Stompin' at the Savoir Faire

Grape Stomping at Grgich Hills by wallyg

Drink drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high!

    -- David Bowie, "Station to Station"

Thanks to Bottle Shock, the film version of George Taber's Judgment of Paris, many learned a version of the story in which two California wines flabbergasted the naysayers by beating out the best of France in a blind tasting in 1976, lending much desired credibility to California's claims to be taken seriously as a wine region.  

The winning white wine was a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena.  That wine is at the center of Bottle Shock, but if you know only what the movie tells you, you have no idea who actually made it.

Chateau Montelena's winemaker at the time was Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, who left that winery shortly after the success of Paris to join with Austin Hills (of the Hills Bros. coffee family) to found Grgich Hills Estate.  For various reasons, Grgich was disinclined to be portrayed in the film version, so he was written out of the story.  This is just one of numerous liberties taken by the film: other than the exterior of the main building at Chateau Montelena, for example, all those lovely vineyard landscapes (as well as all the scenes in "France") were actually shot over the mountains in Sonoma County.  

Now, however, we can offer a short film actually starring Mike Grgich, as well as Orson WellesJames Mason, the real Ronald McDonald, and some jolly elves from Gallo.

From the happy libertarians at, here is the amazing True Story of how free markets, competition and [comparative] freedom from nitpicky government regulation allowed the California wine industry to rise from its subjection to Old Europe to accomplish its manifest destiny to become the brave new world's wine superpower:


Photo: Grape Stomping at Grgich Hills Cellar, Rutherford, CA, by Flickr user wallyg, used under Creative Commons license.


Stuff, Meet Nonsense

I have a backlog of miscellaneous items, many months in the making, saved away to be pointed to in an appropriate post.  Since many of those posts seem destined never to arrive, here is an attic-cleaning catch-all of items whose only common feature is that they caught this Fool's interest:

  • Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark's gift to philosophy and one of the best writers ever to apply himself to that trade, has been turning up with some frequency in my weblog reading.  Here, for instance is ArtsJournal music blogger Kyle Gann, en route to Copenhagen, thinking at length about SK's place in his personal canon:

Kierkegaard Of course, I was a musician too, and while the 'Or' of Either/Or held a certain academic interest, it was the 'Either' that I devoured with page-flipping relish.  Kierkegaard's pseudonymous division of his authorship into 'aesthetic' versus 'ethical' or religious personas may have been ironic in intent, with a finger on the religious side of the scale, but his detailed psychology of the total aesthete was, as he knew, the more seductive.  His argument about Don Giovanni - that since the seducer is the personality most trapped in time, and music is the art that deals with time, seduction is the perfect musical subject, therefore Don Giovanni is the most perfect possible piece of music - wasn't very convincing then or now, despite the persuasive fanaticism with which it is developed.  But he captured and conveyed, in startlingly vivid terms, the manic subjectivism of a mental life turned away from the quotidian world and devoted to the absolute in art.  To read that was a heady loss of innocence, a recognition that someone else had heard the same siren song I did - and followed it.

Via Sounds & Fury.  I have LA Opera's Don Giovanni to look forward to in a few weeks, which is as good an excuse as any to revisit the unconvincing but enjoyable musical portions of Either/Or.  [Kierkegaard fanciers may derive a small chuckle from the page reachable by that link, which straightfacedly lists "Victor Eremita," one of Kierkegaard's numerous pseudonyms, as "editor" of that Penguin edition.  Others will wonder what we are chuckling about.]

SK also turned up unexpectedly on Tom Wark's daily wine blog, Fermentation, in a post entitled "Kierkegaard & Self Medicating with Wine."  Tom's subject is the dangerous illusions that may lie concealed behind "appreciation" of the noble grape and its works:

Even more depressing than finding one's self embracing Kierkegaard's aesthetic life of jumping from transitory experience to transitory experience in an attempt to stave off a life of boredom, is the somewhat similar strategy of dealing with the boredom of life by pretending that self-medication with wine is actually the act of connoisseurship.

What does it mean?  I derive from it this Foolish aphorism:

Pastiche is a cracking form of flattery, and crackers are a flatter form of pastry! 

