assassin in post-WWII Poland, had fallen in love with this girl and was going to get out of the murder business, so to speak. One evening, they were frolicking around, lucky in love, and they came across this writing on a wall that read:

“So often are you as a blazing torch with flames 

of burning rags falling about you flaming, 

you know not if flames bring freedom or death. 

Consuming all that you must cherish

if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest

Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond

The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”

“There was a clear fork in the road for him,” Khaledi continues. “The writing was literally on the wall. Does he choose love or choose to kill? To make a long story short, he continues on as an assassin and is murdered in the end. Not that I’m comparing myself to an assassin in post-WWII Poland, but I will say there is an allegory there for everyone. I chose love and jumped ship.”

                         Kashy Khaledi photographed at the Ashes & Diamonds estate site

                         Kashy Khaledi photographed at the Ashes & Diamonds estate site

From that day forward, Khaledi committed himself entirely, unapologetically, to chasing his dream: to create a winery project in the Napa Valley that would be a sweeping collaborative effort, paying homage to the wines from this storied region he most enjoys – those from the mid-century era all the way through to the end of the 1970s. He researched the Napa Valley and its history of viticulture and enology extensively, and the dream started to take shape. “I melted into the internet like a scene out of Videodrome,” Khaledi says. “One book I came across, that’s out of print – Great Winemakers of California (Robert Benson, 1977) – became a conduit for my taste. It led me to the BV wines from André Tchelistcheff, which were particularly affordable given their quality. I had bought a 1968 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour that had a scuffed label, on sale for a 180 bucks from Wine Searcher. My wife Laura and I took it up the street to Animal on Fairfax [in Los Angeles] and paired it with bone marrow and Videodrome’d into our glasses. That’s the one that changed everything.”

Also serving as a conduit and inspiration for Khaledi’s tastes were other collaborative projects that unfolded during the mid-century, in particular the Case Study Houses project. Commissioned by Arts and Architects Magazine between 1945 and 1966, the Case Study Houses were an experiment in residential housing. Arts and Architects commissioned some of the major architects of the time to design homes, mostly in Los Angeles, that would be efficient and affordable. Among those architects chosen were Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and Craig Ellwood. These architects and a number of their contemporaries found inspiration in one another’s work under the auspices of this collaborative undertaking. Ruminating on this project, Khaledi wondered if he might be able to pull together some of Napa Valley’s brightest talents to help him create and further delineate the Ashes & Diamonds story. In fairly rapid succession, Khaledi brought on winemakers Dan Petroski (Larkmead, Massican), Diana Snowden-Seysses (Snowden Vineyard, Domaine Dujac), and Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson) into the fold, as well as winegrowers, Bart and Daphne Araujo (Red Hen Vineyard, Rancho Pequeno Vineyard) and Lisa Chu (Saffron Vineyard), among others. 

                                                                     Bart Araujo

                                                                     Bart Araujo

Steve Matthiasson proved to be a crucial contact early on. Because of Matthiasson’s extensive work as a vineyard consultant, as well, he was able to secure for Khaledi a number of superlative vineyard sources. Both men – heavily influenced by punk music and skateboarding – found in each other an affinity for collaborative efforts, for communal undertakings that leave a mark when its participants are all bringing their best to the table. “Growing up in the South Bay of Los Angeles, you get a standard issue surfboard and catalogue of SST Records bands,” Khaledi tells me. “As a teenager, my friends and I would treat our skateboards like surfboards and ‘bomb hills’ – essentially gunning down steep hills like a wave, carving out figure eights to temper our speeds. It got ugly when we fell. We had a van that would trail us, running interference so cars wouldn’t plow us, and we would blast all of the SST bands like Minutemen, Black Flag, and Descendents. When I learned Steve skated and was into those SST bands, it rained punk rock points in Napa Valley. I thought everyone in Napa Valley listened to Jimmy Buffet. And then when Steve said he makes wine like Minutemen’s ‘Corona’, I knew I HAD to work with him. Punk is about community, freedom, independence (DIY), equality and authenticity more than anything else. It transcends music. It’s not a clique. I take those principles pretty seriously as an adult and instill them in my everyday life – even at Ashes & Diamonds.” 

Matthiasson’s Minutemen reference was a particularly powerful one for Khaledi, who had, over the years, become friends with Minutemen bassist, Mike Watt. “When I was finding my sea legs early on in my career at Grand Royal (Beastie Boys fanzine and record label), I met Mike Watt, and he would share his wisdom with me. He was this mythic figure that was still accessible and warm in a culture that was hardened.” Of his friendship with Khaledi, Minutemen’s Watt says, “What I really dig about Kashy Khaledi is the way he puts his heart into his work. It's inspiring for me. Our experiences working together have been true collaborations and situations he made happen opened up for me good shots at learning righteous stuff, while at the same time being a springboard for my own expression – a launch pad to get happening stuff lit and lifted off!” 

41470003-1-44.jpg

The collaborative undertaking started to take shape as the creative team came together. “Dan Petroski’s record as a winemaker speaks for itself,” says Khaledi. “Equal to that is his humanity as a friend and confidant. He was an early contributor to Ashes & Diamonds until just after the 2015 harvest when Diana Snowden-Seysses took over for him. As we expanded several new vineyards to our portfolio, his commitments to Larkmead and the burgeoning Massican limited his availability. Diana and I had met just a few months earlier through Steve Matthiasson in Burgundy at Domaine Dujac, where we became fast friends discussing everything from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to whole cluster to David Lynch to the old school Napa greats like Mayacamas. When I asked her if she knew of any winemakers – and I, of course, secretly hoped she would volunteer herself – she did so with a level of zeal that breathed new energy into A&D. The possibilities seemed limitless right away. We would geek out about Ridge and Santa Cruz, then next thing you know, we’re up there with Paul Draper atop the Monte Bello mountain being given an oral history of California wine.” 

