Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Trahan: Wine Trapeze Artist

“Before this, I was an engineer in the bio-medical industry,” Chuck Custodio says above us, already ten feet off the winery floor. He’s scaling his way up a stack of wine barrels to secure some barrel samples. “I built the high-tech equipment drug manufacturers use to create designer drugs.” On the ground, a small group of patrons (and me of course) watch with trepidation, wondering just where he’s headed. Apparently the barrel he’s after is near the top, plenty precarious without also toting along a fistful of wine glasses and a wine thief. Chuck then quips, “That equipment I handled -- eventually gave rise to the drug Viagra!,” which of course gets a belly laugh.

Moments later, stepping down from the stacks without spilling a drop, Chuck dispenses the samples. A woman in our group takes her glass and asks, “How many bottles of wine can you get out of a barrel?” “Absolutely none,” Chuck quickly retorts. Off her bewildered look, he tells her straight, “Bottles are way too big to fit through such a tiny bung hole.” More laughs all around. Then he answers the question thoroughly and honestly, “Each barrel is slightly different in size, but on average, around twenty-four cases of wine can be bottled from a single barrel. Twelve bottles to a case makes it -- two hundred eighty-eight bottles give or take.”

He holds up his glass. “This Petit Verdot for example, will run a little over two hundred fifty cases--” “Which means you have …” The woman does the math, “ten barrels!” “That’s right,” Chuck nods, flashing a warm smile. The woman grins back thoroughly charmed.

Just what is it about Chuck Custodio -- winemaker, owner and apparently trapeze artist of Trahan Winery? Is it the Versace eyewear? Or maybe the killer long ball he often muscles on the golf links? Or is it the rocking wines he makes? I meet many people in the wine trade, some colorful, many talented, but for some reason Chuck stands out. Maybe it’s the quick wit and easy confidence. The charisma. The charm. Whatever the appeal, there are those few who just seem to put more of an electric charge into the air. His beautiful wife Janna, when asked how she and Chuck first met, will say without hesitation, “At a strip club.” For a second I ask myself, ‘Is that true?’ Janna’s coy grin belies the truth. (She’s actually a surgical nurse.) Then there’s Sadie, Chuck’s German shorthaired pointer and barrel bung fetcher extraordinaire, who can often be seen around the winery greeting guests and cajoling them into throwing her slimy silicone barrel bung she loves to chase.

Maybe it’s that everybody who likes wine has that secret fantasy of dumping their current job and running off to Napa Valley to make wine; it’s just that Chuck Custodio went ahead and did it. “My Dad thought I was cracked,” he remembers. “Throwing away a good paying job, to work for peanuts for four straight years? Commuting four hours a day from San Francisco? He was from the school of hard knocks, conservative, tough -- became a Staff Sergeant in the Army before taking a job as a Santa Clara Firefighter. He retired as Deputy Fire Chief. My mom on the other hand was a creature of the sixties, artistic and liberal to the core. When I told her what I was planning to do, she was so proud of me she cried.”

A young woman, no doubt influenced by the current climate of political antagonism, pipes up incredulously, “If your parents were so different politically, how could they get married in the first place?” It’s the type of candor that can kill a festive mood. Chuck pauses only a second, “Great sex, obviously!” meeting cheek with cheek. Then he throws up his arms with a mad twinkle in his eyes. “I’m proof of that!” Touché.

Besides, I see both of his parents alive in Chuck. In his father, the natural leadership -- currently Chuck is Vice President of the Silverado Trail Winery Association, and often you can find him acting as ringleader behind many golf games with winemakers and others in the trade, or getting a group together for networking over burgers and beers at some club or restaurant. His mother’s artistic side can be seen in his choice of profession. Though Chuck was never one for throwing pots or painting watercolors, making wine is an art and one he’s very good at.

The best part though is watching his easy way with people. Tasting wines with him demystifies the whole experience. A joke here, a practical insight explained over there. I think it’s because Chuck makes you feel like an insider. You’re part of the in-group. You feel hip, just like him. And you get the comfortable feeling there’s no pressure to buy. He’s pouring wines for you because he’s proud of them, for good reason. His wines are all like his personality: big and bold –- there is nothing shy or restrained about them. His Merlot for instance is one of the best I’ve ever tried. Most people who try his Merlot for the first time think it’s one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons they’ve ever had. Then Chuck tells them with a crafty grin that it’s 100 percent Merlot. Mouths drop open. His Petit Verdot is also 100 percent, which is rare. His Petit Verdot can wrestle satisfactorily with your taste buds without any help. His Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both daring as well. These wines are never muddy, overly extracted or clumsy. They are honest, straightforward wines, nothing manipulated or phony. Chuck’s winemaking philosophy is let the wines be what they are, don’t get in their way (or I might add, don’t hold anything back). When someone in our group jokes, “Just like Viagra, you enjoy bringing pleasure to people.” Chuck says with candor, “Hey, I’m in it strictly for the booze.”