The Past is Full of Forgotten Things

Gentle giants relic’d by an explosion on Mount St. Helena, snagged by plows 3 million years later, and reduced to a roadside attraction. Go ahead, tour The Petrified Forest near Calistoga. But if you think wine-tastings are boring, you haven’t been to a petrified forest. Wine tastings are fascinating after this. Walking out of these stoned woods I suddenly remembered a time long ago when Napa Valley wine was anything but boring.

rolling hill vineyard on Silverado Trail

My friends and I discovered wine in the 1970s the way most young adults do. It was time. We didn’t know it but we were smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Napa Valley wine. From the mid-1960s to the late 1980s the wines all had something in common – they were really interesting. We couldn’t wait to try the next one. The wines back then had something to say. And so did the people who made them.

Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Donn Chappellet, Jack Cakebread were all real characters and some of the greatest farmer-winemaker-salesmen who ever lived. They had personality. They couldn’t stop talking and neither could their wines. In the mid-1990s a couple friends and I sat with them on several occasions, drank wine, and listened. We were searching for a common thread for a television show about wine we were developing. But there was no common thread except one – they were all tinkerers. They tinkered with everything. They tinkered with their tractors, their soil, their winery equipment, their grapes, barrels, everything. They were explorers – time travelers to the future discovering the awesome potential of Napa Valley wine. The winemakers in the Golden Age were compadres, mentors, and competitors on the same ship going in different directions.

What none of us knew then was at that very moment, the greatness they discovered was evaporating into the mist of Napa Valley. In fact it was already gone. The 1990s was a new era and the new winemaker was a quiet colorless technician of shocking expertise and skill. By the turn of the century the Golden Age of discovery was only a memory, the ability to replicate it lost.

vineyard on Silverado Trail

Today all Napa Valley wine is good, the vineyards perfect. Nobody makes bad wine – you can tick-off the nuances, textures, and flavors without even trying. But we defy you to tell much difference between them. Napa Valley may have the best climate in the world for growing grapes – every vintage is great. But few wines taste really interesting. Riding through Napa Valley today the only voice I hear is the stone-cold silence of perfection. There’s no conversation. The grapes have nothing to say … and neither do the wines.

prefecto silento

Standing by the bike on The Silverado Trail this morning taking-in the beauty of this place I couldn’t help wondering how this all came to silento perfecto. Maybe tinkering is the secret weapon of greatness or maybe it’s a weapon of mass destruction. Did our explorers get lost at sea? Somehow Napa Valley found itself marooned on generic shores of pretty good stuff. Excuse me, very good stuff. But no one remembers how to make the wine we all loved so much when we were young. We’re still in love with Napa Valley and its wine but we’re in love with our memories even more.

3 million years from now a farmer working Napa Valley soil will snag the mojo of Joe Heitz or Robert Mondavi or Donn Chappellet or Jack Cakebread. We hope they won’t be reduced to a roadside attraction. My guess is they’ll still have a lot to say.

Next stop, Yosemite.

The Dark Knight

On The Silverado Trail – Friday the 13th September 2013

Author Notes:
In the early 90s, I somehow hooked-up with the son of a famous vineyard owner in Calistoga and over time with another friend from the Madison Avenue advertising world we cooked-up the idea for a TV show we code-named, “Wine Country Journal” … for a couple years we traveled to the California wine country to develop the concept … we met so many winemakers, vineyard owners, and chefs … drank champagne – okay, sparkling – in the evening and great wine from the cellars of famous winemakers during the day … we frequently had the Chef’s Table at great restaurants including The French Laundry where we met the renowned Thomas Keller who cooked us a rabbit … I really did spend time with all the guys mentioned in this post and many, many more not mentioned … they were all characters, many were already old … but their stories would make a great show we thought … the people running the show today are highly-skilled in the arts of wine and food, there’s so much more money at stake now … but they’re colorless technicians in comparison with the Old Ones from the past … I hope they will never be forgotten but I fear they will … foodTV turned-down our concept and nothing ever came of it … the old treatments are around here somewhere … the past is full of forgotten things

My idea that the Old Ones were tinkerers arose from our many sit-down drinkathons with them … if there was another common thread it was the fallacious claim that they let the wine make itself with minimal interference … over time it became obvious the claim was a bald-face lie … after a few glasses of ethereal cabernet they’d let slip a myriad of tinkers they developed over a lifetime of growing grapes and making wine … in their defense, it actually was tinkering as I recall their stories … nothing like the heavy-handed treatment of today’s amazing super-technicians

Every time we went to Napa Valley, Margaret pleaded to go to the Petrified Forest near Calistoga … she loved rocks and collected them famously … the place looked cheesy so I fought the idea by diverting her attention to food and wine and we never went … I went this time to do penance for that sin … I’m glad I did … it triggered so many interesting memories … and yes, that roadside attraction is cheesy but if your wife wants to see it, you should go with her

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