Tired of imitations?  For real Goreyana, repair to the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts.

Substitute imagination for exhaustiveness, and inventiveness for research. As a reader I’m not interested in a 'fully worked out' world.  I’m not interested in 'self consistency'.  I don’t care what kind of underpants Iberian troops wore in 1812, or if I do I can find out about it for myself.  I don’t want the facts about the Silk Road or the collapse of the Greenland Colony, sugared up & presented in three-volumes as an imaginary world.  I don’t want to be talked through your enthusiasm for costume.  I don’t want be talked through anything.

I was describing to tomsdisch the things I'd been finding via Google in service of my new book (some described herein) -- things I didn't know could be known --  and he said 'ah yes, Google has put an end to the art of wondering.'

Which to me attains very nearly to the status of an immortal apercu.

To which category might also be added Disch's recent two-line poem, "Correction."


'Unless something radical and imaginative is done . . . Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are going to be toast.'

The fox and badger lobbies are also heard from. 

Via 3quarksdaily

[Nutkin buttons photo (click to enlarge) by jasmined via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.]

  • Lives of the Connoisseurs: TIME Magazine' Richard Lacayo on Peggy Guggenheim, reminding us that the early 20th Century was a pretty good time to be well-off and blessed with discerning taste:

She found a house with the largest private garden in Venice and had the last private gondola in the city for her daily long rides.  She entertained frequently, though not lavishly.  She was notorious for her scanty food and cheap wine.  From her biographers you get the sense of a full life — the guest book carried names like Giacometti, Paul Bowles, Cocteau, Chagall, Saul Steinberg, Cecil Beaton, Stravinsky, Tennessee Wiliams, Paul Newman and Truman Capote — but not always a happy one. She lavished fast cars on one of her younger lovers.  He died in one.

Whole Foods has opened a new 2-story greengrocer's establishment here in Pasadena, its largest store west of the Rockies.  Callie Miller of LAist dotes, posts many photos and declares that it "seem[s]...excessive, in the most eco-friendly way possible."

Unfortunately not shown in those photos: the site was formerly occupied by auto repair facilities and a tire store, all in a brick garage building that I would guess dated back to the mid 1920's.  In a nice bit of adaptive reuse, Whole Foods left two of the brick walls standing and incorporated them into the ground floor of the new store.  For a city sitting slambang in the thick of earthquake country, old Pasadena has a remarkable quantity of brick construction.

[escapegrace pointed the way.]

Large Bottles of Wine Gone Missing?
You Need a Magnum P.I.

Winethief This is Bill Anderson, the longtime winemaker at Chateau Julien Wine Estate in the lovely Carmel Valley of Monterey County.  The device he is using to extract a sample from the barrel is commonly known as a "wine thief."

Regrettably, just to the north and east of bucolic Monterey, it seems that a different sort of wine thief is at work.  Insurance Journal reports:

Silicon Valley oenophiles are on alert after a brazen robbery Jan. 4, when thieves broke into a posh home here and stole more than 150 bottles of wine.  Estimated value: $500,000.

The heist -- thought to be one of the largest of its kind -- was the handiwork of seasoned connoisseurs: Investigators say the criminals removed few lesser-valued bottles and focused on 'cult wines' made in limited numbers, often signed by vintners.

Their booty included a magnum of 1959 Petrus worth as much as $6,000 and a difficult-to-assemble set of Bordeaux wines representing an unbroken line of more than 20 years of French harvests.

High-end wine has a lot in common with high-end art, and is a tempting target for theft for much the same reason: the stolen goods can command a high price on resale or at auction, and a tiny but wealthy subclass of collectors is willing to overlook mere legality in the quest to possess a rare item.  Wine has the added advantage that, unlike unique art works, the provenance of a particular bottle is difficult to trace: while the origins of a stolen Picasso or Munch may be obvious, every bottle of Petrus looks alike.  The IJ article notes one research effort that might be adapted to address that problem: 

[A]n Italian company is experimenting embedded microchips into bottles . . . . [b]ut even that technology is aimed at deterring counterfeiters -- not stopping thieves who plunder private caves and cellars.

If you really want to know where your wine is at any given moment, you can always just drink it.


