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An hommage to Don Blackburn, and to winemakers

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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.

donblackburn

  1. It’s sad news. Seems every few months we hear about another West Coast wine icon leaving us.

    I can attest to your sentiments about winemakers – I struggle to think of those I’ve met that I didn’t like or at least get along with, the number of those I didn’t care for could be counted easily on one hand. I suppose a passion for wine is infectious, and at least is an equalizer among people.

  2. Steve – an elegant and thoughtful eulogy. I only crossed paths with Don a couple of times, and found him just as you describe: understated, quietly confident, a genuinely nice and talented guy. My heart goes out to his family, friends and co-workers. Taken too soon…

  3. We are all shaken. A terrible loss and awful tragedy. Most who read your blog, Steve, like me never met Don, but I do know Brice Jones well who was uncompromising in forming his new team at Emeritus.

    I encourage readers to surf over to the Emeritus website to view their outstanding video–the best I’ve seen on a winery website. It captures what Brice and Don and the other colleagues set out to do. It provides a glimpse of how dedicated Don was to his calling. Make sure you have a hanky with you when you watch. http://www.emeritusvineyards.com/homepage1a.htm . Click on the video link on the upper right part of the homepage (says seven minutes, but thankfully it goes over nine minutes).

    TOM

  4. vinorojo says:

    Steve,

    Thank you for your hommage to Don. I worked under him as Cellar Master at Emeritus Vineyards until his death, and we came to be good friends. He was a truly spectacular person, his passion and artful skill is unlike any I have seen in the industry. He was someone who was willing to do whatever it took to make the best wine possible and bring them into their fullest expression a true craftsman. I feel very lucky to have known, trained under, and befriended him. He was one of the most giving and unselfish people I have ever met, he will truly be missed.

    Thanks

  5. Douglas Braun says:

    Don Blackburn was one in a million – I had the pleasure of working with him and he had a large effect on me on so many different levels -Schooled at University of Montpellier he had a broad level of experience was very familar with the vineyards of Burgundy and wrote some interesting articles in “Practical Winemaker ” on many winemaking topics. The wine industry has suffered a blow with the passing of such an interesting man.

  6. Nick Prokop says:

    I met Don at Bernardus as a sales representative. Kinda strange at the time, but he made you think, about his wine, his music and him. Now thinking about his passing, how wonderful his wines were and the gift of knowing him for this brief time.

    We certainly have lost a great winemaker and a great human being.

  7. DeepVine says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for posting your heartfelt comments. Simply said: you get it. I met Don a few times and we immediately felt comfortable sharing a glass of wine and few words of sanity in the midst of a wine event that felt a bit surreal with the pressure to present wine as a trophy, rather than just wine. I remember his laugh when I told him the only winemakers I know are yeasts… I will raise a glass to him and all others who just strive to produce something authentic with dinner tonight. Cheers.

  8. Steve Galvan says:

    All the great comments about Don are so true. I first met him in either ’83 or ’84…when I hired him for the harvest at Stag’s Leap Winery. It was just the two of us for the harvest. We quickly became friends and I learned much about Burgundy and other matters French from him. We also spent much of the harvest arguing politics. We differed greatly, but Don always respected another persons opinions.
    What I loved about Don is that as passionate as he was about wine- he was not obsessed by wine. He was passionate about everything he was interested in. He enjoyed every part of life to the fullest. He was never obsessed to where he could not find room for something new to enjoy.
    We all know his love for classical music was a lifelong love.
    At one period of his life he got into skydiving. So he proceeded to log over 2000 jumps.
    In his teens, he discovered his love for ballet, but his father (retired WWII Army General..) would not hear of it. So Don fooled him by secretly taking ballet lessons, then during the Christmas season he took his folks to the local Nutcracker performance and after finding their seats he excused himself and said he’d return in a while. The show began and the next thing his parents knew, Don was out on stage as one of the lead dancers. His father was impressed and lost his fear of Don being a dancer.
    Once while working in Burgundy, the bottom valve of a tank full of Pinot became clogged while draining, so Don (taking a risky move…) stripped off his clothes and dove into the tank, down to the bottom and freed up the stems and seeds from the valve to get the flow going again. His French co-workers thought he was nuts.
    I last saw Don several months ago. We went out to eat and his subject over lunch was organized religion and how mucked-up it has gotten. He was in trouble with the church he attended (he was also some sort of church committee member…) because the church had come into a large amount of money. The church honchos wanted to use the money to build a big fancy new building, but Don argued with them that their current building was just fine and that they should instead distribute the money to any poor and needy families within a square mile of the church.
    That is the kind of compassionate guy Don was.
    I will miss him very much, but will always have great memories of him.

