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A family winery bites the dust

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It’s always sad when an old, little family winery shuts its doors, as Milat Vineyards & Winery is set to do by the end of this month.

I never formally reviewed any of their wines, because they never sent me tasting samples. They didn’t have a high profile in Napa Valley, and perhaps didn’t want one; as the Napa Valley Register, which reported the story, observes, “Unlike wealthy people who start wineries to enjoy the lifestyle, the Milats started the winery to make a living.” Playing the publicity game, with all the related frou-frou and social obligations, doesn’t seem to have been the Milats’ style.

Should it have been? There can be little argument that being skilled at marketing and promotion can increase a winery’s prospects. I’ve long been fascinated at how and why some small wineries make it big, while others get lost in the shuffle of history. Sometimes, fate, or destiny, plays a role that can’t be foreseen or managed.

Take a winery like Failla or Saxum. Neither Ehren Jordan nor Justin Smith had much money, connections or P.R. savvy when he started out. What “made” their reputations was a combination of interesting wines made from interesting vineyards, and a personal style that knew how to connect with the wine press. (In both cases, I was “present at the creation,” so to speak, and reviewed them early, so I know what I’m talking about.) They had, to use the current parlance, “stories” to tell, and both told them well.

Writers like me visit hundreds of vineyards and meet thousands of winemakers over our lengthy careers, so it is indeed saying something when we can recall individual visits, that occurred years ago, with crystal clarity. That’s the case with my first visits to both Failla and Saxum. Well do I remember roaming Ehren Jordan’s vineyard in the remote hinterlands high above the Fort Ross beaches. Equally vivid are my memories of Justin Smith guiding me along the terraced tracks of his James Berry Vineyard, where on a blazing summer afternoon he picked out the bleached fossils of whale bones from the white earth. This is not to say that either Failla or Saxum made the greatest wines of their generation. Both make very good, very specific “wines of a place,” although I would fault Saxum to the degree that the alcohol levels were immodest (but, oh, the wines! Amazing. Some of these West Side Paso Robles red blends are stunning.). But what both Jordan and Smith managed to do was impress themselves upon the thoughts of a writer (me, as well as, obviously, others), who then was in a position to afford them some publicity. And they did it without a P.R. department.

One could mention others in California’s long winemaking history who similarly succeeded based on the power of their personalities and the quality of their wines: Agoston Harazsthy, Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni, Jim Clendenen. They realized that the renown of a winery is tied to the acclaim its proprietor arouses in the media. This is not to say that such acclaim is the only thing factoring into the renown of a winery: Caymus achieved theirs without any ornate personalities at the helm; so did Ridge; so has Foxen (with the notoriously un-spinny, un-quoteworthy Bill Wathan), and so have many others who went about their work unostentatiously.

So there are different paths to success, but I have to wonder if Milat would have “made it” in the long run had they played the game with a little more perspicacity. But then, that would not have been them; it would have been inauthentic. This question of “authenticity” is, of course, currently much in vogue in wine country. Every winery and every winemaker wants to be seen as staunchly independent and free of the hyperbolic control of spin doctors and P.R. agents. It’s reached the point where hired P.R. personnel advise their clients on how to present the appearance of authenticity! Can a winemaker or winery be “authentic” while paying for professional public relations advice on how to be authentic? It’s a good question and I don’t claim to have the answer.

“Authenticity” is hard to define anyway. A strong, colorful personality can seem authentic simply because it is irreverent and impinges itself strongly upon an audience; but until we master the science of mind-reading, we cannot know to what degree a strong personality is “natural” to its holder, or to what degree it is a conscious construct, if not a fabrication, designed to attract attention (or if it is in fact a combination of both). What we can know—“we” being writers, reporters and journalists—is that some winemakers are more interesting and fun to write about than others; they get the press while the quieter ones often don’t. You have to wonder how much this gets factored into a winery’s success.

Anyhow, I wish the Milat family well. As the Chinese increasingly buy ownership of Napa Valley, which years ago began losing its identity as a tight, indigenous culture, we must mourn the loss of each of these little family wineries, which are the bedrock foundation of any wine region. Any winery’s death diminishes me (to misquote John Donne) and the industry as well. And I always have a special place in my heart for winemaking families who just work hard, year after year, against the odds but armed with great integrity, and who do so without resorting to flashy pretention.

