After these few years that I’ve spent writing to you about California’s many wineries there is something that I would like to say: To be born into a winemaking family must be among the greatest fates known to man. If I believed in things like karma and reincarnation, I would have to say that the heirs to these operations must have brilliant, shiny, clean souls. As I read about one after the other family owned and operated winery I have to admit, finally, that it makes me crazy with envy.
And, yeah, I’m sure in every case there are the stereotypical complications of working with family. Some form of resistance to following a pre-determined path, maybe, or else the special tensions you can only find when blood is shared. But, come on, then Dad pours out a bottle of something extra special that will never be found in a store, takes the rebellious little brat out onto a patio overlooking one of the world’s most beautiful, bountiful valleys and lets the ideas of natural wonder and eternal job security mingle with ever-so-slight intoxication. Done. And, oh, how I wish that that resistor were me!
Just look at the Bogle Winery, for example. Patty Bogle, owner and winery manager. She seems to be the mother. Warren Bogle, president, vineyard manager and oldest child. Jody Bogle, customer affairs, international sales, wine club manager and middle child, the only girl. And, finally, Ryan Bogle, vice president and the baby of the family. All the children are well-educated, advanced degrees galore, and all of them returned home to let those educations serve the family business. These jobs never were and never will be available to anyone outside the family, the only way in is birth and none of us happened to be lucky enough.
At the end of this tirade I’m glad, at least, to have a job that allows me to drink their wine for free. You can too, whenever you’re here staying with us!
These days, as they say, green is the new black. I know that this is ultimately good. I know that change on the scale that things need to be changed will not happen unless environmentalism becomes a popular movement and that a popular movement will, inherently, be trendy. But, is it just me or is the word green is starting to sound a bit disingenuous? I even found a website, goodandgreen.biz, purporting to give green marketing advice. It sells its services by telling prospective clients that, “perceptions of environmental, ethical, and social stewardship are the fastest growing contributors to consumer brand value”. Notice the word “perceptions”. Still, I know all of it will lead more to good than to bad, and so I am trying harder to accept it.
But, acceptance on hold for just a moment, I found something just ever so slightly snarky tonight on the Conn Creek Winery website that made me pretty happy. In describing the construction, in 1979, of their Napa Valley winery, they refer to its energy-efficient design as having led to “perhaps the first ‘green’ winery building in Napa Valley”. I love those quotation marks, the acknowledgement that the sensible, cost-reducing choice they made over 30 years ago now makes them seem cool and ahead of their time. A lesser company wouldn’t be self-conscious enough to add that bit of punctuation and while there’s no doubt that this is boastful and pretentious on the part of the Conn Creek Winery, still I love it as a snub to all this green-mania.
The thing is, that little syntactical nose-in-the-air gesture was not a stepping out of character on the part of the Conn Creek Winery. Their wines are kind of over-priced and pretentious. But they’re good too. And you can drink them for free every night, here with us in our bar.
The makers of Educated Guess wine are clearly cool people. And by cool, I mean very current. They’re self-aware and self-mocking. They know that, in today’s world, objective superiority is a fallacy and so they acknowledge that any choices that they make in their own process of wine making will be based not on scientific standards of correct technique that will withstand the test of time, but on a series of “educated guesses”. Hence the name. And though they may personally enjoy their own product, they understand that they are unable to be unbiased.
It all sounds good. It’s so very right, the way they refuse to say that anything they’ve done is better than anything that other people are doing. This is the language of the future. But I’m not sure it’s going to sell lots and lots of wine. I, personally, might chuckle at their label and then buy a bottle made by self-aggrandizing, barbaric fools who unselfconsciously tell me that they are making the best wine the universe allows them to make.
That’s one of the problems, though, with this contemporary self-awareness. Educated Guess is made by very smart, very dedicated people who did a lot of work and made a very good wine. But they’re so afraid to look like Fabio or Rambo or something like that, that they end up telling consumers “we’re pretty good, if you like that sort of thing.” Luckily you can try this damn good wine for free, here with us.
I don’t know about you, but up until today the closest I had come to seeing the wine making process was that one episode of I Love Lucy, of which all I really remember is that face she makes when her bare toes squish through the grapes. I assume that most of the wine I drink today doesn’t start with foot-crushed grapes, but I don’t actually know. My nightly glass of wine could be the footwork of Santa’s elves’ offseason employment and before now I wouldn’t have known the difference.
