A Life in Wine

The Queen of the Bench

Congratulations on 25 beautiful years, Cathy!

“I feel like I’ve had a front row seat from the 1970s to now,” Cathy Corison tells me. Corison specializes in single-varietal Cabernet from Napa Valley’s Rutherford bench, and the recent release of her 2011 vintage marks the 25-year anniversary of her eponymous label.

In June 1975, when Corison arrived with all she owned – just the goods that fit inside her white Volkswagen bug – Napa Valley was an economically depressed, rural, and largely unknown farming community. Driving the length of the valley included swaths of unplanted land; today it is covered in vines. “There were about 30 wineries in Napa Valley in 1975,” Corison says. “I arrived in June. The Paris tasting was the next spring in 1976. It was a really exciting time.” The success of California in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris’ tasting would instigate a rush of interest in wine from the region after decades of struggle. Corison would be among the sprint pack bringing Napa into a whole new course of winemaking. …

To keep reading this article, you’ll have to check out the current issue of Noble Rot MagazineIf you haven’t read Noble Rot Magazine before, it’s likely right up your alley. That is, if you are into the kind of work I do here, you’ll find writing there you’re likely compatible with. Each issue of Noble Rot digs into the world of wine with a combined sense of playfulness and geeky fervor. 

You can order single issues or subscribe to the magazine, depending on which suits your interests. That means you can order just Issue 8, The California Special, that includes my Corison article, if you wish. But I recommend considering a full subscription. It’s worth the price.

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Writing about American Wine for JancisRobinson.com

It is a pleasure to announce that I am now also writing for JancisRobinson.com as the American Specialist. There I will be writing in depth about wine regions throughout North America, while taking advantage of my location in California to dig deep with the state’s wines.

My first article posted Wednesday offering an introduction to how I approach wine. It appears free at JancisRobinson.com. My series on the West Sonoma Coast also started today, with an article that looks at the region as a whole. Next week the series will continue looking in depth at each of the subzones.

Here’s a glance at my introductory article from Wednesday.

Introducing Elaine Chukan Brown

Jancis writes Today we announce a major addition to our team. Although we often write about American wine (see yesterday’s two articles, for example), and Alder Yarrow files a monthly column for us from his base in San Francisco, from today we have a regular American wine reviewer in the form of Elaine Chukan Brown, pictured above. Based in Sonoma, she has won acclaim for her  Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews and contributions to Wine & Spirits and The World of Fine Wine. Earlier this year she was awarded the Frank Prial Fellowship by the Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium. Below she introduces herself and her approach to wine. From Friday we will be publishing a major series by Elaine on the wines of the West Sonoma Coast. 

In April of 2012, a handful of wine writers travelled together on a tasting tour of Colli Orientali del Friuli in the north-east corner of Italy. Paolo (pictured below) and Dina Rapuzzi and their sons Pierpaolo and Ivan invited us into their home beside their winery Ronchi di Cialla to share a meal. As we ate, Paolo told us the story of how he and Dina started their winery.

Paolo at Ronci de Cialla

Friuli had been greatly affected by both world wars. Through the first half of the 20th century, wine growing in the region had essentially been abandoned. When wine production returned to the area, the cultivation of international varieties was strongly encouraged as they were seen as more marketable and, therefore, better for the region’s economy. Such a view was common throughout Italy. Wine made from indigenous varieties was essentially illegal. Friuli had changed hands multiple times, serving as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then Italy, then portions of it as Yugoslavia, then Italy again. It even enjoyed independence for a time. The result is that to this day, most people of the region feel that although their home is now Italian, their hearts remain Friulian.

To continue reading the rest of this article [which is available free at JancisRobinson.com]: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/introducing-elaine-chukan-brown


Talking with Michael McNeill

On Tuesday, I shared the first half of a conversation with Michael McNeill, Winemaker of Hanzell, one of California’s heritage houses.

Though we had tasted together before, we agreed to meet in order to dig more deeply into McNeill‘s views on winemaking, and how he understands his role at Hanzell.

McNeill’s position is unique in California. Hanzell makes wine from their own vineyards, which include the oldest continuously producing chardonnay and pinot noir sites in North America, each planted at a time when the grapes were rare on the continent. Add to that the fact that McNeill describes his job as a “guardian of the Hanzell style,” and you can see he carries a unique position.

The transcript of our conversation is presented here, edited for length, and in a few places for clarity. In the first half of the conversation (readable here), McNeill and I spoke on what he values about working for a heritage house, his previous winemaking experience, and how he came to work at Hanzell.

The following portion of the conversation picks up immediately following his story about interviewing with Jean Arnold, President Emeritus of Hanzell, for the job as winemaker. In this half of the conversation, we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation, how land ownership changes your winemaking choices, and whether he’s ever wanted to start his own label.

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

Elaine: With the change you were facing, some winemakers would have thought, “Well okay, it’s time for me to start my own label.”

Michael: Yeah. I have kicked that around from time to time. But I have a son, and felt it really important to be part of his life. I didn’t want to have two jobs, which is what it really requires to have your own label. And my deal at Keller would not have allowed me to start my own label, so that would have been messy.

It could have turned out where I started consulting with multiple labels, and maybe at that point, I would have said, “Well I might as well start my own as well,” but I don’t know. I have enough friends that have started their own wineries and labels, and it’s challenging. It’s really challenging. Most of them still work two jobs and don’t have kids. I’m sure that there are examples of people that have done it, but I don’t want it. I’ve seen how hard people work and how challenging it is.

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

Michael: Sure. I think every winemaker worth his salt, at some point, wants to do their own thing because we all think we know all the answers, and would do it the right way. Of course, you find out how challenging it is and how many compromises you wind up having to make that you don’t think of prior. It’s kind of like when you’re the assistant winemaker, you always question the winemaker: why are we doing it that way? I would have done it a different way…

And then the first time you’re making the decisions, you’re making the picking calls, how incredibly nerve-wracking it is, how you wring your hands over the decisions you make. Am I making the right decision? I always look back at what Michael Michaud did at Chalone, and have so much added respect for what he did.

Elaine: The analogy that comes to mind is raising my daughter. It completely changed my perspective on my parents, and in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Just like silly things, like when Rachel was two or three, I suddenly recognized all these things my mom did when I was growing up were actually because she was tired all the time. I just thought of them as parts of her personality and maybe they frustrated me, but actually I suddenly recognized them as fatigue. It brought more compassion, more understanding.

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

I tell people that parenting changes your life in ways that you would have never expected. And you can’t explain that to someone — I always say, “Welcome to the club.” You’re here now.

Elaine: And you never leave the club. No matter what else happens.

So, anyway, you started at Hanzell that July, what are some of the things you focused on to start? I’m sure you tasted a lot of Hanzell wine initially. You mentioned you had tasting panels with multiple Hanzell winemakers, and you’d gathered a lot of information. So you started in July, and with harvest only a few months later, you had to pretty quickly get ready.

Michael: Yeah. Michael Terrien stayed on in a consulting role. He was available to me to talk to and figure things out. I could bounce things off of him.

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

Michael: And that was very helpful. I appreciated having that, for sure. But all the picking and such was my call, but it was great to have him there to bounce it off of, and ask, “What do you think?” That, and looking at the old records.

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

Elaine: When you look back through your vintages to 2008 in relation to the Hanzell library, how do you see your progression?

Michael: It’s still early, I guess, in the grand scheme of things here. I would say that for the chardonnay, I think we’re keeping it very consistent. We made some adjustments, but I think by and large, they’re pretty subtle. They’re the small corrections or adjustments down the road, looking down the road.

The pinot noir, I think things have changed fairly – not dramatically, but definitely in 2008, I was making the wine kind of the way Michael Terrien was making it. Once fermentation ended, we were doing an extended maceration. We were warming it up to 30 C, which was pretty warm.

Elaine: After or during, you were warming it up?

Michael: After fermentation, during the extended portion. Or, allowing it to peak at 30 C, and then we put the lids on holding it there. And also everything was completely destemmed. I thought at the time it was a pretty extreme thing to do, and so we started backing off in terms of temperature that we were holding the wines at and then the temperature we were allowing the fermentation peak to get to do.

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

Michael: Yes, it was. Just because, you walk in, and you’re at “Well, I have to have a starting point.”

The other thing, too, was that everything was destemmed. And again, a lot of the wines that Bob was making in the 90s – what he had started doing in the 90s is including some whole cluster. It was getting to a point where, it was like 30% whole cluster. But he was doing it, and it is fairly counterintuitive – he was adding whole clusters to soften the wines, which is not what most people think of with whole cluster. But the reason is that the old de-stemmer that he was using was extremely aggressive. I refer to it as a grape grinder. And so they were getting all the extraction up front, so they didn’t have to do these extended macerations. They were very short, quick fermentations.

So he was doing whole cluster to soften the wine by not putting it through the grape grinder. And I love the aromatics and the qualities of those wines. So we have been looking at how to reintegrate some of the whole cluster with the equipment that we have and using the extended maceration.

Elaine: Right. Because you can’t just do it the way he did it since you have different equipment.

Michael: No we can’t. And we don’t really want to. So we’re really making adjustments on the pinot noir. We’re bringing in whole cluster now. And the other thing too is we have the Sessions Vineyard, the site planted in 1999, that Bob was not working with then, and that’s now a fairly large portion of our pinot noir.

So there’s a lot of change that has come into the pinot noir program without deciding to change it. We have new vineyards, we have new equipment; now what do we do? And how do we work these elements in while maintaining our style, and how to best showcase this ground and the style? It’s a lot more difficult, or I guess a lot more, in a way, intellectual, than just simply saying, “We have a house style we follow each year.” It’s not that way at all.

Elaine: There are some winemakers that say in order to show the terroir of a place they use exactly the same techniques every year, and across every vineyard, with the view that that means the only difference you see is the vineyard, or the vintage. But then there are other winemakers that say that kind of approach is a way of not listening to the specific needs of a particular vineyard and its tendencies; that some winemaking techniques work against the conditions of a site, or make a disjointed wine in a way that covers up some of the site character. So, what works for one site might actually obscure another site.