  • A handy chart concerning "magnums" and the other elaborate, oft-biblical names attached to Very Large Bottles of wine is accessible at Wikipedia, here.
  • Insurance Journal is surprisingly wine-oriented today.   At Declarations & Exclusions, I follow up on their report that new wine warning labels are under consideration.

Strung Out and Parched at the Airport

Among the sufferers under new airline security rules: small winemakers and the peripatetic wine drinkers who love them.  The Los Angeles Times reports:

New security measures banning liquids from airplane carry-on luggage have some California vintners seeing red.

Passengers jamming multi-bottle wine carriers into overhead bins and under seats were a common sight on flights departing from San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento airports until [last] Thursday's ban — sparked by the British authorities' foiling of an alleged plot to blow up jetliners.

Since then, unwitting oenophiles have been chugging prized vintages or dumping full bottles of wine into bins with lipstick, sunscreen and other banned liquids.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of cases of wine travel across the country as carry-on luggage, a small but important part of California's $16.5-billion wine industry.

The concourses are slick with the tears of oenophiles as their prized bottles are unceremoniously confiscated and destroyed.  The nation's crazy quilt of laws restricting direct shipment of wine to consumers -- you know, to protect the children -- don't help the situation for thirsty tourists far from home:

Stopping off at a shipping company service on the way to the airport won't help.  UPS and FedEx won't knowingly accept wine shipments from consumers out of fear of violating one of the many regulations that govern the transport of alcoholic beverages.

'If we find out the shipment is a box of wine, we will just hold it wherever we discover the fact,' UPS spokesman Steve Holmes said.  'It might be in the middle of Kansas.  You would have a couple of days to retrieve it or else we are going to dump it.'

If you are prepared to risk the perils of the cargo hold, transporting wine in your checked luggage is still permissible, and some wineries are trying to salvage sales by making that option more convenient.   Per the San Luis Obispo Tribune:

Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles posted fliers around its tasting room this weekend to alert visitors of the changes and to offer foam packing containers to allow wine to be safely checked in.

The containers — which are given free to customers — cost the winery $2.73 a piece.

Remember when flying was a pleasure?

Wine lovers are not the only aesthetes suffering in these troubled times.  Writing at, Brian Micklethwait points to musician/weblogger Jessica Duchen's report on heightened airline security and the persecution of the performing arts:

I'm sorry to say that the latest on carrying hand-baggage on flights to/from Britain is that violins appear to be a no-no.

Tom has been carrying his violin into the cabin as hand-luggage for 25 years.  Yesterday we hung on for about ten minutes to get through to the airline on which we are meant to fly to France next month, listening to pre-recorded platitudinous messages about their wonderful customer service.  Finally Tom was told by some idiot of a rep that he can put his violin in the hold.  He explained that he can't: it's liable to be smashed by those shot-putting bag handlers, being 150 years old and worth a five-figure sum.  'In that case you can afford to buy another ticket for it,' said the rep, who evidently hadn't listened to the platitudinous messages about their wonderful customer service.

The news is not all bad: "There's no problem with the French internal flight from Nice to Nantes - the rep we spoke to there seemed to think that Britain and the US have gone completely bonkers . . . ."

O Ca' del Solo Mio:
Randall Grahm Escapes from the Big House

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free . . .

This bit of wine news dates back to the end of July, but it only came to my attention when the Los Angeles Times got around to reporting it in this week's Wednesday Food section:

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard (last featured on this weblog here) has gone and sold off brands accounting for more than half his production.  Bonny Doon will no longer be producing wine under the Big House (200,000 cases/year in Red, White & Pink varieties) or Cardinal Zin (20,000 cases/year of zinfandel from "gnarly old vines") brands.  Grahm is considering selling off or eliminating a number of other Bonny Doon wines, and will be spinning off the winery's remaining lower-priced lines as a separate company "Pacific Rim," to be headquartered in Portland, Oregon.

The goal is to return Bonny Doon to its roots as an outlet for Grahm's pet obsession with wine as an expression of the place where it is grown:

Going forward, what's left of Bonny Doon will have a singular focus: making small-production, vineyard-specific wines using the extreme organic farming philosophy known as biodynamics.  Expressing terroir — the French term connoting wines that reflect the specific place where the grapes are grown and the wine is made — is the goal.

