Sean Thackrey :: Wine Maker

Sean Thackrey :: Wine Maker

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Stories: is it bunny rabbits?, or dinner?:

Used to be that the standard way of buying grapes, which of course is by weight, was to get a certified weight tag at a certified weight station; I'd weigh in with the truck empty but all the harvest containers aboard, called "tare"; then I'd weigh back out with the truck full of grapes; obviously, the difference between the two weights was the weight of the grapes, and that determined what I owed the grower.

The certified station I then used most was in Schellville, near Sonoma, and was no big deal; just a truck-size flat scale inset in the ground in front of a modest shack. The woman in the shack was Jackie, short, tough as nails, butch as it comes, could throw any trucker out the door; I thought she was great, and we got along very well. She was maybe in her 40's, still lived with her father in a dubious compound across the intersection, where they raised rabbits. She had many Polaroids (hopefully someone remembers what they were) posted in back of her counter in the weigh station, with bunny rabbits dressed up in little costumes as Santa Claus, TV characters, and so on.

This brought up a question in my mind, and after she'd weighed out the truck one day, I asked it.
"You know Jackie, you've got all these really cute photographs up here of your bunny rabbits dressed up in various costumes; but, then, you sell them for people to eat. How do you put that all together?"
She frowned, definitely not happy I asked, but still answered straight away: "Well, I dunno. One day, they just stops looking like bunny rabbits, and starts looking like dinner."

I don't think concise expression gets much better; and I've never heard any definition of that fatal change that's close to being as honest; although I recall the observation that man is the only predator that lives in affectionate proximity to his prey before eating it.

So I've admired her eloquence for years; but one has to imagine the rabbits feel otherwise, when the atmosphere in the hutch suddenly takes a mysterious turn for the worse.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

I don't really know why I'm posting so many stories at the moment; perhaps it's because harvest was over so soon, but anyway:

This was some years ago, when it was more normal to separate wine grapes into, on the one hand, "noble varietals", needless to say all French, and on the other hand, the rest. Hardly necessary to note that I found this irritating, particularly in that the whole stupid concept was more the creature of oligarchs promoting their investments than aristocrats protecting their heritage.

So I was pouring our wines at a trade event in San Francisco, when a particularly affected buyer for an important wine merchant came to the table - you know, just the right hair gel, ascot, open collar, cufflinks, the whole thing; we went through the various wines, & came to the 1988 Taurus, the first wine I'd released made with Mourvèdre, then truly unknown in California, where it was still officially called "Mataro".

I served it to him; he swirled & sniffed & asked the price, which was very moderate. Still, apparently he had to say, "Well, I must say that seems quite a lot to ask for a wine that isn't even a noble varietal!". I replied instantly, with a genuine smile, "But then neither are you; so what's the problem?" He actually smiled back, and moved on.

It was an important lesson for me, or at least a clarification of prior experience, that I could say something so blatantly insulting about something I did think was, well, stupid, and yet not really offend, since I actually felt an empathy for the man, and had not the slightest wish to demean him; I said something that could be taken as no more than a witticism, and fortunately was taken as such; the enlightenment being that my actual, if exasperated, kindness of intention could somehow be subliminally understood, apparently allowing my remark to be taken that way.

Another story, about wine and its bureaucratic discontents:

Many years ago, when I first applied for my basic permit to make wine, the neighbors who owned the substantial meadow in front of my house were Juergen and Anne-Marie Ruesch. She was then perhaps in her late 60's, had been brought up in Berlin, left for the obvious reasons in the late '30's, but retained the splendidly ironic Berlin-Jewish sense of humor and its accompanying accent that ensured we'd get along perfectly, which we did.

Anyway, on this occasion, she came by on her horse, Punky, and we chatted over the fence, as usual. I had just gone through the ordeal of applying for my basic license, and had had no clue in advance what I was getting into; firgerprints, FBI background checks, inspections, charts, and so on; it was quite overwhelming, particularly for one who doesn't take well to regulation in the first place.
So when Anne-Marie asked me, "Tell me, Sean, iss zair any regulation of vine in ze United States?", I really had no idea how to answer. But Europeans were always amused by the name of the agency then involved; so I replied, "Look, Anne-Marie, I don't think I can do any better than simply tell you the name of the department I'm dealing with; it's the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms".

