Given your past success, did you ever think you’d feel the way you feel now in terms of needing to sell the wine you need to sell?
Never. This is new territory. I haven’t felt this way since I started. Granted, a lot of this is a function of the ridiculous economy. Nevertheless, it’s really weird and scary. I mean, I think a good business plan is to make really good wines, sell at a fair price, put an interesting label, have good story. You’d think that’s a reasonable plan. That’s the beginning of a plan. Now you gotta figure out what’s the third derivative of that plan, you have be like a Jedi or something, a mystical connection, I don’t know… I would hate to be starting a wine business right now, but actually I am sort of starting a wine business. It really feels very much like a startup. It’s weird that that’s how it feels.
Do you regret the moves you’ve made in the last couple of years, downsizing the company?
Had you not made those moves, would things be as difficult?
I’d be out of business I’m sure by now. I’m sure if I hadn’t it would’ve been a major business disaster, major catastrophe. Everybody’s really hurting. The reason I sold it, one of the reasons, is it just got so big. We couldn’t compete. I didn’t like the wines. They meant nothing. I mean, it was kind of cool to be the 28th largest winery in the United States. That was cool, but so what. You know?
What was it like to work with Ralph Steadman on some of your wine labels?
It was fun. He’s a nut. Difficult. Great guy. Completely from another planet. Very temperamental. Volatile. He does not take direction at all. Argumentative. Brilliant, I mean, watching him work was, you know, he draws really fast, really fast. He puts it together, a drawing, in a shocking amount of time. It’s like automatic, like a machine… amazing. He does not take any criticism, will not take any criticism, like none. Zero.
If you could choose one Bonny Doon wine for our readers to try, and that wine develops the magical ability to talk on the shelf, what does that wine say to the prospective buyer?
It could be a couple. If it were the albarino, it would say something like, “This wine is acoustic dude. It’s not embellished, it’s not baroque, it’s not messed with. It’s very plain, un-amplified. It’s simple, it’s honest. Check it out. It’s as eloquent in what it doesn’t do as with what it does do. Check it out with some ceviche or some scallops or some shrimp.” Or the Central Coast Syrah, the wine that Parker gave a 78. Get some ribs, with some tomato sauce or whatever. Get something savory, and try it. There is a savoriness in the wine that links with savory food. Something that’s been cooked, roasted over a period of time.
If you could travel back in time to when you started your journey towards becoming a winemaker, what advice would you give yourself?
Learn how to farm, learn how to grow grapes. Everything else is trivial; just learn how to grow good grapes. Spend time in Europe, when you can, before you have a family, before you’re stuck. Don’t go to [University of California] Davis, go to Torino or Montpellier. Get a different perspective, because, the other thing is that, in California, in the New World, we’re so much in the culture of control. We want to control everything, we want to control our irrigation, we want to control our yeast, fermentation rates. We want to control our tannins, we want to take the bad tannins out and put the good tannins in, and I think it’s just sort of the wrong approach. You lose something very precious when you control everything, the wine can’t suddenly evolve and change in unexpected ways, you already know where you are taking it, and I think you lose a lot of possibility of greatness, and I think also that you lose a lot of complexity.
What is the vision of this new vineyard you’re pursuing?
I’m trying to create conditions for something very interesting to happen. For the site to express itself and it’s just a matter of intention. For example, I’m intending to dry farm. I don’t know whether I will or whether I’ll succeed, I’ve had people come in and say it cannot be done, will not work.
Do you have a time line for the project?
I want to do it before I die. That’s my time line.
I was showing your book [Been Doon So Long] to some friends, and the illustrations and concepts are pretty amazing, especially the leopard in the Vinferno.
You know it’s freaky. The freaky thing about this new vineyard that we’re gonna plant in San Juan Batista is that I had dreamt about it before I saw it, and then I saw it, and that was the vineyard in my mind when I was writing the Vinferno about the pinot noir vineyard. But then the other thing that was weird, this is so weird, this is SO weird, I had forgotten that in the poem, there was a leopard, but there was also a lion. First I see the leopard, then I see the lion.
Turns out, there actually is a lion in the vineyard, more or less that I saw, more or less recently in the same place as I envisioned this pinot noir vineyard. There actually is a lion.
Like, an animal?
In Santa Cruz?
In San Juan Batista. On our property, there’s a lion that more or less lives on the property.
How is that possible?
He’s a lion. He can do whatever he wants.
A wild animal lion is roaming around your vineyard property in California?
Well it’s not a vineyard yet. And there is a lion who I’ve seen once, my colleague Philipe has seen three times, once at a range of thirty feet, and scared the fuck out of him. He was being hunted. The lion was hunting him.
Have you guys done anything about this lion?
Not yet. But soon. It’s on the list.
Your to do list?
It’s on the list, ya. I don’t know whether it’s a male or female, or if there’s more than one, but there is a lion.
Well if lions don’t eat grapes it’ll keep the deer out.
It does keep the deer out. They don’t eat grapes. My plan is to get a big, serious dog…a really serious dog. That’s my plan…and maybe some spray…or something. I mean, not that it will…I won’t even see it coming when it comes, but, nevertheless, it’ll be good to have a little psychological something…
To protect you against the lion?
And a fence, you know, a fence is a complete joke. They can jump crazy high…crazy high. So, we’ll see how it goes. And maybe when we clear all the stuff and plant the vines, it won’t be an issue. I’ll feel better with a fence, even if it’s a joke for the lion…[laughs]