Inside the Private World of Winemakers

After long, hard days in vineyards and vats, many vintners still have enough energy for convivial pursuits. Here are six with stories to tell.



Many wine lovers dream of turning their passion into their livelihood—living off the land, plucking grapes and turning juice into wine. For some talented vintners, this goal becomes reality. But after they realize their dreams, how do winemakers recharge their batteries during their down time? Having attained their ideal job, of what, then, do they dream? For some, conventional pursuits suffice. Others need more stimulation to get their creative juices flowing. Here are six winemakers who refuel with passions and activities that may surprise you.

JOHN CONOVER

Best known for: PlumpJack’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Cade’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa.

Hobby: Surfing.

Step one of hanging 10: “I grew up in Marin County [California], but in summers, my parents would send me over to Honolulu, and I fell in love with the sport.”

How serious is he about surfing? “I own 20 different surfboards. I surf in Santa Cruz and Monterey, but to surf, I get up at 3 am so I’m at the beach at 6 am, and I’m back to the winery by 1 pm. I’ve made some of my best friends surfing, including Rusty Preisendorfer (Rusty Surfboards) Pat O’Neill (O’Neill Wetsuits) and Steve Pezman (Surfer’s Journal Magazine). When I bring a delivery of wine to Rusty Surfboards, they get excited.

How his wine gets into the (surf) barrel and how his surf enters the (wine) barrel: “At PlumpJack, we have flat screens showing surfing videos. Wine can be so overwhelming and serious, so we wanted to bring an approachability to it. Also, there’s very much an artistry to winemaking, and there’s an artistry to surfing. If you look at successful winemakers or surfers, there’s not a beginning and end, it’s a process that goes on for a lifetime."

Tell me more about the similarities between surfing and wine. “The thing about wine is that the more people know about it, the more they can appreciate it, just like the sport of surfing. Every vintage is different. The ’08 and ’09 PlumpJack or Cade are both very good, but very different, just like every wave is different. The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun. It’s a very subjective thing. It’s what hits those emotional chords with you. It’s the same with wine. People who are successful in wine and surfing go into it because they were following their dreams and passions.

JEFF SMITH

Best known for: Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa.

Hobby: Rocking out with Wristrocket, an all-winemaker power-pop band in St. Helena, California.

How this Napa native gave up rock for wine: “When I was 15 or 16, I picked up the guitar, dreaming of leaving St. Helena and touring the world. I went to college in San Francisco, and I fronted a band called Noonday Underground. It was in 1990 that I decided to put my guitars down.”

But then wine helped him rediscover his inner rock star: “About 12 years had passed, and I had not played a lick. I was at a winemaker dinner for Pam Starr. She was hosting a charity event called ‘Goddesses Who Rock,’ and asked me to put a band together. So I called Dave Stevens (owner of 750 Wines), a bass player, and we had a rehearsal. We played the event, and we said, ‘That was cool. Let’s do it again.’”

How guitars rock his wines: Wristrocket—made up of Mike Hirby, guitar (Relic), Scott Turnnidge, drums (Silenus) and Paul Hoffman, keyboards (Lail)—plays at Cheers! (cheerssthelena.com) in St. Helena on the first Friday of every month from May to October, and it annually hosts a charity auction at Hourglass. “We now take our creative project, and we apply the disciplines we’ve learned from the business side of things.”

How did you start pursuing a career in rock music?I was 15 or 16 years old when I first picked up the guitar. I had older brothers, who listened to the First, the Stones and that kind of music. They schooled me, and by the time I was in high school, the second British invasion of bands like the Clash and the Police came, and that’s the sort of stuff I cut my teeth on. I went to Emerson College, but transferred back to San Francisco, [where] there was a good alternative music scene in early ’80s. I fronted a band called Noonday Underground; we had really good management and were in the scene of bands that included Chris Isaac, Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, Jeff Trott (a guitar player for Sheryl Crow) and Green Day, a few years later.

If you were that close to making it, why did you stop? “I got to the point in 1990 when I was looking around and saying, ‘I don’t have any assurance that these doors will open up. I could spend the next five or 10 years of my life and wake up and not have a career.’ It was a very difficult decision. I said ‘Maybe it’s time to move on and explore other things.’ That’s when I decided to put my guitar down and redirect my life’s energy into something that was within my grasp.”