She looked a me for a moment, surprised and bemused, then replied, "Vat? Nozing about sex???".

Told this to my then-supervisor at ATF, Lennie Goldstein from the Bronx; she snapped, "not around here, honey, I can tell you". She was more than enough to make even so grim a bureaucracy amusing. How could even I resist a plea such as, "Sweetheart, just get all your missing Form 702's in to me by Valentine's Day and we'll still have a beautiful relationship". Unfortunately, I never even met her in person…

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Stories; this one, another about old ladies with Attitude:

When I was 4, my father took me back to visit family, mainly my paternal grandparents in Kansas, who were pious Methodists in a very small town; in fact, my grandfather was the local minister.
It was the 4th of July; much of the rest of the family was there as well, so I had plenty of little playmates my own age, and we helled around as one might expect; I was particularly entranced that we could set off fireworks such as Roman candles that were strictly forbidden in California.
Understandably, my grandmother wanted to restore order; so she said to us, "Look: you'd better behave & be good: because if you do, you'll see the most surprising thing you've ever seen: and if you don't, you won't!".

We wondered what to do; because we certainly didn't want to be good, but the prospect of the greatest surprise of our lives, short though they'd been at that point, was too tempting to pass up; so we toned it down a lot. But eventually we reminded her that we'd been good as gold & wanted the payoff. She said, alright, come to the back porch, and gather around the bottom of the steps; which we did.

She came out, looking perfectly & normally her gentle grandmotherish self, and asked, well, were we ready; and we said yes.

She reached up, yanked her false teeth out of her mouth, clacked them up and down in her hand like a demented predator, and attacked us down the stairs.

She was and remains entirely right; I've never been so surprised again.

Stories: this one about wine-making:

Some years back I'd bought a new French oak quarter-barrel, and had filled it with water to be sure it didn't leak. This only takes a few minutes to determine, but it was crush, and I forgot about it for a week or so. When I finally remembered, I drained the water into a large pail; the water was dark and ugly, but smelled wonderful from all that new Vosges oak. At that very moment, as I was contemplating this, one of best friends in the wine world, Bill Mitchell, arrived from Philo for a visit; so I said to him, "Bill, look at this stuff. It smells great, so I don't want to just throw it out; but what could I possibly do with it?".

He replied without missing a beat, "Well, you could just add some alcohol and some tartaric acid and call it Chardonnay".

So quick, and so true of so many Chardonnays then, and still now.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Stories: a series

Stories; a series I think I'd like to to start here, because it's simply fun for me; and this is number one.
OK. So, my mother was born in 1899 on a remote ranch outside Bismarck, North Dakota, and that, then, was remote indeed.
No point here in trying to summarize her life since then, but just after her 100th birthday, she fell badly, and as a result could no longer drive nor live alone, so finally moved into a shared care house near me in Bolinas, where I could visit her every day, and at least weekly take her out in her detested wheelchair to a now gone and much lamented local restaurant called "The Blue Heron", where there was a nice little table at the end of the porch that I could wheel her into.
We were having dinner, she was then 102, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, lively as could be, but in the middle of dinner suddenly stopped; looked very seriously at me; and said, "you know, dear, we haven't heard anything from Grandma or Uncle George for years! What do you think the problem could be?".
Give me credit, I didn't flinch, talking to my 102 year old mother about why she hadn't heard recently from her grandmother.
I said, "Well, Mom, I never knew Uncle George. As I understand it, he died before the ranch was sold, which was when it went bankrupt in 1918; and Grandma Knudtson died I think in 1906, but maybe years before, when the ice broke on the Missouri, flooding the ranch, and she went up onto the roof to escape, but then an enormous ice block knocked the roof off and she floated down the Missouri and died".
My mother looked startled for a moment, then smiled her wonderfully pearly smile, and said, "Well, then: that explains it!"

I don't even know how long I laughed, and she didn't mind at all that I did; & what was so good about our relation, was that laughter at what we said to each other was a pleasure for both of us.