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Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway


We wine writers who visit winemakers have lots of different choices of how to spend the time. One thing you can do (which I suspect most writers do with winemakers) is to taste the wine. That’s not my favorite thing, because to tell you the truth, I don’t feel I can be completely objective. Sometimes you’re in a cold cellar and the winemaker siphons the wine right out of the barrel. It almost always tastes pretty good under those circumstances. Other times the winemaker will line up bottles and glasses anywhere that’s available: the lab, the tasting room, his office, even on top of a barrel. At any rate it’s hard for me to properly evaluate a wine when I’m sitting with the person who made it.

Another thing you can do with winemakers is to let them take you on a tour of the winery. At this point, I’ve been on so many winery tours, I have bottling lines and fermenting tanks coming out of my ears. These days, when a winemaker walks me through the winery, it’s not uncommon for him to begin by saying, “You’ve probably seen a million wineries,” to which I silently think, Yes, I have, but I would never say that. Instead, I let the winemaker point out whatever he wants (I’m a polite guest). But really, the technological side of a winery has never much interested me (although the architecture does. I can just as easily appreciate a luxurious winery as a shed with a tin roof).

You can also walk through vineyards with winemakers. I like that because it takes me to the heart of where wine is made: the rows of grapevines that produce the grapes that make the juice the yeasts ferment into wine. But after a while, all vineyards begin to look alike. I know that’s heresy to those trained in the art and science of canopy management, but that’s how things are with me.

So what do I like to do with winemakers? I like to drive with them. Specifically, I like piling into the passenger seat of the winemaker’s vehicle (often an SUV, 4-wheel drive or pickup truck) and letting the winemaker do the driving. Winemaker vehicles are usually dirty and in disarray. You know how you sometimes apologize to a visitor because your house isn’t quite as tidy as it might be? Winemakers do the same, although I always tell them not to, because I could care less. Take a look at the inside of a winemaker’s car. Maps, gadgets and junk all over the place. Dried clots of earth on the floormats. Empty soda cans and water bottles. Clipboards on the dashboard, sunglasses and cell phone and pencils and pads and keys and boxes of tissue and little broken bits of metal and plastic. The inside of a winemaker’s vehicle is a veritable junkyard, but it’s a place I love to be.

Where do we drive? Typically around the property and/or the appellation. That’s what I really like to do with winemakers. They can tell me all about the hills and clefts inbetween the ridges that let the maritime influence filter in. They can point out that outcropping of limestone, that jumble of stones, or the way a bench rises suddenly from an alluvial plain. They can show me their neighbors’ vineyards. We can drive to high points where you can see for miles and miles and from that aerial vantage point gain an appreciation of an AVA’s physiognomy (if that’s the right word). Of course, you can do all this driving yourself, on your own, but then you can’t pay proper attention, and a winemaker is the best tour guide in the world. Winemakers know their appellations like they know the palm of their hand. (One of the nice things about chatting while driving is that, because it’s so casual, sometimes there’s some good gossip, oops I mean news, to be had.)

I was reminded of this because I just read my notes of my drive-around the southern Santa Rita Hills with Richard Sanford. One thing that struck me about that appellation was how quickly its vineyards have become famous. Ten years ago everybody knew about Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and Babcock, but who had ever heard of Cargasacchi, Fiddlestix, Fe Ciega, Richard’s own La Encantada, Sea Smoke, Clos Pepe, Melville, Mt. Carmel, Rancho Santa Rosa, Carrie’s, Huber? (I know I’m forgetting others.) Look how well-known they are today. There’s not another appellation in California whose vineyards have come so far, so fast.

I like winemakers anyway, most of them, and somehow they seem more themselves when they’re behind the wheel of their own vehicle.

  1. Heh….We shoot pool in the winery when writers come over, and they can go sample the barrel while the other guy is taking his shoot. Lucking I’m not very good (I’m a video game kinda) guy) , and they usually win.

  2. subaru. farming in a subaru. the funniest snide comment a big-wheat neighbor said about us was, “hell! they’re even farmin’ in a subaru”! us portlanders, (still) trying to make a go of it out in wasco county old-country wheat land. it was a more like a subaru town and country car for us, since we only had one vehicle between farm and city, and you’re right, it would fit into your category of 4WD SUV.
    drove me nuts, though, all that dust and detrius you speak of, filled up with junk like the inside of an old lady’s purse! and my husband would be like, “what? what’s wrong with all that? it’s cool!” as i cringed whenever i’d head off in it all citified to client meetings.
    i kind of miss her now – she had been to germany and back with me – she got traded for a truck, and after samuel was born, we finally got a car, although there’s some farming done in the jetta, too, if needs be.
    for you, we’d offer up a game of horseshoes — it’s on my 2010 to do list — time to put some fun into the endeavor — but there’d most likely be no apologies about the truck. why should there be, right? and you’d always be welcome to pull some weeds.

  3. Anytime you can get to a “behind the scenes” person at a wine entity is a great time to learn and pick brains. As an Importer, I too have seen many a winery, but there is always somthing to learn waliking around a winery. A winery is where, hopefully, pristine product makes its transformation to wine at the hands and minds of passionate people. However, not everyone has “The Passion,” some are just happy to have a job. So, rather be guided on winery tours, I like to walk around corners and talk to people not necessarily shown/introduced to me. That’s where you see the mould, the old equipment, the cigarette butts, those that don’t care. I say “don’t take the tour, LEAD THE TOUR.” You will learn more than you want to.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    I have been told that a memorable experience was a ride with pioneer winemaker Louis M. Martini who apparently never encountered a traffic situation that he felt could not be resolved by stomping on the accelerator.

  5. They don’t make them like Louis M. anymore.

  6. Sanford would probably be the best person to take you on a tour of the Sta. Rita hills. He was the one who discovered, and progressed it right?

  7. Steve, Thanks for the tip about the car! I’m a bit worried about the type of gadgets and junk I have in mine. The only thing I have that you mention is the dried clots of earth on the floormats. My car tends to have biscuit crumbs, bits of dried bread, candy wrappers, bits of toys, items of children’s clothing, pen tops, etc. Do you think it’s time for me to upgrade to proper winemaker detritus?

  8. Fabius, go to for a complete list of detritus.

  9. Brett, Richard did indeed pioneer this part of what was then considered the Santa Ynez Valley. He did so with his partner, Michael Benedict. So far as I know, their vineyard was the first planted west of the Freeway, and also the first Pinot Noir in the county.

  10. Dennis Schaefer says:

    To get a different, but equally valuable perspective on Sta. Rita Hills, next time hitch a ride with Chad Melville and Stephen Janes of Melville Vineyards and Winery. The appreciate the history and pioneers of the appellation but also know about all the future vineyard plans for the area.

  11. Dennis, I’ve driven (drove?) around with Chad, as well as Greg Brewer and others down there. Always fun and educational.

  12. Interesting list of winemaker detritus stuff: !!! Unfortunately, it’s all restricted technology and it’s forbidden to export any of it to outside the USA! I’m just going to have to go it alone, and build up my own autoctonous detritus in harmony with the local terroir 🙂

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