Grahm plans to buy or secure long-term leases for two new vineyards.  One will be planted with grape varieties particular to France's Rhône Valley for Bonny Doon's most ambitious wines, sold under the Le Cigare Volant (Flying Saucer) label.  The other will be devoted to Pinot Noir.  Bonny Doon's 125-acre Soledad, Calif., vineyard will be renovated to reduce the number of grape varieties grown there.

Grahm now is picking through his Santa Cruz-based company's remaining wine brands, discarding some and keeping others to be reconfigured into a company tightly focused on making high-quality wines 'with bragging rights,' he says.  Bonny Doon's current list of more than 30 wines will be reduced to fewer than eight.

The Big House and Cardinal Zin brands have been purchased by The Wine Group, the enormous if low-profile company behind such mass brands as Franzia (which bears the name of but is not in fact  associated with "Two-Buck Chuck" mogul Fred Franzia), Corbett Canyon and [gack!] Mogen David.  The erstwhile Doon labels will be rolled into the portfolio of The Wine Group's recently launched subsidiary, Underdog Wine Merchants.  [Caution: The Underdog site immediately launches a music player playing acid lounge and techno.  Turning down or muting speakers is recommended before clicking.]

As part of the Underdog portfolio, Big House and the Cardinal will join a group of wines from around the world being marketed specifically to "millenials," the young adults who have come of age in the past half-decade or so.  (This July 14 press release articulates the strategy.)  Underdog's wines feature zippy labels with clever-clever brand names such as "Tempra Tantrum" (Tempranillo from Spain), "Pinot Evil" (Pinot Noir from California's Central Coast and from France), and "Devil's Marbles" (Chardonnay and Shiraz from Australia).  They are, in short, everything that Randall Grahm now aspires not to be.

In the LA Times article linked above, Grahm suggests that his decision to prune his winery back to its essences is driven in part by his having turned 50 and become a father in the past few years.  Is his renewed embrace of his youthful ideals a symptom of mid-life crisis?  Is estate grown, biodynamic wine expressing a spectrum of terroir the viticultural equivalent of a flashy red convertible and a blonde?  Time, and a bottle, will tell.

Of related interest:

  • The Bonny Doon site's official biographical sketch of The Founder, featuring a somewhat disturbing moving image of Randall Grahm's head adrift in the audience chamber of Oz, the Great and Powerful.
  • Not linkable, unfortunately, but biodynamics turns up in at least two articles in the current (August 2006) issue of Wine&Spirits Magazine, which by coincidence I picked up yesterday at the Sacramento airport.  One article focuses on current developments in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, where wineries including Quivira and Preston are embracing biodynamic approaches, and the other profiles three of the county's grandest, oldest Zinfandel vineyards.  There's good wine reading to be had there.

Gluttin' for Punishment 'Round the Billabong

The extraordinary international growth of the Australian wine industry over the past decade -- during which it made sizable inroads into the North American market and surpassed France as the largest source of wine in the UK -- has caught up with growers and winemakers.  Blair Speedy -- and isn't that a proper name for an Australian journalist? -- reports for The Australian:

Growth in exports and domestic consumption has slowed, grape prices have crashed and growers contracts have been cancelled as the industry wrestles with a problem that echoes the famous European wine lake of the early 1990s.

Australia already has a surplus of 900 million litres of wine - enough to fill 300 Olympic swimming pools or pour 7.5 billion standard glasses.

It's a massive hangover after a decade of booming growth in the wine industry and one that is causing as big a headache for all involved as you might get from the only other solution to the problem: drinking it.

Indeed, that is the solution that the federal Government appears to be advocating, telling the industry this week that rather than seeking handouts it needs to work on demand-side solutions. Drinkers are the only real beneficiaries of the grape glut.  Boutique wineries are selling their $50-a-bottle pinot noir as $15 cleanskins and even the largest groups, such as McGuigan Simeon, have had to slash the value of their inventories.

* * *

Over 10 years, Australia's vineyards have more than doubled in size to 154,000 ha, and are now producing about 2 million tonnes of grapes a year, up from 883,000 tonnes in 1996.

