Dunne on Wine

End-of-the-year wit and wisdom from some of California’s most renowned winemakers

Sonoma County winemaker Patrick Campbell in his vineyard on Sonoma Mountain in 1987.
Sonoma County winemaker Patrick Campbell in his vineyard on Sonoma Mountain in 1987.

The last wine column of the year calls for reflection, but this time around I’m looking way, way back. This is the result of having devoted a chunk of this year to combing through old clippings, photos and notes in hopes of whipping them into some sort of order.

That goal was realized only in part, but along the way I came across many quotes from interview subjects over the past four decades that continue to resonate with humor and insight. A sampling:

From a 1977 interview with Leon Sobon, who just had left his job as a materials research scientist with Lockheed in what is now called Silicon Valley to move to Amador County with his wife Shirley and their six children to make wine: “Everything we have is in it, but hopefully when the money runs out the wine will start selling. I’m confident it will be a success.” (His confidence was well-placed; the Sobon family now owns two Amador County wineries, Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate.)

From a 1979 interview with Bonny Meyer of Silver Oak Cellars in Napa Valley, on the three-year challenge she and her husband Justin faced to design the winery’s label: “We bottled two vintages before we put on a label. It’s a lot easier to make the wine than to design a label.”

From a 1980 tasting with Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, on why he was pouring a 134-year-old Madeira he had bought at auction for $218, a wine no longer being made because its grape variety is extinct, a wine made before James Marshall spotted a flake of gold in the tail race of John Sutter’s sawmill: “Wines are to be drunk.”

From a 1983 interview with Mitch Cosentino, who under his brand Crystal Valley Cellars had just released a chardonnay made from grapes grown in Sacramento County: “The most important thing is balance. I want this wine to marry with food, not override it or cover it up. In a successful marriage no one is the boss.”

From a 1984 interview and tasting with veteran California winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, on what he looks for in pinot noir: “I have a tendency to locate in the wine the perfume of a new lady’s glove, a glove of tender kid leather, warmed by a human hand. It’s an animal aroma that tends to be more exciting than a fruit aroma.”

From a 1986 interview with comedian and frequent presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, also a Sonoma County grape grower and winemaker: “Celebrity is a double-edged sword in this country. In America, people can’t understand how you can do two things well. Imagine if da Vinci were around here today. Man, the trouble they’d give him – ‘You mean you invent things and are an artist, too?’ Not that I’m comparing myself to da Vinci, but I think I’m a good performer and I think I make good wine.”

From a 1987 interview with Patrick Campbell, classical musician (viola) and winemaker for his family’s Laurel Glen Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, on what it takes to make wine: “Winemaking is the perfect job for the generalist, for someone who doesn’t know a lot about any one thing but a smattering about a whole lot of things. You’ve got to know something about mechanics, something about pruning, how to drive a tractor, the basics of accounting and how to get along with salespeople.”

From a 1987 interview with wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. on California’s “too trendy” wine trade: “For a while they were saying that they were making ‘food wines.’ What were they before? That’s ridiculous. ... And look what they’ve done with zinfandel, which makes excellent wines. They make a rose from it and call it white.”

From a 1987 interview with Jan Shrem, founder of the winery Clos Pegase in Napa Valley, on why he chose California instead of France: “Bordeaux and Burgundy belong to the past. The New World has all these tremendous technological breakthroughs – California was the first with cold fermentation, it has all these new yeasts; look at the pioneering research at (UC) Davis. The Napa Valley is the Bordeaux of the United States.” (Shrem’s winery flourished, and his admiration for UC Davis continued. He and his wife Maria Manetti Shrem donated $10 million for naming rights for a new art building on campus, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, which opened last year.)

From a 1987 interview with architect Michael Graves, on the design of Shrem’s Clos Pegase: “The light and the landscape in that valley is so provocative. The way that light strikes surfaces is something extraordinary and precious. When an architect is asked to design a building he’s required to give back that kind of light, and this attempts to do that. ... It makes my heart leap to see it.”

