The Winemaker is God

After three weeks at Rafferty, I was given my first weekday shift. That was the day I finally found out that the Kenny Loggins look-alike who often walked through was actually the winemaker, Richard Hart. Turns out, this tall, lanky guy with shaggy brown hair and full beard was a rising star of wine. I thought he was a holdover from the Doobie Brothers band.

Sitting at his desk, in the dim periphery of the stock room, Richard talked on the phone and ate meals of stir fried veggies and rice. Obviously, his healthy diet and the inherent physical labor made him a lean little winemaking machine. I kind of liked his 70s look and vaguely wondered how he moved on a dance floor.

In spite of his growing fame, Richard was disarmingly affable. I realized this on a day when Walter and he were standing at the bar discussing the zinfandel vineyards and the temperatures outside. Richard looked nervous, Walter helpless. There was silence, and I spoke up.

“Sorry, but what’s the heat got to do with the alcohol?” My big, ignorant mouth was at it again. I instantly felt like I’d asked the most stupid wine question possible.

Walter mumbled something about inventory and shuffled off, but Richard stayed patient and answered my question.

“See, when the fruit gets too hot, the sugars increase too much in relation to the grape’s physiological maturity, so that if you wait to harvest at the point of maturity, the sugar levels are too high to make a wine with a normal amount of alcohol.”

“And that’s when the wine becomes like a port?” This was just a guess on my part.

“That’s right. But if you want to make a dinner-style wine, which is our style, then you have to keep the sugar and the acid levels balanced.”

There was that word again: balance. How many times have I seen the term used to describe good wine? Balance: I knew the definition, and what it meant to the New Age crowd, but not how it applied to wine. A year ago I might have thought it meant keeping the barrels from falling off their racks. Now, this winemaker is telling me that the sugar and acid – and tannins -have to be in proper proportion to achieve true equilibrium in wine. And, through balance comes harmony.

Balance: it seems to work for everything. Too much of one thing is never good. Work and play need to be balanced, as do sugar and acid. Balance: it’s a beautiful thing.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]”Work and play need to be balanced, as do sugar and acid. Balance: it’s a beautiful thing.” – Mari Kane[/Tweet]

And, how cool was it to be picking the brain of a Wine Spectator cover boy? Richard didn’t seem at all bothered to explain Winegrowing 101 to a lowly tasting room worker because that’s just the kind of granola cruncher he was. He didn’t came off condescending or, heaven forbid, flirtatious. I kinda dug him.

This was at a time when “star winemakers” were becoming all the rage in wine country. Magazines like Wine Spectator elevated them to celebrity status and all it took was a couple of great vintages rating over 92 points on their wine scale to make that vintner the hottest thing since the screw top.

One day I heard a customer ask his buddy, “What’s the difference between God and a winemaker?”

“Dunno. What?”

“God doesn’t think he’s a winemaker.”

I didn’t know if Richard had holiness delusions, but when he was honored as Winemaker of the Year at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Awards Night, you’d think the guy had changed water into wine. From our position between the tables, Rebecca and I watched the crowd go wild as Richard ascended the stage. That he received a standing ovation is superfluous, considering the crowd had no chairs to sit on. When their applause subsided, he modestly thanked the Harvest Fair board members, his wife, his crew, and his growers. Then he said, “And I want to thank all of you for enjoying my wine,” and strode off the stage.

At that moment, he could have sprouted gossamer wings and levitated heavenward. Or, he might have been a rock star the way he was swamped with well wishers and hangers on, with strobe lights flashing and microphones pointing.

Everyone wanted a piece of Richard. Only a few of us got to work with him.

Tasting Room Virgin No More

Paralyzed by my insecurities, I listened to Hank’s banter.  I was reminding myself to breathe when another group of four ambled into the room. The sight of them left me unable to articulate, “Four for tasting?” much less lift a bottle. Luckily, Walter was there and I watched the big guy lead them through the whites and into the pinot noirs with a deft touch. Then the phone rang and Walter ducked back to the office, leaving me behind the bar along with Hank. Just him and me facing eight early-morning tasters.

“May we try the zin, please?” The man from Walter’s group finally broke my stupor. It was my call to action.

“Sure,” I replied, though I was completely unsure of myself. I stepped to the wine line and grabbed the closest bottle, but – oops – it was the cabernet. I reached for the next one, but it was the merlot. How embarrassing. The labels were facing the front and the bottles all looked the same from behind. I spun a third one around and found the elusive zinfandel. On my way toward the amused customers, I uncorked it with an exasperated flourish.

The man laughed. “Don’t you just hate the way Bordeaux bottles all look alike?”

By then my hand was shaking, and in my first attempt to pour wine I dribbled it on the counter. I made a mental note to work on my aim.

After murmuring, “Thanks,” the man’s wife asked, “Have you worked at Rafferty’s for very long?”

“Yeah, a long time. Let’s see, it’s been…about one-and-a-half hours.”

The couples laughed like a Letterman audience, and Hank peered over his shoulder to determine the source of their hilarity. Me. I made the people laugh. Not that I was especially funny; they were just easily amused. And their amusement boosted my lagging confidence.

Working behind a tasting room bar, I discovered, is like being on stage: the comedian clowning for the audience. And, the drunker winos got, the funnier I sounded. Soon, I forgot my insecurities and fell into a regular bartending groove.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]Working behind a tasting room bar is like being on stage. The drunker winos got, the funnier I sounded – Mari Kane,[/Tweet]

“Merlot? Here you go. Want some cab? I’ll call you one. Late Harvest? Time for dessert.”

At the end of their tasting, the couples ordered a half case of the zin and a half case of the reserve chardonnay. This was the first wine sale of my life, and it felt good. Both the cash register and credit card machine were co-operative, and I managed to complete the transaction without error before sending the group on their jolly way.

Then, another gang of tasters gathered around my corner and proceeded to make demands for wine. Every other group that followed did the same until greeting, pouring, talking, and selling became so easy for me, I might have done it for years.

From behind the bar, I studied people as they performed the curious ritual of wine tasting.

First, a visual assessment is made by holding the glass to the light and naming a color. The more obscure the hue, the more impressed the companions. Swirling wine offers the chance to show off one’s advanced motor development, either by twirling the glass aloft or gyrating it flat on the counter.

Then, noses are sunk deep into the glass where circulating fumes send olfactory information to the brain. The first sip is taken and the funny faces begin. Some will suck air through puckered lips and emit the kind of slurping sounds children are told not to make at the table. Others chew like they have a hunk of beef jerky stuck in their teeth. There are gurgling sounds. Heads roll and eyes study the ceiling. The product is usually swallowed, rarely spat. Lips are smacked.

Finally, the pronouncements come, haltingly or torrential.



“Fruit forward.”

“Soft tannins.”

“Tight in the mouth”

“Great structure.”

Hearing these words applied to wine made me want to dive for the dictionary.