                                                    Detail: Boots of Kashy Khaledi

                                                    Detail: Boots of Kashy Khaledi

In Khaledi’s mind, all the vineyard owners, winemakers, architect/artists involved are collaborators. “At its core, it’s a community of progressive thinkers that have the ability to exchange ideas with one another. We all take care of each other,” Khaledi says. “It’s more about the community’s expression. It’s great to have a dialogue going with them. A lot of businesses and wineries operate as a hierarchy, and they’re silos. It’s nice to open it up. Science and winemaking work well with this concept of collaboration and community. This winery is a concept album.”

                                                 Khaledi entering the Saffron Vineyard

                                                 Khaledi entering the Saffron Vineyard

Khaledi and I agree to meet up in the Napa Valley for a couple of days where I’ll shadow him during his vineyard visits and consultant meetings. We have been corresponding via email for a while now, but I’ve not yet met Khaledi in person. When he hops out of his SUV at Rancho Pequeno vineyard, he strikes me the same way he does in his missives: polished, formal, unfailingly polite, but with an underlying edginess and rawness that is undoubtedly steeped in a punk ethos. There is a wiry energy about him – the verve of one who’s taken a huge risk to chase down a dream and bring it to fruition, or die trying. His relatively calm demeanor belies a man who has everything on the line with this project. As the coming days unfold, Khaledi shares a quote with me that I’ll continue to think about throughout our visit: "The less a man makes declarative statements, the less apt he is to look foolish in retrospect." Khaledi and I fall into an easy conversation over the many hours we spend together, but it’s always just this side of measured. He is a man of few words. 

                                                               

Rancho Pequeno Vineyard was purchased, and subsequently revitalized a couple of years ago by the Araujo family and is already producing beautiful, distinctive fruit. It is located just off the frequently-travelled Silverado Trail, on Skellenger Lane, in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district. The Araujo family home shares the land with the Rancho Pequeno Vineyard, as do a sprawling, well-appointed garden, complete with garden sculptures, and a host of brightly colored dragon flies that flit in and out of a water feature just outside the family’s front door. 

                                             Khaledi with Diana Snowden-Seysses

                                             Khaledi with Diana Snowden-Seysses

Snowden-Seysses joins us and soon she and Bart Araujo are heading into the vineyard to check on Khaledi’s rows. Bart Araujo cuts an intimidating presence as he moves through the vineyard, but disarms me a little as we continue to walk and talk. “When we first came to the Napa Valley, and we bought the Eisele Vineyard, they introduced us to so many people,” Araujo tells me. “It was really wonderful. So, to the extent that we can pay some of that back now, we do like to help the newer generation,” he tells me. He is selling fruit to a number of up and coming talents. “We met Kashy through Steve Matthiason. We’ve been working with Steve since 2006. He’s very knowledgeable. His parents were university professors so he has that intellectual curiosity. He has dirt under his fingernails; he’s a real farmer, and he drives his own tractor and all that, but he’s also an academic – a practical academic. Some consultants you work with think only one step at a time, but Steve thinks three steps ahead of time. You can be walking down a vineyard row with him and all of a sudden he’s on his hands and knees doing something. It’s a real treat to work with him. He’s a lovely person. Everyone we sell fruit to we either met through Steve, or was vetted by Steve.”

The Rancho Pequeno Vineyard looks vibrant, healthy, meticulously farmed. Araujo credits biodynamic farming practices for having rejuvenated this once-neglected vineyard site, and for bringing about a natural balance in the wines grown here, “With biodynamic farming, we can harvest earlier, but with total phenolic ripeness, so the wines are lower in alcohol as a result of biodynamic farming.” As Snowden-Seysses studies block maps corresponding to the rows we walk, she adds, “I think that, essentially, terroir does come down to all the micro-flora in the vineyard. So it’s everything that’s growing in the soils; the more diverse a population you have in the soils, the better the ‘take up’ of the characteristics of the soil. Without those bacteria in the soils, there’s a barrier that prevents all the nutrients from getting in. With biodynamics, you just have a much larger population of micro-flora.” In accord with the principles of biodynamic farming, Snowden-Seysses employs only native yeast fermentations at harvest time, “You have several populations of yeast at harvest time, so it’s hard to know which yeast is doing the fermenting. Is it the yeast from the worker’s hands, after picking when they’ve just had bread for lunch? It’s hard to say. But, the more diversity you have in the population of yeast at harvest time, the longer that wine will live and the more complex it will be. That’s something I feel very strongly about.” 

Though somewhat delicate in appearance, there’s an underlying quiet strength about Snowden-Seysses. She is excited and focused about the upcoming harvest and working with these uncommon sites, “It takes a very different approach to minimize the mark of your hand and to maximize the expression of the land,” she says. “I think that farming is absolutely the most crucial element in site-specific wines.” Has she started to think about the oak regime for this year’s harvest, I ask her. “In Burgundy, cooler vintages actually integrate new oak better, which probably seems counter-intuitive, but I think it’s the malic acid. Longer malic acid fermentations digest the oak more effectively. I was expecting that a bigger wine could take a lot more new wood, but I haven’t found that that’s necessarily the case, and I think a lot of that comes down to the malic acid. Of course, that’s not something you can always anticipate when you’re putting in your order for barrels.” Snowden-Seysses adds that for the 2016 harvest, she has ordered about 30% new oak barrels. 