We weren't alone.  Winemakers in North and South America and South Africa - quaintly referred to as the 'new world' in the Eurocentric globe of wine terminology - ramped up their production.

And while Australian wine may have retained an edge over the rest of the new world in terms of quality, its affordability has taken a battering as the Australian dollar has risen more than 50 per cent in the past five years - a significant headwind when you consider the low labour costs available to producers in South America.

The whole article is well worth your time, especially the anecdote at the end about the great vine-pull of the mid-1980's.  [Link via Colby Cosh's constantly-interesting-if-irregularly-posted International Press Roundup.]

This time last year, it was the French who were suffering from excess production, and I had a helpful suggestion for them:

Some aspiring French entrepreneur needs to emulate California's Fred Franzia and his Charles Shaw brand, better known as "Two Buck Chuck."  Buy up all that excess supply, especially that "supposedly medium quality" Bordeaux.  Bottle it.  Sell it at an absurdly low price to thirsty French and Americans.  Give the product a sunny Gallic brand name such as "Bon Francois," then -- and this is the critical bit -- let it become known by the perfect snappy nickname, one that harks back to those halcyon, romantic days before the adoption of the Euro.  I refer, of course, to . . . "Deux Franc Frank!"

[Footnotes omitted.]

The same notion ought to work for our Australian friends: sell it all to the Trader Joe's stores and let them market it cheaply, perhaps with a cuddlesome eucalyptophiliac marsupial on the label.  Yeah, that's it: We can call it . . . Two-Dollah Koala!

Paging Jimmy Page, or, Might These Be Robert's Plants?

Have you ever been curious why it was that Led Zeppelin put "Goin' to California" and "When the Levee Breaks" in sequence and on the same album?

Well, now you know.


[Just look at those soggy vineyards.  I have been unable to find any reports identifying the particular winery whose vines were inundated in this incident.  We are close enough to the advent of Spring that it is likely the vines were emerging from dormancy and may have sustained actual damage from being flooded like this. 

One shudders to think how much worse this would have been if LedZep hadn't chosen to put "The Rain Song" on a different record. . . .]

I Like Pinot, Brudder, I Like Toast and Jam . . .

If you hurry, before it disappears into the pay-only archives, Wednesday's Los Angeles Times Food Section featured a fine article on Pinot Noir, the Grape That Launched a Thousand Dozen Festivals.

Of vaguely related interest: film-fancying wine-bibbers, as well as film-bibbling wine-fanciers, may enjoy the Paul Giamatti joke in the penultimate panel (that's the one at bottom left) of LAist's OSCAR...the Comic Book.  No Merlot was harmed in the making of this picture.

And, if your tastes run to Two- Three-Buck Chuck: Be sure to catch (again, before it disappears onto the overpriced archival servers) the New York Times' revelatory piece on the mystery-shrouded inner workings of Trader Joe's, just in time for the opening of the first Manhattan TJ's a week from today.

[Post title adapted from an idea by The Newbeats.]

Ah! Bitter Dregs . . .

Take care young ladies and value your wine.
Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime.
Deeply they'll swallow from your finest kegs,
Then swiftly be gone, leaving bitter dregs.
        Ah! bitter dregs!

       -- Spock of Vulcan, "Plato's Stepchildren"

Sad news from the wine country of Sonoma County, where I learn through Tom Wark of the passing over the weekend of dancer-turned- vintner Rodney Strong (1927-2006).

Rod Strong was a genuinely important figure in the expansion of the California fine wine business over the past forty-odd years.  He also figures in some of my own earliest and fondest recollections of learning to know and to appreciate California's wines.

'I knew I couldn't be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker' Trained as a dancer, with connections to both Martha Graham and George Balanchine, Rod Strong spent the years after World War II in Paris, where he became the leading male terpsichorean with the Lido.   (See photo at right, displaying a Gene Kellyesque vigor.)  He returned to the U.S. and continued his dance career through the 1950s, when he stepped down off the boards and into the wine business.  Initially, he bought wine in bulk, bottled it and sold it under the Tiburon Vintners label.  In 1962, he purchased an old winery in Windsor, in Sonoma County, began making his own wines rather than buying from others, and formed Windsor Vineyards.  Strong's innovation with Windsor was to sell wine principally by direct shipment to the consumer, often with personalized labels.  Direct shipment remains the core business of the Windsor label.

