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Do “Zombie Wineries” Exist?

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I Googled the term (using both spellings, “zomby” and “zombie”) and came up empty-handed, but I’m hearing it bandied about more and more.

It refers to wineries that are in dead every respect, except that they still walk the Earth as though they possessed life. The Zombie Winery phenomenon is said to be most acute in Napa Valley, among high-end brands that got their butts kicked in the Great Recession, when demand for $50-and up Cabernets fell off the cliff.

Wineaccess, the online wine retailer, referred to “Napa’s crisis years (2008 to mid-2011)” in their most recent email blast, a suitably Götterdämmerung-esque description that communicates the angst that struck the valley at the Recession’s peak.

I well recall the rumors. Who’s in trouble? Who isn’t? Anecdotally, expensive wines–not just Cabernet Sauvignon–were suffering. Nobody really knew, in each specific instance, which wineries were hurting; only the proprietors and their bankers knew. But there were whispers. I asked owners every chance I could how business was doing: the answers ranged from “Great” (which I assumed to be an outright lie) to “Well, you know, these are tough times,” which at least was honest. The owner of one of the most famous cult wineries told me frankly, in that 2009-2010 period, that for the first time in the winery’s history, requests for inclusion on the mailing list had dropped, a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine symbol of the psychological toll the Recession took even on the well-to-do.

“Zombie” the word comes from Haitian Creole, which imported it from an African word; it referred to “an animated corpse” (Wikipedia). The word gained widespread currency with George Romero’s famous (and famously kitschy) “Night of the Living Dead” movie (1968), which depicted living dead horrors wandering the world, looking to shred, tear and devour (although the film itself never used the word “zombie”). A previous movie, “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, however, imprinted the horrific image on the public’s mind of yet another form of monster (in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula, then popular among horror genre fans), one again based on a mutated human, stripped of living purpose except that it did not know that it was dead. (The self-knowledge of these mutants varies. Frankenstein had none, or very little, although he could feel tenderness. Dracula, of course, possessed full self-knowledge, which is what makes vampires so dreadful; what he lacked was moral compass, although it can be argued that, from the point of view of his kind, i.e., a vampire, his actions were fully in concert with morality as he understood it. Zombies, by contrast, are even duller and more primitive than Frankenstein, on a level of insectoid: If any movie in history ever depicted a zombie feeling tenderness or love, I am unaware of it.)

So are there Zombie Wineries in Napa Valley? Undoubtedly. Was Clos Pegase one of them? I wondered about last week’s sale to Vintage Wine Estates and Leslie Rudd. It’s hard for me to think Jan Shrem “needed the money.” I always thought Clos Pegase was quite profitable, a thought reinforced every time I heard the announcer on my public radio station thank the Shrems for their “generous support.” And the wines, made by Richard Sowalsky, always are good and sometimes great. My hunch–and that’s all it is–is simply that Jan is ready for the next chapter in his adventurous life.

BREAKING: Moments after I posted this, the news came in that Viansa has been bought by Vintage Wine Estates. While Viansa is in Sonoma County, not Napa, it appears to have been a Zombie Winery:

  1. STEVE!
    I don’t know about zombie wineries, but, according to reports first disclosed here, I’m apparently a zombie blogger.

  2. How do we distinguish between zombie wineries and wineries that haven’t been able to stay relevant?

  3. Damon: I don’t know. The line between them is very thin, and also subjective. How do you know that a winery hasn’t been able to stay relevant?

  4. Hosemaster, do you wander the earth with arms outstretched, drooling and stumbling, with the occasional body part falling off? Then you’re a Zombie!

  5. Good question. You are probably a far better judge than I am. When was the last time Pegase was mentioned for anything other than the art/architecture?

  6. I really like your breakdown of the differences between zombies, vampires, and frankenstiens

  7. I can think of any number of so-called Zombie (never see’d the Zomby spelling before) wineries. And, mostly, they’re not in the NapaVlly. These are usually small wineries that started out small and with great ambition and hoping to achieve something different. Be it Ribolla or StLaurent or some such, their wines never really caught on and they never found themselves on the forefront of the next big wave they were hoping to catch. The marketing of these wines became such a strain on the owner’s energy
    that they just sorta ran out of steam. They didn’t fold up there tents and steal away into the night…they just continue to make wine on a much lower level…sorta hoping for lightening to strike.
    It’s not hard to identify these “zombie” wineries. You go to their WebSite and the last update was in 2010. You go to the page offering their wines. You see 2008 Chard, 2009 Cabernet; as with ClosPegase. You wing ‘em an e-mail and get no response. You see their 2004 & 2005 vintages out on the retail shelves.
    As for ClosPegase (some Napa natives call it ClosPigAss), the one time I stopped in, the tasting room was empty and the lady pouring made it clear that I was imposing on her time. The wines were yet just another NapaVlly Cabernet and Chardonnay….borrrring. And the bldg always brought to my mind a Nazi Crematorium for some strange reason.
    Tom

  8. TomHill: Wow. So tell us how you really feel about Clos Pegase.

  9. Gabe, thanks. Name one other wine blog where you’ll get that kind of detailed reporting and analysis!

  10. Damon, In addition to the Clos Pegase architecture and art, Jan Shrem told me a funny joke about the wine business a long time ago. Unfortunately it is a little racy to share publicly, in entirety. It begins with a couple flying to Paris for their honeymoon. The wife turns to her new husband and tells him, “I have been hiding a secret from you…” :)

  11. for the record, Villa Zapu was the first Zombie winery in Napa

  12. Alfonso,

    It took nearly twenty years but I had finally pushed Zapu to the back of my mind, until now :/. Other nominees would be Black Stallion and Ch. Potelle, in no particular order.

  13. Actually, Frankenstein’s monster in the Mary Shelley novel was extremely self-aware and soul-searching. In the movie, not so much.

    That aside, I do believe there are “zombie wineries.” After the Great Recession, many wineries which were troubled during the depths of the GR bounced back nicely because they had previously established compelling brands with a loyal consumer following and effective distribution. Those brands and labels which failed to establish those things prior to the GR got hit very hard and did not benefit from the bounce-back. Many of those companies are still around, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence. that’s my definition.

  14. For Viansa to be considered a zombie winery, wouldn’t have to live at some point?

  15. When I started there were, extant, 175 wineries operating in Ca. Now 3,700. 85% of them operated by people who haven’t left their day jobs. So their day jobs must be awfully unfulfilling or they want to somehow rationalize their hobby or somehow get validation. I see people pouring out of tents and under their patio roofs in tract neighborhoods. Simply amazing. I am now the age that the oldtimers were when I started. Maybe things will change?

  16. Carter, I don’t know how Viansa’s been doing the last ten years, but back when they started they were doing a thriving direct to consumer business through their beautiful tasting room in the Carneros.

  17. Bill Haydon says:

    I know several. They’re usually not zombie wineries per se, but rather zombie labels: small custom crush projects that have lost (or never had) any widespread distribution, sell a few cases direct in California or mailing list but nowhere near their two to six hundred case total production.

    The owner has a day job that keeps the lights on and the website up. Vintage after vintage go into some giant warehouse somewhere (picture that final scene in Raiders of The Last Ark) where the “library” is stored. He’s still taking mailing list subscriptions–you’re initial offering will be multiple cases, including “library reserves” with vague hints that there’s more where that came from.

    In any event, he just knows he’s a year or two away from being the next big cult phenomenon.

    He’s hired a consultant who’s promised to build his “brand” in China.

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