Day One, Wine Writers Symposium
I arrived at the end of Gerald Asher’s talk, so I didn’t hear it, but Joe Roberts told me Mr. Asher basically said that wine descriptions are silly. Mr. Asher is a great wine writer and a personal hero to me, but he’s never been the type of writer who went in for elaborate wine descriptions (much less scores), so he’s entitled to that opinion. After Mr. Asher’s talk there was an interesting workshop on writing personality profiles. Profiles, if you don’t know, are those personality pieces that The New Yorker is famous for. I like writing profiles. I like to get inside a subject’s head and see where they’re really coming from, not where they want you to think they’re coming from. One of the co-presenters was Corie Brown, who’s a principal at zesterdaily.com. She did a live one-on-one interview with a winemaker to show us how it’s done. The winemaker was talking about how important family tradition was to him, and then he said he hadn’t gotten married until he was 45. I thought Corie would immediately ask him why he’d waited so long. Nerves? Didn’t meet the right gal? Stress? Working too hard? Was he gay? But she didn’t, and I thought, “She’s teaching us how to do an interview the right way, and she doesn’t ask the logical question.”
Well, I sat with Corie at lunch afterward and shared this with her, and she told me she had talked with the winemaker beforehand. He’d actually had an earlier marriage that ended with a messy divorce, so she didn’t want to get into that at the workshop. I can understand that, but my first rule of interviewing is THERE ARE NO WRONG QUESTIONS. You can and should ask anything you’re curious about, no matter how much it seems like you’re prying into somebody’s business. You never know where a weird question will take you–potentially to some incredibly interesting place. After all, if someone lets me interview them, they have to expect I’m going to ask anything I want, within bounds (and there are very few bounds). And a person can always answer an uncomfortable question with, “I’m not prepared to discuss that.” Of course, if they do that, they’re in that infamous position of having to explain when they stopped beating their wife.
Anyhow I enjoyed getting to know Corie and will make zesterdaily.com part of my daily read. Corie has lots of interesting ideas on how to monetize a website and I wish her luck.
After lunch I met with Joel Aiken, by pre-arrangement, at the front desk. Joel, as most of you know, was the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu. He wanted to show me the vineyard of a new winery he’s consulting for, owned by a couple, John and Sharon Harris. The brand is called Rarecat (yes, there’s a story behind it), and the estate vineyard is in Jericho Canyon, which is in a pocket canyon of the Calistoga appellation. Since I’m writing a story on Calistoga for the June issue of Wine Enthusiast, I was, well, enthusiastic to tour an area I’d been pretty much unaware of. Jericho Canyon is wild and remote and beautiful. John Harris says he’s seen mountain lions partrolling his vineyard. If so, these majestic animals are losing their fear of humans, because the saying used to be you’d never see a mountain lion because they’d see (or smell) you first, and run off. If they’re not running off from John Harris, they’re no longer afraid, which isn’t good news for them or us.
The first Rarecat wines won’t be bottled until later this year; Joel hasn’t even crafted the blend. We went through barrel samples of the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Petiit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The first was aromatic and delicious, but thin. The second was profound, and so was the third. John said he hopes to keep his bottle price under $100 retail. We had, of course, the inevitable discussion about the marketplace, and cult wines, and how so-and-so is doing, and is there room for another $90 Napa Cabernet, etc. etc. I don’t think John Harris has the answers anymore than I do or anybody else, but it’s his money. Anyway, I expect the wine will be great, especially with Joel at the helm.
Afterwards, got together with the young winemakers Bruce and Danielle Devlin (Three Clicks) and Peter Heitz (Shypoke) for dinner at Jolé, in Calistoga—really of the best restaurants I’ve been too lately, followed by late cocktails at Solbar. The three of them, between their two wineries, are trying to produce authentic wines of terroir at affordable prices, something I can support. At Solbar, I remember there was a bunch of conventioneers there and we tried to guess who they were (I said proctologists) but it turned out they were property and casualty insurers who joined us and were quite friendly. Then I had a dream I parked my car in the city and couldn’t find it the next morning—a recurrent dream. Then I woke up, mildly hung over, for Day #2 at the Wine Writers Symposium, which I will dutifully write about tomorrow.