There we were. Standing in front of a lovingly hand-made photo board of Lady Gaga.
“But how can I get my wine to her?” he mused. I confessed I did not know. Send her a bottle? Perhaps she is drowning in samples from of idiosyncratic Rhone blends. She always seemed to me more of a Rose / Champagne gal.
It was two o clock in the afternoon, the bleached white glare of Santa-Maria had been dimmed by the rolled-down security grill outside the winery entrance. Like many small wineries in California, it was a glorified concrete lock-up, situated next to an assortment of car repair companies and here-today, gone-tomorrow businesses. Barrels were stacked towards the back and towards the front, a mattress lay on the floor next to a pile of clothes.
He offered me a glass of Jamesons. It was only two in the afternoon. I felt sick. I was glad there was a foot of sunlight coming from the bottom of the security gates, I wondered about the feasibility of rolling through it. I’d driven 4 hours down from LAX to see this producer whose wines we’d imported, kind of on a whim, after reading some reviews praising his “individual, non-interventionalist, weird, natural” style.
Weird and natural it sure was. When it was good it was excellent. Unfortunately, about half of the bottles had started refermenting in bottle and I was seeking some sort of refund.
So there we were. He showed me some of the wines. They were shocking. There was one wine that he proudly announced had been opened for 7 days and was delicious. How could anyone trust the judgement of a winemaker who showed a wine like this with pride. It was terrible. It was totally oxidised. He could make great wine, I’d tried it in the past. But this was not right.
As if things couldn’t get any weirder, he then proceeded to tell me about his past life.
“Don’t worry. I’ve done the research.” Research that proved that in a past life, he had been the winemaker at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in the 1860s. That of course, explained why his email account was something like Romanneconti1856@yahoo.com. Of course.
This was a guy in some sort of crisis. He’d broken up with his wife and kids and was sleeping in the winery. Although he was so off the wall with left-field energy, this was not the way he wanted things to pan out, that was for sure. But yet in classic American spirit, he soldiered on, dug in, and I felt terrible at being another weight dragging him down to earth.
To his immense credit, he refunded us in full for the wine. I’m not sure I thanked him enough for that. It was a mark of real decency that we like to imagine is part of the membrane of the wine business.
I don’t know what he’s doing now, I idly looked him up a year or so after the visit and found out he’d lost his license to buy grapes.
Like his wine, he was weird and leftfield, probably not the winemaker at Romanee-Conti in the late 19th century but a good guy, and whatever he’s doing now, I hope he’s happy. His wine was too good for Lady Gaga anyway.