The way it used to be
Got the Husch Vineyards newsletter in the mail yesterday. It was all about that Anderson Valley winery’s 30th anniversary under its current ownership. (The founding, by the Husches, actually dates to 1971, making Husch one of the older wineries in the North Coast.) The newsletter had the usual grainy pictures from the 1970s of longhaired guys and old cars, and it put me in a nostalgic state of mind for “the old days.”
Back when Tony and Gretchen Husch started their little winery, wine was still a fairly obscure thing in California and, even more, across the U.S. It was not perceived as a money-making occupation, nor did the title “winemaker” receive much respect among opinion makers. If you started a winery, you usually did so on a shoestring budget, borrowing from your parents or mortgaging your house, and you also were dependent on the kindness of other local vintners, who might lend you a tractor or let you use their bottling line.
The 1970s was a more innocent time, but it also preceded a lot of the controversial phenomena that have changed the wine industry — for the worse, some say. Back then there were no celebrity wines, no movie stars and superstar athletes who lend their names to marketing indifferent products, the way it is today. There were no “cult wines” to foster jealousy among those who couldn’t get them and distort the pricing structure of everything else. There were no “flying winemakers” to make those cult wines. There were no billionaires parachuting into Napa Valley in order to buy themselves an instant lifestyle. There was no “international style” of wine that made everything taste like everything else. There were a few large corporations actively involved in acquiring wineries, but nothing like the massively consolidated field we see today. Napa Valley still was a sleepy place, not the theme park, Disney-fied mecca it now is. Winemakers quietly went their way making the best wine they could, and depended on word-of-mouth to sell it, instead of hiring high-priced P.R. firms to issue press releases and slick marketing managers to make side deals with distributors. And wealthy people collected wine because they wanted to age it properly in their cellars, not because they expected to make double-digit profits on it as an investment.
Anderson Valley is still a 1970s kind of place. The locals have mixed feelings about being located so far north of San Francisco — really beyond the ability of the average wine tourist, who will drive as far as Sonoma County but no further. On the one hand, this keeps Anderson Valley from reaping the benefits of an active tourist industry, and to some extent prevents wine prices from getting too high. On the positive side, Anderson Valley and its three little villages — Boonville, Navarro and Philo — have not been overrun with outsiders, traffic jams and all the associated bedlam that tourists bring in their wake.
I’m not foolish enough to think the California wine industry will go back to the old ways. History doesn’t march backward. But sometimes, I do miss the sleepy days when wine was truly an amateur pursuit of love. Today, it’s Big Business. But thankfully there are still quiet, out-of-the-way places like Anderson Valley where you can get a sense of the way it used to be.