This past Sunday I took a little cruise with some folks to bid a final farewell to a long-time friend and colleague in the world of wine. I was alerted to this event by another wine friend. I had lost touch with Bill over the past few years – he had taken a fall likely caused by a stroke a few years back, and the surgeries to repair the damage to his hip didn’t have the desired outcome, so he became effectively bedridden. The last time that I saw him, I’m not sure he recognized me, and though we talked a while about baseball, music, wine, and concerns about his boat “Willy Nilly,” I had a feeling we wouldn’t ever get back to where we were in our relationship. And then COVID-19 happened. Of course, these things happen. However, when I got the word that he had passed, it got me thinking about what a mentor is and does, and just how effective a great mentor can be without seemingly even trying. When it comes to wine, it’s occasions like this that remind me what wine is for, what it does best, and what we who think of ourselves as aficionados can do to carry on in the same spirit as those who have pointed us in the right direction.
Bill was quite a character. To say he carried a few opinions would be an understatement, particularly when it came to our favorite beverage. He came to California from the Midwest as a young man and never looked back, excepting a few trips back east to dote on a niece or nephew. He was a smiler and a life enthusiast – a fact made all the more impressive by a right arm damaged by polio as a child. I didn’t ever see him slowed down by it as a hiker, sailor, or wine purveyor – he made it a part of who he was with joy, often making a quick move with his left hand to bring his right hand up for a handshake with a new acquaintance. Those who got to know him would engage him in what he called a “mollydooker shake.” Mollydooker is an Aussie slang term for “left-handed” as well as an Australian wine producer (and the Mollydooker shake is also a method for prepping a Mollydooker Wine for consumption – search youtube if you’re interested.)
Among other trips and tastings, he'd often organize what he called a lagoon walk, where a group would hike out to a spot in a nature preserve and watch the cormorants land on a wire to watch the sunset, and we’d watch right along with them over great wine, food and conversation that usually included discussion about wine. Bill had a particular propensity for Zinfandel, especially when it came to super-ripe, high-octane examples – such wines became known as “Bill wines” in our circles, and such wines often made it on those sunset treks. When I
heard of the Sunday gathering, I of course had to offer up a couple of “Bill wines” to drink a toast to him with. He’d absolutely expect me to tell you what I thought of the wines, so here you go:
Esoterica by Kent Rasmussen, Rutherford (Napa Valley, California) Petite Sirah Chavez-Leeds Vineyard 2004:
At nearly twenty years of age, this wine seems to be just now coming into its own, with Petite Sirah’s typical firm structure all softened up but still present, and it’s 16% listed alcohol not screaming about its presence. Deep and savory with black and red fruit, pepper and meat, it’s a real pleasure that tells me that holding it was an appropriate choice. 94
Renwood, Amador County (California) Zinfandel “Grandpere Special Reserve” 2013:
Still doing just fine ten years on, this 15% alcohol Zin delivers
mixed bramble and black cherry fruit, fall spice and a faint of menthol on the nose and in the mouth, with a soft citrus kiss in the finish that keeps things bright. Conventional wisdom about aging Zinfandel continues to be confounded thanks to wines like this. 93
It would be appropriate to add that both bottles had no problem finding “E” on the gauge and had my fellow cruisers asking for more and wanting details. Bill would have loved that as much as he would have loved the wines. I think that was key in his mind – I’d expect he’d say that his loving a particular wine was one thing, but that finding others who would love it was the point entirely. I believe that’s what wine writers aspire to – spreading the good news so that others can participate – mostly others who we’ll never meet.
Bill opened a lot of doors for me over the years – inviting me on a trip to the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers annual festival “ZAP” in San Francisco with a group – a trip that continued north into Anderson Valley and plenty of introductions; an invite to join a bi-weekly tasting group, and then recommending me to publisher Nick Ponamareff as a panelist for the California Grapevine newsletter (the final issue of which ended what was the longest continuously published wine newsletter in America). He’d occasionally bring by a bottle of something he felt deserved wider recognition that he thought I might like to review on my own little webpage and, later, at Wine Review Online
Something that makes me think that Bill was a little more intentional about mentoring than I may have realized at the time has to do with an annual holiday tasting my wife and I used to host where we’d spread wines out all over the house – in every room, including the shower stalls (impeccably cleaned of course) and closets. It didn’t take long for word to get out that the gems of the tasting could often be found in the master closet. Though he never fully copped to it to me, I know Bill was the culprit who would add his annual piece to that closet – sometimes a new shirt, sometimes a couple Hamiltons or Jacksons stuffed in a shirt pocket that I’d find months later. It was his way of saying “thanks, and you’re on the right track.”
It's that sort of value that mentors bring, and I hope you’ve got a few that you can point to who have enhanced your wine journey. There’s nothing like someone sharing palpable excitement for something to get others engaged. Whether it was wine, or baseball, or music, Bill brought that zest with every word and action. I’m grateful beyond words for his not-always-so-quiet influence on my life, and I hope to have that sort of impact on others, using wine as a catalyst. Imagine a place where everyone maintained this line of thought.
And so, farewell. It was a beautiful day, with calm seas, light winds, and a gradually graying sky. We motored out past the tip of the point and crossed the edge into open water, and we committed his ashes and some rose petals to the ocean, while these words played in the background: “So much time to make up, everywhere you turn, time we have wasted on the way – so much water moving underneath the bridge – let the water come and carry us away.” Here’s to a life not wasted at all, appropriately toasted, and a fine example of how to share the wealth. May we all catch the rising tide.