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RIP Terry Wright, a great wine geologist

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I have just learned of the death of Terry Wright last month.

Terry, a Ph.D. (his website is here), was a longtime professor of geology at Sonoma State University, in which capacity he was of great help to me during the writing of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. In addition to his academic work, Terry frequently consulted for wineries on vineyard soil issues.

In my book, I had determined to tell the geological history of the Russian River, since no one apparently had ever done so. Everyone knew that the river’s turn west, below Healdsburg, was hugely crucial to the terroir of the Russian River Valley; but no one knew quite why the river made that strange turn (the only one in California to do so), or when or how the river had begun flowing.

In the book, I wrote about all this, with the help of several geologists, none of them friendlier or more interesting than Terry. He was “a real character,” a larger-than-life guy with an Indiana Jones canvas hat, big, booming voice, hearty laugh, bushy Mr. Natural beard, an off-the-grid lifestyle and a gourmand’s love of wine and food.

Terry lived in a funky little wooden shack in the hills above River Road, in the heart of the southern Russian River Valley. Not just his yard was filled with rocks and dirt: the house, too. It was as if there were no dividing line between “indoors” and “outdoors.” Terry loved rocks with a crazy passion. On our frequent excursions around and about the river, I liked to pick up interesting stones and hand them to Terry. He could identify them at a glance, telling me what they were made of, how old they were, and how they came to be in that spot.

Terry also was an adventurer. He’d rock-climbed, hang-glided, shot whitewater rapids and in all respects lived a pedal-to-the-metal life. He invited me one spring day to take a canoe trip with him down the Russian River. We figured I could get a unique perspective on the river and its terroir from that vantage. We met up one morning at the Geyserville Bridge, where we parked our respective vehicles. Terry had arranged for one of his SSU students to drive us north to near the Mendocino County line, where we dragged a canoe down to the water and shoved off for the 15 miles or so back to Geyserville.

It was a cool, clear morning. The river was running high; there’d been near record snowfall that winter in the High Sierra, and all that mountain snow was rapidly melting. There were even whitecaps here and there. It made for some bumpy moments, but Terry reassured me that he was a consummate outdoorsman and knew what he was doing. I believed in him and relaxed, despite the fact that I, Bronx-born, am not an outdoorsman, and the life jacket he had lent me was missing most of its clasps.

We got to just south of Asti when we passed a sandbar upon which a few people were waving to us. We paddled over to them and they explained that they’d capsized in rapids; their boat was lost. Since there was little we could do to help them, we wished them well, and moved on. A moment later, we heard rather than saw what was ahead. It was the sound of a dull roar, like a subway train in the distance.

Suddenly I saw the white water. It looked like detergent, foamy and bubbly. The wave crests had to be two or three feet high, and we were plowing right into them. I had one oar and Terry had the other. He began shouting directions: “Right! Left! Paddle harder!” Time became very shortened, as things sped up. We were no longer headed straight down the river’s middle, but were veering rapidly toward the bank. I had just started to ask him, “Terry, why are we headed toward the bank” when the canoe upended and I found myself underwater, upside down, the top of my head scraping the gravelly bottom, in what is called “the rinse cycle.”

It took Terry and me 30 minutes to extricate ourselves from that mess. He ended up stranded on a gravel bank. I managed to grab onto a fallen tree, or “strainer,” by the bank. By a stroke of luck, I’d snagged the back of the canoe, which was rapidly being swept away, with a leg. I was hanging onto the strainer,  holding onto the canoe, while the water kept trying to undo me. The bank to my back was eight feet in height, all scummy, muddy slipslide.

Both of us easily could have died that day. That Asti stretch of the Russian River has claimed lives before. As it turned out, being trapped in the cold snow-melt water for half an hour (and then it being another two hours in my wet clothes before I got home to Oakland) gave me a case of hypothermia that permanently discombobulated my body’s internal thermostat.

Terry, of course, was profusely apologetic. I took it all in good humor–actually, good stuff to write about–and teased him about it for years. He was a funny, loving, smart, sweet, eager guy, making his way through this life. There are lots of people who will miss and mourn him.

Did you hear the news about The Hosemaster?



