Dan Ackroyd, Actor, Dan Ackroyd Wines, Canada
Mario Andretti, Racer, Mario Andretti Vineyards, Oak Knoll,Napa Valley, California
Antonio Banderas, Actor, Anta Banderas Winery, Spain
Robert Benevides, Actor, Raymond Burr Vineyards, Healdsburg,Napa Valley, California
Bruce Cohn, Manager, Doobie Brothers, B.R Cohn Winery, Sonoma, California
Ludvico Einaudi, Composer, Poderi Luigi Einaudi, Dogliani, Italy
Francis Ford Coppola, Director, Rubicon Estate,Napa Valley, California
Lillian Disney, Ron & Diane Miller, Silverado Vineyards, Napa Valley, California
Thomas Jefferson, President, Monticello Vineyards, Virginia
Robert Kamen, Screenwriter, Kamen Estates, Sonoma, California
Randy Lewis, Olympic Wrestler, Lewis Cellars, Napa Valley, California
Charlie Palmer, Chef/Restaurateur, Healdsburg, California
Natalie Oliveros, Adult Film Star, Savanna Samson Wine Estates, Tuscany
Fess Elisha Parker, Jr., Actor, Fess Parker Winery, Los Olivos, California
Jarno Trulli, Formula One Racing Driver, Poderi Castorani, Italy
Dick Vermeil, Football Coach, Vermeil Wines, Calistoga, California
Lena Tabori, Publisher, interviews author of Celebrity Vineyards, Nick Wise
Your host for today
I am your host for today. I'm incredibly happy to meet you. I love this book, by the way, I'm having such an incredibly good time reading it.
Yea, I think it's going to be a really good, interesting read.
It's just fun, I think it's just fun. It's fun!
And as we said last night it's not like a Robert Parker book, I'd say it's more like a Bill Bryson type of book. Like a journey.
Yea, that's how it feels. It feels like you're on a great adventure.
Yea. Yea, it was a great adventure.
I know you have been in the wine business for more than twenty years but how did your love for wine begin?
Kids in Europe have a chance to taste the wine that their parents are serving at dinner at a very young age. My father was very, very interested in wine —he still has a great cellar, and he would always pull out these great wines. First I would look at the labels and go "wow, these labels are very interesting," and finally he would give me a sip of wine, mixed in with, probably, a little bit of water to enjoy with the meal. Over time, I started learning little nuances and he would actually teach me and tell me, "well, this is from this region and this is from this other region, and the reason why it tastes this way is because of where it's grown and the reason why it tastes sweet or tastes dry is because this climate was involved." After a while, I remember him giving me two glasses of wine, (he would always do this, teach me by showing me how to taste the wine and what you really were going to expect or what you wanted the wine to deliver to you). One day he put down a couple of glasses of wine and he got me to try them and I said "oh, I liked this one on the right a lot" and he said, "No, no, I'm not asking which one you liked, I'm asking you to tell me the differences between the two wines", and that really kind of got me — that was my first real kind of wow moment that kind of illuminated me to what wine could offer, it got me to realize what the nuances were within each glass, and what they were offering me — offering to my senses — and I said well this one is richer and spicier and this one seems to be dryer and so on, and I'd give all of these different descriptors and I said "wow," I loved giving descriptors as a young child about anything — if it tastes this way, if it looks this way, especially about music, ya know I was always into music, and the different sounds of what Punk gave you compared to what Classical music offered, and so I realized wine was very similar, that each one had its own individual traits, from where it was grown and how it was made, and even though they were two totally different types of wine — I preferred one maybe over the other one — they were both great examples of wine in their own right, and that stuck with me, so it wasn't whether one was better or worse, it was what each had to offer, and from then I could kind of compartmentalize, every little bit of every single wine that I tried, and it was very easy for me to do that...
So, that's a talent.
Yes, I think it's a talent that I have, I could remember music the first time I heard it — who it was done by, who it was published by — and wine is exactly the same way, you can almost use it as a library in your own head, or develop a library in your own head, and I've never forgotten any wine that I've ever tasted, it's really weird, it's like oh yes, I remember that that was that way and this was...
How did you bring that into your business life?