Michael: Absolutely. I feel that way. I think that your role as a winemaker is to listen to the vineyard. That’s a cliché. But really, paying attention to the vineyard and getting it to express itself in its fullest form – that’s our role. Maybe it’s a bit, in a way, egotistical to think that the one way that you’re making pinot noir is the only way to make pinot noir.

Elaine: Right, but if you’re trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, you could say that they’d respond, “Oh no, I don’t mean this is the only best way to make pinot noir; I mean I’m just trying to remove all the variables to show the various sites, and I picked this way because I like it but, I’m not saying it’s the only way.”

Michael: I think that is, in a way, more of a marketing decision. Right or wrong. I don’t think that doing it that way is necessarily the wrong thing to do, but I don’t think that you’re getting the most out of each site. But, I think it certainly makes real good sense in terms of marketing and business, because you have delineated all of these different vineyards. And if you have a clientele that’s interested in what you’re doing, and they want to try all these different …

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s brilliant from a marketing perspective, but I don’t think it necessarily is the best for each site. But then again, most winemakers are doing things like that in a sense. They aren’t invested in the site. They just buy the fruit.

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard


Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

Elaine: That’s the thing. Having a wine industry that is so focused on sourcing fruit – like much of California, or much of the United States, just because of how hard it is to own and farm your own land now – rather than owning the land, or even a negociant approach where you buy wine and make blends, like in France – making wine primarily through sourcing the fruit significantly changes the values you can bring to the winemaking, but then also some of the techniques, and the marketing.

Michael: Right. If you own the piece of ground, would you use those same techniques then? If you own each of those vineyards, would you make them the exact same way?

Elaine: And also, like some of the things you’ve said indicate, how might your approach change over time as you get to know your site better?

Michael: Right. When I first got here, there were a couple of people who had been long time collectors here. I had only been here for like two weeks. I was introduced. They were in a beat up pickup truck. They looked like farmers. And they said, “Yeah, we’ll know if you’re any good in about ten years or so.” I love that.

Elaine: That’s great.

Michael: Right. That’s fair. Bob thought in terms of decades.

I look back at the wines from the 90s just in terms of the overall style and transparency. There’s a real lithe quality about them. Not that they aren’t powerful, because they are. But they just seem to be — transparent is the best way to put it. You can see all of the elements within it that make up the total, and yet are still very harmonious. I think that I look to that as more of an inspiration, if you will.

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

Michael: Yeah. You want to have some power and intensity, but you want all of the elements to be in balance, which every winemaker is going to say the same thing, that they want that. So, it’s a matter of what — how they view balance; what parts of the elements they find as important.

I think that’s ultimately the role of the winemaker on a property like this, while trying to make wine. You’re translating. You’re translating from the vineyard, and what that property, what that terroir is offering. And our job as winemakers is to translate that into wine. It is to deliver that. How do you deliver it?

And I think that that’s the difference in terms of being a winemaker and having one set of winemaking protocol, and one size fits all. You’re not doing the translating. You might have one program that that fruit is going through. You’re not allowing that specific place to be fully translated in what it can express.

Elaine: You mentioned doing small-scale experiments to investigate whether you want to incorporate them into the overall winemaking. What are you seeing with your whole cluster experiments?

Michael: Liking it. We like the element that it brings to the overall quality, especially in terms of mouth feel and aromatics. One of the other things we’re looking at is with the whole cluster, do we want to start pressing that off early instead of giving the extended maceration? So that’s another variable that we’re looking at as well.

And this place, Hanzell, is a pretty unique spot. There’s a particular energy that this property has.

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

Michael: I saw Jacques Lardiere, he used to be the winemaker at Jadot speak at IPNC [The International Pinot Noir Celebration in Willamette Valley, Oregon] in 2012, and we were all laughing because he was so over everyone’s heads in the way he spoke about biodynamics. But when he was talking about a specific Premiere Cru vineyard, he said, “There is something about this place that is special. It has a special energy.” And I immediately got it. I understood that. I think this place, Hanzell, has a very special energy that, I don’t know, I honestly think I could grow damn near anything on this piece of property and it would be great.


In another portion of our conversation I asked Michael McNeill what he thought had allowed Hanzell to persist so well, and maintain its quality as a heritage house of California. He credited the history of excellent ownership from now all the way back to its beginning.

For the first half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/26/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-1/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.


The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

For the second half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/28/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-2/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Andy Smith in the Vineyards of West Sonoma Coast and Green Valley

Andy Smith in Jentoft VineyardAndy Smith walking through Jentoft Vineyard, West Sonoma Coast, Jan 2015

“It’s okay to blend,” Andy Smith, winemaker and partner of DuMOL Wines tells me. It is morning and we are walking through the rolling hills of Jentoft Vineyard, a site near Occidental DuMOL planted specifically for blending.

Smith has agreed to spend the day driving me through DuMOL vineyards. We’re discussing the region but also his evolution as a winemaker.

Jentoft is unique for DuMOL in that it is one of only a few sites they farm in the rolling hills off Occidental Road.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, DuMOL made a name for itself making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Russian River Valley. More recently, the team has expanded further into sites hugged by the hills mere miles from the Ocean.

The addition of these cooler climate vineyards also reflects the winery’s shift towards a leaner style over the last decade.

But for Smith, the winery’s move into sites near Occidental is not just about climate.

“People talk about climate, but, for me, the soil makes the flavor. Soil is the building blocks of the flavor, and the climate is the vintage variation.” Together, Occidental vineyards have something unique to offer.

“To me the wine [in this area] always has a sense of air-oir, not just terroir, a conifer-spicy element.” Smith says.

Blending DuMOL 

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

I ask Smith if he’d ever make a single vineyard bottling from Jentoft.

“I think the single vineyard thing,” he says, pausing briefly, in the midst of answering, no. “There has to be something distinctive, and agreeable, and verifiable, and repeatable. I am sure this site can make a distinctive wine that is a distinctive part of a distinctive blend.”

DuMOL bottles a number of single vineyard sites, but has developed and farms even more. The goal for DuMOL is to bottle excellent wines rooted first in their own farming. Some sites, in Smith’s view, offer that beautiful component within a multi-site blend, while other sites carry their own sense of completeness.

The point is that high quality vineyards sometimes best serve as components in a blend rather than on their own.

Developing a site’s character, be it is for blending, or single bottling, takes time. Jentoft, for example, was planted in 2007.

“This site is just starting to come into its own for us.” Smith explains. “The first year a vine gives fruit can be quite nicely structured and well balanced. Then, the next few years the vines are like unruly teenagers. Around eight years a vineyard starts to find its balance. Then around fourteen years there is another plateau, and vines become much more self regulating.”

What that means today has changed from viticultural views of even ten years ago.

“That is the fun part of the change in the last ten years,” Smith says. “From the idea that we need to tell the vine what to do. Today farming includes beautiful cover crops, insectiary rows, and then seeing the results. For me, that is the exciting part. You can taste the results as well. The wines taste better at lower alcohol.”

Evolving the DuMOL Style

I ask Smith about his evolution as a winemaker. We are discussing Smith and his contemporaries from the early days of DuMOL.

“We were young guys in the late 1990s,” Smith says. “Starting out making rich wines. Now many of us are making lighter wines, with aromatic perfume. You know everything is different.”

But the change in style, Smith points out, occurred as part of a larger context, not driven by wine alone but the overall food culture.

“In the late 1990s, the scene was booming. Restaurants were booming. Chefs were going on with pork fat, and the wines reflected that.” Big flavor was not just a Parker fancy, but a cultural fascination.

“Some of my wines, I go back, and taste, and wonder, what was I thinking?” Smith laughs. “But, you know, it was the taste of the day. Now we have less new oak, and less toast. We have really moved to a more ethereal style with more perfumed aromatics. If you want more honey in your chardonnay, or more cassis and black fruit in your pinot noir, you pull leaves and expose clusters. Now we avoid sun exposure on the fruit.”

Smith’s reflection on sun exposure gets to the core of how DuMOL has shifted its style from bold flavor to graceful richness – DuMOL’s wines today a dance of movement and flavor.

“We’ve pulled back the wines as the farming has improved too.” Smith points out. “You can’t just go on and say, I am going to pick at 21 brix. You have to take a few years getting in tune with the farming, the soil health, and all that.”

DuMOL Today

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

DuMOL’s focus on farming has helped the label grow at a judicious rate, focusing on quality as it allows for growth. It’s maintained such an approach by expanding its volume only as its farming allows. As a result, quality remains in the hands of the DuMOL team, relying on fruit they’ve cultivated to match the house style.

“That’s part of our philosophy.” Smith explains. “I don’t like any extremes – no extreme pruning, no extreme exposure to the grapes, not too much, if any irrigation. Vines are a crop we maximize, and you maximize that by making the vine work hard, not stressed but hard.” I ask Smith to say more about how he maintains that middle line in the vineyard, avoiding extremes.

“The soil health is, of course, really important.” He responds. “Water is available for the vine. The roots are really deep now but because they haven’t been force fed water, they don’t binge on it. Vines are self regulating. They take what they need, and don’t take too much. When you over irrigate, you force the vine to take what you give it, and it takes and takes and takes, then collapses and ripens through dehydration.”

Then there is the architecture of the vine.

“The way we farm with tight spacing, we are looking for grapes that are bright and fresh, with thick skins though we are achieving that without exposing the clusters to sun. It gives more herbal complexity, dense deep tones, and bright fruit.”

The result shows through beautiful integrity from bottling to bottling.

DuMOL wines offer concentrated flavor and structural density with bright fruit, and delicious acidity across varieties thanks to the farming, while cellar choices preserve the wines’ pleasing texture and freshness. The combination Smith describes as his winemaking goal.

“I like texture, but I also like freshness. Any texture or density,” Smith clarifies, “should come from the vines.”


