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Three examples of humble gratefulness in California wine

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Hubris is the ancient Greek concept whose meaning can be roughly equated with the old saying, Pride goeth before a fall. Hubris is always a danger for high achievers in any field, including business, politics, sports and, yes, wine.

The opposite of hubris is what may be called humble gratefulness. Fortunately, there’s a lot more humble gratefulness in wine than hubris. Three examples of highly successful people who haven’t let it go to their heads are Heidi Barrett, Ehren Jordan and Bill Harlan. Heidi is, of course, the “Queen of Cabernet,” a first lady of wine, a leading light of Napa Valley, where she has been the winemaker behind some of the world’s most famous wines. She might have let her accomplishments swell her pride and become distant and unapproachable, but she hasn’t. Whenever I run into Heidi (which isn’t often enough), she has a grin on her face and a slightly wicked sense of humor that I can definitely relate to. Heidi has humble gratefulness.

I first met Ehren Jordan when I was researching my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California, in which I gave him a chapter. He had invited me to visit his estate vineyard at Failla, way up on the far Sonoma Coast, in what is now the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation. Ehren had built, with his own hands, a rickety little shack to stay in, with a wood-burning stove for his only source of heat. He was then the fulltime winemaker at Turley, in Napa Valley, but the drive time was such that he often found himself staying at Failla overnight.

The world didn’t know much about Ehren or Failla then. Today, of course, he’s something of a celebrity. I liked Ehren immediately for his boyish eagerness, for his friendliness and accessibility, and I also thought very highly of his wines. It was interesting that, when it came to doing his own thing, he chose to go with light, delicate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, instead of the monster Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs he made at Turley.

I last saw Ehren at the World of Pinot Noir, earlier this month in Shell Beach, and he’s pretty much the same guy. Ehren has a puppy dog quality to him; if he had a tail, it would always be wagging. As well-known as he and Failla’s wines have become, he’s kept their prices modest, compared to the competition, and the wines–well, they are better than ever. Everybody likes Ehren Jordan and is happy to see his success. Ehren has humble gratefulness.

Mr. Bill Harlan is as great a success story as California wine has ever produced. I couldn’t begin to list all his achievements, but then, most of my readers know what they are. Bill envisioned the heights of Napa Valley Cabernet in the 1970s and 1980s and then went on to scale the mountain and become one of its demigods. Yet everyone who knows him knows that he is a deeply humble, kind man, who always has a good word, a sincere smile and a quiet warmth that exudes from him. I only see Bill two or three times a year, but every time I do, I come away thinking, What a nice guy. Bill Harlan has humble gratefulness.

Then there are those infected with hubris. For some reason, regardless of how humble they started out, they’ve let success swell their heads. They’ve become legends in their own minds, too big too fail. They may make great wine, but as humans, they’re missing something important. They don’t have humble gratefulness. I don’t know what makes someone go from humility to big-headedness. It makes me think of George Harrison’s lyrics in While My Guitar Gently Weeps:

I don’t know how you were diverted
You were perverted too
I don’t know how you were inverted
No one alerted you.

  1. Jack Anderson says:

    I liked your blog and thought you might be interested in some hubris wines history. About ten years ago some friends and I were at lunch and talking about a bottle of Screaming Eagle that had sold for $2,000. I remarked that they should just put Hubris on the label and one thing lead to another ultimately resulting in Hubris Wines and the motto, Not for the likes of You.
    Give me an email address and I will send you a copy of the poster we created and the label.

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