I was shocked, and saddened–immensely so, almost to the point of grief (except that I didn’t feel anything remotely resembling grief, just a kind of emptiness, like the inside of an empty wine bottle, or the content of a Joe Roberts blog)–when I learned, suddenly, and almost serendipitously (for, if Gus hadn’t vomited, forcing me to rush to Whole Foods to buy some paper towels [Fair Trade, recycled], then I wouldn’t have put on my iPod, which happened to be tuned to a local radio station, which is where I heard the tragic, almost unbelievable news–made all the more grimly believable by the announcer’s nasal flatness–news that stunned me, not to the point of being immobilized–I wouldn’t go that far–but that “knocked me on my heels” [to paraphrase something Shakespeare once said. Or wrote. Or could it  have been Joe Pesci?]. Of course, I don’t mean “knocked me on my heels” literally; what would that look like, anyhow? Picture a guy–me!–walking down the street suddenly being “knocked on his heels.” I have no idea what that would look like, and I bet you don’t either. It’s just an expression, and that’s the thing about expressions: they don’t mean anything, but are meant to convey a mood, a feeling, a frisson of some kind. Anyway, I was talking about the news, and the way I felt when it was made horrifyingly, nauseatingly clear to me, listening through my ear buds, that Ron Washam, the Hosemaster of Wine, had been killed.

And not just in any old way. No: In one of those bizarre twists of fate (similar to the way Antonio Galloni was recently paralyzed when he fell into an empty concrete egg somewhere in Brunello) that verges on irony, the poor Hosemaster was simply minding his own business, proceeding north on East First Street, in Sonoma (presumably on his way somewhere, although we don’t yet know precisely where; Vinography has speculated that he was on his way to get an erotic massage from a new joint that opened on the edge of town, but I’m not sure that’s true; and, at any rate, hardly seems relevant to the story. Although it is interesting…), when he was struck, unceremoniously and without warning, by a small truck (apparently an ex-UPS truck), owned and driven by the former social media maven, Hardy Wallace, and loaded down with the former’s Squalid and Filthy wines (I’m always forgetting the name of Hardy’s brand. Evil and Repugnant? Lewd and Malicious? Soiled and Perplexed? It has two words, both of them adjectives, I believe, and one of them has to do with being “in a state of tawdry deshabille,” which is an odd association for wine, but then, maybe not). Hardy, it seems, got distracted when he saw he was getting an incoming text message from (to further compound the weird series of coincidences that litters this entire tale) none other than Jancis Robison, who (I was told this by Tyler Coleman) was calling to ask if he, Hardy (not Tyler) wished to write for The Purple Pages: $20 an article, not a huge amount of money, given Jancis’s stinginess,, but enough “to fill the tank” [as they used to say; not anymore, at least until oil falls to $20 a barrel, which isn’t likely as long as The Purple Pages exist to infuriate Al Qaeda. But that glance at his portable device was just long enough to cause Hardy to take his eyes off the road [never a good thing], which was just enough to allow the little truck to strike Ron, who had on his own iPod and so didn’t hear the squeal of wheels (and, no, we don’t know what the Hosemaster was listening to; that information is expected to be released by the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office any moment, and as soon as I find out, I’ll tweet it to the world).

BULLETIN: Ron was listening to Amy Winehouse.

What are we to make of this?

1.   The wine world is a poorer place.

2.   The wine world is a better place.

3.   The wine world hasn’t changed a damned bit, one way or the other.

I would say the answer is “All of the above.” Which leads to the next, and possibly more interesting question: What is Hosemaster’s legacy? I would argue the answer must be among the following:

1.   He left no legacy.

2.   He left a legacy, but it is impossible to define what it is with any precision.

3.   He left a legacy, and we all know exactly what it is: It hangs over the industry like a cloud of Beijing pollution, choking in its acridity.

4.   He left a legacy that exalts us, each and every miserable one of us, specks of nothingness that we are: but because such as The Hosemaster once walked among us, we all of us are a teensy, weensy closer to–what?

I would argue that the answer to #4, above, must necessarily be among the following:

1.   We all all closer to our Deaths.

2.   We are even closer to our Deaths than we would have been had The Hosemaster not walked among us.

3.   We all have already died and are now dreaming. (The Hosemaster would have liked that one.)

4.   We now know that Life, including the entire wine industry, is essentially meaningless; this, The Hosemaster taught us, and, once his teaching was concluded, there was no longer any reason to continue among us. In this sense, did Hardy’s truck strike The Hosemaster, or did the Hosemaster strike the truck?