  9. Don used to have a sign that said “Winemaking Begins With People” on his office door.

    For all of his belief that the vineyard made the wine, he never ceased to remind me that great wine can only be brought to full fruition by many small acts, each expertly done. He taught me only people can do that.

    It is one of the most important lessons I have ever learned as a winemaker and a manager.

    Don’s soulful, painstaking and passionate approach to all things in life, whether Mozart, gardening or treading the cap by foot, will be sorely missed.

  10. I owe a lot to Don after working with him for 5 years at Bernardus. My debt is for the winegrowing skills, even more for his friendship but most of all for the example of the fierce exhilaration that he lived his life with. To paraphrase one of Don’s favorite sayings, when you look up the word “unique” in the dictionary, there is a picture of Don. I’ll miss him very much.

  11. A beautiful and thorough eulogy, Steve, thank you. And especially thank you to all the people who appended messages, above.

    i do want everyone to know that we will celbrate Don’s life with “Don’s Paulee” on Friday 5 June, at Emeritus Vineyards. Noon till…? Please rsvp to us at 707.823.4464, or by email to me at brice@emeritusvineyards.com, but if you don’t rsvp and find you can come anyway, please do. bring some wine if you like. All are welcome.

  12. Steve,

    Excellent tribute. I did not know Don, just by reputation, and from meeting Brice and knowing how much value he placed on his team that had been with him since Sonoma-Cutrer days. All very solid.

    I had lunch with Scott and Jana Harvey yesterday, and they mentioned his way too-young passing. I’d been talking about my brother’s death of 9-months ago and how much it devastated our family. There is an extra bit of injustice felt when people so gifted, ardent and true are gone. And even if we only know them by reputation I think it is important to witness a really tragic loss like this.

    My sincerest condolences to Don’s family, co-workers and friends.

    Steve, I have many wine industry people in my Facebook group and posted your tremendous tribute there.

  13. Colleen Blackburn says:

    Thank you for all of your tributes to Don. Just to clarify, though, Don was never a comittee member of a church he rarely attended. He thought of himself as a “social Presbyterian” embracing the ideas of moderation, order and election by peers rather than the beliefs of Christianity. Thankfully, our church has the grace and good sense to embrace a wide variety of beliefs including Don’s. The money Don referred to was raised to modify the current buildings to code. Although he did disagree with the decision, he took some license with the facts as they could be made to suit a larger point he wanted to make. I hope that Don is somewhere in the hereafter chatting with Aristotle as that was what he would have most wanted. Thanks again for your stories and remembrances of a great man.

  14. Jerry Tomaszak says:

    It is now 2012 and I just found out about Don’s passing quite by accident. I hadn’t seen Don for several years and decided to “google” his name to see if I could catch up with him. What I found on line brought sadness rather than the hoped for laugh filled conversation with an old friend.

    Don and I became acquainted when he was winemaker at Elliston Vinyards in Sunol, Ca. We were neighbors. He invited my wife and I to join his small wine tasting group and we all loved the fact filled monthly dissertations we would receive from him on the “wine of the month.”

    Don really was a man for all seasons who served as a roll model for me even though I was older. his varied interests made him most interesting and his sense of humor made him fun. No matter how long you were with him, you learned something. What a great attribute.

    One thing not mentioned by the others is that Don was a great 49er fan in general and a fan of Joe Montana in particular. He would record all the games. During the off season he would stop by with a VCR tape of a favorite game and we would watch it as though it were new… With wine, of course!

    The last time I saw Don was several years ago at his home where I met Colleen. We promised to stay in touch, but…

    As said, it’s now 2012. Maybe no earthly person will read this but you never know about Don!

  15. Jerry: I read it and maybe Don did too.

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