While the modern California wine industry can trace its origins to Sonoma County and the plantings of Agoston Haraszthy at his Buena Vista Winery outside of the town of Sonoma, the post-Prohibition era was initially dominated -- to the extent anyone cared about California wine at all -- by the Napa Valley.  A number of venerable wineries operated in Sonoma County -- Buena Vista, Hacienda, Sebastiani, Gundlach-Bundschu, and Simi, to name a few -- but Sonoma's profile in the early 1960s was low at best.

Through the 1960s, with the help of climate studies from UC Davis, Rod Strong showed a talent for locating promising vineyard locations around Sonoma County.  The quality of the wines coming out of the Windsor facility steadily improved, and Sonoma slowly began its rise to respectability.  (I still prefer to spend time on that side of the Mayacamas Mountains, rather than in the hurly-burly of That More Famous Valley on the other side.)  While he continued to produce wines under the  Windsor Vineyards label, Strong also launched the Sonoma Vineyards brand for his better wines, focusing on the retail and restaurant trade.  Sonoma Vineyards later changed its name to Rodney Strong Vineyards.

As the wines got better and better, Sonoma Vineyards played an important part in raising the profile of Sonoma County as a prime grape growing locale.  In the 1974 vintage, Rod Strong produced what is generally reputed to be the first individual vineyard-designated wine from the county, his "Alexander's Crown" Cabernet Sauvignon.  (More on the Alexander's Crown vineyard here.)

A number of top-flight winemakers passed through the Windsor/Sonoma/Strong winery over the years, including Dick Arrowood (who went on to make the reputation of the Chateau St. Jean winery in the 1970s and currently plies his craft at Arrowood Vineyards & Winery), Forrest Tancer (now partner and winemaker at the Iron Horse Winery, whose location was originally plotted out by Strong), and current Rodney Strong winemaker Rick Sayre

In 1989, in a moment of financial crisis, the winery was purchased by the Klein family, which continues to operate it today.  Although he was no longer the owner, Rod Strong stayed on as all around ambassador for the wines that bore his name until the past few years, when he suffered a series of strokes.  Although in very ill health, he put in an appearance last July as honoree at Sonoma County's 25th Showcase of Wine & Food, where an auction lot included a 2002 Meritage bottling made jointly by Strong veterans Arrowood, Tancer and Sayre.  (A pair of articles on the event, with photos of Strong past and recent, can be viewed or downloaded here [PDF].)

My own first visit to the wine country was in 1977, when I accompanied my father on a weekend excursion organized by Robert Lawrence Balzer.  Following a visit to the Hacienda Winery and lunch with August Sebastiani, the day wound down at Rod Strong's Sonoma Vineyards.  Rod was the consummate host.  On arrival, the group was equipped with wines and picnicerie, and we strolled out through the River East vineyard behind the winery to bask alongside the Russian River.  As the treats were consumed, it being a warm afternoon, several members of the party -- including Mr. Balzer but not this correspondent -- stripped to their underthings and splashed or floated about on the river.  After drying out, externally at least, we were led on a tour by Rod Strong, and then treated to dinner, with more wine, in the winery.  I was only recently of legal drinking age at the time, and had not yet mastered the art of pacing my consumption.  I learned a lot about the importance of that skill that evening: I can recall the brandy arriving with dessert and I can recall waking in our hotel room in Santa Rosa around 3 in the morning, but the period between those two events is lost to me.  Let that be a lesson to you, kids.

From that visit and from tasting his wines in his excellent company on several later occasions, I maintain nothing but fondness and the highest regard for Rodney Strong, and join with those who mourn his passing from the scene.  Having spent some time now and again on the stage myself, I particularly enjoyed this remark of his, quoted in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's obituary:

I don't think I would have survived the considerable trials and tribulations of my involvement in the wine business without my theatrical background.  The theater is such good preparation for rejection.

The Rodney Strong Vineyards wines are still reliably good across the board, and in some cases reliably better than good.  Do not reject them if offered.