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The way it used to be

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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.

  1. Steve some things haven’t changed. Like borrowing from your parents, mortgaging your house or the new one cash out a 401 (K). I remember those days fondly being with my parents in wine country, collecting wine because it would or could get better. I jumped on board to make my dreams happen and wouldn’t change it for a thing. I may fail, but I will never say I didn’t try. There are still people out here making great wines and trying to share them with folks, one customer at a time! No big PR firms or marketing arm for me, unless you count twitter and facebook…:-)

    The big side of the business can be intimidating. They can drop their price in seconds, they can give away ad money, hire “social media” folks and put up great websites. But sometimes that is still not enough. Wine and people go hand in hand, they always have and always will. It’s rare that you remember the great bottle of wine you drank alone, it’s the time, place and people that make it special. Thanks for reminding us all.

  2. Steve,

    Last April, I visited Anderson Valley for the first time. I can say without hesitation that the majority of the wines I tasted were honest, solid, and certainly worth the trip. And I did like the slower pace, too.

    Having said that, one producer’s attitude concerning recent hype over his products, I believe down in San Francisco, showed that he might be indicative of changes to come in the valley. The bravado and downright conceit he displayed because of some new positive reviews was truly off-putting, as much as it was pitiable, as in a “striver’s row” kind of way.

    Remove that experience, and I’m on board with your assessment.

  3. Thomas, there’s always one or two bad apples to spoil the barrel.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    My wife and I enjoy “branching” we “pike” the Anderson Valley, an overnight stay and “gorm” at the Boonville Hotel (get a small “region”) and a visit across the “Mason Dixon” to see Don and Sally at the Apple Farm. We like going to the “deep end” to Navarro Vyds. and always walk away with a mixed case of “Frati,” usually Pinot Gris, Gewuz, and Riesling. We finish it with a “jape” down the “briny.”

    I have to say, though, that if it were 1985 I’d never bother to make the trip to that “cow skully”…even to hear Boontling or throw back a “skee” at the “Bucket of Blood.” Steve, I’m not saying you’re a “back dated chuck,” but the refurbishment of the hotel, the Apple Farm, many of the wineries, the market for a lot of the grapes, are all improvements that have a connection to the Napa Valley. To the long time locals in Anderson Valley these improvements, probably look like “high pockety” Disney-fication, but to “kimmies” like me they are the main reasons for going.

  5. Steve…we will see some much turmoil in the next 12 to 24 months you will see changes in attitude all around both Sonoma and Napa. Yesterday I was at a professional tasting event in NYC and John Conover (of Plumbjack) and Cathy Segeshio (of Segeshio Winery) were pouring “me” wine…both were nice and as a pleasant as you might wish for…the times they are a changin’…we will never see those wonderful days of yesteryear but the future is one (I believe) where people need to remember that every customer counts and no one will survive (for long) with an arrogant attitiude.

  6. Morton, you must have dusted off your Dictionary of Boontling! Ee-tah!

  7. Who is this Leslie Morton, anyway?

  8. Ahh, Charlie, it is the question of the ages, the riddle of the Sphinx, the meaning behind Mona Lisa’s smile. A mystery wrapped inside an enigma.

  9. I completely agree with you Steve – we up here in Anderson Valley both wish for increased tourism and at the same time like our valley the way it is. I think we’ll always be a more intimate experience than Napa or Sonoma due to our distance from the Bay, as you wrote, and our many “dramamine drives,” as they call the windy roads around here. Our distance also seems to foster small, family owned wineries that allow visitors to talk with the owner/winemaker/janitor/everything else, which is part of our charm.

    Right now we have about one new winery per year – not explosive growth for any other region, but strong for us. Wineries also bring jobs, which is fantastic for rural areas like ours, especially when the jobs are in legal industries. (!)

  10. While we fond over what’s familiar and far, we tend to ignore what’s familiar and close.

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