How did you get into wine? “The year I decided to stop pursuing music as a career, my father passed away, and all of a sudden, I had to take over management of a vineyard property he had bought in 1976—a 6-acre parcel he planted with Zinfandel, just north of St. Helena. It was more of a hobby vineyard. In 1992, we got hit with phylloxera and we had to pull out the vineyard.  My mom wanted to sell this property, but I talked her out of selling it and I convinced her to replant the acres with Cabernet.”

DAVID ENNS

Best known for: Bordeaux-style blends at his Laughing Stock Vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

Hobby: Adventure-riding his BMW motorcycle.

How he started riding the wilds: “I wanted to ride the lowest point in North America, Death Valley, and that got me into adventure riding. With my friend, Paul Gardner, (Pentâge Winery), I rode my bike through Chile, through vineyards, crossing the Andes eight times, and right now, my bike’s sitting in Uruguay. We’ll start back up again in January. We call it the ‘Winemaker Diaries’ because we traveled the same route as Che Guevara.”

The connection to wine: “There’s a bunch of skills you need to go on an adventure ride, like motorcycle maintenance, first aid, language, etc. And in winemaking, you’ve got to know a bunch of different things, too, from fermentation to blending. Plus, motorcycle riding is just plain cool.”

MICHAEL COLHOUN

Best known for: Landmark Vineyards’ Overlook Chardonnay and Grand Detour Pinot Noir in Sonoma, California.

Hobby: Tractors.

How an antique John Deere got his motor running: “I grew up on a dairy farm in Connecticut driving tractors. Then, when I got out here in California, I started looking for tractors. [After] playing golf on Bodega, I returned on a country road and I passed this field. There was this great, green monster of a tractor. It was in beautiful shape—good paint, good everything. It was a 1940 Model A, a two-cylinder tractor that sort of sounds a little bit like a Harley. It has this very distinct sound, and I bought it for $2,500.”

How great-great-great-great-Grandpa John Deere lives on in the vineyards: “What we do now is really fun. We park it out in front of the winery in the parking lot, and when people come, if they’ve got kids, the kids want to climb all over it like a jungle gym. All of our wines have names that have something to do with our agricultural heritage, like the Steel Plough Syrah—the tractor was called the steel plough.” Does John Deere know about you?
“They use our wine on their corporate jet, and they’ve written about us in their magazine about descendants of John Deere.”

Why are you so fond of tractors? Do others get to ride them? “The little kid in me just wants to start them up and get them rolling. We all have these memories in us and tractors are a real memory for me.  On special days in October, we have a harvest party and let people try them out. It’s a fun addition and attraction to what we do here.”

KERRY NORTON

Best known for: Columbia Winery’s Rhône- and Bordeaux-inspired blends in Washington.

Hobby: Polishing found winery rocks into spheres of lapidary art.

How he got into rocks: “When people get older, they sometimes seek something that resonates with their past. My grandfather and his neighbors all made lapidary art as a hobby.”

How his rocks resonate with his grapes: “I like seeing what’s inside rocks, turning them into works of beauty, which is kind of like what you do with winemaking. You take grapes, and you turn them into something bigger than themselves. Most rocks aren’t worth remembering, but every once in a while, there’s that special one—just like wines.”

Where you can find his polished spheres: “First, they were all over my house, so I took some to work, starting a rotating art collection. Now, we have a collection of wine, the Stone Cutter series, named for rocks.”

STUART BLACKWELL

Best known for: St Hallett’s Old Block Shiraz in Australia’s Barossa Valley.

Hobby: Golf, and more golf: organizing tournaments to save endangered golf courses.

How he started: “I borrowed my father’s golf clubs…but after my kids had grown up because golf is a little bit selfish. After two years of playing frustrated, I realized I was a left-handed player.”

How he really got into golf: “The local club, Tanunda Pines Golf Course, got into a bit of trouble, so a group of us in the Barossa Valley helped…and became owners. It’s something you do for the love of the game.”
The connection between golf and wine: “People who like golf like things that don’t change too much over time, like good wine.”

 

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