5.   All the above is completely ridiculous.

Here we see a thrilling example of the type of indeterminacy The Hosemaster spoke of; his life was, in a sense, a perfect example of it. One never was able to determine both The Hosemaster’s position and his velocity simultaneously, or even if he was particle or wave. We shall ponder these enigmas until the last wine blog dies.

On a more personal note: You know we journalists aren’t supposed to inject our feelings into our reportage, but in this case, I simply must, and I hope you will forgive me. I am at the moment overrun with feelings, and not just because of that huge burrito I chowed down for lunch. No, it’s more than that. I admired Hosemaster, looked up to him as a kind of Older Brother. He could be funny one moment, bitingly sarcastic the next, but always oozed a Mother Theresa-esque compassion. In fact, Hosemaster was a Saint. I think we should take up a collection and build a statue of him. We could tear down that nasty “Welcome to Napa Valley” sign on Highway 29–nobody likes it anyway–and replace it with a 40-foot replica of our own Hosie, arms spread, sporting a smile as big as all outdoors that seems to say to visitors, “Hey there! What took you so long?” After all, who more represented Napa Valley than Ron Washam? Robert Mondavi? I think not. Ron WAS Napa: its soils and pebbles, its alluvial fans, its foggy nights, its diners and auto body shops and hardware stores. Above all, Ron’s everyman sort of demeanor symbolized Napa’s enduring values. Are you with me on this one? If you are, let me know. I can already feel the Hosemaster bashers out there (and they know who they are), getting ready to smear his legacy. Let us not let them do that. We are better than than. Ron Washam taught us how to be better than that.

Wine world loses another good one



It was in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua that I learned, from a winemaker, that Steve Pessagno has just died.

Ed and I had just been talking about him at the hotel bar  two nights earlier, in the most favorable way. Steve was the owner/winemaker of Pessagno Vineyard, a Monterey-based winery, where he made some fine wines. I’d known Steve since his days at the old Jekel Vineyards, where he used to be winemaker. I remember him hosting me at Jekel’s little facility, right off the 101 Freeway in the heart of the Salinas Valley. It was Steve who told me about the infamous winds that sweep down the valley. Some years later, after he’d finally been able to start his own winery (which made him so happy) I visited him at his tasting room, on River Road. Steve had a bad back, but he was a big, strong guy and refused to let it interfere with his work.

Steve, to me, was the quintessential winemaker. Nobody handed him anything on a silver platter. He wasn’t born to wealth. After working as an engineer, he decided he wanted to be a winemaker, and he came up the hard, old fashioned way. He never achieved great fame or wealth, but he crafted well-made wines of terroir, at affordable prices, and he put his heart and soul into his work. He also was a true pioneer of premium wines in Monterey.

Steve was the kind of guy who makes the world of wine go around. I doubt that he would have been comfortable in the spotlight, if things had gone differently and the media had discovered and promoted him. I can’t say I knew him well, but I knew him enough to understand his essential humility. He desired to be successful enough to support himself and his family and avoid debt, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out there and shmooze and entertain an audience at a fancy wine and food event. He was what winemakers have always been: an upright, honest guy, friendly and industrious.

Steve was only 55 years old, way too young. I’m sending my condolences to the family, and I hope Steve’s son, Anthony, will keep the winery charging ahead.

Even if you didn’t know Steve, please give him a moment of respectful silence. He was one of the good ones.


Wine and the Feminine Esthetic


I didn’t know Shirley Sarvis, even though she was a legendary resident of San Francisco, and despite the fact that I own some of her books, including “American Wines and Wine Cooking,” which she co-wrote (with the great Bob Thompson) in 1973. She died last week, at the age of 77.

Shirley was from the Old School of culinary writing, one that included M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child. In her day and age, women wrote about cooking for other women, usually in the pages of women’s magazines. Shirley’s roster included Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset Magazine and Woman’s Day.

These were periodicals that appealed to suburban housewives who by and large stayed home all day while the Man of the House dutifully commuted to his job, there to work hard to bring home the bacon, so that the wife could decorate the house in the manner prescribed by the magazines (white wicker patio chairs, lovely floral arrangements, bright colors in the California style, with a pretty garden). The Missus also mastered the arts of preparing beef bourguignon and fondue, but never barbecue: that was the Man’s task.