                                                                 Kashy Khaledi

The next morning, I meet up with Khaledi at 7:30 near his estate property. Located in the Oak Knoll district of the Napa Valley, his estate vineyard and future winery site could almost serve as a gateway to the Napa Valley. Just north of the town of Napa, off of its now well-known Hwy. 29, it will be, upon completion, one of the first wineries visitors see when entering wine country. I arrive a little early to get my bearings. With my Sony Discman stuffed into my jacket pocket, I listen to Lucinda Williams fill the morning with her plaintive, rage-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light-infused voice. As the sun becomes more prominent, the soil beneath my feet becomes increasingly fragrant. The metal stakes and trellis wires of Khaledi’s estate vineyard begin to catch the light as the morning warms. After handing out bright orange safety vests to Matthiasson, Snowden-Seysses and me, Khaledi leads us into his estate vineyard to have a good look at his Cabernet Franc and Merlot plantings. 

              Architectural renderings by BESTOR of future Ashes & Diamonds estate winery

             Architectural renderings by BESTOR of future Ashes & Diamonds estate winery

Waiting for us upon our arrival are the other members of the Ashes & Diamonds viticulture team, Kara Maraden and Jason Lauritsen. Both young and earnest, Maraden and Lauritsen proceed to walk the vineyard rows, with Matthiasson and Snowden-Seysses providing feedback. When Lauritsen asks about green-dropping, Matthiasson is quick to advise that it will be minimal this year. “There’s not a lot of fruit,” he tells Lauritsen. “Part of keeping alcohols moderate is having enough fruit to balance out the lignification.” Maraden asks if Matthiasson’s worried at all about short shoots this year. “Not really,” he responds, “if the short shoot can’t handle it, it’ll show it on green drop.” And so they continue on, exchanging farmer-speak with a quiet confidence that comes only from walking the walk.

I chime in and ask my own questions of Matthiasson, a tendency born of my own thirst for knowledge and my shameful inclination to demonstrate that I know a little something about farming, too. I ask if they dry farm at the Ashes & Diamonds estate. “Dry farming is a very distinct black and white line. And I think for sustainability, we need to get away from black and white thinking and work with all the factors we do have control over, as well as those we don’t have control over. Soils are different. Sites are different. So that’s my overall answer to the dry farming question. I don’t like black and white thinking. We do try to limit irrigation. To save water and to improve wine quality. We’re trying to be sustainable and also make quality wines.” 

Snowden-Seysses asks Lauritsen and Maraden how much lead time they need to pull together a picking crew once she has decided to call the pick. “It’s nice to have 48-hours’ notice,” Lauritsen tells her, “but we can put together the pick crew in 24 hours. We’ll be night-picking.” She emphasizes that she wants them to pick fruit into macro-bins. “Washing those little bins just wastes too much water,” she tells them. 

When Khaledi first acquired this property, he was advised by many to graft it over, from Cabernet Franc and Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon. But Khaledi dug his heels in and kept the original estate plantings intact. Though Cabernet Sauvignon plantings would drive up the value of the land, and of the price-per-ton of fruit, Khaledi was compelled to see what might come of those 30-year-old Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines if they were properly nourished and farmed organically. “It’s not something people are doing – dedicating their land to Merlot and Cabernet Franc. There’s a lot of risk involved. A lot of risk to farming organically, but we’re not being whimsical about it. We’re being very thoughtful about it. Nobody wants to buy Merlot; they’re scared of it, but we’re not. I’m not going to let Sideways be the iota that killed Merlot. F**k you, Sideways.” 

Khaledi surveys his land occasionally, seemingly at times in disbelief that his once nascent dream has come this far. All around us, the bustle of construction unfolds. Heavy equipment is jostled about as we navigate past berms of earth that were scraped in from the nearby highway. When the winery is completed, it will be an homage to mid-century architecture and to the theme of collaboration. “The conceit behind collaboration as a mechanism is to employ an ecosystem of progressive minds to unify and build an ecosystem of environments and products. You’ll notice we have quite an extensive selection of wines, styles and formats we are building on. Ashes & Diamonds Winery will be open to the public and will not be exclusionary. It’s about embracing the community and culture, and building a habitat that facilitates it. And no, it won’t be all things to all people, and it does have a strong point of view, but by offering diversity of terroir and spacious environs, my hope is that everybody feels at home when they walk into our little world, and finds something that touches their heart. It’s a love letter to Napa Valley, then and now.”

                                                                  Kashy Khaledi

Up on high in the Mt. Veeder district of the Napa Valley there exists a special little vineyard site called the Saffron Vineyard. Storied Napa Valley properties like Mayacamas purchase fruit from this verdant little gem. An impossibly steep driveway leads us to an unbelievably beautiful clearing – a neatly farmed vineyard tucked like a small child into the soil beneath giant towering groves of Redwoods. The sharp fragrance of warm bark, chaparral and wild grasses envelopes us when we arrive. Owned by Lisa Chu, the Saffron Vineyard is a vital fruit source for the Ashes & Diamonds project. Raptors circle above us as we make our way down Khaledi’s rows of Merlot. Chu agreed to convert her vineyard to an organic farming model upon Khaledi’s request. As Snowden-Seysses walks the vineyard, checking on Khaledi’s rows, he and I continue to talk about his project. “I do believe that it’s going to be a commercial success,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is a business and I have to make money from it. I don’t have to make a lot of money, but I just can’t drown in this thing. And so I do believe that we can make a wine that is profitable from this land. It may cost a little more, but it’s not like we’re pocketing that money. We’re putting it back into the land. There’s a lot of manual labor, for example, with organic farming, and that costs a lot of money. At the end of the day, hopefully that will result in a better product.”

