Thursday, December 31, 2009

Perfect Timing

Whew! Finally… a new blog. Some of you might’ve wondered why you haven’t heard much from me lately. Well, there was no catastrophe. At least, I don’t think it’s catastrophic… There’s a reason, a very good reason. It’s just that I’ve sort of --uh, gotten myself swamped, flooded, snowed under, buried alive -- or putting it more mildly -- tied up, held captive, imprisoned, hanged! In other words…I started a winery.

Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t drag my wife Lois into being tied up, held captive, imprisoned and hanged right along with me. To quote Bugs Bunny, “Ain’t I a stinker. Hee-hee-hee.” I must say, this crazy endeavor would never have happened without her enabling and not insignificant heavy lifting. Our first label and current release is a stunning 2007 Russian River Valley pinot noir called Rosalynd. To many of you familiar with my mystery, “The Good Life, A Chris Garrett Novel” also a 2007 vintage by the way, the name Rosalynd will come as no surprise. She’s that captivating character that Chris Garrett chooses to dally with so amusingly throughout the book, having a great deal of feminine grace and personal beauty, but I’ll get to more about Rosalynd and my pinot in a moment; back to my story.

Starting a winery in 2007 couldn’t have been more perfect timing. The wine business as a whole was experiencing an all time high; more Americans were drinking more wine and buying wine at higher prices than ever before, and as a consequence vendors and vineyard sources, if you could find any, were understandably also jacking up prices to the straining point. Meanwhile custom crush opportunities (that’s the term wineries use when their facility is being used to make other people’s wine), again if you could find any available for dreamers like me wishing to join the wine business, were priced more like voluntary muggings -- the only difference was that the wineries weren’t carrying a gun. There also seemed to be an endless supply of new recruits with the same dizzy dream as me lining up to get mugged. Then as everyone knows we had the Great Recession… but I get to more of that later too.

The idea for starting a winery began in earnest in the mid 1990’s. I was writing movie scripts freelance in Hollywood, fighting the wars so to speak, and bloodying my nose and bruising my forehead trying to break into that very closed and cloistered cottage industry. I diligently pounded away at it though, writing 29 screenplays, all the while trying to cope with deranged producers and duplicitous contacts, and discovered that I was drinking a lot of wine to compensate. Wine I was beginning to realize was a lot like writing, the more I learned about it, the more fascinating it became. I soon was reading everything I could find on the subject, even tracking down rare tomes on the art and craft of winemaking held at the venerable UC Davis wine library (which is a hell of a resource on all things wine related for those who might be interested). I was also discovering that reading and drinking wine was not enough, I was itching to get my hands dirty, and I started whipping up batches of wine at home and volunteering as a “cellar rat” at wineries.

One day, after a particularly sour phone call with a surly movie producer, Lois asked me what I was going to do once all this hard work and persistence paid off and I landed my glorious Hollywood whale -- the million dollar movie deal -- and I said, “Why, I’ll buy a vineyard and make wine!” She then cut to the chase, “Why wait, if that’s what you really want to do?”

It was an epiphany. I had been traveling to Napa Valley regularly in recent years in pursuit of ever more perfect fruit for my own winemaking, and truth be told, soaking in the beautiful scenery and the equally beautiful wines. And I had made some friends along the way. One in particular, a flamboyant raconteur named Dave Harmon, founder of the internet portal, who had a vineyard in the Los Carneros region of the valley, had just started a new winery called Carneros della Notte. I had purchased pinot noir grapes from him the last couple years and had helped him bring in the harvest. Maybe Dave had more "cellar rat" chores and could use a hand, for an idea had come to me. Why not put my vocation and avocation together and write a book about wine. Or more precisely, write a mystery about a winemaker that takes place in Napa Valley. It would be the perfect way to learn the ins and outs of the industry and maybe along the way I might figure out how to start my own wine label. So I put the idea before Dave, and since he had recently started a wine distribution business as well, had plenty of work for an eager “cellar rat” to do and put me to work.