Wine? It barely showed up at all. The Man might like an occasional martini, a la Mad Men, or a beer. The Missus didn’t drink, or, if she did, it was discretely. Although California was riddled with winemaking, from L.A. up through the North Coast and in the Central Valley, the suburbs hardly embraced it in the 1950s. Scan the pages of the women’s magazines and you’ll see scant mention of the grape or wine.

Shirley, however, made an important transition in 1973 with the publication of “American Wines and Wine Cooking.” She was the “cooking” part to Bob Thompson’s “wine” part, meaning she still remained true to her traditional gender role. But the fact that a woman’s name appeared as co-author of a book at least partly about American wine represented an important cultural shift. It meant that wine was no longer the exclusive province of the Man, as it always had been, but that women could bring their own esthetic to it.

What was that esthetic? It’s always been less fussy than the Man’s. The Man invented precise wine-and-food pairings, the classification systems as supposedly precise as entries in an accounting ledger, the rules of aging and cellaring, the puffery, the snobbery, the show-offiness and, yes, the 100-point system. Women just wanted something good to drink with food that was lovingly prepared and delicious.

Julia Child embodied this same esthetic. She could hold her own with wine snobs, especially with French wine, but she chose to emphasize a different approach, one that was more egalitarian, that could laugh at pretentiousness. It’s easy to poke fun at people with wine knowledge if you’re a total ignoramus who knows nothing about wine, its history, production and culture. What’s more interesting is when people who know a great deal about wine relax and refuse to take it that seriously. They know that there are more important things in life, that wine is there to help us slow down and get in touch with our souls. I think of this as the feminine esthetic toward wine, and we see it around us today, in the careers of women as varied as Leslie Sbrocco, Jancis Robinson and Jo Diaz.


Here’s to the women of wine!

Frank J. Prial: a tribute


Frank J. Prial’s death on Tuesday has been widely reported, including in The New York Times, where he worked as wine critic almost continuously for 32 years. (The obituary was written, fittingly, by his successor, Eric Asimov.)

For the Times to have hired Prial to write a regular wine column back in the Dark Ages of 1972 is astonishing. He was, I believe, the first wine columnist of any American newspaper (correct me if I’m wrong, please), and there was no assurance than anyone would even read him. As Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America,” Prial himself wondered “Would there be any reader interest?” He doubted, too, that “there was enough going on to sustain a weekly column.”

Imagine that! Prial worried that so little was happening in the world of wine, he wouldn’t be able to patch together enough information once a week. Now, here we are in the wine blogosphere, where plenty of us write everyday and manage to come up with items of interest, although not always of newsworthiness.

Of course, Prial soon found out there was lots to write about. As he wrote in his memoir, Decantations (2001), “California…soon provided a steady stream of good stories.” He hanged out with August Sebastiani and “Bob” Mondavi in cafes where “the people frequenting them grew grapes or made wine,” and he watched, with evident disdain, as the scene changed to “bistros and the people in them have titles–director of this or coordinator of that–but no juice stains on their shirts or dirt under their fingernails.”

This mounting disillusionment with the California wine scene found its way into print. By the early 1980s, Prial’s infatuation with California had worn thin. In a column he wrote in 1981, he called California Chardonnay an “overbred dog…too aggressive, too alcoholic…showoff wines made by vintners who seem to be saying, ‘I can outchardonnay any kid on this block.’” Later, he turned apoplectic in his critique, not only of the state’s wines, but of the emerging class of mavens who lavished such praise on them: they “ape the jargon of the trade and feel special when we exchange arcane trivia about grape crushers…American wine,” he lamented, “is on the brink of becoming inbred precocious.” And he issued this warning: “One day the rest of the country, bemused and probably irritated by all this, might just shrug and walk away.” A year after this fulminate, Prial wrote one of his most famous and controversial columns, “A dissenter’s view of California wines,” which begins with a dirge for California red wines: “They…seemed to have lost some of their charm…”.

You can call Prial prescient for being among the first to criticize California wine for their size/power/mass/flash/richness. Certainly his point of view now is widely shared, not just in New York but in Europe. Yet isn’t it odd that it was this very California-ness that inspired such change throughout European wine country–a move toward richer, riper, fruitier wines?

Frank Prial, who retired from his column in 2004, would have made a good blogger, by the way. He wrote passionately and fearlessly, and you could always sense the real person behind the words. He invented a style of wine writing that was intensely personal, yet immensely educational, and that was always fun to read. He wore his passions, including anger, on his sleeve. Here’s to Frank J. Prial, wherever he may be.

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