Well, I was first working writing books on music, and as I said I loved just to compartmentalize everything, and I started learning about wine, started picking up books that my dad had, he had a book on wine called the Great Wine Encyclopedia, and I started being interested in very weird, I think it's probably my ADH, or something like that, but very weird aspects that I could remember: which vintages were great, what the names of each Chateaux were, and wine is infinite in that type of thing, you could go on for ever and ever, and it was also interesting to me that it was a subject that was endless, it could...
Satisfy you for a really long time...
For a really long time, you could learn it for your whole life and still not really make a mark on understanding it and then I really enjoyed the fact that nothing was wrong in wine, it might be badly made wine, but that's a different case, but your taste is your own, so just as they say there's never really any bad art, it's just how you yourself judge it, and of course there is bad wine and there is bad art, if you haven't been to school and you don't know you could make a big mess about it, but what I'm talking about is decently made wines and if you don't like it, that doesn't mean that it's good or bad, it's just your own opinion, and I loved that, because in school it was either right or wrong, and in the wine industry, or the wine tasting trade, everything is your own, it's very subjective, so it's all your own thoughts and memories, and anything that the wine invokes, which is a lot, you can have just tons of prose that go on forever and ever, but you can also put it down concisely and remember it like an encyclopedia. And then I started to work in the wine trade and quickly became a wine taster for a company that had been around for a long time, John Arnett, and they realized that I had pretty good taste buds and they said you should be on the buying team rather than the selling team, and I would go around and basically they'd say "I need a California Cabernet," and I would go around to the source of the wines for them.
And it was fun. Yes it was a lot of alcohol, a lot of long hours, but again, like anything that you love it just, I couldn't get enough of it.
But when you got to this point of deciding what kind of book you'd like to do that utilized the knowledge that you had about wine not to mention your relentless fascination with everything wine, you chose to take this extraordinary trip from one celebrity vineyard to another around many parts of the world. How did you come to that decision?
Well, I wanted to use wine, or express myself in wine in a different manner then people like Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator where everything is very technical and in some ways it took the fun out of learning and experiencing and trying to personally find out what the world of wine had to hold, not just technical details on a piece of paper and what they thought. So I thought it would be a great idea not only to go around to certain parts of the world myself to do that 'cause I've done that for years and years, but I also said, there is this huge development of celebrities that are now making celebrity wine and I'd like to see — and first I made a list — but I wanted to see if they could actually make good wines, and not only that but why they made wines themselves and what were the reasons behind their wine making and there's various different reasons for why people make wine, some of it is historic, for some of them it's been a family tradition forever, since they were young and wanted to carry on this tradition, others were excited because their friend, another film star, let's say, had been making wine and found it exciting and then there's other reasons that people want to make something very personal for themselves and then there's of course making money (laughs) so there's various different reasons why all these people were in the wine trade, so I wanted to see why they went into the wine trade, what were their reasons behind going into it, and could those reasons unite in making a good wine, as well, and not just a good story.
And so when you made your list — because you have celebrities from all kinds of venues, you have movie stars and you have racing drivers and you have celebrity chefs, and you cover a lot of ground in this book, too. So talk a little about the range of celebrities and some individual stories about how they got to where they got to.
Well, that's interesting, as I said, celebrities do things for many reasons, and one of the things we found, early on, is that wine as itself, as a subject, has always been very interesting since the beginning of time, and has always had a certain kind of connotation with being elegant. If you know about wine it translates to you being yourself certainly intellectual and expressive and all the things that sometimes we don't really think about actors or raceccar drivers having those traits, so a lot of it we found was that behind wine lay a whole background of reasons why they wanted to go into and a lot of it was intellectual and by making your own wine or knowing about wine you could become better thought of, ya know, if you sit down at a table with wine and you know what you're talking about, "oh, that's an elegant man or woman who knows about what they want." And those people we selected from a very large group of celebrities who were making wine, we selected them because we were particularly interested in why they wanted to show themselves as wanting to be elegant or knowledgeable or mature or complex individuals, which they don't really have a chance to say or be seen as, as being an actor, ya know we always think of them as quite dumb, maybe, or kind of uneducated or certainly not as complex individuals as some others. And so we took out of maybe 50 people, we rounded it down, we found out really the reasons behind what they wanted to achieve from it and chose maybe 20 people out of that group, who were the most interesting, who were not in it just to make money, not in it just to...we didn't want people who just slapped their name on the labels and wanted to sell it, we wanted the stories....
So would it be fair to say that the celebrities that you selected are people that became celebrities because they brought something extraordinary to the craft that they originally were in and on some level they wanted to bring that same kind of tenacity or sense of perfection to wine?
