A night on the town for my parents’ generation included a bottle of Lancers with dinner, or maybe a Mateus. These were Portuguese rosé wines, faintly fizzy, in funny-looking bottles that didn’t look much like wine bottles at all. Quality wise they were less olé than oy vey. But they, or maybe a wrapped-in-straw Italian chianti standing on one’s table, were monuments to worldliness. They were all the rage when American middle-class culture was just tipsy-toeing away from oenophobia in the 1960s. By the 70s, Sammy Davis, Jr. was hawking “Man, oh Manischewitz!” kosher wine on TV for a secular audience (made by a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York); and a crapulous Orson Welles, thankfully not looking at his watch, would “sell no wine before its time” — a famously parodied commercial for the defunct Paul Masson winery, eponymously founded by an early 20th century French émigré in what is now Silicon Valley. There were also the likes of Night Train, Boone’s Farm, Thunderbird, and Annie Green Springs guzzled by the gallon on Skid Row in Los Angeles, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and ghettos across the country. But, in Beverly Hills, I once saw a bartender serve “rosé” by topping off a half glass of white wine with red, both from jugs, and. . . voila: rosé! His customer was none the wiser.
I was hardly wiser myself. Red or white. That was the extent of my savior faire when, in the course of an up-and-coming career and opportunities to travel, I found myself in the company of people who enjoyed fine wine. I grew accustomed to good taste with no idea why it tasted good. Coincidentally, what had commonly and presumptuously been dismissed as plonk from California had just made a splash by beating the pants off France in a blind tasting that’s come to be known, since 1976, as the “Judgment of Paris.” This watershed diluted the conceit of French wine supremacy. It popped the cork on a new marketplace for California, first, then throughout the world. And I, a self-styled combination of deTocqueville and Avedon, looked forward to an autodidact’s journey through the newly consecrated Wine Country of California, to photograph its pioneers and learn straight from the horse’s palate.
Wine is sunlight, held together by water. — Galileo
I was ready for my journey in the fall of 1980. I planned it to coincide with the “crush,” when grapes are harvested, trucked throughout a network of vineyards, and, well, crushed to turn grape juice into wine. The air would be redolent of smooshed, fermenting fruit. Legions of vines, some still heavy with cuneiform clumps of berries, leafy and vivid with primary colors, arrayed row after row in precise formation, sometimes terraced, sometimes in cavalcades undulating over hilly terroir, would rival the most radiant New England autumn. I’d been making advance preparations: lots of phone calls and letters to winemakers who seemed genuinely pleased to be recognized for their love of viticulture, not just hankering for publicity. They welcomed me warmly. All but one: the Gallos. They wanted no part of it. Perfunctory. No reason given.
I crammed as much camera gear and film as I could into my yellow Toyota hatchback and hit the 5-North toward San Francisco, driving non-stop from LA, past the Golden Gate to Saint Helena, a small town halfway between Yountville and Calistoga, the southern and northern boundaries of the Napa Valley, respectively. I pulled into a little motel on State Route 29 called El Bonita: headquarters.
Right away I was spending a lot of time driving up and down Route 29 along the west side of the Valley, and the Silverado Trail on the east side, stopping wherever and whenever the light was right for scenic stock photos on Kodachrome (35mm slides) to accompany my large-format, primarily black-and-white (and some color) portraits of the principal winemakers. Shady lanes at various latitudes connected the two parallel thoroughfares running through lush vineyards and over stone bridges spanning the narrow Napa River. From Saint Helena I headed farther east toward Lake Berryessa and Pope Valley, a tinier bucolic growing region, passing through the town of Angwin; called “Anguish” by those who didn’t abide the Seventh Day Adventists who founded the place and proselytized their anti-alcohol notions in the heart of Wine Country.
Towering redwoods, thick oaks, and red manzanita lined the mountain roads connecting Napa and Sonoma, punctuated with treacherous hairpin turns around steep declivities; the environs of the 101 freeway and flatter farmland notwithstanding. These roads took me through the densely forested Vaca Mountains east of the Silverado Trail, then northwest again to Calistoga with its hot springs, mud baths, and caves dug into the side of Diamond Mountain by Chinese laborers with pick-axes on the old Jacob Schram estate (now the late Jack Davies’ family’s Schramsberg Vineyards); then over the Mayacamas Mountains to Jenner on the craggy Sonoma coast; and east again, following the Russian River up to Hopland and Healdsburg, driving from one appellation to another.
