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Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeared in the Dracaena Wines blog series"Pursue Your Passion""the story of one person in the wine industry, as told by them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.

Blogging Forward

Blogging forward? Moving forward indeed, but perhaps it is more like leaving blogging behind. Years of blogging has left its calluses. “Been through the wars have we,” as Monty Python said. However you phrase it, as you will see from the gap between my last post and this, it was clear that for me blogging about wine had become, there’s no other word for it, boring.

There seemed to be real wine wars in the past and they made my blood boil. Boil and rant I did about the ridiculous idea of giving points to wines, the destruction of terroir by those same critics giving the points and the sad dulling of the American palate by the wine mass marketing machine using those points. At some point in the last year I realized I no longer cared about slaying these windmills and once that happened trying to hammer out three or four blog posts a week became more a burden than a creative outlet. 

I’ve decided the only creative outlet that matters to me anymore is to create an environment where I can craft meaningful wines. By meaningful wines I mean wines that mean something to me. Then it is up to me that find people that share my vision and take pleasure in what we have created at Cornerstone Cellars in the Napa Valley and at Cornerstone Oregon in the Willamette Valley. I’ll take points when we get them, you’d have to be an idiot not to, but achieving those ratings is not my goal. My goal is to make wines that light up people’s eyes when they drink them. I believe that there are more than enough like-minded people out there that will love what we do and buy our wines. So points be damned and we’ll follow our own vision instead of theirs.

I’ll take one last shot at the 100 point wine rating system just for old times sake. I don’t care who the taster is, but if you take twenty-five wines from the same place, variety and price range and have someone taste and score them, then repeat the same tasting five days in a row changing the order of the wines every day you will get statistically different results. The results you get will only prove one thing: that such ratings produce statistically unrepeatable results. As the results can’t be repeated they are worthless - except for one thing. Points are very valuable for selling wine publications, which is the only reason for their existence. As with any database: garbage in, garbage out. Humans are not infallible tasting machines - no one, nowhere, no how.

One reason to be less upset about the big print wine magazines is that they’re doomed. Not to pick on wine magazines, but they are unlikely to escape the fate that is going to change that entire industry. My guess is within five years they’ll be more-or-less exclusively online publications and will have had their power diluted by online publications that may not even exist yet. Kicking them on their way down seems like a waste of energy. It’s time to admire them for what they were and what they achieved, not rant against them for what they have become.

There is also the natural passing of time that is changing things. A recent departure from The Wine Spectator found several beats replaced by more sensitive voices notably that of James Molesworth. Over at The Wine Advocate the contributions of Antonio Galloni, Neal Martin and David Schildknecht have transformed dramatically the range of wines receiving attention and high scores. Perhaps balance is being restored to The Force after all.

So as I move this blog forward you’ll find no more rants here. Hopefully you’ll find thoughtful commentary on my experience in trying to create compelling terroir-driven wines on the west coast of the United States and my feelings on other wines that inspire me and compel me to put the feelings they give me to words. Instead of shorter posts and wine tasting notes you’ll find longer pieces appearing three to four times a month instead of the more blog-like staccato of that many a week.

What you’ll also find heavily featured is my wine country photography. There is no better way to bring the feeling of making wine to you than images of the experience itself. High resolution images from my Nikon will be mixed with on the spot iPhone snapshots and videos that I feel will help bring the world of wine alive to you.

There will also be a lot more food on Wine Camp. While wine is my profession, cooking is my avocation. Like most passionate hobbyists I can’t talk, or write, enough about the object of my affection. Cooking to me is both pleasure and therapy as nothing takes away stress like preparing and enjoying a meal. 

What will be gone from Wine Camp is criticism, there are more than enough Grinches out there in the wine blogoshere already. The critics role will be replaced by that of a wine lover. There are a lot of new bloggers out there whose blood is boiling and they can have the job. Last night’s dinner was a garden fresh caprese followed by pan-roasted duck breast and Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk washed down with 2005 Domaine Forey Nuits-Saint-Georges - now that’s an interesting story and the only kind of story you’ll find at www.winecampblog.com.