DuMOL makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and a small amount of Viognier from Sonoma County.

DuMOL Wines: http://www.dumol.com

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.


Growing Arizona Wine with Maynard James Keenan

Maynard James Keenan, JeromeMaynard James Keenan in his Judith Vineyard, Jerome, Arizona, November 2014

“No one knows if Nebbiolo works here, so why not just try it?” Maynard James Keenan tells me. “If it doesn’t work, I know Sangiovese does so I can graft over.”

We are walking the terraces of Keenan’s Judith Vineyard on a steep slope side of Jerome. The terraces are edged by white limestone boulders pulled from the site’s calcium laden caliche soils, and decomposed granite. We stand in direct morning sun. In the distance, red rock formations cut through stark blue sky. It feels like walking a moon scape carved with technicolor edges.

Keenan moved to Jerome in the mid-1990s, beginning to establish vines a few years later to bottle under his Caduceus Cellars, and Merkin Vineyards labels.

Though he is known more widely for his music career with Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Keenan has dedicated his attention these last ten-plus years to helping grow the health of the Arizona wine industry. While we’re there to discuss his work in wine, he spends much of the day helping me taste the work of other Arizona winemakers, then finally helping me connect with them for interviews as well.

As we cross terraces, Keenan points out small plantings of Malvasia, Tempranillo, and Aglianico. The site was originally planted to Cabernet before it had to be pulled due to Pierce’s Disease.

Finding Inspiration Through Wine

Maynard James Keenan in Marzo VineyardMaynard James Keenan discussing AZ wine in Marzo Vineyard, Cornville, Arizona, Nov 2014

As we move through the vineyard, I ask Keenan what made him want to make wine. The conversation begins first with how he fell in love with wine.

“Everyone has that bottle of wine that opens their palate for the first time.” Keenan says. For him that bottle came in a gift from his friend, Tori Amos, a 1992 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet enjoyed alongside a steak in the mid-1990s.

Though his wine awakening came with the bottle from Amos, Keenan credits a close friend from his early 20s as preparing him to experience that moment. The friend, Keenan tells me, used to bring home wine for meals. The bottles were, in themselves, nothing special but together Keenan and his friend would do things like grill fish on the roof of a Boston apartment building, then enjoy it with wine for dinner.

The simple combination of wine with a meal established for Keenan the foundation he needed to realize the beauty of that early-1990s Silver Oak. When he tasted the Cabernet with steak, he explains, he recognized what his friend had been up to. Food and wine simply go together. Later it would prove to be Sangiovese and Bordeaux that took the experience a step further into making wine.

“It was a 1990 Soldera Reserva, and a 1982 Leoville Las Cases,” he tells me. “Those were the wines that made me want to make wine.” Soon after, he began planting the Judith Vineyard to Cabernet. Later Keenan would begin establishing other varieties.

The food and wine combination also cemented for Keenan the importance of tasting his wine with food and wine experts. “I like doing winemaker dinners,” he says. “I learn a lot about my winemaking by tasting with chefs, and somms that know what they’re doing.”

“I like approachable, ageable wines that go with food, and don’t beat me up.”

Over the last decade-plus, Keenan has been honing his approach in winemaking, and establishing the health of his vineyards. More recently he’s begun working with vineyard manager Chris Turner. The partnership clearly bolsters Keenan’s excitement for Arizona wine.

“I feel like I’m finding my way in the cellar, and finding my signature approach,” he explains. In the last few years, Keenan has honed in on using submerged cap fermentations. The technique seems to mesh well with the structural qualities of red varieties in the state giving both an intensity, and also a suppleness to the tannin. “Having Chris in the vineyard, I feel like I’m that much closer to being able to say, oh yeah, that’s who I am through the wine.”

We return to discussing the vineyard.

“I’m pretty excited about the Nebbiolo we’re growing,” he continues. “For me, my favorite bottles of wine, they’re Brunello, and then everything under that ends up being Barolo and Barbaresco. If we can get the Nebbiolo to work, I’ll feel like we won.”

What it means to win for Keenan includes surpassing what could seem like impossible odds.

Though the history of Arizona wine reaches back to 16th century Spanish monks making wine for sacrament, today’s industry remains young. Quality has been hard to predict. Many producers have relied on buying bulk wine already bottled elsewhere then labeled in state, rather than facing the challenges of winegrowing.

At the same time, a few producers have dedicated themselves to establishing quality. In recent years, their efforts have led to greater consistency found with certain wineries, and outside attention has followed.

Wines from Arizona have begun receiving recognition as more than just a novelty. Keenan’s Caduceus has won numerous awards in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Jancis Robinson showcased Arizona Stronghold while touring her book with Linda Murphy, American Wine. Jon Bonne included Arizona’s Sand Reckoner 2012 Malvasia in San Francisco Chronicles‘s “Top-100 Wines” for 2013. Just this month in Food & Wine, Ray Isle lauded Dos Cabezas Wine Works, Sand Reckoner, and Callaghan Vineyards as part of the world of wines “New America.”

That shift in perspective has come thanks to a dedicated few, Keenan included, excited by the resplendent challenges of a state with every extreme — hail, monsoons, lack of water, unbearable heat followed by freezing temperatures in the same day, intense winds, high elevation, and snow. Much of the work has rested in simply researching and testing varieties best suited to such conditions.

Growing Arizona Wine

“From 1990, when we started, until about,” Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards starts then pauses. He’s describing the trajectory of vineyard work he’s seen in the Arizona wine industry since he and his family started planting their vineyards in 1990. “Well,” he continues. “from 1990 and still, it’s just been about finding varieties that work well in the state.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Arizona’s wine industry was experiencing its first swell of growth with vineyards being established in the Southeastern portions of the state.

It was during that time one of the state’s wine pioneers, Al Buhl, purchased a 20-acre vineyard on 40-acres of land in the Elgin area. Though the site had already been planted to a mash of primarily Bordeaux varieties, Buhl’s decision to plant the remaining half to his own tastes, including both Italian and Spanish varieties would help change the state. He was the first to plant Malvasia, one of the varieties that’s brought attention to Arizona’s wines.

It was Buhl who would establish Dos Cabezas, and hire Callaghan as its first winemaker.

Callaghan’s influence too cannot be overestimated. Listening to the leaders of the Arizona wine industry, Callaghan’s name is mentioned repeatedly. Rob Hammelman of Sand Reckoner got his start doing vineyard work alongside Callaghan. Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks was inspired to start making wine after tasting one of Callaghan’s whites made for Dos Cabezas before Bostock started there. Today, Callaghan, and Bostock also pair with Keenan, and Tim White of Iniquuis Cellars to make the collaboration project, Kindred, a wine that showcased the state’s incredible structure in 2011, and its quaffability in 2012.

KindredKindred, a wine collaboration between Todd Bostock, Kent Callaghan, MJ Keenan, Tim White, Nov 2014

“The industry was small in the early 1990s,” Callaghan explains. “There was a little burst of growth when we started, and then another burst of growth in the mid-2000s. In the middle, it was pretty brutal for a while.”

What proves impressive about Callaghan’s work is not only that he started growing grapes in Arizona at a time few others did, but also that he survived the decade long economic dead zone that visited the state’s industry after his family started. In the middle, he continued to improve his winemaking.

Today, Todd Bostock owns Dos Cabezas Wineworks along with his family, and also collaborates with Dick Erath who started Cimarron Vineyard near Willcox. Erath is best known for his Erath Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon, where Bostock also made his first Pinot Noir.

Bostock stepped into winemaking in the midst of what Callaghan called the brutal period. In the early 2000s, when he started with Dos Cabezas he worked several years essentially unpaid while also commuting several hours to a day job in Phoenix.

“I would stop off in Sonoita and talk to Kent,” Bostock tells me, describing how he coped with the years of working two full-time jobs in order to step into wine.

“One time I think he gave me $40,” Bostock says laughing. “I was crying to him that I had no money. We’d talk, and trade bottles.”

Once Bostock was able to relocate full-time to winemaking, he tells me, he found alongside Callaghan a community of local winemakers that would spend time tasting and talking about wines from around the world. When I mention Bostock’s story to Callaghan he’s surprised at first, and then agrees.

“There was this core group.” Callaghan says. “People that really love wine. We were spending a lot of money on other people’s wines, and drinking it. It’s like this process of osmosis. You know when your wine is great, and when it’s not subconsciously.” He reflects for a minute.

“You know, that [winemakers tasting wines from all over the world] more than anything else has probably helped the industry improve.” Callaghan says. “That’s how you discover new varieties to try planting too.”

Nikki Check, Director of Viticulture at the Southwest Wine Center of Yavapai College in Verde Valley, emphasizes the importance of varietal choices as Arizona continues forward in wine. Check’s background rests in sustainable agriculture emphasizing soil nutrient dynamics.

“A lot of our vineyard sustainability,” she explains, “comes down to how much we can make better decisions on our varietal selections.” Varieties that are better suited to a region need less intrusive management. “Then it’s a matter of having more reasonable crop estimates,” she continues. “Because together that would then result in less water usage, less pest potential, and all those things.”

Bostock and Callaghan both are experimenting with small plantings of a wide range of varieties.

When I ask Callaghan to name a few showing well in his vineyard he immediately lists Tannat, and Graciano. They’re the newest of his plantings, but already thriving. He’s also trying Gruner Veltliner, he tells me just to see how it does.

Bostock has found Petite Sirah to be well suited to his site, as well as Rhone varieties both reds and whites. He’s experimenting now too with Picpoul Blanc.

Thanks to Keenan’s efforts, Buhl’s Vineyard is also getting revitalized with a range of both Italian and Spanish varieties.

In discussing inspiration from other people’s wines, Bostock, Callaghan, and Keenan each also mention the work being done by Ann Roncone at Lightning Ridge Cellars.

“Her new Aglianico is the best I’ve had in Arizona in quite a stretch,” Callaghan tells me.

