An hommage to Don Blackburn, and to winemakers
The passing of Don Blackburn leaves California one winemaker poorer.
I first met Don nearly 20 years ago, when he was winemaker at Bernardus. I remember walking with this tall, gangly, good-looking guy through the hilly vineyard. He had a shock of unruly blond hair that blew in the wind, and a big mustache that went down to his upper lip. With his jeans and boots and sunburned face, he looked like a cowboy. We discovered we had a mutual interest in philosophy, and we talked a little about that.
Don died on April 23, of cancer, at the too-young age of 54.
Sometimes I wonder which I like more, wine or winemakers. To me, winemakers are the heart and soul of the wine industry — romantic men and women, mythic and larger than life. Before I actually ever met a real live winemaker, I felt like I knew them from reading about them. Monsieur Pontac, who founded Haut-Brion, and (if my memory serves me right) in the 16th century lugged a barrel of his claret all the way to London, across dangerous, bandit-infested territory, to show it off to the King of England. Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, who wouldn’t rest until Mouton was elevated to First Growth. Robert Mondavi, already a legend when my wine-writing career began. These giants created in my mind a respectful admiration of winemakers bordering on hero-worship.
When I finally got to meet winemakers as a wine writer, I discovered that most of them weren’t giants. They were just hard-working, largely unknown young men (not too many women back then) who were farmers as well as craftsmen. They had “dirt in their boots,” as opposed to the folks on the business side of the wine industry. But to a person, they considered themselves lucky to be doing what they loved.
I quickly came to have my favorite winemakers — those whose personalities clicked with mine, and who were outspoken and honest, earnest and friendly, modest and reflective. Which, come to think of it, describes most winemakers I’ve met. (Not all…)
Winemakers — the best of them — art part artist/poets, part technicians. Of course, they have to master the mathematics and biochemistry of alcohol, yeast, pH, acidity, grape sugar and so forth, and that requires them to have good left brains: smart, high IQ, rational. But no amount of U.C. Davis or Fresno State V&E education can compensate if the winemaker doesn’t have the soul of a Picasso or a Bob Dylan: passionate, intuitive, creative, able to express something that speaks to people in a mysterious way that touches and amazes and inspires them. In fact, being a poetic winemaker may be harder than being a competent one. After all, anyone with a degree in V&E is competent (more or less). But look at how few real artist-winemakers there are.
Don Blackburn was an artist-winemaker. In addition to philosophy, his interests ran from ballet and writing to studying medieval texts. His wines, whether at Bernardus, Byington, David Bruce, or his final winery, Emeritus, always expressed a purity and sense of place that required, not merely a special terroir, but a special vintner who knew how to let the Earth speak.
The last time I saw Don was about 2 years ago, at Emeritus, in Sebastopol. Brice Jones, the owner, invited me to look at the winery, and it was a pleasure to re-connect with Don. A few days later, I reviewed Don’s Emeritus 2005 William Wesley Pinot Noir. It was a spectacular wine I thought was the highlight of Don’s career until then. I gave it 95 points.
Don was a soft-spoken, gentle old soul. He never yearned for the spotlight and wasn’t quite comfortable when it shined on him. He was content to be in the quiet background, doing the things he loved, perfecting his vintner’s art and craft. Don was a winemaker’s winemaker. He will be missed.