The winemaking process is not secret information, I know, and what I just saw is far from revolutionary. It was a sweet, simple slide show on the Burgess Cellars website following the 2009 harvest. I saw whole, partly crushed and fully pulverized grapes. I saw the crazy big machines that do the crushing, followed by the machines’ warning sign that features a drawing of severed fingers. I saw the Burgess men, father and son, both in action and repose. And all of it set against the stunning Napa valley. It was humble, unglamorous and honest, and such a nice illustration of why the SF Chronicle would say that Burgess represents “the valley’s heart and soul.” I watched their slideshow, learned something about the work they do and came away trusting the people put it up for me to see.
We stock our bar with a wide array of local wines for you to sample, thinking mostly of giving you a nice variety. But it’s also an act in support of local businesses. The Burgess Cellars make us feel proud of that act.
The name Sterling is cool and hard; the chill of silver as opposed to the warmth of gold. The Sterling winery is pristine, white and ultra modern. Not a whisper of decorative excess to be seen. It looks like the secret fortress of an operation bent on world domination, the kind you might see in a James Bond movie. Like whoever built it had access to the most money and the best minds, but maybe you shouldn’t expect them to be helping any little old ladies get across the street.
But modern architecture can be like that, right? So, I tried to get in a little further. I clicked on a button called “heritage” on their website. Over and over and over I clicked on this button. And what came up every time? A big, open, white box. Not a blank page, but an empty white box.
But that could just be a temporary glitch, of course. Sure I tried several times over the course of an hour and got the same thing every time, but the internet is still an unstable place. In the meantime, I clicked on a button called “philosophy.” If anything can show me the humanity I’m looking for, surely it’s got to be the philosophy page, I thought. What I got instead was a very technical description of the making of not just white versus red wine, but chardonnay versus sauvignon blanc. I learned, for example, about the malolactic fermentation that select portions of a chardonnay will undergo, where a sauvignon blanc will not. Philosophy, huh?
Is the Sterling wine a cover for a nefarious plot to destroy the world? I’m not sure. But, as I said, they seem to have access to the best minds and their wine reflects it. Personally, I love it all. I love the wine. I want to wear a very straight, tight suit, comb my hair very precisely and speak with a Russian accent (because it’s always the Russians in those movies) while I drink it. And, someday, I want to go visit the Sterling winery and see if I can find that big red button. You know, the one that sits in the cavernous, subterranean, grey room, ready to destroy the world at any moment.
Ironstone wine is pretty good. Not bad. Better than a lot of other wine you can find in the world, even. If you’re curious, we’re pouring it every night in our bar for free.
What Ironstone would like for you to know, however, is that they are “so much more than a winery.” They have a museum, a jewelry shop, cooking demonstrations, a 24-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen, an enormous lakeside garden and an outdoor amphitheatre. This summer Crosby Stills and Nash, ZZ Top and Faith Hill came through. Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow are on their way. “There’s always something interesting happening” at what must still be referred to as the Ironstone Vineyards, if only because those vineyards are kind of sort of the foundation on which all the other fun stuff is built on. But don’t let those ubiquitous alcohol references give you the wrong idea, this is also a kid friendly place. Gold-panning is only one example of the kind of fun that’s in store for your little ones at Ironstone.
Like I said, the wine is good. It’s also good that you and I both can drink it for free at night in this hotel’s bar. Because, actually, I like to drink it, but that was a surprise. At first I was scared by a winery that wanted to be much more than a winery. Maybe I’d go see a show there sometime, I thought, but if their focus isn’t on their wine, why support that part of the project? Well, it turns out that, somehow, the wine is good enough. Good enough to drink for free, good enough to maybe even pick up a bottle every now and then. Pretty good, like I said.
For years I’ve been hearing rumors about all the property that RJ Reynolds is keeping. This land sits patiently on hold, people say, as marijuana weaves its path toward freedom. Millions of acres waiting to turn into billions of dollars, or so the story goes. It’s a bit scandalous, this anticipation, but not nearly as scandalous as the stories of all of those who have chosen not to wait. Marijuana is a multi-million dollar industry in California; cash only, no taxes. Now, as it seems that we are preparing to legalize it, the conversation is about who will profit and who will lose. Will all those people who’ve spent decades perfecting cultivation techniques be able to transform themselves into a legitimate boutique industry? Or will RJ Reynolds and the like plow in and mass-produce all the little guys away?
