What do “Good Vibrations,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “You Send Me,” “Be My Baby,” “Unchained Melody” and “Mrs. Robinson” have in common? An elite group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew played on all of them, though most of their names are unknown by the general public.
Technically perfect, “stone cold” professionals, American musical history would sound much different without them. They could play in so many different styles, and welcomed what the world was just then coming to know as rock ’n’ roll.
A similar dynamic exists in the wine world. Much of the wine we enjoy is made by winemakers whose names we may never know, who either shun the spotlight by design, or are waiting their turn for it.
Paul Draper is the famous face of Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Sonoma County. Draper, who started making the wines in 1969, announced his retirement this year. But even a James Beard Award-winning winemaker can’t do it all alone.
Eric Baugher and John Olney are Ridge’s Wrecking Crew of winemaking: Baugher in Monte Bello and Olney in Lytton Springs. Baugher recalls that in his early days at Ridge, starting in 1994, he was indeed in the shadows of the cellar. At the time, he was focused on balancing his family life and learning from Draper. He wasn’t interested in taking any of the spotlight from the famous pioneer.
By 2001, Baugher says, Draper sought to identify people capable of carrying on Ridge’s success. Baugher, Olney and viticulturist David Gates were all promoted to executive positions. That involved more dinners, tasting seminars and market visits, and more visibility as the faces of Ridge.
“We then started signing our initials on the back labels, since we were the ones writing them,” Baugher says. “It was a steady and slow transition of gaining recognition for winemaking, but I had patience. I had a young family to raise, and I wasn’t looking to go anywhere else, although at times I considered that when tempted by headhunters.”
Many of the musicians in the Wrecking Crew stuck to session work. It better fit their lifestyles and afforded them the opportunity to produce quality work with bigger artists. Rock bassist Carol Kaye was a single mother who had earned her stripes in jazz bands before helping to come up with the signature opening bass riff on “Good Vibrations.” Likewise, Baugher has stuck with Ridge because, as he puts it, he’s in love with the vineyards, the history of the winery and adored working with Draper.
“I couldn’t ever see working for another winery,” he says. “Of course, the work is extremely tough and wearing at times. We carry out some of the most disciplined winemaking in the world. It’s very labor intensive and mentally exhausting work. The reward is that the wines are outstanding and bring so much joy and pleasure to ourselves and our customers.”
Olney seems equally aware of his place within a larger universe.
“I love what I do, and I’m grateful for the role I play at Ridge,” says Olney, chief operating officer and winemaker at its Lytton Springs property in Dry Creek Valley.
“I think it’s important to recognize that behind every wine, behind every winemaker is a team of dedicated people, in the lab, in the cellar, in the vineyard, in the sales market,” says Olney. “Ridge is about single vineyards, the belief that growing the right varietal [grape] in the right location makes wines that provide a direct experience with the place they come from. For now, my primary focus is on maintaining the quality that upholds that belief.”
Winemaker Melissa Stackhouse has played both sides of the equation, knowing that a career might require times in the spotlight and times behind the scenes.
“Both positions required I be the face of the brand, a role I’m very comfortable with,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed sharing with people how wine is made and striving to make wine approachable to the consumer.”
“My current role has me less the face of the brand and more an executive winemaker with full creative control over Meiomi,” she says. “This is a bit more of a strategic position to choreograph the growth of the wine, while adhering to the distinct tri-county regional style. It has so far been a role that has me under the radar [in regards to] brand representation.”
In other words, less Brian Wilson, more Carol Kaye. And that’s okay with her for now, as it is for many others in the wine world.
“The desire to be creative is inherent to most winemakers,” says Stackhouse. “Whether one is out in front or behind the scenes, the artistry of crafting wine from well-farmed grapes is what drives most of us. Winemakers have an array of personalities. Some prefer to remain behind the scenes. Either way, most know it’s a team effort.”