                                                                  Saffron Vineyard

                                                                 Saffron Vineyard

As the day gets hotter, I start to crave a beer, so Khaledi and I briefly part ways to take a little break. I head over to Panchas in Yountville; one of the truly legitimate dive bars left in the Napa Valley. The stale smell of beer and dusty furniture provides a deep contrast from all of the fresh air I’ve been breathing on this trip, but the well lived-in environs of the bar allow me to ruminate some. I down a couple of cold IPAs and take some notes. Soon I’ll be heading out to George III Vineyard in Rutherford, owned by well-known winegrower Andy Beckstoffer. Many years ago, I worked at Caymus Vineyard, which is near George III, but I’ve never walked those vineyard rows before. Some vineyards are just hallowed ground; they have about them a palpable presence. At the risk of sounding like the hippie that I am, there’s an energy in a piece of land that has produced amazing wines over the years, especially if those wines have proven to be age-worthy. Age-worthy wines become, over time, a living archive of a particular place and time. They are history we can take into the body. 

As Matthiasson, Khaledi and I walk his rows at George III, I try to imagine what it must have been like when the late, great André Tchelistcheff walked those same vineyard rows those many years ago. As the winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard at the time, he sourced fruit from George III. What must he have thought would be the future of Napa Valley wines? Could he have imagined that a former punk rock fan/skateboarder/ dreamer would find Tchelistcheff’s wines inspiring enough to lay it all on the line and dream of walking that same path? Upon tasting Tchelistcheff’s 1968 Georges de Latour Cabernet, Khaledi says, “I asked Steve Matthiasson why nobody was making Napa Cabernet like this anymore. He was the responsible winemaker that he is, informing me that it’s counterintuitive to the contemporary style Napa Valley is known for, and the wine may be polarizing in its youth. We started to work with the same fruit from the Georges III Vineyard in 2015, clocking in at around 22 brix, adding in some Cantons to our traditional French oak plan, and realized very early on that it’s outright affable in its youth. The aromatics were wild. Strawberry fields forever. The acids and tannins were there too, but utterly elegant and balanced. This is a credit to Steve’s ability to toe the line and make a wine that is influenced by the Napa Valley greats from the mid-century, and yet maintain its hedonistic qualities.”

                                                                Steve Matthiasson

                                                                Steve Matthiasson

Ashes & Diamonds: Tasting Notes

How affirming it was to taste the Ashes & Diamonds line-up. The proof is in the bottle with this project; as the old saying goes, these wines “taste like more”... 

The Ashes & Diamonds labels were designed by Brian Roettinger, perhaps best known for having designed Jay Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” album cover. He has also worked with St. Vincent, Liars, Childish Gambino. The label with scrambled letters will represent the A&D blend, while the “black box” label will represent the single vineyard offerings.

A&D_grand_vin.jpg

2015 ASHES & DIAMONDS “BLANC” NAPA VALLEY (50% Semillon/50% Sauvignon Blanc): Upon tasting this wine, my sensory memories took me back to the first time I tasted a Didier Dagueneau Silex. It was the 1998 and my palate was awakened unlike it had been before by the Loire Valley. There was an unmistakable vibrancy and electricity about that wine that I found similar to my experience with the 2015 A & D Blanc. 

2105 ASHES & DIAMONDS “CABERNET FRANC” NAPA VALLEY (75% Cabernet Franc/25% Merlot): Texturally, this is an arresting wine. So close to being complete in its youth, it shows great, great promise. Elevated from the kind of rusticity that often visits Cabernet Franc, the length of this wine is profound and suggests a long life of tertiary wonder. Bright, refreshing, yet sophisticated, this struck me as a perfect expression of Cabernet Franc, tempered by a measured Merlot profile. A complete pleasure to consume. 

2105 ASHES & DIAMONDS “CABERNET SAUVIGNON” RANCHO PEQUEÑO VINEYARD, OAKVILLE (100% Cabernet Sauvignon): The aromatics of this wine recall a cold, breezy night outdoors when the earth is wet after a recent rain. The promise of lively, spirited aromatics is fulfilled upon entry; clearly delineated flavors of high-toned blue and red fruits meet with earthier pronouncements of animal fur and roses on the verge of decay. An absolutely breathtaking effort. There is an undeniable presence about this wine. 

2015 ASHES & DIAMONDS “CABERNET SAUVIGNON” GEORGES III VINEYARD, RUTHERFORD (100% Cabernet Sauvignon): Yet another regal, lovely offering – a wine meant to be aged, or, at the very least, decanted over a period of a few days, during which it will continue to release more of its hidden-ness. Taut, elegant, and pulsating, this Cabernet Sauvignon is ethereal without ever betraying its earth-bound provenance. Truly, an homage to Napa Valley wines I’ve tasted from the ‘60s and ‘70s, particularly those of Inglenook and Beaulieu. 

2015 ASHES & DIAMONDS “GRAND VIN” A&D VINEYARD, OAK KNOLL DISTRICT (75% Merlot/25% Cabernet Franc): Born at the Ashes and Diamonds estate, this blend serves as a testament to Khaledi’s vision of reviving the restraint, taut style of a bygone wine era. The Grand Vin is an exercise in refinement balanced by terroir. There’s no mistaking this wine came from the Napa Valley, and yet it pushes the boundaries of what the Napa Valley can be by pursuing purity of site to its end. 

Coming in 2016 (to be released in 2019): 

ASHES & DIAMONDS “MERLOT” SAFFRON VINEYARD, MT. VEEDER 

ASHES & DIAMONDS “CABERNET SAUVIGNON” BATES RANCH VINEYARD, SANTA CRUZ (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)

 ASHES & DIAMONDS “CABERNET SAUVIGNON” MT. PEAK VINEYARD, ATLAS PEAK (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)

 ASHES & DIAMONDS “CABERNET SAUVIGNON” RED HEN VINEYARD, OAK KNOLL DISTRICT (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)

*Photography by Jena Malone. Jena Malone’s career stretches across three mediums; music, acting and photography. As a singer, she performs with musician Lem Jay Ignacio as “The Shoe.” Her film oeuvre includes Bastard Out of Carolina (1996), in which she made her acting debut, Contact (1997), Donnie Darko (2001) and the Hunger Games film series (2103-15). In photography, she often collaborates with her partner, Ethan DeLorenzo.