In 1980 there were only eighty commercial wineries and winemakers in California. (There are more than four thousand today.) The two who tweaked the upturned noses of the French only four years earlier at the Judgment of Paris were Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. Mike, a true American-dream success story, was a penniless Croatian immigrant who, soon after he worked his way up to become head of production at Chateau Montelena, galled the Gauls with his 1973 chardonnay. Warren, a later generation scion of Polish immigrants, abandoned an academic career, lecturing and writing a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago, to pursue a dream that began when, as a boy, he pressed his ear against a barrel of his father’s homemade dandelion wine to hear the mysterious sounds of fermentation. In Polish, Winiarski means son of a winemaker. That’s either a coincidence or a self-fulfilled prophecy. But it was he, with his 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon, who shattered the myth of the Grand Cru of Bordeaux. Nobody was snickering at California wines anymore. But the fairy tale ending to that story was almost, instead, a retelling of the tree that fell in the forest, never to be heard because no one was there.
We could in the United States make a great variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kind, but doubtless as good. — Thomas Jefferson
What began as a publicity stunt to promote a Paris wine shop, owned implausibly by a young English aristocrat named Steven Spurrier, inadvertently caused commercial and social repercussions throughout the world. Using the American Bicentennial celebration as an excuse to attract attention from the foreign press in Paris — it was 1976 and there was that whole Marquis de Lafayette folderol going on, Spurrier staged an event pitting several California upstarts against the storied wines of France, the best they had to offer. Everyone thought the fix was in; the lambs were being led to slaughter. This was just for wretched fun.
George Taber, a young correspondent for Time magazine stationed in Paris, got wind of the event from a routine press release. On a Monday afternoon in May, with nothing better to do, he strolled to the InterContinental Hotel, just around the corner from the Time bureau on the Champs-Élysées. He knew before he got there that, if the French won this thing as expected, there would be no story to publish — not newsworthy. But, hey! A glass or two of free wine was in the offing.
George was the only journalist who showed up. Then the unthinkable happened. The French experts — restauranteurs, sommeliers, critics, the priests of Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine who couldn’t see the labels on the wines they were swirling, sniffing, sipping, slurping, and spitting — scored themselves right out of their reputations. Sacré bleu!
It was a story after all. Taber filed his copy. It ran as a four-paragraph column hidden in the magazine’s “Modern Living” section next to an ad for automobile tires. Time’s editors in New York didn’t actually grasp its significance when it came over the transom; it was filler, extra column space given to an expatriate reporter. It was the kind of story that gets “bumped” when news deemed more important comes along: a plane crash, the death of a statesman, a celebrity divorce. But George’s little blurb made it into print. And it “went viral” long before there was an Internet, cyberspace, or social media. People heard it through the grapevine, abuzz with a David Kills Goliath story. A simple wine tasting begat the spit heard ’round the world. If it hadn’t been for Taber’s idle curiosity on a slow news day, no one would have ever known what happened. The French sure as hell weren’t going to talk about it.
Decades later, in 2005, Taber’s book, The Judgment of Paris, described what happened in authoritative detail. On its heels, in 2008, came a fictionalized movie, Bottle Shock, starring Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, and Bill Pullman. Wine pairs well with cheese. This cheesy account would more aptly be titled Bottle Schlock. Grgich was characterized more loosely than the thirteenth cork in a case, not mentioned by name but scripted as a conflation of California-blonde hippie chick, intellectual Mexican hired hand, and prodigal pothead son of Montelena’s owner, Jim Barrett. . . engaged in a love triangle. Winiarski escaped portrayal altogether.
My stay in Wine Country lasted three months. It was a social adventure as much as a photo safari. In those days, to go wine tasting in the Napa Valley meant dropping by to visit an unfamiliar “chateau” and being invited to share a sip with the proprietor, long before hospitality and business were ever used in the same sentence. Buy a few bottles or a case and he might proudly show you around the place. The commercialization and touristification of wine tasting and a rivalry with Las Vegas for attracting wedding parties were years away.
Jim Concannon in Livermore invited me to a hundredth anniversary celebration of bottling at Concannon Vineyard. Without a pause for Prohibition, they had a government dispensation to make “sacramental” wine. (The Wentes across the road had one, too.) A big family-style meal was served in the Concannon’s barn. I asked Jim if he planned to design a commemorative anniversary label, trying not to allude too obviously that the current label, brown on brown, was the dullest I’d seen. I asked what the Concannon label looked like in 1880. “Let’s go see,” he said. There was a cellar under the barn. The oldest bottle he could lay his hands on in this vintners oubliette was a 1927 angelica, a dessert wine. Its beautiful label was embossed with an ornate gold serif script. “There’s your centennial label,” I suggested. Because I also said that 1927 was the year my parents were wed, Jim told me to keep the bottle and give it to them. I didn’t tell him they didn’t drink. I still have it, unopened. I don’t think he followed through with the label.
