Friday, November 16, 2007

Reindeer’s Leap

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Chimney Rock Winery lately, partly because I’ve been signing books in their tasting room (and we’ve been selling a lot of books, which is fantastic), but mostly, it’s because the people are so nice, like Tom Trzesniewski (pronounced “tres-new-ski”, with an emphasis on the “tres”). Tom is the retail manager at Chimney Rock. He owned his own business for 11 years, ran businesses for other people, and retired in 2003, so he could do what he loves the most. The other day, Tom gave me, and some friends of mine from Chicago, a vineyard tour of the estate and barrel tasting. We were standing in the vineyard, and Tom was pointing out to us an outcropping of crags on the eastern face of the Vaca Range, called Chimney Rock, which the winery was named after. Tom tells us that a chief of the Wappo tribe that settled the area thousands of years ago had chased a white stag up into the palisades, and to escape, the stag leaped from one palisade to another. Considering the distance between those palisades today, either the chief was an awfully good storyteller, or it wasn’t a stag at all, but a reindeer. But Reindeer’s Leap doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Stag’s Leap does.

Tom moved on to explain how these palisades on the eastern face of the Vaca Range tend to heat up during the day, causing thermal winds to swirl around the Stag’s Leap district in a unique way. In the summer months, the swirling air keeps the region cooler, lengthening the time the grapes will hang on the vines. This translates into softer tannins in the finished wine, while giving them an enviable ability to age.

Maybe the reason why Tom knows so much is that he’s not just the retail manager, he’s also a wine educator. It’s says so on his business card. Actually, all the wine tasting staff are wine educators, come to think of it, like Mike Morf (with an emphasis on “morf”). He was telling me this story the other day about his late father-in-law, which has nothing to do with wine, but it’s a really funny story. His late father-in-law immigrated to California at the early part of the last century with his identical twin brother, from the north coast of France, which, incidentally, is a region known for pirates. Mike jokes with a twinkle in his eye that the instinct for piracy was probably embedded in their genes. They somehow became owners of a gas station in the early 1940s and quickly made enemies of all their competitors by underpricing their gas and cornering all the retail trade by buying bulk parts and supplies by the box-car load. The funny part comes when the brothers discover that if they buy three box-car loads of parts, or more, they can get them even cheaper. So they hire a guy to go around to their competitors and his job is to bad mouth the brothers, complaining bitterly how they won’t do business with him, and he has all these cheap parts and supplies, and if they buy them from him, they can screw the brothers. No one ever caught on that they were actually buying from them. Classic.

And then there’s Tom Ebert (who needs no emphasis), who I’ve noticed is building his dinner menu while he’s pouring wines for guests. Some of them sound so delicious, when I hear him describe them, my mouth waters -- like his dry shiitake mushroom encrusted halibut. It sounded so good that I went home that night and tried it myself. What you do is you take some dried shiitake mushrooms, and you pulverize them in a food processor with some garlic powder, salt and pepper, and some rice flour to crisp up the coating. You coat your fish with the mixture, and sauté in some butter for 1-1.5 minutes on each side on medium high heat. And what a fantastic fish recipe it turned out to be, and I might add, a perfect pairing with Chimney Rock’s award-winning wines, red or white.

All the people I’ve met at Chimney Rock – Tom, Mike, Tom, Joan, Ashley, Curtis, and Doug Fletcher, the winemaker – have been a delight. Mrs. Wilson seems to agree with me. She is 94 years old, and started Chimney Rock with her husband in the mid 1980s. She lives in the house on the hill above the vineyards, and still comes to the winery to pick up her wine, shake hands, and visit. Who wouldn’t?

Friday, November 2, 2007

How Do They Sell So Much Wine?

Can you take a few more?” Rick Healy sticks his head inside the door, interrupting. We’re in Dennis Zablosky’s office at Frank Family Vineyards (that's Dennis in his office in the photo), where Dennis is giving me, along with David Harmon III, owner of Carneros della Notte, and about ten VIPs a private wine tasting. And with that many clinking wine glasses crowding his desk, the place is wall-to-wall jammed. Dennis sputters, “Absolutely not!” “OK,” Rick quips, “I’ll send them right in.”

Vaudeville. Everybody laughs, of course, why not. They’re having the time of their lives, sipping Frank Family Vineyards’ award-winning Chardonnay, described by Dennis as “liquid crème brulee”. It’s not just the office that’s jammed. It’s the whole tasting room. Dennis, who runs Frank Family Vineyards’ direct sales, has been a larger than life presence in the local wine scene for nearly four decades. Robert Mondavi, the most eminent wine celebrity in the valley, called him “a living legend,” and rightly so. Not many wineries get this kind of foot traffic, day in and day out, with much of it serious wine buyers: CEOs and business tycoons, sports celebrities and movie moguls, film stars and famous authors, well, almost famous – the movers and shakers of the world – who fly on private jets to visit wine country, and to sit down with Dennis. “It’s a day-long party,” Patrick Cline says to me, “from the moment we open until closing time.” I marvel at their stamina. Patrick is one of Dennis’ raconteurs, entertaining and pouring wine along with Rick Healy, and Jeff Senelick, and Jerry Smith, and Tim Murphy – all men, mature and self assured, who create a club-like atmosphere that’s as inviting to women as it is to men. Somehow they manage to juggle a host of new visitors everyday, who arrive by the minute, spreading them out amongst three pouring bars in that old ramshackle building, more like a small-town Mayberry government DMV than a grand wine palace. (Rumor has it a new winetasting room is in the works at Frank Family Vineyards.)

Rick is back moments later with the two new VIPs, a business executive who had visited Dennis on a previous trip, and is back for more star treatment with his gorgeous girlfriend. As Dennis tries to explain once more about the lack of room, he catches sight of her at the door. “Well, hello sweetheart.” To the executive he says, “If I’d known you brought such a beautiful woman with you… Make more room!” He motions at the rest of us to clear some space as more laughter erupts. “What do you do, honey?” “I’m a masseuse,” the girlfriend says carefully, aware that all eyes are watching her. “Oh,” Dennis moans with true feeling, “you can save my life. Come closer honey. Give her room.” He rolls his shoulder painfully. “I have this old rotator cuff injury that stiffens up on me.” Obviously, this is the price of admission. As room is made, the girlfriend happily obliges.

There’s something special about a visit to Frank Family Vineyards. When you’re near the pulse beat of a place, the very heart of what’s happening, where the who’s who gather, you can feel it – that same draw that pulled Marilyn Monroe and joltin’ Joe DiMaggio north from Hollywood years ago when Frank Family Vineyards was called Hans Kornell, and when Marilyn fell in love with pink champagne that later she was rumored to have bathed in, and is still being made in the old Champangnois method by Frank Family Vineyards’ winemaker, Todd Graff.

Many wineries in the valley draw huge crowds, and have great stories to tell, and have fantastic wines, but Frank Family Vineyards not only gets visitors packing bottles out the door, but whole cases. Cases and cases and cases.

I’ve wondered how exactly they do it. Somewhere near 85% of the wine is sold directly at the winery. What makes this wine tasting room so successful? It’s actually quite simple. They make you feel like a star. And being a star means getting star treatment. From the moment you step foot inside, you’re in the spotlight, greeted with a smile at the door, offered a glass of champagne, and asked, “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to wine country?” You’re special. And to prove it, they’re putting on a party, just for you. It doesn’t cost you anything. Just showing up makes you a member of the club. And club members get privileges. Maybe even a private pouring at Dennis’ office. And that special feeling can keep going just by taking some wine home with you when you leave. Cases and cases and cases.