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Q&A: Ben Feldman, Angelica Cellars, Sonoma County

Ben Feldman on set with Jon Hamm (who plays the rake Don Draper)
© AMC/Mike Yarish | Ben Feldman on set with Jon Hamm (who plays the rake Don Draper)
The final episode of the critically acclaimed "Mad Men" (Season 5) screens in the U.S. on Sunday. Actor Ben Feldman, who plays the whippersnapper ad-man Michael Ginsberg, has his own wine label – Angelica Cellars in Sonoma County, California – which he runs with childhood friend and fellow actor Eduardo Porto Carreiro.

Let's start with your vital statistics.

I’m 31 and my girlfriend and I live in a house in the Hollywood Hills. I hate saying that; 'Hollywood Hills' sounds obnoxious to me. But we live on a hill in Hollywood, so... 

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

A wrinkly 14-year-old.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in [Washington] D.C. and just outside in Potomac, Maryland. 

Where were you educated?

I studied acting at Ithaca College [upstate New York]. Eduardo, who I make the wine with, went to Cornell just up the street. We also went to elementary and high school together. 

What drew you to wine? 

We did a lot of drinking back then. All sorts. But there’s something about wine that feels like an intersection between booze and art. I think at some point we said to ourselves, “We can either be alcoholics or artists."

Why is the winery called Angelica Cellars?

Eduardo’s mother’s name is Angelica. And the flower on the label is a poppy flower, which are all over the place where my mom lives, in the south of France. So, it’s kind of an homage to our moms. It didn’t sound as cheesy when we thought it up. 

How do you balance winemaking with your acting career?

There’s plenty of downtime when you’re an actor. Right now, we have a super-small [winery] production so it’s not that difficult. I imagine one day it’ll be more of an issue but for now, driving up to Sonoma (where it’s produced) is a welcome escape from Hollyweird. 

Is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery?

If you asked me that seven years ago, I probably would have said the winery. I think I gave us way too much credit back then. 

Do you make wine for the people, the critics or yourself?

Easy question. Ourselves. Hands down. We set out to make exactly the kind of wine we love. The gamble was assuming others share our taste. 

Your view of awards?

Arbitrary. Ranking art. Then again, I’m probably a hypocrite in this department. I say the same thing about acting awards but hand me an Emmy and see what I say. 

And the Robert Parker system of ranking wines?

I guess it’s nice that there’s a system so accessible to the greater population. I can’t hate on Robert Parker if he’s helping my aunt find the right pinot for her dinner party. 

How is the recession affecting your winery? 

We actually came out with a more affordable wine with our '09 vintage. It’s definitely tougher to put out a pricey wine right now, especially when you don’t have people’s trust the way a lot of bigger labels do. Although it hasn’t really affected us to any great degree. 

Q&A: Ben Feldman, Angelica Cellars, Sonoma County
© Angelica Cellars

What effect has your role in "Mad Men" had?

On my life? Hmm. Well, it’s definitely introduced me to a whole new demographic of people than the one I was used to with my other projects. The show doesn’t have a huge following, believe it or not, but the people that do watch are all way cooler than me. And half of them work in Hollywood, so that certainly helps. 

What has the greater impact: grape variety or terroir?

In our particular situation, I’d have to put the grapes first. Making a beautiful syrah that reminded us of the ones we love from the Rhône Valley was the initial goal. It was a starting point. So, in a sense, the Santa Barbara soil was the canvas but the grapes were the paint.  

Whom or what do you most – and least – admire? 

Anybody that can laugh at themselves and make other people laugh. My parents are funny, all my friends. Conversely, I don’t understand humorless people. They’re like aliens to me.

In wine terms, who are your heroes?

Thomas Jefferson.

What is it you most dislike in a wine?

Oak overdose. Gimmick. 

How important is the glass you drink from (Riedel or tumbler)?

Not that important. If a wine is good, I can drink it out of a coffee mug. 