Back in Saint Helena with Louis Martini on camera, cradling a dusty 1941 cabernet in his big hands, hands as big as supermarket chickens — farmer’s hands, I wondered aloud what something so precious — even then more than forty years old — would taste like. “Let’s see,” he said. Out of his pocket came an “ah-so” cork puller with its two prongs, an alternative to the corkscrew that looks like a Jew’s harp. It may have gotten its name if people exclaimed, Ah! So that’s how it works. Louis took two glasses, poured the wine, and set the bottle down on the table, pointing out how droplets fell down its neck leaving tracks on the label, implying, he said, how gratefully it was enjoyed — red wine tears of joy, maybe.
Speaking of corkscrews, Brother Timothy of the Christian Brothers Winery showed me his stupendous collection of corkscrews, pullers, and various other contraptions for opening bottles. He gave me a personal tour of the resplendent Greystone Mansion, a 117,000 square foot stone castle with enormous vaulted cellars; then the home of the Christian Brothers, now the Culinary Institute of America. Of course, we drank some wine. He also gave me an ah-so.
After a luncheon with the Mondavis at their Oakville winery, I was invited to sit in on a tasting of Burgundies just arrived from France, to compare with a recent bottle of their own; all of the same varietal pinot noir grape. I was challenged to find the Mondavi wine from amongst the five wines presented blind. I’m certain luck played a part but, having received an earlier tutorial on a process peculiar to burgundies called chaptalization (the addition of sugar before fermentation to increase alcohol), I succeeded. I scored some Brownie points for taking that dare. On another day of shooting, Robert Mondavi (or it may have been Tim) let me taste his premiere Opus One vintage right out of the barrel, before bottling; a joint venture with French Baron Phillipe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. It was a long time ago, and with only a beginner’s palate, I only remember it was a big honking cab that put me in mind of scarfing down a USDA prime porterhouse steak for dinner.
I photographed Peter Mondavi, too, proprietor of the Charles Krug Winery and Robert’s younger bother. Robert left Krug fifteen years earlier to go it alone. Peter felt betrayed. The two brothers refused to speak to each other. Peter took to pronouncing his surname differently: Mon-day-vi instead of Mon-dah-vi. There was no lack of drama in the Napa Valley.
To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history. — Clifton Fadiman
I also photographed André Tchelistcheff, a White Russian émigré who settled at Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford, Napa County early in the 20th century and became a mentor to many winemakers who were now his peers. He offered me some tips on making wine and tasting wine; the former I can hardly put into practice and the latter I can’t afford to.
For another portrait I met Jan and Val Haraszthy, a father and son with deep roots in Sonoma. They are direct descendants of two men who shaped history. One was Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, who founded the town of Sonoma in 1835 and who, in 1846, was forced at gunpoint to relinquish sovereignty from Mexico to the California Bear Republic. That’s how we got our flag. Twenty-five days later, California was annexed by the United States; ultimately achieving statehood in 1850. The other antecedent was Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman who brought the first vine cuttings from Europe to plant in California. He founded the state’s first commercial winery, Buena Vista Winery, in Sonoma in 1857.
When I arrived at the Fetzer Winery in the town of Hopland, in Sonoma County, something special was going on: an extended family reunion presided over by patriarch Barney Fetzer. There were kids, grandkids, cousins, aunts, and uncles galore. I photographed the entire clan. I was even privileged to see one of Barney’s son’s personal cash crop; and it wasn’t grapes.
Back in LA, I sent a thank-you portrait to each of my subjects. I thought that was that. But no. For weeks on end the UPS truck showed up at my door with case after case of private reserve this and limited edition that. I had premium wines enough to last for years. I’m also happy to know that my portrait of Mike Grgich still hangs in the Grgich Hills tasting room. But I received sad news, too, when I arrived home. Barney Fetzer died suddenly of heart failure shortly after I left Hopland. I remained close to the Fetzers for years after that, and I made sure everyone got family photos.
Years later, on a dinner date at Mustards Grill in Yountville, I spied a familiar face on the opposite side of the restaurant. My girlfriend was distracted, eyeing a wine list on the chalkboard above the kitchen, trying to decide. I excused myself nonchalantly, rose from the table, walked over, and reintroduced myself to Robert Mondavi — it had been a few years — and asked if he’d be kind enough to make my day. The Nabob of Napa himself came back with me to personally suggest a wine for my girlfriend. Now, that scored big points.
In 2010, the Napa Valley Museum hosted a special event that coincided with an exhibition of my winemaker portraits. To celebrate the upcoming 35th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris and, also, the publication of Taber’s book, the museum invited George along with Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski to a panel discussion in the gallery. It was packed with oenophiles and history buffs. What astounded me was that this was the first time Grgich and Winiarski had ever met face to face. Come on! They both live in the same little valley. Cork dorks! But the upshot is that I, having been their photographic common denominator, was joyously privileged to introduce them to each other. A friend posed us for a snapshot with the portraits I made of them thirty years earlier.