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Where are the Faces?

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In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.

“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]

“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.” 

It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.

Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.

I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.

Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.

Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.

Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.

But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.

  1. Bill Geofferys says:

    Perhaps it should be your frequent poster, the unjustifiably smug, largely ignorant, carping ideology: Bill Hayon.
    Who better to disseminate half truths, conventional ‘wisdom’, and psuedo scientific claims in the name of CA wine?

  2. I feel so fortunate to have met so many of the great men in this business. I started our winery in 1971 when there were fewer than 200 wineries operating in California. Any time any of the “greats” had a bit of advice or shared wisdom I listened carefully and sought to incorporate it in my business. I remember a particular day, in the 70′s, at the Wine Institute when several of us were at a meeting chired by George Vare. It was to counter some proposed idiotic legislation concerning wine labeling. I was a token small winery operator. At the first break we all made a dash to the restroom. I remember glancing down the bank of urinals to see the most famous winemakers of the time. I laughed to myself, “I’m peeing with the big guys.”

  3. I hear J.C. Boissert mentioned in this context. Do not know him.

  4. Judi: It is conceivable. He’s still a relatively young man.

  5. The post raises a good point. Maybe we don’t have “faces” today for 2 reasons: The wine world back then was a lot smaller and less established, so it was easier to stand out than it is today. Second, no one has really stepped up and “earned” that level of status yet. Except maybe on a regional level. And I think most regions have such “faces” today.

  6. Patrick, excellent points. Yes, regions have their “faces” but at this time California statewide does not. I think that was Gavin Newsom’s point, particularly for selling overseas.

  7. “Where are the faces”???
    I would suggest up on MonteBelloRidge.

  8. Faces? In my head with the voices…

  9. I have to name some of the women’s faces because you didn’t Steve. You’re right of course, it would be a long list. These California women come to mind and this is just off the top of my head. Heidi Barrett, Helen Turley, Mia Klein, Gina Gallo, Cathy Corison, Zelma Long, Merry Edwards. But probably someone will have to have the advertising and PR budgets set aside to ever become known as a “face”.

  10. I think there is some myths here with the pioneers who promoted California wine. For Robert Mondavi, it is my opinion that he promoted Napa Valley wine, especially his wine, more than anything else. Not sure he was telling everybody about what was happening in Rancho Cucamonga or promoting wine in Fresno. Plus he was a salesman, assuming an extrovert, not a winemaker. Most winemakers that I have met or know are not too chatty. They work on their craft and hire people to do the marketing so that their wine can do the talking. It is a great challenge that Mr. Newsom brings to the industry, but I am not so sure that it is needed as much as he thinks. However other states need to take note about this idea of a “face” of their wine industry and tell the world about what they do well and what sets them apart (Virginia, Washington, Texas, Arizona, Midwest) from California.

  11. As excited as I am about bringing my wines to new markets overseas, there is a much more important task for the “faces” of America’s wine industry: create a true wine-drinking culture right here in our own country.

    We are aggregately the largest consuming country in the world, but rank only 52nd in the world at just over 9 liters per person, per year (according to Wine Institute). And lest the dander of the neo-prohibitionists rise, the consumption figure is most important in respect to what it implies about a country and its relationship to wine’s best and most moderate use: as a family and social binder and memory creator.

    From a marketing standpoint, the cult of personality is a real thing. Is it a valuable thing long-term? All one has to do is look at any TV talk show and supermarket magazine rack to see how short the freshness date is on any new “leader.”

    Better than any one face, is the concerted effort of everyone in the business to celebrate and communicate just how wonderfully civilizing, ameliorative, and just damn fun the world of wine can and should be.

    Steven Mirassou
    6th generation winemaker

  12. How about the winemakers? Besides the ones CJ mentioned, Celia Welch, Dave Phinney, Thomas Brown, Mark Herold, Aaron Pott, Jeffrey Stambor, Andy Erickson, Phillipe Melka, Jeff Smith, Genvieve Janssens, Chuck Wagner, to name a few more. Most are involved in multiple projects.

  13. Richard Fadeley says:

    Don’t forget the countless small producers in France, Italy, Germany and Spain that have, as “ankle-biters” pushed the Drouhin’s, Jadot’s and Bouchard’s to keep their wines “on-point”. Then there is DuBoeuf, who is still somewhat vilified for producing good to very good and reasonably priced wines, that for some reason the “hoe-poi” will not acknowledge. The big names are just that, but behind them are hordes of coops and individual producers that stand ready to fill in should we ever run out of “top notch wines”. This is what makes this game so exciting and fulfilling.

  14. john murray says:

    Faces are just that but names will be forever remembered.
    Are we not forgetting those still alive, some mentioned above.
    Tony Soter, now in the Oregon, John Williams, Frogs Leap, and Bernard Portet Clos Du Val and David Ramey to name a few. These people have had much to say about Northern California wines and the styles that have been created.

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