Archives: The Winemaking Life
Winemaking Begins With People
The old saw goes, “Great wines begin in the vineyard.” I beg to differ. “Don Blackburn, one of California’s best crafters of Pinot Noir, used to have a sign posted on his office door that read, “Winemaking Begins With People.” His point was that no matter how expensive the barrel, talented the winemaker or mind-bogglingly stellar the fruit, all could be ruined by one too short tank wash cycle or one lab tech who didn’t bother to re-check that weird VA (volatile acidity). He also meant that great wines are a team effort, made great by many small acts, expertly done. Only people can do that.”
I wrote those words in an article in Wine Business Monthly back in 2006, and they still resonate for me today. When I’m walking through the vine rows at Stanly Ranch in Carneros, impressed at how great of a suckering job the crew did on the Pinot Noir it’s a reminder of the hard work it took to get such a job done.
When I unscrew a bottle of Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir I am humbled that even though I may have the title “Winemaker” and get a lot of the credit in the public eye, it took a group effort to get the wine in that bottle, from the cellar intern pressure washing the floors to Garnet’s Assistant Winemaker Barbara making sure that the screw-capper was working just right.
Especially when I pour at events and get to chat face to face with people enjoying my wines, “Winemaking Begins With People” takes center stage and remains one of the best parts of being in the wine business.
Though I last worked with Don as a cellar intern in 1998 learning how to make estate-grown Pinot Noir, I find myself remembering his famous office-door quote all the time and am so glad we remained good friends as I advanced in my own career.
Don is unfortunately no longer with us; we lost him far too early at age 54, in 2009, after a yearlong battle with cancer.
Actually, let me rephrase that.
As long as winemaking continues being a team sport, and one where competitors even cheer each other on from the sidelines, Don Blackburn and his truism “Winemaking Begins With People” will indeed still be with us.
Five Reasons Winemakers Love Their Vineyard Dogs
In wine country, we love our vineyard dogs. They have their special beds in the warmest corners of the cellar, they get to ride shotgun through the vine rows and they receive endless appreciative pats from winery crew and visitors alike. Heck, they even have their own boutiques, dog parks and celebrity rags. However, lest the vineyard dog becomes too “citified” (after all, once Fido has been to Gay Paree, how ya gonna keep him down on the farm?), allow me to submit some of the real reasons the vineyard dog has snuggled its way into our collective grape-growing and winemaking hearts.
1. A Trusty Sidekick in the Viticultural Wild West
“Git a gun or git a dog, honey!” wasn’t something I expected to hear from the grizzled grape grower I pulled up to meet on a Mendocino back road five harvests ago. His stories about marauding bears and bands of increasingly aggressive marijuana growers near his Mendocino vineyards seemed perfectly designed to pull the leg of a young winemaker from Napa buying organic grapes for the first time. When his tales were later corroborated by friends and colleagues however, I became glad I had my trusty Kona with me. Her keen bead on our surroundings during that harvest’s vineyard visits kept my attention on the vines and kept me from feeling the need to bring along a trusty hunting rifle. Be it bears or banditos, I know many of us are glad for the extra company (and sensitive ears, eyes and noses) of our alert vineyard dogs when we’re out and about in the “back 40.”
2. Something to Talk About Other Than Wine
It’s no secret that it takes a lot of good beer (and I would argue, good bubbles) to make good wine. When winemakers get together or relax after work, don’t be surprised to see us with brewskies and bubbly (or perhaps a martini) in hand and not a big glass of red. Just like a well-crafted cocktail, the latest “guess what Rover did” story can be a great conversation topic, a palate-cleanser of sorts, in a gaggle of winemakers who don’t want to talk shop all night. Dogs also provide much-needed common ground in what can sometimes be awkward mixed-company settings (read: winemaker dinners, VIP tours, etc.). When a winemaker has to connect to a visitor or a crowd but doesn’t want to get all wine-geeky and blind them with the proverbial science sometimes asking about everyone’s pets, and relating a few favorite vineyard dog tales, can be a wonderful icebreaker. After all, who doesn’t love a good dog story?
3. They Remind us to Take Care of Them (and of Ourselves too)
When I’m up late driving back from far-flung vineyards or answering grape-scheduling emails, the last thing I want to do is get up early the next morning and exercise. Thankfully, there’s someone else snuffling in my ear on those dark mornings, gently reminding me that she wants to go for a walk and that I should really come too. Because I have to think of keeping Kona hydrated on long car trips I find I stop and drink more water myself. At the end of the day, when she crosses her paws and lays her head down with that long tired-sounding snort, I remember that I too could use a quick breather and take a moment to reach down and scratch her behind the ears. Having a dog around is just good for your health, especially during the busy harvest season when self-care tends to take a back seat. Science has proven it, but it’s something winemakers have known all along.
4. A Pick-me-Up Perspective on the Everyday
Believe it or not, when you visit hundreds of vineyard blocks over the years, walk through dozens of barrel rooms and participate in each year’s cycle of blending sessions it can all get a little repetitive. Really. Well, Fido has a cure for that too; there’s nothing like seeing your workday through the eyes of your dog. Wasps in the picking bins? “Fun to chase! Fun to chase!” Washing down the crush pad for the umpteenth time? “Hey silly human, squirt me with that hose, will ya?” Bungs popping out of barrels in the white cellar during barrel fermentation? “Whoo hoo, let me fetch ‘em! “ Seeing the look of excitement in Kona’s eyes whenever I gesture for her to jump up into the front seat as we head out on a vineyard visit makes me smile, and appreciate what I get to do for a living, every time.
5. Unconditional Love in Spite of Harvest
Hey, who else will love you when you’re stinky, sticky and haven’t showered in three days? Even if they’re only licking the Chardonnay juice off your cheek, their unconditional love and companionship (but perhaps just not the slobbery tongue action) go a long way towards soothing the wounds, physical or mental, of a long day on the job.
This blog entry would not have been possible without Kim Kuenlen and her wonderful NorCal Aussie Rescue organization. We adopted our Kona in 2005. As she approaches 14, she still acts like a crazy pup.