  1. Paul Moe says:

    Steve,
    You say you never formally reviewed their wines because they never sent you any samples. This implies that you only review wines from wineries that do send you samples. Is that true? Do you not feel any need to search out wineries and people who don’t have the ability or desire to send out samples? If you’re at a consumer event and discover an interesting winery, do you ask them to send you samples for you to review?
    Thank you.

  2. Very eloquent, Steve, especially from your extensive background in the history and culture of California. Surely, for every “successful” winery there are a hundred that just work away, doing their jobs, making wine and selling enough to sustain the effort — or not, unfortunately. Aren’t there some 5,000 estates in all of Bordeaux? How many do most people know, even writers, other than a few hundred of the top, well-publicized names? I suppose it’s like the acting profession; L.A. and New York are homes to thousands of actors, most of whom survive on occasional bit parts and character roles. Failure of course carries its own sense of authenticity, but I’m with you in my admiration for the hard workers, the unpretentious.

  3. In an earlier blog entry, you spoke about the “old white men” aspect of the Bloggist Convention and, of course, you were roundly criticized by someone who wan to old or a man.

    OK, I get that and kind of agree with the criticism. Yet, in an instance like this, I doubt if under-thirty bloggers have any comprehension of what it is like to start a family wineryand to stay with it for decades. And it takes folks like you and Fred Koeppel to provide the larger perspective to this story.

  4. Make that “was not” in the last line of the first paragraph.

  5. This is so sad. It is even more sad that there is so much crap mass produced wine being sold at prices way to high for the quality. The best wines come from the small farms. Not only do the farms lose, but the consumers lose as well.

  6. I don’t think PR specialists job is to make a family winery “more authentic” – I think it is their job to help the business communicate their authenticity. I don’t do PR but I work with a lot of wineries on brand design and I think quite a few are afraid to be authentic, for fear that they are what everyone else is in the the market and will be rejected by consumers if they are different. Classic social experience, like being in middle school and wanting to fit into the crowd, because at least they won’t be rejected. It is safe. But idk, maybe there are PR specialists that are giving the wine brand their identity, rather than communicating it. But I don’t think that is a strategy that will pay dividends . . . nor be any fun :)

  7. Uberfriens says:

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Bob and Joyce Milat this week for a tasting and was honored to purchase some of the last of their family’s wine! I will be forever greatful to have experienced everything that Napa was and will no longer be.

    “Let us not mourn the loss of the flame, yet celebrate how brightly it burned”

    God speed.

  8. Charlie, I often wonder how many bloggers of any age understand what it is like to run a winery, family or otherwise. I suppose the same can be said of music and film and food critics, and their respective targets of criticism. It is an unfortunate side-effect of the “democratization” of wine writing. One can only hope that the cream eventually rises to the top

  9. All of the successful wineries you listed have invested mightily in wine quality and distinctiveness. There are rare exceptions where marketing has played a material role in the success of a small winery (the exception being hospitality-driven entities). Investments in wine quality and professional sales efforts always pay off.

  10. The Milat family legacy will continue on. Their primary business (as it has always been) is the sale of their grapes to wineries. The making of their own label of wines has come to an end for the family to retire and relax.

    You will enjoy the fruits of their labor in many high-end bottles of wine into the future.

    In the meantime, the new tenants of the Milat tasting room, Delectus, will be a welcome addition to St Helena. Delectus produces fantastic wines with a low-profile tasting room in the past, and the increase in exposure will help drive their popularity.

  11. John Roberts says:

    Remember Havens? They made fantastic wine, superb Bordeaux-style wines and authentic as ever. Sometimes that isn’t enough. It’s sheer dollars and income, word-of-mouth and the backing that will eventually result as a consequence. Failla has winemaker responsibilities and has had these duties, at more that one prestigious and well-priced producer, prior and concomitant to Failla’s rise as a brand. It’s really sad. I love those brands you mention. What about Rochioli, who have been conservative with price increases whilst remaining extremely exclusive and demanded. A high degree of fortune, or luck, is certainly involved.

  12. Bill Haydon says:

    I agree with you entirely on Havens. Those were great wines. Unfortunately, that winery chose to swim against the dominant tide of the wine world, and Cali in particular which, in the 1990s, was becoming all about how much alcohol, excessive ripeness and oak one could cram into the bottle in order to get that 95 to 100 out of Fat Bastard. The man was ahead of his time, and it’s a shame Havens isn’t attempting to do that style of wines today when the market is actually seeking these kinds of wines from Napa.

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