From a 1988 interview with James Arthur Field, who only made jug wines, on switching from screwcaps to corks for his bottles: “All of a sudden I became visibly presentable. I could walk on the same side of the street with Robert Mondavi, I looked just like they did.”

From a 1988 interview with Napa Valley winemaker Louis P. Martini, on what it takes to make wine: “A winemaker has got to be a bit of a farmer, a bit of a scientist, a bit of an artist and a bit of a businessman. That does keep it from getting boring.”

From a 1988 interview with seasoned California wine writer and wine historian Leon Adams, on the rising prominence of Napa Valley: “Society preconditions the palate. If it’s scarce and expensive, it automatically tastes good before you get it in your mouth.”

From a 1988 interview with Thomas Keller, on Yountville, home to his restaurant The French Laundry: “The Napa Valley is the only place in the country where the sole purpose of a visit is to eat and drink. That’s why people come here, not to go shopping and not to go to shows.”

From a 1992 interview with Julio Gallo, who with his brother Ernest had built the biggest winery in the world, E&J Gallo of Modesto, on what most irks him about wine writers: “Some of the ways they describe some wine. They may be fine writers, but that doesn’t make them great wine tasters. The descriptions they use – straw, eucalyptus, licorice, even barnyard – that’s just their imaginations. It’s ridiculous. Wine is wine. It has its characteristics, but they’re a far cry from the way they describe them.”

From a 2000 interview with filmmaker and Napa Valley vintner Francis Ford Coppola, on why he likes to have inexpensive everyday wines in his portfolio: “I’m not a sophisticated wine person in that I like to sit around and swirl the thing and discuss different shades of possible words that apply to it. I’m really a person that likes to drink wine when I eat. I love the whole experience, the combination of wine and food and friends and happiness, so I’m very pleased we have less expensive wines that are really more my orientation.”

From a 2001 interview with English wine writer Hugh Johnson, on the world’s most under-appreciated wine region: “Sherry. It produces the greatest value on earth, but it’s fundamentally lost its marketplace, though it didn’t lose its capacity to make great wine.”

From the same interview with Hugh Johnson, on what makes a great wine: “A great wine is a wine that makes an impression you can’t ignore, and it always leaves questions unanswered. Great wines never end in an exclamation mark. They always end in a question mark. They tease you. The way they do that is because they are very, very long. The greatest test of a wine’s quality is how long it lasts on the palate. Short wines just say what they have to say and shut up, but all great wines stay with you. They keep asking you to come back, try me again, see what’s happening to me.”

From a 2002 interview with Ann C. Noble, UC Davis sensory scientist and inventor of the Wine Aroma Wheel, on what bothers her the most about people’s approach to wine: “I heard about someone who bought a wine and really liked it, but then he heard that a very famous wine writer didn’t like it, and he was just devastated. He felt something was wrong with his taste. That I find tragic.”

From a 2004 interview with Fred Franzia, president of Bronco Wine Company of Ceres, the man behind the Charles Shaw line of wines known informally as “Two Buck Chuck” for their $1.99 price, on his winemaking philosophy: “I’d rather sell a wine that a million people could drink than a super-premium wine that only one person in a million would drink.”

From a 2005 interview with Merry Edwards, who since 1997 has been making wine under her own label in Russian River Valley, on misconceptions that consumers may have about pinot noir, her specialty: “Pinot noir pretty much is the only red varietal not blended, and that’s a new thing for people to experience. Cabernets, merlots and syrahs have all these blendings going on, and that’s a good thing, but to blend pinot noir would be a desecration. Pinot noir needs purity. If you put a small amount of something else into it, you can just taste and smell it immediately.”

From a 2006 interview with Paul Draper, winemaker of Ridge Vineyards at Cupertino, on whether zinfandel should be California’s official state wine, a matter then being weighed by legislators: “For more than 100 years (zinfandel) was the dominant grape in California. It was the basis for the best red wines in the state other than very small quantities of cabernet sauvignon. Zinfandel is not just another variety, it is the California variety. If there’s going to be a California wine, it would have to be zinfandel simply because since the 1860s it has dominated the acreage planted and the quality of wine coming out of California. Cabernet (sauvignon) is a newcomer.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.