Cresting the Wave with Quality

Maynard James Keenan, Southwest Wine CenterMaynard James Keenan discussing his acre of Negroamaro growing at the Southwest Wine Center, Nov 2014

The ground swell of quality that’s been rising in Arizona led in the last few years to establishing a two-year Viticulture and Enology degree through the Southwest Wine Center. Keenan established the first acre of vineyard, a Negroamaro block, for the Center that helped secure its status as an official program, rather than just a series of classes.

The program is also just beginning to partner with University of Arizona. With both programs already known for their work in agriculture, the partnership raises exciting questions about if they might work towards a future four-year viticulture degree.

“I think we’re at the crest of a wave where hopefully quality is taking over,” Michael Pierce, Director of Enology at the Southwest Wine Center, explains. “There is an awakening of knowledge, and [recognition of] what to do [to make quality wine].” Pierce also makes wine for his own label Saeculum Cellars, and his vineyard partnership with his father, Bodega Pierce.

After gaining winemaking experience in New Zealand, Oregon, and Tasmania, Pierce credits Tim White of Iniquuis Cellars for helping to bring him back to Arizona wine. Both White and Pierce previously worked for Arizona Stronghold before leaving for other projects. White’s work with Stronghold helped establish the quality that gained it national recognition. It was during that time, White offered Pierce a job, but it was the unique conditions of Arizona that brought Pierce back.

“There is a unique terroir here,” Pierce explains. “We get a lot of dried herbs, desert spices, the scent of palo verde in bloom. As people get a taste for it, and see quality producers are there, the attention will continue to grow both in state and out.” Palo verde is a tree common through the Southwest and unusual for its ability to photosynthesize through its bark, rather than only its leaves.

“The thing I really like about Arizona is our unique terroir,” Check, agrees. “I think it’s about low fertility soils. We get a lot of chalky, earthy tones, rather than the real fruity tones you might get elsewhere. I feel really lucky to be part of the boutique style production happening here that’s really setting the standard for quality in the state.”

Maynard James Keenan pouring JudithMaynard James Keenan playfully “somm’ing it up” as he pours Caduceus Judith, Nov 2014

Back in Keenan’s cellar Gillian Welch is playing. We’ve just tasted through some Caduceus whites, and a dry Lei Li rosé of Nebbiolo Keenan named for his wife. He’s opening now a vertical of the Caduceus Judith bottling, wine from the vineyard where we started the day, and he named for his mother.

The first vintages of Judith pour 100% Cabernet. As the vines began dying, however, Tempranillo was planted. In the middle vintages, then, Tempranillo begins to accent the Cabernet, then the roles switch and Cabernet accents the Tempranillo, until in recent vintages it disappears.

Tasting the vintages I am struck first and most by the site. I can taste the hillside we walked earlier. The fruit flavors shift with age, and as we move from the Bordeaux to Spanish variety, but more than that the site shows through. It’s a scent of chalky earth moonrock, dried herbs, and light spice, lit up from behind by the fruit of its variety.


This week’s article “In Defense of Natural Wine” was rescheduled to next Wednesday to allow this piece on Arizona wine.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.


RIP Paolo Rapuzzi

My good friend Jeremy Parzen was kind enough to let me know this morning that Paolo Rapuzzi passed on. His blog post about Paolo is here. In April 2012, several of us spent lunch and part of an afternoon with Paolo, his wife Dina, and their two sons. Paolo showered us with stories of them beginning Ronchi di Cialla, one of my favorite wineries of Italy. Then we walked the vineyards with their son Ivan, who runs things now with his brother.

Paolo and Dina together rescued indigenous Friulian varieties, some of which had been thought extinct. Most particularly, they re-discovered Schioppettino from feral vines in the hillsides along the Slovenian border. The primary clone of Schioppettino, taken from their vineyard, is named Rapuzzi in their honor. Many of the local varieties at the time were going extinct through the region largely because of the ongoing impact of wars, and the governments exclusion of them for economic regions. I could go on and on about what meeting them, and their work means to me. (If you ask my friends, I occasionally do that with them in person.) Instead, I’m going to repost Paolo’s story told to us by him during our visit that April.

originally posted April 11, 2012

Lunch at Ronchi di Cialla: Meeting the Man with whom it Began

Paolo Rapuzzi standing on Ronchi di CiallaPaolo Rapuzzi, the founder and owner of Ronchi di Cialla

“The story of the winery is very simple. I am Friulian. So, when it came time to plant, we planted the grapes of the region. The ancient varieties.

“I had been working for a very big company. But we [he and his wife] spoke. We asked, should we die as typewriter sales people? Should we live in a system we don’t like? We didn’t like having someone bossing us around. The only person that can work without a boss is a farmer. So, on January 30, 1970 we started. They talked us into buying this land.

“I am not a farmer by history of profession, and we had no land. We began looking. They talked us into buying this land. It had been abandoned for 25 years, since the end of World War II. This is only 2 kilometers from the [Slovenian] border, so life in this area was very hard during the war. When it was over the family packed up and left. The house and vineyard had been abandoned for 25 years. Inside the house was grass waist deep and badgers were living in it. But we liked it a lot because there were olive trees here. Even it was abandoned we knew it was the right place to begin our new life.

A consummate story teller, Paolo Rapuzzi“My two sons had been born already. Luckily they decided to follow my footsteps. They handle the estate now and studied farming at university and handle both the grape growing and wine making.

“When I started I had no experience. So, I had no preconceived notions in what I was doing. That is what most helped me do what I ended up doing [on the farm and with wine making]. I never studied wine making and have never had an oenologist. We wanted to make wine from here, from Cialla. Some do not agree, but the grape already has everything it needs to make wine. So, the less we try to force grapes, the more its product represents wine from the area. We are meticulously involved in the entire process from growing to wine but it is very much about what we do not do than what we do. Nature has everything it needs to make wine.

“We planted in 1970. From the beginning it has been indigenous grape varieties, native yeast, no chemical farming, low intervention wine making.”

Paolo and Ivan RapuzziPaolo and Dina’s son Ivan adds a comment: “We make truly long lived wines. All of our wines–the whites, the reds, the sweet wines–all of them age very well. That is an indication that it is from the zone. It is the land itself that makes these wines.”

Paolo continues: “When phylloxera came the farmers made a mistake. Not everyone agrees with me. They began planting foreign grape varieties. We lost over 150 indigenous grape varieties. It is an indication of how viticulture changes. Today we are getting it back. More people are dedicated to the indigenous varieties.”

Ivan comments: “Friuli is one of the places in Europe with the greatest bio-diversity. It is the intersection of the Alps, the Adriatic from the Mediterranean, and the Balkans. The Northern and Eastern Alps too come together here so you are at a real crux of the Mediterranean, with the Northern and Eastern Alps.”

Later Paolo tells a story: “In the beginning we were infested with red spiders. It was a problem. We went to a phyto-pathologist for advice. He told us, don’t do anything. If you leave the spiders another type of spider will come along and compete. So, we left the red spiders. It was a big risk. But yellow spiders came and killed the red spiders. When you use pesticides you do not just kill what you are targeting. You kill everything. But nature will balance itself if you do not do this.”

Outside Ivan walks us through the vineyards and tells us more about their low intervention views. “In Cialla, proximity to Forest is the most important. The same predators that attack vitis vinifera [grape vines] attack other species in the forest. But in the forest they have natural enemies. Nature keeps a balance. So, in being close to the forest we do not have to intervene because the same balance that is in the forest is maintained in the vineyard too.”


Thank you to Jeremy Parzan for translating Paolo’s story to us as he spoke.


Paolo Rapuzzi, thank you for all you have done. Rest in peace.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

A Visit to Noel Family Vineyards
Lisa and Michael Noel
Lisa and Michael Noel, Noel Family Vineyards, Chehalem Mountains, July 2014

We’re sitting together at the farm table looking at family photos. Michael and Lisa Noel’s oldest was married this Spring and I expressed interest in the event. They’ve kindly offered me a collection of snapshots to look through. In the album, I’m struck by the easy closeness of the now-married couple, and the sweetness of the Noel’s son. As I turn the pages I can’t help but comment on how kind he looks. In one photo he stands hugging his grandmother. It’s clear he loves her being there, and she feels comforted. When I look up, Michael is beaming. Lisa and I have gotten almost weepy, our eyes watering.

I’ve driven beyond the pavement of King’s Grade Road on the Western side of the Chehalem Mountains to visit a tiny Pinot Noir planting at the top of the hill, and meet the family behind it. The site is 3 acres, with 2 planted to 6 clones of Pinot Noir, creating what is effectively a field blend of the variety. Noel Family Vineyards relies entirely on the 2-acre site for its fruit. They source from no other growers.

Looking West from Noel Family Vineyardslooking West into Ribbon Ridge AVA from Noel Family Vineyards, July 2014

From the site, the Noel’s garner a perfect view. Facing south near the house, we look to the Dundee Hills, the first planted area of Willamette Valley. At the other side of the property, the vineyard itself slopes west. We stand firmly within the Chehalem Mountains AVA, but look towards the Ribbon Ridge AVA, and the coastal mountains that form the western boundary of the Willamette Valley. Standing in the view, a slight breeze picks up. By the time I leave, it is persistent.

Falling in Love with Wine

Noel Family Photo Album of Valpolicella, 1996a page from Michael and Lisa’s 1996 photo album, trip to Valpolicella

It was 1996 when the door opened to wine for Lisa and Michael Noel. The couple met in college at Carnegie-Mellon, eventually moving to Alabama for work. Lisa’s family, however, originates in Italy, and some still live there in Verona. The local culture of the region relies on neighborhood wineries where table wine comes from refilling the growler at your favorite cellar door.

In the midst of a visit with family, Lisa and Michael accompanied their relatives on an errand to refill the growler with Valpolicella from a local winery. Soon after arrival, however, the winemaker offered an invitation.

