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February 2017

A Renaissance Man’s Perspective on the CA Wine Industry, Circa ‘78-85

“A coke habit is God’s way of saying, ‘you’ve got too much money’ ”. – Gordon Stevens

Gordon Stevens is a jazz musician and Renaissance man. He’s 81, and is way more hip than I am. He speaks about everything with passion, and with a lingo that James Laube might not understand. I can talk to Gordon about anything, because he’s so engaging about it. Like many of my elders, I find myself wanting to sit and absorb his stories and wisdom.

Speaking of stories, the jazz tradition is handed down from musician to musician through tales about the famous icons. The way Gordon speaks is very much in that tradition, except substituting wineries for great musicians, like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

When we sat down to talk, I had no idea Gordon was going to share, stream of consciousness, about the early CA wine business, but I found it fascinating, and hope you enjoy it too.

“The discoveries (of great wine), man, you’re like ‘ahhhhhhhhhhh’ (a moment of unabashed nostalgia, like a paramour you’ve never forgotten).

I broke my teeth on red wines with Charles Krug (the 1978 – 1985 vintages). Even the 1940’s stuff, because Krug had a library. He hooked up with Chesterfield cigarettes. Guys would smoke their Virginia tobacco with Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon).”

“As a pairing?”

“No. Everyone was smoking anyway, so it wasn’t a decision to pair (wine with cigarettes).”

“One informed the other?”

“Yeah. Then it became cigars and port, or cigars and big Cabs. That’s Wine Spectator stuff.”

“I can see the whole coke and wine fad being a thing?”

“I saw it in action with the various people, ‘cause that’s when I got deep into wine, when our violin shop started to take off (Gordon owned a series of music shops, called “Steven’s Music”). I saw a lot of high rollers, the Persian guys that came in and bought all the Saratoga real estate, and the Stradivarius violins on the west coast.

I had a bunch of stock in Chalone (Richard Graff, founder and winemaker of Chalone, is a California wine legend) when they first hit (somewhere between ‘78 and ‘82).  As a stockholder, we got invited up there for an annual business meeting, and celebrities would come to speak. Bill Walsh had a great palate, and he loved classical music. Julia Childs was a keynote speaker. She called to me, out by the porta potties, ‘Young man, young man, can you direct me to the oysters! I just don’t understand these business meetings’. We had the greatest talk. She told me about her husband, their Buick stationwagon, her first trip to France. It was fucking amazing, man. ‘Tell me about you?’, she said. It was the most thrilling celebrity meeting I’ve ever had.

After Chalone came close to being the best of the Chardonnays in the famous Paris tasting, I bought stock. The first bottle of Chalone Chardonnay set me up for those French Burgundy trips into the 80’s. The standard was always Chalone.

I remember watching a ballgame all by myself, and nearly finished a bottle of Chalone, and I set the bottle down. It had a tiny bit left, and I forgot about it. The next day I saw it, and I swished that sucker around and hit it, like you do with a jar of maple syrup! It was like perfume from God.

It was not that buttery shit they were making in Napa. The malolactic craze (changing the appley Malic acid into buttery Lactic acid – which caught fire in the 80’s) came after (the great Chardonnays of the 70’s). Then Kendall Jackson came in and got busted.”

“For chaptalization?” (Which is a controversial process of adding sugar to wine to give it more alcohol and fix stuck fermentations.)

“Yes. Putting sugar in on top of their malolactic excesses. Then you got sugar and butter going, and then every secretary in San Francisco had to have one of them after work on Friday.

I got crazy on the olfactory thing. Then the food pairing came in on the naturals. My mother, and her family, locals (in San Jose), used to own all the property that Ford and Tesla is on right now. They had access to everything. The best vintages of (Ridge) Montebello and Picchetti. She (and Gordon) had access to all the greats.

Wine sales went up after the 50’s. Gallo, Grenache, and Muscats…mostly sweet, people were sucking them down.”

“How about Syrah and Grenache (in CA)?”

“Yeah, the Syrahs and all that. All those came in as a result of Rhone-Villages, and Kermit Lynch (local wine legend with many ties to France). I remember seeing headlines from Robert Parker, talking about how Kermit had discovered all these killer wines and varietals, you know?

A lot of that was here (in California). We used to go to Buena Vista (the oldest winery in California) up there (in Sonoma). The wine sucked, relatively speaking, but it was part of the mystique and history.

California natives jumped right on this thing. It was not a yuppie thing at all. The locals and Italian guys. That’s why Mondavi is so iconic. He was rubbing shoulders with all the fruit farmers in the valley. It was a fruit bowl heaven.

My godfather, an Italian guy, owned all of San Jose city college. I got to go over there every weekend, and I remember him sitting at the end of the table, and he had a big crystal bowl. He’d take a full bottle of his favorite white, put that in there with a quart of apricots, some cinnamon, and mix it up. He’d eat that like soup for breakfast!

I used to talk to Burt Williams from Williams Selyem. We met on the Russian River steelhead fishing. I remember a stash of Williams Selyem I got, ‘83-’86. He had total control of the Rochioli vineyard. That was the heyday. When…a tasting guy, whether it be Robert Parker, or whoever, they always described it as ‘exotic’. Like patchouli oil is exotic. It was like Omar Khayyam. The poetic palate. Like something you’d read in Middle Eastern poetry.”

“Like Kahlil Gibran?”

“Yeah, then later Neruda for the Chilean / Argentinian thing. It didn’t taste like anything else. You assumed it was the mother ship of all the Pinot (noir) grapes.”

“Were they fruit forward or dry?”

“I don’t think the word ‘dry’ ever entered my mind when drinking his wines. They weren’t fruit forward, they were Williams Selyem!

I also got into 80’s Rafanelli, a wonderful winery up the valley on the west side in Dry Creek. Ohhhh! I got into the core of that.

The high point in all of this for me, though, was the Williams Selyem / Rafanelli hookup.”

“I find those wines to be quite fruit forward. It’s almost like Williams Selyem is blending Syrah to give their wines real chewy depth?”

“It depends on which Selyem vineyard. This is the perfect storm, that creates four great vintages (’83-’86). You have one vineyard replacing the one that went over the hill.  They didn’t have to blend or anything. They could do it purely. That’s the same thing that Navarro did with white wines. They managed to have enough high quality from middle to old-aged vineyards. That chronological thing is paramount. This whole Russian River and Dry Creek region was really a sleigh ride on a slope, right down through the goodies.”

“How about Napa Valley?”

Caymus started in about ’78 for me. Just killers! Then they started the ‘special select’ thing, which became really chichi. It’s as though they tried too hard. The price for the ‘special select’ was insane. You could get a bottle of Diamond Creek for $40 and the ‘special select’ for $60. But the ’78-82 regular Caymus! (He sighs with nostalgia) My God, man!

There was a 60’s thing, called “Rota Red”. The owner was an old Spanish guy that had some vineyards down by Atascadero, near Hearst castle, in West Paso. The San Francisco hippie / Beat establishment, the poets and painters, and people like Bill Graham bought this Rota wine. You’d bring your own bottle. Those old gallon Gallo bottles were going around. There was a rumor that the Rota wine owner put a psychedelic substance, or had cloned some ergot in it. It gave you the weirdest high. If you’re smokin’ hash, you got some sugar here, some psychedelic there, and you got some wine. This was folklore. There was a myth created around this guy. It was an event. It was like scoring Mexican weed and Culiacan. Just normal hippie procedure.”

We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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