The passing of Don Blackburn leaves California one winemaker poorer.
I first met Don nearly 20 years ago, when he was winemaker at Bernardus. I remember walking with this tall, gangly, good-looking guy through the hilly vineyard. He had a shock of unruly blond hair that blew in the wind, and a big mustache that went down to his upper lip. With his jeans and boots and sunburned face, he looked like a cowboy. We discovered we had a mutual interest in philosophy, and we talked a little about that.
Don died on April 23, of cancer, at the too-young age of 54.
Sometimes I wonder which I like more, wine or winemakers. To me, winemakers are the heart and soul of the wine industry — romantic men and women, mythic and larger than life. Before I actually ever met a real live winemaker, I felt like I knew them from reading about them. Monsieur Pontac, who founded Haut-Brion, and (if my memory serves me right) in the 16th century lugged a barrel of his claret all the way to London, across dangerous, bandit-infested territory, to show it off to the King of England. Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, who wouldn’t rest until Mouton was elevated to First Growth. Robert Mondavi, already a legend when my wine-writing career began. These giants created in my mind a respectful admiration of winemakers bordering on hero-worship.
When I finally got to meet winemakers as a wine writer, I discovered that most of them weren’t giants. They were just hard-working, largely unknown young men (not too many women back then) who were farmers as well as craftsmen. They had “dirt in their boots,” as opposed to the folks on the business side of the wine industry. But to a person, they considered themselves lucky to be doing what they loved.
I quickly came to have my favorite winemakers — those whose personalities clicked with mine, and who were outspoken and honest, earnest and friendly, modest and reflective. Which, come to think of it, describes most winemakers I’ve met. (Not all…)
Winemakers — the best of them — art part artist/poets, part technicians. Of course, they have to master the mathematics and biochemistry of alcohol, yeast, pH, acidity, grape sugar and so forth, and that requires them to have good left brains: smart, high IQ, rational. But no amount of U.C. Davis or Fresno State V&E education can compensate if the winemaker doesn’t have the soul of a Picasso or a Bob Dylan: passionate, intuitive, creative, able to express something that speaks to people in a mysterious way that touches and amazes and inspires them. In fact, being a poetic winemaker may be harder than being a competent one. After all, anyone with a degree in V&E is competent (more or less). But look at how few real artist-winemakers there are.
Don Blackburn was an artist-winemaker. In addition to philosophy, his interests ran from ballet and writing to studying medieval texts. His wines, whether at Bernardus, Byington, David Bruce, or his final winery, Emeritus, always expressed a purity and sense of place that required, not merely a special terroir, but a special vintner who knew how to let the Earth speak.
The last time I saw Don was about 2 years ago, at Emeritus, in Sebastopol. Brice Jones, the owner, invited me to look at the winery, and it was a pleasure to re-connect with Don. A few days later, I reviewed Don’s Emeritus 2005 William Wesley Pinot Noir. It was a spectacular wine I thought was the highlight of Don’s career until then. I gave it 95 points.
Don was a soft-spoken, gentle old soul. He never yearned for the spotlight and wasn’t quite comfortable when it shined on him. He was content to be in the quiet background, doing the things he loved, perfecting his vintner’s art and craft. Don was a winemaker’s winemaker. He will be missed.
I know we’re still in the grieving stage of COPIA’s recent demise, when you’re supposed to remember all the good things about the late, great dearly departed. But really, can we talk? The truth is, COPIA was a drag from day one.
As a tourist attraction it just didn’t cut it. Think of some of the cultural institutions that have opened around here over the years that have truly been successes: The new DeYoung Museum. The new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The new Asian Art Museum and Main Library, in Civic Center. The Contemporary Jewish Museum. San Francisco MOMA. All of these opened to great fanfare, and have done stellar business ever since, because they delivered — no, over-delivered on their promises.
COPIA didn’t deliver.
Granted, COPIA wasn’t in San Francisco, but even if it had been, I don’t think it would have thrived. The problem was that it just wasn’t interesting or exciting. As an art museum, it basically sucked. There’s nothing worse than an art museum that displays bad art. Every time I went to COPIA — maybe 15 times in all — I was amazed at the feeble quality of the exhibits that passed as “art.” Other places in Napa Valley, such as Clos Pegase and the Hess Collection, had great works. COPIA didn’t. I always had the feeling they tried so hard to be avant garde, they forgot that contemporary art actually has to be good.
Then there was the wine education stuff. I never could figure out why tourists would go to COPIA for a wine experience rather than to the actual wineries in Napa Valley. I guess the tourists couldn’t figure it out either, which is why not enough of them went to COPIA to keep it alive.
Julia’s Kitchen was okay, although it never achieved the critical renown of restaurants in Yountville and further upvalley. Nor was COPIA attractively or conveniently sited. It was built on the “wrong” side of the Napa River, in a humdrum area that’s only now beginning to come alive. Moreover, COPIA was notoriously difficult to get to for years, while the roads and bridges were being worked on and that whole part of town was detours and closures. I bet a whole lot of tourists got fed up with that.
In the end, a cultural destination needs to generate word of mouth, and no one I ever knew who went to COPIA was excited enough by the experience to either go back, or to tell their friends to go. COPIA wasn’t a bad place; it was just kind of boring. When you think about it, the only reason it did as well as it did was because we loved and respected Robert Mondavi and Julia Child, and wanted their vision for an American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts to thrive. It didn’t, and I’m glad that neither of them was around to see their baby fold.
P.S. Tom Wark, at Fermentation, this morning included this blog among his 5 Most Intriguing New Wine Blogs of 2008. I am humbled and grateful.
This isn’t about wine. It’s an hommage to Tim Russert. He was a reporter’s reporter, a journalist’s journalist, one of the greatest interviewers ever. Interviewing is at the heart of a wine journalist’s job. Yes, tasting and reviewing and all that are important. But to really learn and grow, and to help your readers learn and grow, you have to master the art of interviewing. Tim Russert was a master. He was tough, but fair and friendly and happy and informed. He relaxed his guests. He was an inspiration. Many times, when I interview, I think of Tim Russert consciously. How would he react right now? What would he say, what would his body language convey? Tim Russert was a mentor to many people, not just Washington political journalists. Here’s wishing his family peace and love.
One of the true gentlemen of wine writing has died. David Jones was my friend and colleague for many years. A stalwart of the Bay Area’s wine writing community, David could always be counted on. He seemed to be everywhere, all the time, at every tasting, every opening, every seminar, and always he was filled with cheer and wit. Even in these last few months, when his illness consumed his body, his mind was on fire. David Jones will be missed.