Below are more images by the multi-talented Jena Malone from my time with Kashy Khaledi:

IMG_3977 2.jpg
                                                 Redwood grove in Saffron Vineyard

                                                Redwood grove in Saffron Vineyard

IMG_4880 2.jpg

From Security Guard to Wine Educator: Chatting with Dana Hunter

Six years ago, Dana Hunter was a full-time security guard in downtown Lodi, a city located in California’s San Joaquin County, and perhaps still best known for the eponymously-titled song by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hunter was 25 years old at the time and had never touched wine; he and his friends preferred beer. 

The headquarters of the security firm for which he worked had its office not far from the Oak Ridge Winery tasting room. One fateful Tuesday, while stopping by the office to pick up his pay check, he noticed that the tasting room manager at Oak Ridge was “freaking out”, says Hunter, “because no one showed up that day to open up and she had an important meeting to attend.”

She asked Hunter if he would hold down the fort for about 15 minutes until the employee scheduled to work that day showed up. After advising him to stand behind the tasting room bar, pour through a few wines and talk to people, she headed for the door. “The last thing she told me,” Hunter says, “was, ‘It’s 10 a.m., it’s Tuesday morning, no one will come anyway, so don’t worry about it.”

What the tasting room manager hadn’t realized was that there was a convention in town, and shortly thereafter, thirsty conventioneers came through the door, bellied up at the tasting bar, and eagerly awaited Hunter’s liquid affirmations. Hunter ended up pouring wine that morning for three straight hours. 

“I was a Theater major in college. I studied Improv. So, I figured, I can talk about anything for 30 minutes. Why not give this a try? I chose not to talk about wine,” Hunter says now. “Instead, I just asked people what they were looking for. I asked them what kinds of wines they liked, and then I just poured through the line-up. Looking back, I probably should have at least tasted the wines first, so that I had some idea of what I was pouring, but I didn’t even do that. At the end of those three hours, I thought to myself, “Wow! That was fun!” 

A look at Hunter's youth clockwise from top left: six months old, voted most spirited senior year of high school 2003, senior year in halloween costume, high school science class.

A look at Hunter's youth clockwise from top left: six months old, voted most spirited senior year of high school 2003, senior year in halloween costume, high school science class.

Hunter headed home after someone showed up to relieve him and didn’t give it another thought. By the time he got home, though, there was a message on his answering machine, “Can you please return to the tasting room immediately?” Hunter’s first thought was, “Okay, this is bad. What did I do wrong?” He was stumped. He thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t work for them anyway. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Get fired from a job I didn’t have in the first place?”

Hunter immediately returned to the tasting room where they directed him to speak to John, the CFO. “John’s on the phone when I get there,” Hunter recalls. “When he gets off the phone he asks, ‘Were you comfortable filling in today?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s not rocket science, I guess. I just talked to people.’ John continued, ‘Well, how do you know so much about our wines?’” Hunter responded that he didn’t know anything about wine. “I’m a security guard,” he told him. “I was just asked to take over for a while – to cover for somebody.” Hunter was then informed that they’d had their best sales day in five years. “So, he offered me a tasting room position then and there, and that’s how I got into the wine business.”

Hunter’s career in wine began at that moment and he’s never looked back. “I learned about wine by drinking it and by hearing people talk about it. I guess my perspective on wine is a little different from a lot of people in the wine business because I’m not formally trained. I listened my way into the business. In a way, I learned about wine, the verbiage and all that goes with it while trying to also learn how to make it understandable for the average wine drinker, which is also what I was at the time – just learning. So I was teaching about wine in such a way that made it easier for people to learn because I was just using regular language.”

That first day at Oak Ridge Winery, Hunter was sent home with six bottles of wine. Hunter says now that he didn’t even understand differences in wines until about four months into the job when it suddenly started to come together for him. It happened one day when a friend brought him a Pinot Noir to taste. Up until that point, Hunter hated Pinot Noir. “I thought it was a mistake. I just didn’t get it. Of course, I was drinking Lodi Pinot Noir; it gets to be 115 degrees on some days in Lodi.” But his friend brought him a Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, where the climate and geography are well-suited to this mercurial variety, and all of a sudden it clicked for Hunter. “This is different! Why is this different?” He began to research Pinot Noir and learned about the different regions where it grows best. He researched soil types, micro-climates, elevations, etc. That was his Aha moment in wine; learning that different varieties grow differently in different locations. Hunter is quick to defend Lodi to this day, though, and even though he remains unconvinced that Pinot Noir can grow there, he maintains that the finest Zinfandels he’s ever had have been from Lodi. 

Hunter stayed on at the Lodi tasting room for two years, learning what he could. By the time he was 27, facing mounting bills and wanting to establish a long-term career in an industry he was quickly falling in love with, he moved to Livermore to accept a full time position at Darcie Kent Winery. “Working at Darcie Kent Winery opened my eyes to what the industry could be – a real, full-time, legitimate business. It was run by a husband and wife team. They distributed their wine; they had a real presence in the industry there.” Hunter was allowed to work in nearly every facet of operations at Darcie Kent, and especially enjoyed helping with harvest. It was at Darcie Kent Winery that he realized that this was a career he could do for a lifetime. 

Hunter with friends he made while at Darcie Kent Vineyards.

Hunter with friends he made while at Darcie Kent Vineyards.