“Dip your glass into the vat to get some wine, he told me,” Michael explains. Michael climbed to the top of a ladder, drawing wine from the cement fermenter with his cup. “Then he asked, do you want to come inside the house?” Michael adds. He’s giddy as he describes the experience now almost twenty years old, “We weren’t even wine people at the time but were so excited to go there. I was leading the way [to the house],” he tells me smiling.

The family spent hours together tableside with the winemaker and his family enjoying wine, food, sharing stories. The experience changed their perspective. “It wasn’t even about the wine,” Michael explains. “There we were sitting in his home with him.”

The experience in Italy was a sort of first step to wine. Upon return to the United States they began exploring American wine. In the meantime, work had brought them to Oregon.

“Michael wanted to drink local,” Lisa tells me. Lisa enjoyed wine too but at first wasn’t drawn to the lighter body of Pinot Noir. She’d gotten used to the 1990s style of California Cabernet. “I wasn’t excited about Pinot Noir at first but he was persistent. So we drove around together tasting, and learning about local wines.”

Eventually the passion for learning pushed a more hands-on interest. Michael began making wine in their garage while they also started looking for affordable property they could plant to Pinot Noir. “Michael doesn’t do anything half-heartedly,” Lisa tells me smiling. By the mid-2000s the couple had found their property in the Chehalem Mountains and together cleared the land, and planted vines.

At Home in the Chehalem Mountains

Noel Family Vineyards Pinot NoirMichael unabashedly admits to liking pretty wines. In pairing with a winemaker, and vineyard manager both he sought to develop with them an expression of the beauty he sees in the place they now grow their wine. The result holds.

Noel Family Pinot are lovely wines both characteristically Chehalem while also their own — pretty, delicate with integrated, and distinctive spice elements, carrying nice tension and depth, all about red fruit, and a Northern forest aroma and flavor held in fine boned balance.

With the abundance of the 2012 vintage, Michael and winemaker Todd Hamina decided to satisfy Michael’s curiosity and work with new coopers. The result generated Noel Family’s classic Estate style Pinot Noir, alongside a special vintage bottling named, Night. Night carries a darker core, aroma and palate profile compared to the Estate, bringing in light blue and black fruit accents, with a bit more apparent tannin, and strength of presence. It’s a wine for wine lovers still finding their way into Pinot, and pairs well with stronger food flavors like truffle accents or funky cheeses.

To taste the wines, the three of us sit around the table of Michael and Lisa’s home enjoying food and family photos. They designed their table as a center piece to the home. It’s in homage, Michael explains, to their early experience in Italy. We’re surrounded on two sides by windows, some looking south to Dundee, the rest west to Ribbon Ridge. The windows were largely added to the home during renovation — the table, surrounded by windows, to be shared in appreciation for the advantages of growing local.


For more information on Noel Family Vineyard and Wines: http://noelfamilyvineyard.com/


Thank you to Michael and Lisa Noel.

Thank you to Jill Klein Matthiasson.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com


From Seashells to Vines with Mike Officer

Mike Officer taking a look at Peloursin     Mike Officer examining old vine Zinfandel from Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014

The beaches of the Southern Philippines, I discover, offer some of the finest seashell hunting in the world. Mike Officer is telling me about his early desire to be a Conchologist, that is a seashell collector with a scientific basis.

Soon after my Sunday morning arrival at Carlisle Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, a mutual friend of Mike and myself has mentioned I grew up a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska. Discussion of what it means to do that sort of work launches our conversation. It winds into talk of childhood pursuits.

It turns out at the age of twelve, Officer was able to fulfill an early dream. He traveled to South Philippines and roamed those Southern beaches with a family friend, seeking unusual seashells. To make the trip Officer worked from the age of ten at odd jobs, saving all the money for his trip.

The Philippines, at the time, were under Martial law. Officer’s stories of the experience include at least one escaped car heist, and an account of a rogue sea captain taking the young but deceptively tall Officer under his wing.

The image I gain of Officer through these stories, however, proves not that of young adventurer but a man driven to collect and catalog in the midst of serious study. For a budding conchologist such study meant travel to the South Seas. At its root, Officer’s early love for seashells carries the same dedication now behind his work with old vine vineyards. For the vine lover, old vine preservation and study means life in the North Coast of California.

Launching Carlisle

Mike Officer in Carlisle VineyardMike Officer standing in Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014 (I love this photo of Mike — you can see the genuine enthusiasm, and kind approachability he has here)

Officer’s love for wine showed early. He kept a wine cellar in his college dorm room.

In 1986, Officer started home winemaking. It would serve as a side project through his career as a software developer. Then, in his thirties, when Officer would suddenly realize his time was spent staring at a computer screen, it would also serve as the path away from his career and into life with vineyards.

By 1998, still working in the city full-time, Officer and his wife, Kendall Carlisle Officer, would launch their first commercial vintage of Carlisle Wines. All of Officer’s vacation, and weekends were channeled into the work it took to manage harvest and winemaking over the year.

By 2000, Carlisle Wines was producing a 1000 cases per year, the most they could manage with Officer’s day job.”We needed the money from my day job to afford the winery, but couldn’t make enough at that point to quit the day job.” Officer explains. Such an approach included five hours commute by bus between their house in Santa Rosa, and his work in the city.

In 2001, the Officers would bring in college friend Jay Maddox to help with winemaking and viticulture. The day job-winery combo otherwise proved too much. The addition of Maddox would allow Carlisle wines to slowly increase production until finally Officer was able to move full-time to wine.

Spending years on the commute, Officer describes what would be a sort of final epiphany with his day job. In the midst of a long bus ride, Officer came up with the design for what could be called, The Commuter’s Sleep, a kind of velcro head board for sleeping upright.

The idea was the commuter would wear a sort of board that extended above their back, a velcro strap would then wrap the forehead, thus holding the commuter’s head upright so he or she could sleep without suffering the problematic head-roll of sleep sitting up. The design humorously reveals the desperation that accompanies doing whatever it takes to follow life’s passion.

In 2004, soon after his design concept, however, instead of going ahead to make his own Commuter’s Sleep, Mike’s wife ran the numbers. Carlisle was finally making just enough wine for him to leave his day job.

Stepping into Old Vine Vineyards

Mike Officer next to old vine ZinfandelMike Officer next to old vine Zinfandel, Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014

In 1997, having started making home wine, but not yet stepping into commercial release, Officer was biking down a private lane in Russian River Valley. He had the sense he’d like to own a vineyard someday but recognized he didn’t yet have the experience tending vines.

In the midst of the bike ride he happened upon an over grown two-acre vineyard. The site had vines grown through with blackberries, poison oak, and big trees. Big trees were the best indication of how long it had laid in rest. The site barely resembled a vineyard.

Officer decided to take a leap. He tracked down the owners and offered to renovate the vineyard for free. It was his chance to gain experience. In the midst of that first meeting, Officer explains, “I asked, by the way, what kind of vines are they? They told me old vine Zinfandel. The next spring I realized, it’s not all Zinfandel.” By 1998, Officer would discover that Two Acres proves instead to be a mixed-black Mourvedre-based planting, something not quite common in the Russian River Valley.

In 1998, the site Officer now calls Two Acres would become the first plot he would map vine-by-vine through the region. Eventually it would lead to he and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Vineyards mapping other old vine sites together as well. Today, vineyard mapping seems almost second nature for Officer. Walking a site with him he points out and names vine types as we go.

Using a simple graph paper, Officer would chart each vine by type and location. To begin, the work would depend on him researching scientific drawings of grape varieties there vineyard side. On unusual types he would send cuttings to UC Davis for identification. Officer’s work, then, would also turn out to support the work of UC Davis to build DNA-mapping for all surviving grape varieties around the globe. In this way, Officer’s early training in conchology would become his current work in ampelography, the identification and study of grapevines.

Officer’s work with Two Acres would eventually expand to work with old vine sites throughout the Piner-Olivet section of Russian River Valley. It would connect him too to others in the North Coast passionate for old vine sites.

The Historic Vineyard Society

Peloursin and Petite Sirah leavesMike Officer demonstrating Peloursin (left) and Petite Sirah differences in Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014

In discussing the vineyards he works with, Officer describes the sense of peace he feels from it. “All vine work for me is like doing bonzai. It’s almost meditative, and stress relief,” he says.

With the success of Two Acres, Officer began connecting to other old vine sites through Russian River Valley. He would catalog vines, develop the viticulture, then produce single vineyard mixed-black bottlings, most sites predominately Zinfandel. Officer’s work with the sites, however, would include personal connection to the vines survival and health.

I ask him to describe the intricacies of working specifically with old vines. “Old vine vineyards are like geriatric wards. Every vine is a patient with a unique character, and its own needs.” He tells me. “You try to sort out what the vine needs, and respond to it.”

His early work with Two Acres meant revitalizing what would otherwise be a lost vineyard, an investment into not only making wine currently, but retaining an irreplaceable link to the history of a region through vines that lived it. (The wine itself, too, proves delicious — a sleek, long lined wine with perfumed aromatics, elegant tannins, and nice cardamom spiced, rose petal fruit.)

Attachment to old vines, however, in today’s wine society proves risky. The real estate of the famed Russian River carries high value for people that can pull out lower production older vines, to plant high dollar young Pinot Noir.

Officer began losing sites to developers. Immediately after losing one of his favorite sites, Carlisle finally was talking with Twain-Peterson. The two of them, as well as Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker and vineyard scout for Turley Wine Cellars, as well as his own newer label, Sandlands, kept seeing old vine sites being lost too easily. Few people knew they existed, and even fewer understood their value in relation to the history or recognition of terroir in California. Out of frustration, and a desire to change the problem, Historic Vineyard Society was born.

Along with David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards, Larry Piggins for vineyard photography, and Mike Dildine, who helps keep the Society functioning, the Historic Vineyard Society works to catalog and register old vine sites, as well as raise awareness of their value for the sake of preserving more of them. The group also works as a sort of support group and hunting party — always on the look out for undiscovered sites, and advising each other on the best care for peculiar vines.