What has been your greatest winemaking achievement, and failure?

Achievement: having a taste in my mind and putting that into a glass. Failure: my lack of meteorologic influence. 

If you could make a special wine for a particular person, who and what would you choose?

I would make a sexy, dry, Sunday afternoon rosé for my girlfriend. 

What music (if any) do you listen to in the winery?

Nothing in the winery, but when Eduardo and I drive up the coast of California to get to the wine, we listen to everything from Tom Waits to Jay Z. A lot of times, it’s a book on tape. 

Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.

In college, our friend came home one night with a big bottle of raspberry sparkling wine. It sat around for a very long time, unopened. Does that count? We were certainly surprised. 

What do you drink on a school night?

Smoky Scotch.

There’s a noticeable disparity between the numbers of male and female winemakers. Why do you think this is so?

Some of the best tasters we know are women. The past 10 to 20 years have seen more and more high-profile female winemakers. It’s just like chefs; sure, there are more men right now that are doing it but that’s changing. I think society is still shaking off the last of our learned gender roles but we’re definitely coming around. 

What has been your best experience in the wine industry?

I think my favorite thing to do is wine dinners. There have been a few great nights where a wonderful and generous chef has agreed to pair our vintages with a perfect meal. It’s where we get to do what we love best: talk about ourselves in front of people. 

Are you adjusting your winemaking practices because of climate change?

We’re lucky in that the Central Coast grapes here are seeing less of an impact than what’s happening in the Old World. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way, because I just don’t see it being cost effective to build an enormous greenhouse on the hills of Santa Barbara. 

Q&A: Ben Feldman, Angelica Cellars, Sonoma County
© Angelica Cellars

If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

Scotch, tequila that tastes like Scotch, hoppy beer, Nyquil. 

How does the drinking in "Mad Men" compare with the real world?

I can't even begin to imagine having a glass of hard liquor at 3 p.m. in the middle of a work day. I see these guys do it in on the show or I'll do it – in one scene I even smoked pot – and all I think is: nap. 

How would your character – Michael Ginsberg – go about marketing Angelica Cellars?

He actually did market a wine. He came up with the idea for Manischewitz [kosher wine] where the side of a bus had a picture of the bottom half of everyone, from the window down. They all had cases of Manischewitz at their feet. I thought that was brilliant. The best advertisers in the world work in the "Mad Men" writer’s room. 

Do you have a wine and food match you find hard to resist?

Indian food and gewürztraminer. That used to be a weekly thing for me. I need to start that up again. 

If you weren’t making wine in California, where would you want to make wine? 

Southern France, Rhône, where my mom lives. One day...

How do national differences display themselves in wine?

People have different palates. What’s swill to someone in Spain may be a birthday gift to someone in Australia. I hope that never changes. 

During harvest, who or what do you pray to?

If praying really is necessary, I’m sure there are plenty of other people doing it far better than I would, so I leave that to them. What will be will be. 

Where would you like to be buried?

Cremated, for sure. And I think I’d have someone discreetly sprinkle me across lower Manhattan. 

What would you want the last wine you taste to be?

Ours, without a doubt. I think my main concern at that point would be happy memories. There’s no other wine that could transport me like ours. So many good times attached to that taste. 

What brings you the greatest happiness?

Right now? Delivery, our dog and the living room couch. 

Do you have any regrets?

Not studying French in high school. 

What do you think would make the world a better place?

A global separation of church and state, an end to factory farming, and a law that everyone must play at least one instrument. 

In the end, what really matters?

Originality and the right pillow. 

* To find a wine from Angelica Cellars click here.

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  • Comments

    Mc Kenna wrote:
    17-Apr-2014 at 19:19:37 (GMT)

    The most enjoyable interview I've had the pleasure of reading. Ben Feldman is the enigmatic character I hoped he would be, even much more so! Very refreshing. Keep being funny, we need it! Now I hope I can type these impossible to decipher letters to prove I'm a human bean.

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