Yea, I think that runs into it. I think the people that we selected were real people that were fascinated by wine. And it wasn't just another way for them to be enginnering more coverage or to get more coverage in the press and something like that and that also led us to individuals who particularly had a lot of expertise — like you were saying before — like racing car drivers had a lot of expertise with technical equipment and to make wine of course you need to be kind of technically minded. And so those people tended to be higher up on the list rather then someone who was just following the crowd, because there were quite a few that were just following the crowd: my friend makes wine, Sting, or something like that, so I'm gonna make wine as well. The narrowing down was very important for us.
So once you had your 16 people selected and you knew that you were gonna be covering quite a lot of geography, actually...did you have, or should I say, were your expectations met in your travels or were there surprises?
Even when we pared down all these people, we didn't know quite what their agendas would be, we pared it down to what we thought was going be a list of people that were going to express themselves brilliantly in the trade, but we also were a little bit timid about whether or not they actually had the expertise to do such a complicated craft. I mean it is immensely technical, from growing, you have to be a horticulturist, to making wine technically, you have to be a chemist in some ways, a horticulturist, a farmer, a packager of wine, you have to express it in that way, it's a very complicated process. So, who was willing to really go out and work that hard to make something that was good? At the beginning we thought to ourselves, "not too many were going be able to achieve that," so we didn't have huge expectations, but we had great revelations I would say.
Talk about some of those revelations.
Well, we found people who were very, very dedicated — and sometimes even the dedication to the craft of wine making had almost taken over their celebrity life, someone like Robert Kamen who is a very famous screenwriter who wrote the Karate Kid, and Taken was his new film, and he as a young man went out there, he found a piece of land after he sold his first script and now he's even more of a vintner than he is a screenwriter, even though he still writes, ya know, but he's one of our ultimate Terroirists, not Terrorists, but Terroirists, he really loves the land, and really understands that you have to have this unity of being paired with the land to make really good wine and he was a great example of someone who had taken the craft very seriously and someone who is making very serious wines — wines that could be on the World's stage, I would say, and he was completely into terroir. When I say terroir, terroir is not the ground, a lot of people think terroir means just the ground, which in France, it can mean "earth," but with regard to wine it means a sense of place and that sense of place has to have various influences and the influences will make how the wine will taste. It has to do with the ground of course, but it also has to do with altitude, with the climate, the temperatures, the aspect of which way it's facing, so there's a lot of ways you can project what you want to achieve through those ways, and his wines were particularly....well, he was on volcanic soil, and he loved the way the wines tasted when they were very minerally, the Europeans are more terroir-based really, I mean that's kind of a broad statement, but they take into account more what the actual area itself can give to the wine, and so he picked a place, he used jack-hammers and he used dynamite to dynamite the sides of these hills—granite hills and volcanic hills—to actually plant his plants so they would actually suck up all the minerality around there and actually have a wine that tasted much more like the earth or the influences of the earth and the climate and the sense of place that he wanted to provide and not just fruit in a bowl like California wines.
So this must influence enormously the fact that you can have the same grape being grown in Italy and Spain and Robert Kamen's vineyards and a mile away on someone else's vineyards and the wine that comes out is very different, even if it's called a Cabernet
Yea, you can have... a great example is Pinot Noir. A Pinot Noir grape, is a very finicky grape to grow, but depending on where you grow it, it'll taste pretty much different, and even in France, when you have Domaine de la Romanee Conti which is one of the most famous vineyards in the world, right next door they'll have another vineyard owned by someone else and why do those grapes from that vineyard taste different than the ones from d'Arcy? Well, it's all about the terroir, and terroir can change from feet, it's not from miles and miles, which it can be as well, but with certain grapes like Pinot Noir, they can change because of minutia, and you can have a fruit driven style, or you can have a mineral driven style, or you can have a full-bodied style or you can have a light-bodied style depending on where that grape is grown. If it's grown down in the fertile valleys, then you'll have more of a fruit style; if its grown on the hillsides, normally, then it gains more of a mineral complexity. It can change though and you have to know your wines. Getting back to the first question, I love the difference between why that one vineyard tasted one way and if I walk two feet in one direction why the same grape tastes completely different in another vineyard.