Carlisle Wines

Carlisle WinesFor many, of course, the ultimate point is the wine itself. For those passionate about vines, the wine simply describes an end point for a process that is the actual passion alongside the wine. Still, the love for vines means too a love for their varieties, and the wine each produces.

After tasting through a portion of Officer’s portfolio, I ask him to describe how he sees his development in wine. “I used to think let’s go for maximum flavor and aromatic presence,” he responds. “As I’ve gotten older, it’s all about texture, and how the wine feels on the palate.” We’ve tasted through a mixed-white, and a series of mixed-blacks including Two Acres’s beautiful Mourvedre.

Carlisle wines almost entirely focus on the fruit of Officer’s old vine sites, both mixed whites, and mixed blacks. It’s a discipline from vineyard to bottle that defines Carlisle. The wines offer seamless length, juicy movement with texture it makes my mouth water to write about, and ample while elegant flavor and aromatics. There is a purity to the wines that pleases.

We’re almost done with our visit. Then, in the midst of tasting, Officer mentions in passing what he calls his “one self-indulgence,” the only Gruner Veltliner planted in Sonoma County, and a small bit of younger vines he turns into wine.

The Gruner is planted at 1000-ft elevation on a site he convinced the vineyard owner to put into Gruner. They make only 100-cases, and most of it goes to Farmhouse, a restaurant in the Russian River Valley. Immediately, I am crawling out of my skin wanting to taste it. We have no bottle to try. Still, it’s another glimpse of the passion for cataloging, and work with the many varieties of grapevines that motivates Officer.

“I’m such a grape junky,” Mike tells me smiling, “I would make forty wines, if we could.” He wants to work with all of them.


For Carlisle Winery & Vineyards: http://www.carlislewinery.com/

For Historic Vineyard Society: http://www.historicvineyardsociety.org

Tim Fish on Carlisle Zinfandels: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/48317


Thank you to Mike Officer.

Thank you to Marty LaPlante.

If anyone gets their hands on a bottle of Carlisle Gruner Veltliner, please write me and tell me how it was.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Considering Robert Parker Jr

One of the most controversial figures today in wine proves to be writer-reviewer Robert M. Parker, Jr. After his appearance at this year’s Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium criticisms of his speech raced around the internet. Even Parker’s positive statements there were often framed by others as problematic. He seems in many ways a man others love to hate.

Parker’s own occasional rants have contributed to the phenomenon. Two months prior to his appearance at the Symposium, an online missive hosted at his pay-to-read site, eRobertParker.com, criticized what he sees as movements currently occurring in wine. The movements referenced included what he described as low-alcohol wines that prove under-ripe, and pursuit of uncommon grapes to the detriment of quality in well-known ones. Though the piece opens as thoughtful, and carries too his vast knowledge of wine, many of his comments there do also deserve blunt critique. It is writing that falls into rant.

Criticism of Parker, however, often seems to outpace its subject, verging into such harsh territory as to not only remove humanity from its account of Parker, but also unwittingly from the author of the critique itself. Denial of the historical importance of Parker’s work also proves common, as if simple erasure of his work would be better.

But context must be kept. Parker has contributed immeasurably to the world of wine. His voice brought consumer interest to wine in a way that had not existed at such a level before. The accessibility of his rating system translated wine to consumers otherwise unfamiliar with wine’s language. Parker’s ability to enlarge consumer interest in wine previously has benefited all of us in wine today. Such benefit is true even as many of us now wish to dismantle such rating systems, and seek wines outside those most closely associated with Parker’s palate.

In public criticism, Parker’s palate is often reduced to a thirst for brute ripeness, or hugeness in wine. Talking about the man with winemakers, however, it becomes clear far more subtlety follows his tasting abilities. His love for wine too from houses like Rayas, most famously, would seem to illustrate an obvious appreciation for delicacy. Reading through tasting notes from Parker, especially earlier ones, his passion for wine is infectious. It becomes clear how he brought so many consumers to wine rests not just in his rating system, but also his enthusiasm.

One of the downsides of influence is its incredible power to act as mirror to all those looking towards it. Projection on leaders, or those with fame proves rampant as people end up speaking less about the actual person within the fame, than about the ideas they’ve cast upon him or her. More frustrating, finding people invested in listening beyond such preconceived ideas proves rare. More profiles written on such figures, then, don’t necessarily offer more insight into who they actually are.

With all of this in mind, in the last year I became interested in learning more about the man behind the Robert Parker phenomenon, that is, Robert Parker himself. In seeking the possibility of sharing an interview with him, I was lucky enough to discover my colleague and friend, R.H. Drexel, of the celebrated wine journal Loam Baby has known Parker for years. Conversation ensued.

Drexel’s slogan for Loam Baby proves apt here, “No haters.” The idea, no haters, doesn’t mean no critique. It means something closer to a notion at the core of Spinoza’s Ethics, “hate is never good” (E4P45). Because it blinds us. Because it keeps us from seeing how to escape the problems within what we’re hating. Because it keeps us from loving how much there is to love, and according to Spinoza, hate reduces our health, and our strength. Only love increases it. To put that another way, the clearest critique, or brightest insights can only ever come from a love for the truth.

After conversation back and forth with RH Drexel, and with Parker on his willingness or not to be interviewed, the following conversation was finally conceived. My interest has been in hearing from Parker himself, to see what it’s like to meet the man inside the mirrors. The idea finally came, then, to get to know Robert Parker through his conversation with a friend, here R.H. Drexel. The advantage of this approach is in removing the filter of my own interpretation, to let the man speak for himself. The opportunity means witnessing more of Drexel as well.

In keeping with the idea of gaining a less filtered perspective, what follows is an unedited transcript of the conversation between Parker and Drexel. The transcript offers a candid view of Parker, as well as a revealing sense of Drexel. The photos throughout were requested specifically for this interview, and have been provided courtesy of Robert Parker.

RH Drexel talks with Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Age 4 or 5Robert M Parker, Jr, age 4 or 5

RH Drexel: I have known you for years, Robert, but I can’t seem to bring myself to call you Bob. I guess I’m old-timey that way. It bugs me when I hear young celebrities on talk shows say they’ve been working with “Bobby” or “Bob” DeNiro. DeNiro probably doesn’t even care! I realize that this is my hang up. Anyway, you actually have 3 names: Bob, Robert and your nickname, Dowell. Which one do you prefer?

Robert M. Parker, Jr: I actually prefer Dowell, because my middle is McDowell, and Dowell was the name everyone called me from birth (although my father called me “Butch”) until I was in law school, and the professors started calling me “Robert” or “Bob.” I should have put a stop to it then, but for sure, Dowell has always sounded better to me than some common-ass name like “Bob” or “Robert.”

RHD: Okay, before we get to the fun stuff like discussing Breaking Bad, music, movies, Rayas and other stuff, I just want to get an important question out of the way.

So, as you and your wife, Pat know, on December 14th, 2012, I had a severe mental breakdown. I had not been sleeping at all well for the five days leading up to that day, and working too hard, so when the story broke of the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, I didn’t have the emotional resources to know how to process that tragedy. I guess the simplest way to put is this: I just broke…I was heartbroken, exhausted and mentally incapable of understanding what had happened. I was placed in a psychiatric ward in Southern California where I remained through the Christmas holidays and into the New Year.

Since then, I’ve had great therapy and am now back to my old self. But, I often think, if I, a 49-year old with a really great family, a wonderful circle of friends and a good job, fell apart in the face of that tragedy, how must young people have felt when that happened?

I mean, I was a quirky, sensitive kid. If something like this had happened when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d ever want to leave the family house again.

Which brings me to these talks that you and I have about children and technology. I think parents pick on their kids way too much about how they’re always looking at their phones. If I was growing up in this crazy, messed up world, I’d want a tiny, magic little screen that I could stare into, too, where I’d share smiley faces and silly stuff with my friends. I think that might very well be where I’d feel safest…there and the family home.

As a society, we seem to have made it safely through the Era of the Atari Console, so we should be able to guide our children sensibly through the Era of the Smart Phone.

I mean, in a parallel universe, if the Atari Console and the smart phone became animated and stepped into a boxing ring together, the Atari Console might very well kick the smart phone’s ass, if you’re the kind of person that measures the threat posed by your enemy in terms of size and foreign-ness. So, I think all the adults out there need to CHILL OUT about their kids and their phones. I mean, they’re just tiny little boxes they hold in their hands.

You’ve always given me good advice. What advice do you have for young people who are confused when their parents are always saying, “Put that thing down! I’m trying to talk to you!!!!!” but they think it’s the “coolest thing in the whole wide world.”

Age 6Robert, Age 6

RMP: I think conscientious parents are always trying to do what they think is the right thing, but they have to remember that they are usually at least 30 or more years senior to the kids they’re trying to keep on the straight and narrow path. I have a 27-year-old who’s moved back into the house. She was adopted when she was three months old from Korea, and while I’ve tried to be a loving father, building her confidence and, at the same time, a degree of independence, I’ve been somewhat laissez-faire in terms of some of the behaviors I would consider excessive, self-indulgent, or just not all that responsible. On the other hand, if I’m the good cop, my wife tends to be the bad cop. She leans toward being a strict disciplinarian trying to mold our daughter in her image – which, of course, I think is a great one, since I married her – but one size doesn’t fit all, and I think parents need to let kids find their own way. Try to give them guidance and hope that through a process of osmosis they absorb the very basic fundamentals of life – knowing the difference between real right and real wrong, and learning that life is nothing more than a one-way ticket, a journey where there’ll be ups and downs, you’ll get knocked down and kicked in the face, but if you’ve got some degree of confidence and a fighting spirit, you will bounce back. Just take the bad times with the good times, but cherish those good times, because that’s what it’s all about in the end. Whatever turns you on, turns you on, and most parents don’t really have a fucking clue about a kid’s private life or their inner likes or dislikes.