Two years later, he once again wanted to challenge himself. Hunter was convinced that if he truly wanted to immerse himself in the world of fine wine, he would have to challenge himself at even more acclaimed properties in increasingly acclaimed regions. And so he began applying for jobs in the Napa Valley. “I tried to find a job in Napa for a full year. I kept receiving these letters that said, basically, thank you for applying, but we’ve decided upon someone who is more qualified for the position. I finally phoned up a winery that hadn’t hired me, and asked the lady who had signed the letter what she meant by ‘more qualified.’ I guess I wanted to know what I could do to become ‘more qualified.’ And her response was, ‘Well we’ve heard of Lodi and Livermore, but we’ve never tasted their wines, so we don’t know if what they do there is comparable to what we do here.’” 

Hunter pushed back a little and politely told her that he wasn’t sure how it was that he could become more qualified, if he was applying for a job that he’d already been doing for four years, working in a tasting room. “She responded that if I wanted to get a position with them, then I really needed to land at least one job in the Napa Valley. So I told her, ‘Okay, I’m not getting hired because I don’t have experience working in a tasting room in Napa, and the solution to that problem is to get a job working at a tasting room in Napa.’ It was very frustrating, but I kept applying. Everyone kept telling me I had to be in Napa, because that’s the best place for wine. I did want to at least be around people working at the highest level of hospitality. I figured, if I’m around the best for long enough, then I’ll become one of the best.” 

Hunter finally landed himself a position at the critically-acclaimed Elizabeth Spencer tasting room in Rutherford, one of Napa’s most respected sub-appellations. “That was the experience that I needed. That’s where I could flourish and grow. I interacted a lot with customers there. I did a lot of social media. It’s something I’m very interested in.” Hunter insists that while these days wine isn’t necessarily sold on social media, in the next five years, “it will probably be the primary way in which brands move product.” It’s a prediction about which he’s very confident. 

Middle photo: 2010 Hunter's first Napa wine tasting four months after being hired at Oak Ridge. Other four photos: Hunter's many friends that he has made since changing his career to the wine industry and moving to Napa.

Middle photo: 2010 Hunter's first Napa wine tasting four months after being hired at Oak Ridge. Other four photos: Hunter's many friends that he has made since changing his career to the wine industry and moving to Napa.

Today, Hunter is the Lead Wine Educator and Social Media Manager at Adastra Winery in Sonoma. The attractive, gallery-like tasting room, just off of Sonoma’s town square, is imbued with his personality. It’s an airy, cheerful environment. When I arrive on a misty spring morning, I can already see Hunter tooling around in the open, well-lighted space, even though the tasting room itself is not scheduled to be opened for another hour. Artwork by local Sonoma County artists rotates frequently through the space, which also serves as a gallery. Monthly painting classes are offered at Adastra, during which students can paint while enjoying a glass of wine.

Hunter seems to have finally landed in an environment where he can flourish. He is able to truly engage with what the bottom-line-oriented wine business types tend to call “the end user,” but what wine business people who actually care about the average wine drinker, as Hunter does, call “our customers.” 

“I was having dinner with my girlfriend a couple of months ago, and three different couples, who had been at the tasting room during the day, came to our table and asked for help with their wine recommendations.” Recalling the story now, Hunter seems truly touched to be able to interact with the public about a beverage he has clearly grown to love and study with a high level of seriousness. When Hunter visits his hometown of Patterson, California, though, his old friends don’t seem to care much that he’s become a bit of a wine guru. “They never ask me questions about wine. I’ll bring wine home and share it with them and talk about it, but they don’t seem all that interested. We drink Coors Light. It’s still my favorite thing to drink when I’m not drinking wine.” 

Unlike many wine industry insiders these days, Hunter populates his social media feed on Instagram (@dhunter1921) not with photos of hard-to-find Burgundies or obscure imports, but with almost entirely domestic efforts. “I didn’t plan to focus just on domestic wines. It just kind of happened that way. When I was working in Lodi and Livermore, there weren’t a lot of shops around selling European wines, so I wasn’t around it all that much. Then, moving to Napa and now Sonoma…well, while there are European wines around here to buy, there are just so many good American wines. I’m just very interested in drinking wine that most of our customers are interested in. Our customers don’t really ask about European wines, but they do ask about wines from Sonoma and Napa, and they want to know how they’re different from, say, wines from Monterey or Santa Barbara. They want to talk about comparisons and learn about why regions are different from one another. So I want to focus on learning about what they’re interested in. Also, this is where I live. I’m proud of American wines. I think the American wine industry is awesome; it gave me a career. I mean, my job is to pour wine into a glass and talk to someone about it. And it didn’t happen because of European wines, it happened because of Lodi, and Livermore and Napa and Sonoma, so I stand by the wines of America 100%.” 

Hunter has a vision for his involvement in the American wine industry. “My long-term goal is to someday have my own winery. I want to open a place that showcases California wines from different growing regions; where customers can come, and I can explain, through my wines, why each region is unique, and what grows best where. I want to have a line-up of wines that demonstrates for the wine drinker what they should expect and look for from each major region.” Hunter then surprises me with a refreshing comment – refreshing for its utter lack of snobbery: “And I love grocery stores! There are a lot of good wines available in grocery stores. I’d like somebody to walk up to one of my wines on a grocery store shelf one day and feel confident that they’re getting a good bottle of wine.” 

For now, Hunter enjoys living in wine country with his girlfriend, where they often host wine tasting parties for friends that are “mostly in the wine industry.” Hunter’s favorite grape variety is Cabernet Franc, so he will often hold Cabernet Franc-themed wine tastings for his colleagues. 

What does Hunter love best about being in the wine business? “The best part of what I do is seeing someone have a moment of connection – that moment when I translate what someone says they like or want in a wine, and I pour them exactly what they were looking for. My job is to take the mystery out of wine for people. Wine drinking should be a fun thing, not intimidating."

