Home from my Santa Barbara trip
You meet so many different kinds of people on the kind of long, complex journey I’ve just returned from. Sommeliers, winemakers, cellar rats, winery owners both rich and not so rich, chefs, personal assistants, field hands, bartenders, valets, waiters, the spouses and kids of all the above–it’s a veritable whirlwind of social networking.
It can be exhausting over the course of three or four days to do the visiting wine writer’s dance. People want to know who you are. You can sense them probing into your character: is he authentic? A phony? Does he know what he’s talking about? Is he an asshole or a nice guy? Of course, you want everyone to feel good about your visit. The wine writer gets used to being put on a slide and examined under the microscope.
The days are long. There are tastings early in the morning, throughout the day and on into the evening. Endless schmoozing, winery tours, rides and walks through vineyards, walk throughs of homes. Then there are the inevitable late night dinners, with intense drinking and conversing. It’s fun, I like it because I like people, and it’s obviously a vital part of my job, but it can take a physical toll. Early last Thursday night, I slammed into the wall. Crashed right out until Friday morning, when I awoke at 4 a.m. wondering what the hell had hit me.
Since there are so many different personalities, one finds oneself talking about all sorts of different things, looking to fit into whatever the situation demands, trying to connect across the spaces that separate us. People want to talk about what they love. One minute a grower is telling you about clones he presumes you understand. The next, an owner is explaining the intricacies of his new press, a machine whose functions he assumes you know all about. A particular personality type endemic to the business is the winemaker who’s also a fine wine aficienado. These are people who buy and study famous wines and love to talk about them. They can tell you the difference between the 1978 and 1979 Chambolle-Musignys, how things changed when the old winemaker left and the new one arrived, where rare old wines might still be available for purchase at auction or through private connections, even how labels have changed over the decades. These tastings are the arcania of connoisseurdom. They are the high wire act of wine, and if you’re merely a humble wine writer from California, you can feel adrift.
What all the people I meet on these trips have in common are two qualities. The first is brilliance. Each is accomplished in some distinguished way. Even if you’re “just” a lowly cellar rat, the fact is that if you’re a 24 year old working in the cellar for some great winemaker, you’ve worked very hard to get and stay there, and have thus achieved something noteworthy. The wine industry is as pure a meritocracy as exists; the cream rises to the top, and on these trips I tend to meet the creamiest of the cream.
The second quality the people you meet have in common is hopefulness. The cellar rat dreams someday of being a great winemaker in his own right. The winemaker dreams of making ever greater wines in his unattainable quest for perfection. Even the millionaire businessman, for all his success, dreams of his little brand being the next Au Bon Climat, Sine Qua Non or Williams Selyem. Endemic to the wine business is the truth that as soon as the current vintage is over, no matter how bad it was, next year will be better. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” the saying goes, hope being programmed into Nature herself; and those who work with Nature live and breathe that hope. Of all the discoveries I make on these wine tours, the greatest is not some fabulous old vintage wine. No, it’s the hope in the breasts of the people I meet.