A New Winery is Born

Working for Carneros della Notte was a fantastic opportunity, I not only got to see how a small winery gets born and totters up on its feet, but I also got to learn what it takes to make stellar pinot noir. Dave opened up his whole business to me and in doing so opened up the whole Napa Valley. I got to participate in all aspects of the business, from clean up chores to sales trips around the country pouring wine, from wine blending in the cellar and maintaining the vineyard to meeting with the press. I even finished my novel. I had to write most of it from 4AM - 7AM to get it done, because I was so tired at the end of the day from all the physical labor. But the idea for my own wine business had never dimmed. The question was, how to make it happen.

I knew I had gained the knowledge to make great wine and start my own label. I had only one problem as I could see it, how exactly to pull it off. Starting a wine business is more than just an idea. It takes a combination of study, sweat, luck, money, persistence, patience, hard work, more money and a great vineyard source to pull it off. Did I mention how much money is needed? Good God, between the government agencies coming out of the woodwork with new fees or taxes or old fees that were on the books but not collected, or the economic downturn, or that you have to finance three or more vintages before having anything to sell, the wine business can feel like some kind of voracious money pit with teeth. Yeeoww!

And there was still one more thing I needed something I could have used more of in Hollywood -- a friend. James Moss of J. Moss Wines once said to me when I brought up the idea of starting a wine label, “There’s really nothing to it. You just jump.” It’s a leap of faith… I had faith, I just didn’t have a cliff to dive off from. James then said, “Yeah, you do. You can make wine with me.” (That's James Moss in the middle and Chris Bartalotti, another great winemaker friend, on the right, helping me press the 2009 pinot noir.)

Starting a Winery

I now had contacts in the industry. Amazingly I had gotten a foothold in Napa Valley, cabernet sauvignon country, and now had a winery to make wine in (thank you, James) --and it doesn’t hurt having NV (envy) on your wine label. But as much as I liked and could appreciate cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir is the wine that sings to me. And as chance would have it, and as it is with most things in life, chance and a little bit of luck, I found my great vineyard source, but it happened to be in Sonoma County, in the Russian River Valley to be exact. Could I start a wine business with a winery in Napa Valley and source grapes from the highly desirable appellation of the Russian River Valley? Hell yes I could!

Now all I needed was a name for my wine – along with fifty million other things, but who’s counting? I knew I wanted to link the winery up with my book, because a novel is such a novel (ha-ha) way of marketing wine, especially using a mystery novel about a winemaker. Nobody had done that before.

Pinot noir, maybe more than any other wine, conjures up many feminine comparisons, perhaps because it so easily seduces, with finesse and velvety softness. The wine can be plush, floral, full of perfume, and in a word, pretty -- not the most masculine descriptors. If I called the wine Chris Garrett I’d have to go ahead and change my own name -- enough people are confusing the two of us already. In the book, Rosalynd was described as the prettiest woman in the room, and I wanted my wine to stand out as the prettiest pinot noir in any grouping.

I think I have achieved this. From our tasting notes -- “the 2007 Rosalynd Russian River Valley Pinot Noir $38.00 matured in French oak barrels for 18 months, then bottle-aged for an additional 8 months. The color is a brilliant ruby, the bouquet is enticingly floral, the taste is of bright berry fruit with a creamy mouth-feel, the finish is complex with hints of exotic spice.” I’ve gotten a funny response more that once since releasing the 2007, first a stunned look and then a quick incredulous question, “This is your first wine?” I smile and say, “It’s my first commercial release.” Then again, as if they didn’t quite hear me, “This is your first wine?” “Yes,” I say with a chuckle, “but I’ve been practicing for nearly fifteen years.” Practice makes perfect.

Please call us if you’d like to visit Rosalynd Winery – 707/337-3348 – we are at 901B Enterprise Way, Napa, CA 94558. And if you’re in Oakland, our wine is also available in Brian Goehry’s delightful shop Wine on Piedmont. Stop in and see him and grab a bottle or two. Also our wine will soon be in HASR wine shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I’ll be doing a tasting and book signing Friday, Jan. 8, 2010. Mahalo.

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