I went to a high school where only about ten percent of the students were considered “college material.” (These were the old, politically incorrect days, where the classes were arranged A, B, C, D and F, and you can imagine that the students in D and F were basically those with extra Y chromosomes and several years older, since they had repeated a few grades.) Moreover, I lived in a farming area, where the population was high-density redneck. I live in the same area today, but the demographics have changed 180 degrees, the rednecks just can’t afford to live here anymore, and the farmers have largely been pushed out of business by giant industrial conglomerates, so now the demographics of the high school I went to are basically all college-bound and impressive. The rednecks used to hang together and try to intimidate any of us who were considered college material, but as an only child, my father taught me to fight back, and fight I did. I got my ass kicked several times, but I always made sure that they didn’t get away with any bullshit, and after a while they stopped bugging me, largely because I was physically bigger than them, and even though they outnumbered me, they were essentially cowards. I have no idea why bullying would have increased in our society except that I think it reflects a certain insecurity among kids, and to try to pick on others is a sign of cowardice, weakness, and really is intolerable. No kid should have to experience that while they’re growing up with so many other pressures and demands, just trying to get through junior or senior high school and prepare themselves, if they intend to go further, for college.

Why do you think bullying is on the rise?

RHD: You know, when I was a little kid, my family and I watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. He always seemed so calm and like the kind of grandfather you’d like to have. We were going through some scary times then, too, but after watching the news, I could tell that my mom and dad were pretty calm. That made me think everything was going to be okay. I remember praying every night for Walter Cronkite and Mr. President. At that naïve age, I thought they ran the whole country.

Now, I’ll visit with friends and they’ll have one of these 24 hour news channels on. And, adults will just be yelling at each other in the most uncivilized of ways. If I were a kid, I’d just surmise that our country is in deep shit if our adults don’t even know how to talk to one another with decency. And, if I were a kid with parents that maybe weren’t that tender-hearted with me, and if I felt neglected, I’d probably react to the world the way the adults act on television. I’d probably think, “if they can talk to each other that way, why can’t I? Seems like that’s how you get attention!”

University of Maryland, 1968Robert (on right) while attending University of Maryland

RMP: The 24-hour news cycle is something that drives me nuts as well. I love it when I’m traveling abroad, where the news consists of five minutes of headlines, thirty seconds of weather, and that’s it for the day, so why not go out to dinner or listen to some music and chill out. I’ve pretty much tuned out all of the talking heads from the major media to the cable channels, because it seems all scripted, all screaming, yelling, and shouting, just appalling incivility. All of it is unnerving, it promotes social disharmony, and it creates an impression that the whole world is completely fucked up – which it probably is. I’m answering this just as Iraq is collapsing, after the United States spent billions of dollars there and had nearly 5,000 young soldiers killed. Moreover, only God knows how many more were maimed and physically destroyed for the balance of their lives. I think it’s part of this new culture of anger, showoff-ism, and just rude-ass behavior that I don’t need to support and I have the option of refusing to observe it.

Okay, let’s lighten up and talk about some of our favorite things.

University of Maryland, 1968at University of Maryland

RHD: So, both of us are THE BIGGEST “BREAKING BAD” FANS EVER! I think what makes us giggle about this is that the show itself contains some pretty dark subject matter and characters, but whenever you and I talk about it, those discussions end up bringing out the best in us. We get animated. We laugh. We philosophize. Why do you think “Breaking Bad” became such an iconic show?

RMP: “Breaking Bad” is an iconic show and was great because it reminds us that, no matter how good our intentions may be, we’re never that far from the abyss. Here we have a teacher who’s totally dedicated to providing for his family, who learns he has terminal cancer and wants to take care of them. He’s smart enough and has enough connections in the neighborhood to begin producing state-of-the-art crystal meth. The show reinforces that essentially this guy is a good guy, but becomes evil through the noble intention of wanting to take care of his family. In the process, his power, his corruption, his moral fiber deteriorate to the point where he is as sinister as the assassins sent over to New Mexico from Mexican cartels to try to take over the meth market. It’s the classic good vs. evil sitcom fairytale, but it’s so well done, because you have a very likeable guy, a wonderful family, and in the process of wanting to provide for them, he becomes evil personified. I suspect it fascinates us all because none of us are really that far from “breaking bad” either.

RHD: Have you found anything to replace it? I mean, not replace it; it’s irreplaceable! But, have you found any other series to abate the Breaking Bad jonesing? And if so, why do you like it?

I myself have discovered “High Maintenance” on Vimeo. It’s a free little series that I love, but I’m already through the whole thing because each episode is pretty short.

RMP: There really is no other series even remotely similar to “Breaking Bad.” There have certainly been other cable shows that I’ve enjoyed immensely, “The Sopranos” and, more recently, Timothy Olyphant in “Justified,” set in Harlan County, Kentucky. In its own way, “Downton Abbey” is a masterpiece of classic British television and a look at a long-gone era. And who the hell doesn’t love an actress like Maggie Smith? By the way, a series I’m just beginning to get into, which is pretty kinky but I like it so far, is “Banshee,” but since I’ve seen less than one full season, I’m not sure where it’s going to go and whether it can hold and build interest, as “Breaking Bad” did.

RHD: I’ve watched two awesome movies lately. The first is called, “Mile…Mile and a Half.” It’s a documentary about a group of artists that hike the John Muir Trail. I simultaneously smiled and got choked up through the whole thing. And, I also liked “Frequencies,” though some of it went over my head so I need to watch it again. How about you. Any good film recommendations?

RMP: I haven’t really seen any good movies that have excited me recently, but I can share with you some of my favorite movies of all time. They would include, in no particular order, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Simon Birch,” “Alien,” “L.A. Confidential,” “True Romance,” and “Schindler’s List.”

With Pat, age 19Robert and Pat, both age 19

RHD: So, the first real spiritual experience I had with a wine was with Rayas, a 1998 bottle that you recommended to me. While drinking it, over the course of several hours, I remembered the smells of a church I used to love to visit in college: cold marble floors, frankincense, candles burning, the wet wool coats of old ladies who’d spend hours there on rainy days. Anyway, that wine transported me. What’s the first time a wine really took you some place different and can you describe that sensation?

RMP: It’s funny that you mention the 1998 Rayas. That entire estate has always produced a sort of “heart and soul” wine under medieval conditions, from old vines, microscopic yields, and it walks the tightrope without a safety net between something quite vulgar and weird to something incredibly sublime, magical and complex. It’s always been one of my favorite wines in the world. The 1990, 1989, 1985, and the first two that really blew my mind, the 1978 and 1979, will always be among those cherished liquid memories that just take you to another world. Of course, the now-deceased Jacques Reynaud, who managed Rayas during the time I was visiting there (1978-2006) was a single man who had to endure an incredible number of the wackiest rumors and stories about him, but I found him compassionate and well-read. Once you gained his trust, he was a fascinating guy to taste with, and to talk with about wines or any other subject you chose. I had actually convinced him to leave his little, bucolic area of Châteauneuf du Pape and come to New York, and I promised I would come up and be his guide, but just several months later he dropped dead of, I believe, a massive heart attack while shoe shopping – a fetish of his – in Avignon.

RHD: You’re an avid reader, as am I. A few years ago, you recommended that I try buying an e-reader, which might be easier for me to travel with, rather than a heavy bag of books. Ultimately, do you have a preference between your e-reader and a real book?

RMP: I’ve been using a Kindle ever since they came out.

Gatwick Airport, 1971Robert and Pat, Gatwick Airport, 1971

RHD: Read any good books lately?

RMP: I read voraciously and always have. I tend to read two or three books at the same time, usually one work of non-fiction and at least one fiction, and I tend to jump between them trying to fall asleep at night, which is never that easy. I was a history major in college, and my interest in history has never really left me. Certainly, a lot of history is being created today and so much of it is basically history repeating itself, which in it itself is fascinating as well as depressing.

As to recently read books, the non-fiction includes “The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966,” “Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure,” “A Bright Shining Line: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (second time I’ve read this), “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945,” and a book I’ve read for the third time because I think the lessons it teaches are timeless, William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich.”

As for fiction, some of my favorite authors, I read just about everything they produce, include Daniel Silva’s “The English Girl,” Brad Thor’s “Hidden Order,” Lee Child’s “Never Go Back,” Harlan Coben’s “Six Years,” Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet” (a Bob Lee Swagger novel), Don Winslow’s “The Kings of Cool: A Prequel to Savages,” and “Mission to Paris” by Alan Furst.

A couple more non-fiction would be “Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879,” “Not Taco Bell Material” by Adam Carolla, Charles Krauthammer’s “Things That Matter,” and Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” And lastly, a sort of quasi-fictional book based on non-fictional events, and in real time, “In the Garden of Beasts,” by Eric Larson.

RHD: The best book I’ve read in a long time is called “Tibetan Peach Pie”, the Tom Robbins memoir. Personally, I think it should be in every nightstand in every hotel and motel across the nation, but that’s another conversation for another time.

Now, you and I (and countless people) live with the unfortunate reality of chronic pain. In a way, I think our mutual chronic pain has brought us even closer. I feel like I’ve tried everything under the sun. Lately, what seems to work for me is just watching television on my days offs, with the doors and windows in the house open, so that I’m getting plenty of fresh air and the sounds of nature, which I find comforting. You’ve been trying Hydrotherapy. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it’s working for you?

1971Robert, 1971

RMP: I’ve been plagued by chronic spinal pain that became debilitating and thus I chose to have a massive rebuild of my lumbar spine, with new discs on all five levels and then titanium rods and screws, so I’m somewhat pain-free now but still fighting the re-education in terms of walking unassisted. It hasn’t stopped me from doing everything I need to do since this eight and a half hour operation in late May of 2013, including four trips to California, three-plus weeks in Asia and several weeks in Bordeaux. I’m adapting, but there’s no question that the pain and disability can be incredibly depressing and you have to fight through it. For me, my dogs and music are relaxing. My wife also gave me the gift of an endless pool water well with a submerged treadmill, and while I’ve only gotten about 15 uses in on it between trips, I can walk 50 minutes on the treadmill at nearly two miles an hour without ever having to hold on to anything. I don’t have any pain when I use it, and that’s uplifting, but I will cherish the day when I can transfer walking unassisted on the treadmill thanks to the buoyancy of the water in this water well to walking on land unassisted. That day may never come, but I’m holding out hope that it will. But to answer your question, I think hydrotherapy or aquatherapy is really the future, especially as we age, arthritis sets in and we have joint pain. I’ve had one knee replacement and need another one, and I don’t have a trace of knee pain when I’m in water, which is a revelation for me.

