Sunday, August 27, 2023

Leading From Behind

Recently I watched an absorbing and compelling documentary about the musician, Ron Carter. A giant in the jazz world, Ron is now 86 and still playing. Or working, however you might see it. I was fortunate enough to see him perform in 1968 at UCLA, when he was part of the Miles Davis Quintet. He’s a master, not one who passed a written test or a blind tasting. He mastered his art as he journeyed through time and his world, slowly, often painfully. But he succeeded. In the documentary, towards the end, he talks about what success is:

"I think success involves more than me. I’m sure that I could have been successful a lot sooner and maybe a lot longer. I thinks success is a difficult word to define, because it means different things to different people. Does it mean that you work all the time, is that successful? Does it mean that you walk onto a street and everybody knows who you are without your instrument? Does it mean you get paid on time? Being able to fill a house with my name being the band leader? Call three or four guys and say, ‘Hey, now, I got this gig, can you make it?’ They all say yes ‘cause I called? Is success going into the bank and they know you’re not going to rob them? I mean, what is success? I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would determine success 'cause I'm still trying. I haven’t gotten to the place where I necessarily see me as being successful, given all those possible definitions. Having said that, I like where I’m going. My last efforts have been honest. I have meant every note that I have played.”

The man is 86 and he likes where he’s going. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is. Or at least, that explanation struck a chord in me.

In the wine business, we’re all grapes. By ourselves, we don’t make much of anything, but together, we have a chance to make a grand cru. But, once you’re picked and sorted and squeezed, you’re done, as a grape. You go into some other form, maybe wine, maybe brandy. Maybe sparkling, maybe still. Maybe sweet, maybe not. But who you thought you were and what you accomplished pales in comparison to who or what you might become. You gotta lead from behind, like a bass player. And hope like hell you like where you are going.

I really love when Mr. Carter said, “My last efforts have been honest.” I think it’s very important for each and every one of us to examine that statement and see how it applies to us, not only in our work, but in our life – to where we are going.

What I have witnessed in the wine trade, since retiring, has disappointed me. A lot of people being put forth as experts and influential, when many of them are just starting out their journey. It puts them in a false light, it does not honor them or their future prospects. Jazz folks like to call it “chopping in the woodshed.” And many of them just haven’t had enough time out back. They might get there; I hope they do. I do hope they mean every note they are playing. But are they leading from behind, like Master Ron? No, they have been put out front, before their fermentation has finished. They aren’t ready. And I worry the wine trade will suffer for it.

Me? I’m done, all fermented out, so to speak. I’ve been bottled and labeled and set on a rack in a cellar, aging away.

What was success, to me, in the wine trade? Well, I raised my little family. Stayed out of debt. Became debt free. Made some friends along the way, hopefully not all of them transactional or arbitrary, dependent on some result or payoff at the end. I put one note in front of the next and plunked out my tune, honestly. Italian wine is doing better now than when I started. I was one small grape in that vat, and proud to be part of that cuvee. I know, in my heart, that the overarching soul of wine, call it Dionisius or Bacchus or Divine Spirit or whatever you’d like, is bigger than any one of us. And it has an arc through time that has spanned through thousands of years, and with a little luck, will continue forth for many more thousands of years.

I’m just so very grateful to have witnessed it and to have been a small part of something that is truly greater than any one of us. Amen.



© written and photographed (except for the 1st photo) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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