Hunter the night before opening Adastra Wines in May of this year.

Hunter the night before opening Adastra Wines in May of this year.

Date Night

Date Night: Jamie Gluck and John Wentworth

Just a handful of years ago, the small California town of Los Alamos was nothing more than a couple of moth-worn hotels, a dive bar, some mediocre restaurants and Full of Life Flatbread, which, once-upon-a-time, was the town’s only bright spot; a hugely popular eatery among Central Coast winemakers and farmers. Then, in quite rapid succession, a string of vital, fun and invigorating businesses began to hang their shingles there and the town came alive. 

Today, there are 29 businesses in what is essentially a one-street country town. Babi’s Beer Emporium, the Alamo Motel, Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, Plenty on Bell, Pico & the Los Alamos General Store, and numerous other businesses offer visitors a diverse and very agreeable eating, shopping and antiquing experience. As I drove into Los Alamos for this interview, a cowboy riding horseback was making his way down the town’s major thoroughfare, Bell Street. As he and his horse passed my car, a tumbleweed made its way across the street in the distance. For all of the great new businesses in this once sleepy little town, it remains achingly un-gentrified and charming. 

Much of this town’s renaissance began when Bell Street Farm opened; a terrific little restaurant offering up delicious food, with many ingredients sourced from local farmers. As is often the case with highly successful brick and mortar businesses, particularly in small towns, colorful and engaging business owners can be as big a draw as the products or services they offer. This is certainly the case with Jamie Gluck, who founded Bell Street Farm with his husband, John Wentworth, in 2011. Gluck is known by locals, and repeat customers who visit frequently from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, for his wide, sweet smile and big Stetson hat. 

I meet up with Gluck and Wentworth on their date night, which they are enjoying at Pico, Los Alamos’ newest restaurant. Pico and the Los Alamos General Store, as it’s formally called,  offers not only terrific, modern cuisine, but also an elegant selection of gifts, including Tru wine decanters, Zalto wineglasses, a number of wonderful wine books, leather goods and domestic, as well as imported wines. 

Gluck arrives first in his signature Stetson. While we’re waiting for Wentworth to arrive, I ask him, “So, why the Steston?”  “Male Pattern Baldness”, Gluck says, laughing.  “No,” he adds, “actually, when we were house shopping in Santa Barbara County with this big, burly realtor, we looked at about 5 undeveloped acres one day, and the sun was beating down on us. So, I reached into the back seat of this guy’s Bronco, and there was a cowboy hat on the seat. I didn’t know at the time that it was bad etiquette to put on someone else’s cowboy hat, so I put it on…otherwise I would have been sun-burned! And, there’s something about a big nose and a big hat that just really works.” 

“Hi Honey!” Gluck calls out to Wentworth, as he joins us a few minutes after Gluck and I have taken a seat at Pico’s large, family-style table. Gluck immediately rises to greet his husband and to fetch him something to drink. I thank them both for making time to sit down and chat with me, and Wentworth, who is the shy and soft-spoken one, says, “Oh, we’re flattered you’d even want to interview us.” Gluck quickly chimes in, “Oh, I expected it!” It’s Gluck’s frequent and dorky bursts of humor that have endeared him to this community and to his customers. 

Gluck and Wentworth will be celebrating their 15th anniversary next month, (they were officially wed in 2008, but have lived together since they met in 2001). I ask them if they made a commitment early on to set aside one night a week for date night. “No”, Gluck responds.  “It just evolved organically. We both realized early on that we really enjoyed our time together.  I’ve always said that one of my favorite things is just dinner with my husband. We love the stimulation of going out and having fun with other couples but if I had to pick who I want to have dinner with?” Here Gluck takes Wentworth’s hand, “This guy.” “We’re a couple without children”, Wentworth adds. “We aren’t looking at a date night the way some other people do. Those who have children may view date night as an opportunity for some relief from parenting, but we don’t view date night that way. It’s just a part of our routine that we enjoy very much.” “We have never missed Monday night date night” Gluck adds. 

They typically spend their Monday date nights in Los Angeles. What kind of restaurants do they frequent on their romantic night? “Decadent, special and where they know us,” Gluck says. “It may sound over the top, but when we’re done with work, and we work hard, we do want a little taste of luxury. That runs the gamut from Beverly Hills Hotel, to Cut or Spago by Wolfgang Puck, La Scala; we like old-school Beverly Hills restaurants.”

After dinner on Monday nights, the two enjoy watching television together. “We live in a house that was built on television”, Gluck says, referring to the successful run Wentworth has had as an executive with CBS Television, “so television is a great, fun part of our lives that we share. By the time we reunite in Los Angeles on Monday nights, we’ll watch some of our favorite shows that we’ve missed.” The couple maintains two homes; one in Los Angeles and the other in Los Alamos. Wentworth commutes to Los Alamos every Friday, and returns to LA every Sunday night, with Gluck joining him then. Gluck is otherwise in Los Alamos more often than Wentworth to run Bell Street Farm. “John will watch his shows when I’m in Los Alamos and I’ll watch my shows when he’s in LA,” says Gluck.  “I’m addicted to “Girls”; John doesn’t care for it.” Wentworth loves “Billions”, which Gluck isn’t crazy about. I explain to them that I too love Billions, Girls and a slew of stupid reality shows, all of which my wife despises. I tell them she loves the show “Castle”, and Gluck looks confused. “Tell me about it. We don’t have a medieval streak.” I have to explain to him that it’s a really silly detective show set in modern day New York. Wentworth interjects and says, “It’s really stupid!” regretting what he’s said a second later, thinking this might somehow offend my wife, even though she’s not there. “Driving to Los Angeles, I listen to two hours of Forensic Files and Nancy Grace,” Gluck says, “so tell your wife it’s okay: we all have our guilty pleasures. If John ever ends up dead, it’s because I’ve listened to every episode of Forensic Files,” he says and we all three guffaw. 

