By Elizabeth Werhane on August 19, 2011
For more than seven years, I’ve been drinking wine and calling it “research.” Now you’re reading my final Wine Buzz column, and my mileage to Paso Robles will no longer be a tax write-off.
I pruned vineyards with Louis Lucas. I extracted MOG from under the destemmer and repaired barrels at Margerum. I bottled at Silver. I petted dozens of winery dogs. I ate a lot of cheese.
Since this is my farewell column, I want to confess a long-held secret, reflect on changes in the industry and break my seven-year silence about a few of my favorite things.
First, I will tell you my secret. I honestly thought the movie “Sideways” would flop.
I was giddy to attend the premier at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, but after watching the misadventures of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley, I never suspected it would appeal to a wider audience. I thought the film was a series of inside jokes and references that only locals would appreciate — Chris Burroughs at Sanford Winery, ostriches, the Hitching Post, Fess Parker’s winery disguised as Frass Canyon, and more.
“Sideways” didn’t flop. It won an Oscar. It made wine accessible to everyone, and everyone came to have wine. Busloads of tourists flooded the Santa Ynez Valley, and the wine industry boomed across the entire region — yes, including wineries that made merlot.
It became difficult (but fun!) trying to keep up with the new winery openings in the valley, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and even Ventura.
I then watched as family wineries began handing the business to the next generation or selling it to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial winemakers at big-name wineries began producing their own boutique labels.
The hospitality industry grew up around the vineyards with every variation of wine package imaginable. Before long, you could take a wine tour on a bus, a limo, a trolley, a Jeep, a stretch Hummer or a bicycle. I was expecting to see advertisements for donkey wine tours by now.
The industry evolved so quickly that I was never bored — especially with the company I kept. Most winemakers are great storytellers. I want to thank the people who always returned my calls, let me peek into their lives and drink out of their barrels.
I’d especially like to thank Jim Fiolek, Wes and Chandra Hagen, Laura Kath, Doug Margerum, Richard Sanford, Kris Curran, Ben Silver, Bob Wesley, Lane Tanner, Christopher Weir, the men who pour at the Ballard Inn, Ken Brown, Gary Stemper, Sherman Thacher, Fred Brander, Daniel and Jennifer Gehrs, Richard and Pamela Harris, Blair Fox, Dana Merrill, Kenneth Volk, Louis Lucas, Brooks Firestone, Larry Schaffer, Dave Potter and the couple behind Enjoy cupcakes who made every trip to Los Olivos a treat.
Some of you I’ve repeatedly returned to over the years, and some of you left a lasting impression after just one conversation. Thank you.
Thank you to Business Times Editor Henry Dubroff, who hired me as a technology reporter in 2003 and trusted me to be the managing editor shortly after, and to the many talented staff members whose publication I look forward to every week.
As a wine columnist for a business journal, I wasn’t reviewing wines. I didn’t rate them on a 100-point scale or tell a reader which wines have hints of stone fruit, asparagus, dirt or cherry. Now, before I sign off, I will share a few of my favorite wines.
The first tri-county wine I fell in love with was Babcock Ocean’s Ghost pinot noir. I later cheated on it with Babcock Fathom. My next great love was Kenneth-Crawford Four Play syrah. I’ve shared it with many friends, and no one has ever expressed disappointment. The Sea Smoke Southing is the perfect complement to a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner or simply a night of good conversation with friends.
One of the most memorable wines I had was one a friend shared with me – theSaxum James Berry Vineyard 2007 blend. The mix of grenache, mourvedre and syrah from Paso Robles won top honors from Wine Spectator in 2010 and from me.
It’s not always easy to find the above wines in local stores or on restaurant menus, so here are a few of my easier-to-find, reliably good wines: Brander sauvignon blanc, Castoro Cellars pinot noir, Qupé syrah, and J. Lohr anything. I don’t claim to have a well-trained wine palate, just a well-worn one.
If I can leave my readers with one piece of advice, I recommend that you follow this simple four-step plan that has never failed me. 1. Explore and be curious. 2. Find wines that delight you. 3. Drink them. 4. Repeat.
I’ll be sticking to that plan. In fact, I think I hear a zin port calling my name.
• This is Liz Wehane’s final installation of Wine Buzz, a monthly column on the tri-county wine industry.