I’m reminded of this question when I read that the Merryvale Winery was the first to open in California after Prohibition. It’s a fun little fact, all these years later, but it makes me wonder about the back-story. Certainly they did not, on the day after Prohibition ended, say, “Hey, I know, let’s start making wine.” This is not the path toward being first. Was this a family that had been making wine to drink with, and distribute among, friends, and possibly friends of friends, if they seemed cool, the way marijuana is sold now? Prohibition ended and they got themselves a little organized, perhaps. Found a bigger, more obvious place, since they could be out in the open. Or was it a shrewd business plan launched with cool detachment by someone who had been successfully monitoring the political climate and knew just when to strike? A few men in suits, maybe, who never drank themselves, and so were able to get up early enough every morning to be the first. I don’t know. That part of the story isn’t being told anymore. What matters is that they won the race, not how. And all these years later, it’s hard to tell if the wine is good because of techniques that have been passed down with love over the years, or if it’s good because when you have a successful winery, you can afford to hire very well trained vinters. Either way, it’s good, and it’s free in our bar every night!
Good wines are made here in Northern California. They’re famous, so that’s not a controversial sentence. A little past halfway through the last century, some people started planting grapes in the Napa Valley and it turned out well. But, let’s face it, the Native Americans were not making wine, the missionaries had other priorities, the gold miners were too busy and things didn’t really settle down in these parts until relatively recently. So, though these wineries are world renowned, it can feel a little embarrassing to when they boast of their histories. “Since 1971” they say, “Since 1980, “ even. I always feel like a company should not say “since…” until it’s been around at least 100 years.
It’s so refreshing, then, when Artesa proudly pronounces themselves the newest winery in the Napa Valley. They’ve got fresh energy, fresh ideas and this, after all, is how all things Californian get good. They boast of the entrepreneurship and youthful energy that pushes companies into the future, where others get tied down to their own pasts.
I guess it’s easy for them, though, to brag of newness. The Artesa Winery was started by the Cordoniu Group, Spanish winemakers who have been making wine since the 16th century. So, while it is a new venture, it lies comfortably under a very very old blanket. Is this the best of both worlds, or stodgy old Europe trying to fake young America’s élan? Come decide for yourself, here in our bar.
I heard, recently, a story about Ernest Hemingway. It’s a famous story, so probably a lot of you have heard it already, but for those of you who haven’t, it’s worth boring the rest. He was drinking in a bar as, it seems, he kind of liked to do, and someone challenged him to write an entire novel in six words. On a cocktail napkin he wrote: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
It’s said that Hemingway struggled his whole life to look like a manly man, always recovering from having been dressed up like a girl as a child. The terse, brutal writing style he developed, even, was part of the attempt to be cool and masculine, or so I was taught in college. I think that if Hemingway were to pick a wine from our bar it would be Turnbull’s Old Bull red. There’s the very obvious bull reference to start, plus the story behind the name of the winery, a man saving a king by causing a stampeding bull to turn. Then that their motto is Audaci Favet Fortuna, or fortune favors the brave. Plus that the name of the wine itself is just Old Bull. This is a strong wine, a man’s wine. This isn’t wine to sip slowly, picking through flavor references. This is wine to drink by the bottle, perhaps even from the bottle, though we won’t let you do that in our bar.
This wine, it seems to me, could make a man look rugged and hard. I’m sure that all of our guests are above such considerations, but, anyway, we always keep Old Bull behind our bar.
I have never been to the rodeo. So, to write this story I will be drawing from my experience of movies, television and stereotype. I hope this isn’t too offensive. Anyway, based on the movies and TV shows I’ve seen, plus my general preconceived notions about rodeos, I always thought they were the kinds of events where people would drink beer. Coors, Bud, maybe out of cans, maybe out of giant plastic cups. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist or snotty, it’s just the impression I got. I was wrong, is the thing, so it actually doesn’t matter what my old idea was. It turns out that not only are people drinking wine at the rodeo, they’re judging it and giving out prizes too. Awards that winemakers covet and then boast about having received.
What does the bull-riding set value in a bottle of wine? Well, come find out for yourself. The Folie a Deux and Menage a Trois wines that we have right here behind our bar, and will pour out for you each and every night, have received several metals apiece from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I haven’t tried them yet myself, honestly, but I’m curious. Is this the tough version of wine? Gritty and raw, somehow? Or am I just giving free reign to my stereotypes again? Maybe it’s delicate and sophisticated and I’m a jerk for thinking otherwise. I’ll find out soon, maybe you will too.