Southbound

grapecrusherLast weekend I headed southbound down I-5, but it was no vacation. I was moving from the Willamette Valley to the Napa Valley. I was migrating from pinot noir to cabernet sauvignon. It was less than a ten hour drive, but it’s worlds apart.

Cabernet and pinot may both be wines, but they have little in common other than being red.  Cabernet’s backbone is tannin, while pinot’s is acidity - at least that’s what nature intended. The culture between the Willamette Valley and the Napa Valley is also a contrast. The hippie winemaking ashram of Oregon versus the corporate powerhouse of Napa. For me it is another step on a winemaking  journey: three vintages in Italy, three in Oregon and now on to Napa.

I’ve learned many things on this odyssey. First and foremost is that your palate is not a machine that can be calibrated, but something always in motion. Something that is influenced and defined by the wines you are drinking at the moment. After three years of drinking young nebbiolo, the the wines of Oregon seemed unstructured. After three years of Oregon pinot the wines of Napa seemed bombastic. Yet after a month of drinking them my palate has adjusted and opened so that I also appreciate their power and concentration. As in all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  The fashion today is to rank wines with an exactitude that is absurd, but true connoisseurs understand that it’s the full rainbow of diversity that makes wine such a compelling beverage.

Wine is a beautiful, creative thing that brings not only happiness, but health and invites us to sit back and appreciate life and each other. Those that define it by points deny this cultural and aesthetic beauty. Those that rank wines don’t give up their aesthetic distance when they taste. I do.

So this is my first week as a full time resident of Napa, a place I’ve visited many, many times over almost three decades. It’s a new start in familiar surroundings.  I hope regular readers will forgive the sporadic posts over the last two weeks during my move and transition into my new job, but now I’m back to the the blogging grindstone. I’ll not be commenting on California cabernet for obvious reasons, but will be increasing my commentary on exciting wines of America’s Northwest as I separate myself from day-to-day relationships with wineries there. As always you’ll find extensive commentary on the wines of Europe, which I love.

IMG_0043 Now you’ll find my professional attentions focused on Cornerstone Cellars, which produces two cabernet sauvignon wines, a Napa Valley and a Howell Mountain, crafted by an extraordinary winemaker, Celia Masyczek. So my blogging focus will be on everything but Napa Cab.

I became a wine professional in 1980. Now as I approach my 30th year immersed in all things wine and food I can only count my blessings. Most of all I treasure the diversity of taste that I have been privileged to experience. That experience has taught me to dig deep to understand the character of wine and those who make it. With the same passion I took on nebbiolo and pinot noir I now focus on cabernet sauvignon.

Appreciating each wine and wine region for both what it is and what it isn’t is what wine appreciation is all about. I’m about to truly appreciate the wines of the Napa Valley.

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Richard Sanford, Pinot Paradise Lost

There are few more gentle and artistic souls in the world than Richard Sanford. Over the last decades he devoted his passion to that most difficult of vines, pinot noir. Indeed he scaled the heights of making great pinot noir more than a few times.

That's why I was shocked some years ago when he took one of the "Engulf and Devour" wine companies as a partner in his winery. I knew that Richard's high ideals would not blend well with the build-the-brand and take-no-prisoners, attack dog sales approach of the Terlato family. I knew that before too long their "philosophy" would soon drive him out.

Sure enough, now Richard Sanford is no longer a part of the winery that bears his name. The Terlato concept of fine wine was molded by Santa Margherita, which even with all their millions they still actually drink. A few years of dramatically increasing the yields, winemaking shortcuts and tossing organic agriculture out the window has gutted the quality of the label that Richard created, leaving him no choice but to abandon ship and start all over again.

I am sure Richard's new wines will be up to our expectations, but it is sad that the once revered Sanford label has now become the Rutherford Hill Merlot of pinot noir.