RHD: I guess another thing I really enjoy on a rough day is just one really, really good glass of cold beer. Funny side story…I was hanging out with one of my young craft beer maker friends, and I told him, ‘You know, the best thing that came out of being in that scary psychiatric ward is that now, ever since I’ve been healthy again, every single beer I’ve had tastes about 100 times better than it did before I broke down.’

And, I swear, I saw this crazy glimmer in this kid’s eye, like he was thinking ‘maybe I should get institutionalized! 100 times better??!!!!!’ So I casually said, ‘You know, I think I exaggerated, it’s probably only 10% better now, maybe even 5%,’ and that seemed to talk him down from that tree. Those craft beer guys are a fun, crazy bunch. Though, I do maintain that every beer is 100% better than it was before the break down. What beers have you been enjoying lately? And, have you tried pairing them with food? I know you’re big into wine and food pairing.

RMP: As a product of the hippie movement of the late ‘60s, I think it’s probably natural to have an interest in all things alcoholic, and even beyond that, but the name of my wine journal, The Wine Advocate, sort of says that I’m hardly an advocate for other beverages. But I do think the boutique craft movement in the beer industry has been fabulous. You don’t need a whole lot of money to start one up, and tiny cult/craft breweries can become national success stories. Locally we have Dogfish Head in Delaware making an assortment of beers, all of them highly regarded, and many of them I find fascinating. I don’t really advertise a lot about beer, but I have tweeted about a number of unique beers. Now you’re seeing beers being fermented in old bourbon barrels, and I think sometimes they’re too heavy and too rich, but it’s funny that in the beer world, it seems like bigger and richer is what everyone wants, whereas in the wine world you have a group of hipster sommeliers who are basically advocating weird, undrinkable and deeply flawed wines. That sort of movement has not been accepted at all in the beer world, although one could certainly argue that some of the Belgian beers, with their high levels of brettanomyces and volatile acidity are indeed flawed, and that’s part of the appeal of them.

Travel with Pat, mid-1970sTravel with Pat (on right), 1970s

RHD: Okay, so let’s talk bucket list items, because one of mine involves you. I have this dream that I’d like to go to Burning Man. I want to go with wine-loving folks and set up some kind of camp in honor of Bacchus; of course, it will be weird, homey, delicious, dark, light and welcoming to all. Any way that you and Pat would consider coming out to Burning Man for a wine celebration like no other? And, do you have a bucket list item you can share here?

RMP: In response to your invitation to Burning Man, while in agreement with many of their principles (above all, gifting and self-reliance), I am also a lone wolf, and avoid any groups (lawyer and wine junkets are viewed with horror). I can’t change that.

I used to do what many people do when a new year starts – I’d make a few plans and try to improve myself as a person. But about three or four years ago, I decided I would just adopt something I call “Random Acts of Kindness,” and I’ve actually been quite good at it and consistent as well. The first episode was at a gas station where some beggar wanted to borrow money, and when I asked him what for, he said he needed cigarettes. I’m not an advocate of smoking tobacco, but I said, “I’ll buy you a pack. What do you want?” and the guy almost fainted. But of course, no good deed goes unpunished. He followed me to my car and wanted me to buy him a second pack, and I told him basically to fuck off. Apparently, even among the very poor, American greed is alive and well. But as far as bucket lists go, I’ve been one of those fortunate people who have done so many things that I dreamed of doing but never thought were possible – doing a wine tasting on the Great Wall of China in 2008 was certainly a bucket list item. Traveling the world many, many times and seeing so many extraordinary places would certainly have been on any of my earlier bucket lists, but I’ve done it. There are a few places I still haven’t gotten to that I would love to visit, such as parts of India, Cambodia, and a handful of other places, but my bucket list is pretty small. I think with the mobility issues that I’ve faced since this massive back surgery, the biggest thing would be to walk independently again. It’s amazing how we take for granted some of the most fundamental tasks in life, and then when they’re lost, you realize just how goddamned essential and important they are to you.

RHD: Okay, so we both love, love, love music. Basically, you and I will listen to anything once. Our tastes are very varied; classic rock, jazz, folk music, early hip hop, early country and everything in between. Now, most of my friends would be surprised to learn that I am a Justin Bieber fan. I really enjoyed that documentary about him, Believe. He makes his fans so happy. And, it appears that the young Mr. Bieber, at the unripe age of 20 years old, has a bigger sack than the entire staff of TMZ combined (go Justin!). What musical group or artist do you think it would surprise people to know that you really like?

RMP: Like you, I have very divergent tastes in music, from obviously the classical to rock ‘n’ roll and of course, the music that formed my early college years, the folk movement pioneered by Bob Dylan and, to a certain extent, Neil Young, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. We do differ on Justin Bieber, as I would just like to kick his ass back to Canada. I’m sorry to say that, but I’m no fan of his. But normally, I don’t really care how nuts, weird or wacky a musician is, it’s really the music that counts in the end, just like the wine in the glass. You can be the biggest jerk-off or asshole in the world, and if you make a really good wine, that’s all that matters to me. I’m a big Austin, Texas country music guy, I have been for a long time, I think it’s the epicenter for some incredible artists who write their own music, play their own instruments, yet have never really gotten a huge following, and I really don’t understand why. Maybe there needs to be a “Music Advocate.” I’m talking about guys like Gurf Morlix, Danny Schmidt, and beyond Austin, singers and groups like James McMurtry, the Heartless Bastards (man – their lead singer, Erika Wennerstromon, has a great voice!), Todd Snider, Jackie Greene are all fabulous, still relatively young songwriters who may be writing the best lyrics since Bob Dylan’s classic years in the early and mid-1960s. Others that have their origins in Austin are the late Blaze Foley, Erika Gilkyson, Butthole Surfers, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleeves, and Gary Clark, Jr. Anyhow, a lot these people just don’t seem to get much commercial attention, and I’m at a loss to understand why, but hey, that’s the way it is. I’ll buy ‘em and support’ em and tell as many people as possible about them and that’s all I can do.

Travel with Pat, 1970sTravel with Pat, 1971

RHD: You’ve been married to your lovely wife Pat for a long time and I really admire the relationship you both have. Any advice for couples who want to have a lasting marriage but find it tough sometimes?

RMP: Obviously, the best decision and the most fortuitous event of my life was meeting Patricia Etzel, who I first met when we were both twelve years old. We didn’t really go on a date until we were 15, and dating through high school and the early years of college was, at the very minimum, quite turbulent, largely because of me and my rather irresponsible attitude toward things. But when push came to shove, so to speak, I was relentless and got the girl and love of my life. We’ll be celebrating 45 years of marriage soon, probably by the time this interview is published. She’s my best friend, my lover, my confidante, and yes, no marriage can endure that long without a lot of compromise and back-and-forth, but at the end of the day, she makes me laugh, has a great sense of humor, loves good food and wine as well as music, and it’s always shocking how our interests are so similar. That’s not to say we haven’t had some pretty loud shouting matches over 45 years, but I don’t think we’ve ever gone to bed without kissing each other, no matter how pissed off I was at her for something. An interesting thing I can tell young couples is that most of the biggest fights you will ever have are over the most fucking ridiculously trivial things. Now, of course, you could always betray a partner, but I haven’t done that, and neither has she (to my knowledge), but I’m talking about stupid things. It’s amazing how something totally irrelevant and unimportant can cause fireworks. I think the key is, don’t stay mad and make sure you kiss each other before you go to bed no matter how mad you are at each other.

Enjoying a meal Summer 2014Enjoying a meal, Summer 2014

RHD: I really enjoy that television show, The Actor’s Studio, with James Lipton. I like when he asks his guests something like, “If there is a God, what do you hope to hear Him say when you get to heaven”, or something like that. What do you hope to hear?

RMP: Just getting to heaven would be a worthwhile accomplishment, and if God were there, I would probably try to get through the so-called pearly gates as quickly as possible in case he decided to change his mind. But if he was going to ask me a question, I suspect it would probably be one he asks many, and that’s “Were you good to people? Did you treat them as you would have wanted them to treat you?” And he might also ask if I thought I left earth a better place than when I entered. I think I could say yes to all that, and even pass a lie detector test on those questions.

But if God said anything to me, I would prefer the following: “Are you ready to see your parents and all those who you loved who predeceased you? And, by the way, all the dogs you’ve loved and lost since age four are here as well.”

What would you like to hear God say?

RHD: Well, I think everyone I know hopes they’ll have a little more money when they grow old and die than they do now. And, I don’t think it’s so that they can buy a fancy sports car or something like that. I think they’d just like to have some money to give to their kids and their grandkids, to make their lives a little easier. So, hoping that is the case for me, I’d like to hear God say, “Hey kid! You have some mad, moral ninja skills!…I mean, once folks with money transform themselves into the camel to undergo the great test, most of them can’t even find the needle. And, if they do, they kick it aside because they think it’s of no use to them. But, you walked right up to it and managed to fit your big nose and ears right through the eye of the needle. And, then the way you navigated both humps through the needle, without it ever breaking, and then flicked it off your tail with a little flourish and a not-too-bad pirouette….well that was just good old fashioned entertainment! Come on in, kick your shoes off, let me pour you a glass of wine!”

RMP: Well, Elaine, thank you and thanks to R. H. Drexel. In 35 years in the wine business, I have rarely had the chance to express myself candidly and be asked a series of questions that didn’t include anything about power – it’s so refreshing.

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