1969 – San Francisco Bay area – an exciting time in history. For a young whippersnapper like me, it was a time of wonder. And it was when I was first bit by the wine bug.
University life in Northern California exposed me to the young wine industry all around. At the time it was slow and artisanal and more of a cottage industry. Things were just gearing up.
Overall, the industry had been dominated by bulk production, and many a bottle of jug wine was uncapped in those days.
There were many, but these five people made a difference in my life.
Tony La Barba
Living in the Santa Clara Valley, going to the University of Santa Clara, was like going to a school for winemaker’s kids. Even the president of the college, Father Terry, was a winemaker. So it was kind of “in the water”.
On weekends some of us would trek about. One favorite was to head up to Los Gatos on our bikes.
Martin Ray was one of our stops. This was before he went into the battles with his investors and lost part of the vineyards that would later be known as Mt. Eden. It was a quiet time, and it was Old California, casual, slow and friendly. What I remember was a man who conveyed the sense of mystery and wonder about the miracle of grapes into wine. Here was a man who was laboring in the fields and in the cellar, a busy man, too busy for young students sent there by the winemaker of Novitiate Winery for a learning experience. But time he took. A teacher once told me, “If you want to know something go find someone who is the best and ask them. Doesn’t matter if they are famous, go knock on their door.” And knock we did. I think my love for white wine stems from this mans willingness to open a few bottles and show us the difference. High above what was to become Silicon Valley, we sat on that mountain and tried wine after wine, white, and then red. Young and new and older than us and whatever he brought out of his cellar. Thank you, Rusty.
When one of my friends wanted to go home to see their parents in Napa, often I’d tag along. Get out of familiar settings and head on up. Highway 29 was a sleepy little road and one could go from Yountville to Calistoga in 15 minutes. Not so today. My friends would usually have an errand to run before we headed all the way up. Stopping at a winery like Beaulieu Vineyards was just part of the errand. In those days André Tchelistcheff was not a young man but André was a romantic and like so many of us, didn’t see his age as a barrier from interacting with those of his mindset. Youth were who he related to. Here again was another soul who just embodied the spirit of the wine gods. And his red wines, in those days, when we stopped and he was around, the rest of the day would disappear behind stories and bottles and lore. God, did we love it! André taught me to love red wine and to love red wine as it came from where it came from. I don’t think they were using the word terroir too much back then and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. What I remember tasting is now what I think of as the liquid history of a place I dearly love. California, Napa, Red, Wonderful. Thank you André.
In those days we’d be in San Francisco with any free time. Music and revolution, the place was hopping. Napa folks were active in the antiwar movement and often after a day in the city, we’d keep heading up and back to Napa. Understand it is nothing like it was then. Napa Valley was Slow. And mellow. Robert Mondavi had just started his winery only a few years earlier and kids at our college always had an “open door”. Mike Mondavi had recently graduated from Santa Clara and was blazing his way though history. Robert, he was a busy guy. But again, these guys made time for the young-uns. The Mondavi winery was like a sunrise in the valley, foretelling of things bigger and better to come. Napa Valley, in those days, was for sale. Orchards and a few vineyards, it was considered a second cousin, agriculturally, to the greater Santa Clara Valley or the “Big Valley” in central California. But the vibe here in Napa was not going to do it that way. Here were artists and tastemakers. Robert Mondavi ( we called him Mr. Mondavi ‘cause he was as old as our parents, but he always said, call me “Bob”.) would take us into a shiny new lab, pick up a few bottles and head outdoors somewhere. Was it a dream or a memory? So many of these experiences start feeling like a dream, they seem like they were so long ago and far away. I remember my first taste of white wine with wood ageing. And a Cabernet Sauvignon blended with other “Bordeaux” grapes. Something was going on here, this place wasn't going to stand still. And the energy of this place, this Robert Mondavi and his vineyards, moved me. Thank you, Bob!
Years later I would move southwest to Texas and wine would take on other influences. One such influence was when I’d go on wine trips back to California and into Dry Creek. A buddy of mine and I would go see our friend and client, Amerigo Rafanelli. Am, as he was called, and as we called him, was like an uncle to us. I really loved that man. And his wines, his wines were what an Italian American really felt bridges the two cultures in a bottle. His simple red, Gamay Beaujolais (that’s what we called it then) or as he called it, Gemmay. There are Pinot Noirs today that would sell their soul to taste like that Gemmay. Am really nailed it! At lunch his wife would set out little spread and he’d bring a bottle of Colombard to start. Not for sale, only for him and the family. Crisp and clean and fresh and fruity and dry and fresh and wonderful! Zinfandel? In those days that was just starting. Cabernet? Just a twinkle in the eye at that time. Man, do I miss people like Amerigo Rafanelli, A gentle guy and as open as his open top fermenters he loved so much. Thank you, Am!
Last but not least, not a winemaker, but a tastemaker and a history shaker. Tony LaBarba. Texas is and probably always will be a sovereign state in some form or another. Something here lives in strength, not always right but always certain of its place in destiny. Tony’s mission was to bring wine to the frontier.
But it was with California that he played a great part in its eastward migration of New World wine culture.
Tony would go out to California time after time, like a violin maker going to a forest, looking for the perfect piece of wood for that perfect instrument. He was the great salesman, he sold California wines. No, he believed in California wines before the Californians did themselves. Talk about selling water by the river, Tony just loved wine and people more than anything. He taught me not to give up, to pull myself up after getting thrown off that horse and get back in the show. I miss you Tony, California and Texas is poorer because of your loss. But richer because of your belief and your determination. Thank you, Tony!
Without these people and many more we'd still be here. Thanks, Guys! Happy Trails!