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.


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.

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