Back in October, in the middle of the quarantine, I ended a column with the words, “I’m ready for 2020 to end. Looking back, I see that the old saw “be careful what you wish for” is a timeless adage for a reason. To date in 2021, I’m marveling at the tremendous losses we’ve suffered collectively — and that I’ve suffered personally. Over the past six months, we’ve lost nearly four million people worldwide and over six hundred thousand in the United States alone to the pandemic. While quarantine is lifting here, it seems we are far from being out of the woods just yet.
In that same span, I’ve experienced COVID personally (thankfully a moderate case with only a temporary loss of olfactory sensitivity), lost a mentor, friend and publisher to illness, lost a colleague whose writings greatly impacted the way I think about and approach wine, produced five wine and four spirits competitions under constantly evolving circumstances, watched a good friend battle glioblastoma with a side order of shingles, and lost my mother. I dare not say that I’m ready to pitch 2021.
Instead, I prefer to focus on the positives that have come from all of this. With a direct assist from the pandemic, I had to rethink how to stage blind tastings of large amounts of product in a different way to comply with safety protocols and regulations to be able continue to give results of those events to both producers and consumers without compromising the integrity of the process. Some of what I’ve been able to come up with has provided better, more realistic results while slightly reducing costs to producers. Without COVID, such improvements likely would never have occurred to me as I plugged along from event to event, and some of the “old ways” won’t be returning, even as we start being able to sit more closely together at events.
When it comes to getting stories and information on the wines of the world, the advent of platforms like Zoom have opened new possibilities to meet more people from far flung places and catch up with favorite producers and their latest offerings in a way that’s quite a bit easier to schedule. This works so well that I fear that my late entry into the travel side of the business may have me missing out on future trips to exotic wine destinations. While there’s no substitute for walking the ground where a wine comes from, sometimes efficient technology makes a noble attempt. I had a great experience with a three session look at Gambero Rosso “Tre Bicchieri” award winners thanks to Zoom that would have been impossible to experience otherwise.
Then there’s the gratitude that flows from realizing how good you have it thanks to the people who have left this world before you – the ones that taught you (directly or indirectly), trusted you with their business, instilled in you a sense of curiousity that keeps you searching, wondering and acting, gave you the tools and the space to grow and improve, and set opportunities in front of you to hone your skills so that your opportunities would ever increase. My gratitude to these people has deepened with losing them, and while they are gone from my sight, their gifts continue to light my path. This also gives me a push to express more gratitude to those still here who do so much to assist me on this journey. I feel like listing them here, but that will push me over my word limit in a hurry – let it suffice to say that though they might know I’m talking about them, I’ll be looking to express it more directly to them from this day forward.
My mother loved a nice glass of wine – I can picture the refrigerator of my childhood with a jug of Almaden Mountain Rhine in the tall shelf space at the ready – but that love isn’t the part of her that influenced me in my pursuit of wine. It was more a general love of art. Lori was her high school class valedictorian, the first in her family to graduate from college and a schoolteacher until my younger brother came along. She was a fine pianist and loved music of most kinds, and while I’m sure she might have preferred that I had gone to dental school instead of music school, she encouraged my pursuit of a music career. I’m convinced that that push into the aesthetic world not only gave me a great musical life, but it laid the foundation of a way of thinking about art and creation that made it possible for me to see the world of wine in the way that I do, so that when I had the fortune to meet like minds, I could be of assistance to them, come alongside them and grow my journey through their experience. I’m forever grateful to her for such a gift.
I thought about all of this as I met with winemaker Brooks Painter via Zoom a few weeks back. Brooks is the head winemaker for the V. Sattui Winery in Napa Valley and their newer property at the north end of the valley, Castello Di Amorosa. Brooks’ path started as an art major (sculpture) at UC Santa Cruz, where he eventually changed to chemistry and biology, which led to work in wine at Felton Empire, Robert Mondavi, Leeward and Stag’s Leap before landing his current dream job, where he’s headed toward his 41st harvest. We talked about the art of wine and the idea that fine wine, like fine sculpture or fine music, is the releasing of art from within the material where it resides, letting it unfold with minimal intervention so that what is there trying to speak can speak, and speak clearly. As with the artist and the musician, the winemaker sees what can be and then allows it to come into existence, sometimes pushing one way or another for a more complete realization of what’s held within the raw material. Brooks is a master at this, and he oversees a huge stable of wines in each vintage that speak of place and hit stylistic markers that customers come back for again and again. Watch for reviews of several wines from Castello di Amorosa over the coming issues that might entice you to place an order.
Meanwhile, imagine a post pandemic world where we as people of this vintage do all of these things – look for the good in trying circumstances and embrace new ideas instead of seeking “back to normal”; seek mentors who encourage and guide while seeing the art that lies within; appreciate the uniqueness of each other and work to let its beauty come to life; realize when there is a lesson to be learned from another and actually learn it and act on it; and finally live it all out in and with gratitude. Of course, it’ll help if we do all this with a nice bottle at the ready, so that as we pour it into glasses, we can see the changes reflected in it and celebrate our good fortune – even in times of trial. Count it all joy!