Following dinner on Monday nights, though, they come together to watch their mutually preferred programs, which recently include “The People Versus O.J.” and “11.22.63”, with James Franco. “And, anything on HDTV,” Wentworth adds, “and, we love Homeland. We spend the whole time screaming at Carrie (the shows main character).” After watching television together, they wind down date night by doing things they each enjoy; Gluck will read while Wentworth plays “Words with Friends.” They conclude their date night with an evening constitutional:  a walk together in their neighborhood with their Jack Russell mix, Hazel, whom they affectionately refer to as “The Dirty Little Rat.” 

I ask them if it’s hard to stay healthy, with all the commuting back and forth and dinners out. “It is hard,” Gluck tells me. We had such a great regime for exercise when we were living solely in Los Angeles. We had weekends off together, so we were religious about our spinning and our weight training, and now it’s just…GONE. I have no discipline. I need someone screaming at me. John is self-disciplined. He does what he needs to do, but I’m terrible. We went to a black tie event recently and I was so busy tucking my love handles into my pants all evening long. It was just ridiculous!” Wentworth adds that they made a commitment after that fateful evening to give up sweets. “And I park my car at the house when I get to Los Alamos on Friday,” Wentworth tells me, “and I don’t use it again until I leave on Sunday. I get a lot of walking done. Not just to Bell Street, but all around town and to visit the other businesses here.”

Wentworth describes his role at Bell Street Farm thusly, “I’m here to support Jamie. I run errands and I help entertain customers, but I just really enjoy watching Jamie in his element.  He is so hospitable, conscientious and warm.”  “It’s because of my dad,” Gluck adds. Gluck’s father, Etienne, was a well-known restaurateur who, like Gluck, never let a minute pass before offering a guest a glass of wine. “I am my father’s son because of the reputation he had for being so hospitable at his French restaurants. I would have kids at school come up to me on the playground and say, “Your dad kissed my mom’s hand when my parents went to his restaurant.” That was the most common thing I’d hear from my school mates. The elder Gluck was widely known and respected for his French restaurants in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley in Arizona, as well as restaurants in Cleveland, Ohio and San Clemente, California. “He taught me how to cook. What I learned from him was a sensibility about food and hospitality that I can’t even articulate. I guess it’s just a very organic experience for me.  I love being able to give people a food experience. It’s so much more than a meal. I love the challenge of demystifying or explaining our menu to somebody who might not be comfortable with our cuisine. Anybody can get fed, but I want to give someone more than that. Taking care of our customers is a very satisfying experience for me.”  Wentworth adds, quite sweetly, that he’ll “usually find our latest Yelp reviews and I’ll read them to Jamie. And, it’s fun. There are now 356 Yelp reviews that give us 5 stars!”

I ask them if they ever worry about keeping Bell Street relevant and contemporary. “We’re very lucky in that we’ve become a part of a food movement that is so attractive to a younger generation,” Gluck says.  “In fact, that younger generation doesn’t really look at prices. They are so used to paying for quality that they never even hesitate. So, we have this hipster audience, from Silverlake and Echo Park in Los Angeles, and what I call The Big Sur circuit; these young, cute people who love to get in the car and have their California weekend, so we’ve been able to capitalize on that. And, because we are serving quality food and because we have a fantastic reputation for service and food, we also naturally get a mature audience, too, that is looking for a quality experience. And we deliver on that promise. Sometimes a mature person, who has been referred to the restaurant, will walk in the front door and I can see this disoriented look on his or her face and they’ll say, “You have to order at the counter?” They’ll look a bit uncomfortable about this, but I’ll go over to them and explain how it works and hand-hold them a little, and they feel comfortable almost right away. I really love making people feel comfortable.” 

What dishes are they best known for? Wentworth thinks it’s their Porchetta. “I only allow myself to have it once a month, because it’s rich, but it’s so good!” Gluck adds that “it’s a little piece of art. Italian visitors that we have had have been blown away by it.” My personal favorite dish on their menu is their Roasted Chicken; the best chicken I’ve had outside of the unforgettably perfect chicken at Zuni Restaurant in San Francisco. Visitors can also enjoy a glass of Gluck and Wentworth’s Bell Street Farm house wine. They have two vintages under their belt, having debuted with a pleasant Grenache Blanc. Recently, though, they’re more enchanted with “lighter, higher acid wines,” so Gluck has enlisted winemaker Ernst Storm to help them producer a lively Rose and a rustic, food-friendly Mourvedre, which they will sell exclusively at the restaurant as their house wine. 

We begin to wrap up our interview a bit early because the couple are expecting out-of-town guests and need to prepare their home. Before they depart, I ask them what they both love the best about Los Alamos. “I love waking up here, Wentworth says, “because it’s a peaceful, sweet, leafy green environment and it’s growing in just the right direction, at the right pace with the right people.” Gluck adds that “It’s got a super cool burst of LGTB vibes, too, that you just can’t beat.” And, indeed it does. I share with them that my wife and I feel comfortable walking hand in hand, or arm in arm, up and down Bell Street when we visit, which is a bit rare for a country town where most of the inhabitants wear cowboy hats or baseball caps to work. There’s an openness and spirit of tolerance, though, in Los Alamos, which underscores something I’ve always wanted to believe about people who live in the country. If they’re often looking at wide open vistas, shouldn’t their minds, as a result, also be wide open? At least in Los Alamos, and in no small part because of Gluck and Wentworth’s warm inclusive spirit, this might just be so.