What do you see when you look in the mirror?
An ageing hippie, by appearance, an elderly European soul by essence.
Where did you grow up?
West Los Angeles and for a few short but impressionable years in Beverly Hills, California.
Where were you educated?
University of California Santa Cruz, University of California Davis, and a brief stint at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
What drew you to wine?
I accidentally wandered into a wine shop two blocks from my parents’ house in Beverly Hills, was offered a charge account there, ended up working there first as a delivery boy, stock boy, then wine salesperson, ultimately wine buyer (of German wine!). But along the way, I was privileged to sample the most exquisite wines in the world on a fairly regular basis; this was my formation.
A hoary chestnut, but is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery?
No question there — 100 percent vineyard.
Do you make wine for the people, the critics, or yourself?
It is always a bit of a psychological mess, where you can’t really tell how much you are unconsciously guided by the need to please the Other; but at least consciously, I try to make wines to please myself.
What is your view of awards?
Generally beside the point.
And the Robert Parker system of ranking wines?
Don’t get me started.
What impact is recession having on your business? How are you handling the changing economic times?
Recession was very tough on our business. The bigger problem in the United States is the consolidation of wholesalers — it is difficult in some markets to find wholesalers who will represent the winery well. Also, the intense competition makes it far more difficult to sell profitably through the wholesale system.
What has the greater effect — grape variety or soil?
In a strongly expressive terroir, farmed appropriately — that is, maintaining a vital soil microflora — the soil characteristics are far more important. In a less expressive terroir, and farmed (that is, with drip irrigation) as a vin d’effort, grape variety and winemaking stylistics play a more important role. But these sort of wines are somewhat beside the point.
Who controls today’s fine-wine market?
I have absolutely no idea.
Is there such a thing as luxury wine? If so, what is it?
I’m sure that this theoretical construct exists, but generally speaking, I have little interest in thinking about people who buy wine as a symbol of social status.
Has wine become just another commodity?
To a great extent, yes. But at the same time, there has been a very real revival and interest in vins de terroir. These are not necessarily the most expensive wines and certainly not the wines that are the highest point scorers, but wines that are truly authentic. Real wines nourish the soul and are a great consolation to life’s miseries.
Whom or what do you most admire?
Anyone who is trying to do something real, anyone who is taking real risks.
And least admire?
The opposite — winemakers who are themselves as much clones as their wines and grapes.
In wine terms, who are your heroes?
What do you most dislike in a wine?
How important is the glass you drink from?
Actually, quite important. The fact that this has recently become appreciated is very encouraging. And yet, at least in the United States, you can still find restaurants with execrable glassware.
What has been your greatest winemaking achievement, and failure?
My greatest winemaking achievements were more or less accidents — a particular grape variety or particular clone of a variety did exceptionally well at a certain location (or not). From a conceptual standpoint, and perhaps as a body of work, the 25-plus vintages of Cigare Volant stand as a pretty good achievement. As far as failures, I wouldn’t even know where to start. But attempting to grow fer servadou in Tracy, California, wouldn’t be a contender.
If you could make a special wine for a particular person, who and what would you choose?
I would make pinot noir for myself.
What music (if any) do you listen to in the winery?
We have a virtually all-Hispanic crew and (to my great chagrin) their musical taste tends to prevail.
Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.
My own cellar is pretty banal — just a rapidly depleting supply of Burgundy but still plenty of older vintages of German spätlese and auslese — mostly Mosels. As far as the winery, I don’t know how surprising this is, but we have hundreds (maybe 800) of demijohns of Cigare Volant and Cigare Blanc réserve reposing on their sides sur lie. It’s quite impressive to behold.
What do you drink on a “school night”?
In the summer, it’s riesling or grüner veltliner. In the cooler seasons, it’s usually a random strange bottle that I’ve managed to pick up. I’m still quite interested in tasting things I’ve never had before.
What has been your best experience in the wine industry? And the worst?
The best experience has been the privilege of seeing a project through from the very beginning to the end — the planting of a vineyard, harvesting of the grapes, and seeing it through to bottle. A most satisfying experience — rather like, I suppose, raising a child successfully to adulthood. My worst experience in the wine business was seeing the demise of my beloved vineyard in Bonny Doon due to Pierce’s Disease. The current economic climate of the wine business these days is also not particularly inspiring to me.
Are you adjusting your winemaking practices because of climate change?
We are already looking at strategies for dry-farming, which are essentially the same strategies one would deploy in anticipation of warmer, dryer weather.
If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?
Do you have a wine and food match you find hard to resist?
Cigare Blanc with lobster and fennel risotto.
If you weren’t making wine in California, where would you want to make wine?
If I were significantly younger and had any real aptitude for languages, I’d be tempted to make wine in China.
How do national differences display themselves in wine?
It is a cliché but Americans generally insist on powerful taste sensations in their wines, “eminence,” you might say — tannin, concentration. I think that by virtue of our relative immaturity as a wine drinking culture, we are often skeptical of wines that don’t deliver these qualities, believing — misguidedly — on some level that we’re not getting our money’s worth.
During harvest, who or what do you pray to?
The Maria Thun biodynamic calendar.
Where would you like to be buried?
In my vineyard in San Juan Bautista [California], alongside a pêche de vigne tree.
What would you want the last wine you taste to be?
My, this discussion has taken a slightly morbid turn. I hope that I live long enough to taste a true vin de terroir made from grapes grown at Popelouchum, my estate in San Juan Bautista.
Do you have any regrets?
What brings you the greatest happiness?
My daughter, Amélie.
What do you think would make the world a better place?
If people were more compassionate to one another.
In the end, what really matters?
Feeling that you have been true to yourself and having minimal regrets at the end of your life.