The Underdog Grape…
lost in Napa again!
The “Disco Peugeot” was an unreliable steed. A low-mileage, mid-70’s mom-wagon, it was modified with home bookshelf speakers, a cassette deck and a killer amp. I was working in Los Angeles, living in a one-room Venice Beach apartment, photographing bands and trying to break into the photo/film industry when I was asked to document a harvest at the Acacia winery in the Carneros region of Napa. My father had become a limited partner with the idea that his grapes would someday become Sinskey Vineyard designated wines under the Acacia label and the managing partners wanted to take advantage of my fledgling career and low day-rate.
I had never before been in Napa when I crossed the Golden Gate bridge and piloted the Disco Peugeot around the bay and into wine country. My handful of cassettes included several Neil Young albums, peppered with a few Grateful Dead, British Invasion and some early Punk selections; but I am almost sure it was Neil playing on the cassette deck that day.
“There was a fanfare blowin’ to the sun
That was floating on the breeze
Look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies
Look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies”
After The Gold Rush
The first thing I noticed was the rhythmic nature of the vineyards and the way the fall light played off the golden leaves on the vines. The second thing I noticed was the fragrance of fermentation. It was, and still is, a swoon inducing aroma. The third thing I noticed was the loss of power and the sudden missing of the Disco Peugeot’s already underpowered motor. I needed a mechanic, and quick.
I limped into the local service station only to be received by a group of mechanics snickering… “Is that a French car?” I responded in the affirmative. “We wouldn’t have a clue how to work on it. Why don’t you try…” and they sent me down the road to the next mechanic. I repeated this scenario at each garage until I found one who would actually look under the hood. “I can fix it, but I’m going to have to order a special wrench just to remove the spark plugs and parts will be a special order. It might take a few weeks!” I resigned myself to being stranded in Napa. It was a happy accident that would change my life.
I spent the next few weeks documenting harvest at a winery that specialized in single vineyard Pinot Noirs. I was invited to tastings of individual lots, heirloom selections, different fermentation techniques, and young and old Pinots from different regions. I played fly on the wall as they talked about the subtleties of the grape, what defined a classic Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and how they could achieve that from Carneros grapes. I sat in as they discussed marketing and discovered that they named the winery with an “A” so it would be first on an alphabetical wine list. Not the most sophisticated marketing, but it was effective.
I learned to love the underdog grape and respect those who chose to work with it at a time when it was not appreciated by the wine consuming public. I gained an insight into the times before the clones; when almost all selections of Pinot Noir were field selections, each with their own unique character. The lessons learned while “stranded in Napa” are with us to this day. It formed our DNA and is the reason our Pinot Noir is unique, elegant, balanced and is a good companion at the dinner table. To paraphrase the Kinks; “We’re not like everybody else!”