I know that you went to Spain and one of the stories in your book is about Banderas and the vineyard that he ended up becoming involved with. I was fascinated by the discussion you had with the winemaker there when I read that and wonder if you might just expound upon that - did you anticipate what you discovered?
It was amazing to go out there. Ya know, Banderas, was one of the people that we were worried about including in the book because he didnt have as much influence on the actual wine making as the other people did. He has a lot of passion towards wine and a lot of knowledge about wine, but he doesn't really have a lot of technical ability to make the wine, so he hired a very young guy from straight out of school, and this guy was just an absolute revelation to us. He knew all about—as I was saying before—you walked into his office and it was like a chemistry lab, things were bubbling, fermenting, changing, changing colors, and he of course was very excited about different techniques that he was using, ya know, stop fermentation at this level and add some grapes to this one, and by the way the winery is miles and miles out of any...its not near any town whatsoever. It's very arid—very hot and very arid—so it stresses the grapes to give them tremendous color and to give them tremendous flavor, character. He also made a winery, or I should say, developed a winery, that was completely self-sustainable, which interested us as well, and it was right next to Vega Sicília which is one of the most famous Spanish wines and he wanted to make a wine purposely that was not like Vega Sicília. He wanted to make a wine that was more modern and more fruit driven, and wanted to use more modern techniques, such as gravity flow. The less a person touches or messes around with the actual process, the more the wine would express itself better and he's making some fantastic wines out of the Tempernillo grape, which is a grape known to produce highly colored and highly fruited wines in very hot conditions.
So as you went from vineyard to vineyard and did you find that it was possible to recommend wines, so that when someone reads the book they also can try some of the things that you thought were the most marvelous?
Yes, I mean, at the end of each chapter. We tried, of course, all the wines that were available at the wineries and we picked two or three that we thought really, really stood out from the pack, the ones we thought would be typifying of what that winery could produce, and what that area itself could produce, and if they stuck with a modern style or if they stuck with a traditional style. Banderas, is a perfect example in that he wanted to make a modern style of wine that still was a very high quality wine, but he didn't want to make a Vega Sicília wine that was in oak casks and sucked all of the fruit, well not all of the fruit, but a lot of the fruit away from the wine. It was all a learning process to go back and fourth and see how they coped with the conditions.
Charlie Palmer is one the people that you travelled to meet - did you talk to him yourself?
Yes, in fact he made us dinner, which was very nice, and as I was saying, different people have different positions on why they wanted to make wine in the first place, and his was a great story about how he wanted to connect with his children. Wine making for him was all about a saturday afternoon and stomping grapes with his kids and thus bonding with his kids and teaching and being educational for them, as well, and he's of course very serious about his wines, as well. He uses the Pinot Noir grape, the finicky one we were talking about before, and makes very good Cuvées from different vineyards, some that are more fruity, some that are more mineral driven.
What's a Cuvée?
A Cuvée refers to a special designated bottling, such as one that utilizes much lower grape yields or a unique rare bottling made only in exceptional years, grapes that are sourced from notable vineyards or only made in certain years. Sometimes cruelly it can also mean nothing at all and is just a gimmick to sell wine. It sounds sort of strange, but it could easily be either. However, getting back what I liked about Charlie was that he used wine not only as pleasurable and educational but as also as a method to bond with his children, yet still managing to produce great, high quality grapes and wines at the same time.
I'm also curious about the fact that apparently the Disney family has a vineyard, I guess...
Silverado, and what impressed you there?
Silverado was impressive because of the technology they had. Some of the wineries we went to — money plays a large part in how much wine you're gonna make, how good it's gonna be, and how much publicity you can get, how much you can sell of your wine. We knew Silverado, being a Disney owned winery, had a lot of money and they had a lot of advantages over other people to make very high quality wines with no expense spared for anything. Just as an example, instead of picking grapes and having people who normally go along at harvest time and cut the grapes off they had kind of a mechanized optical arm that would go around to each plant and basically take a very fast picture of the plant and see exactly how ripe each one of the grapes was and this all happens in a very fast millisecond, then it sucks it in very fast with an air gun, the perfectly ripe grapes only, and leaves the unripe grapes there. Of course, going into Silverado everything is sparkling, its like entering Disney Land itself, which is quite incredible. They have the newest equipment, they have tons of oenologists that are working on pH levels and levels of how sweet a wine is and how age ability and tannins impact the taste and if they wanted a wine that was immediately drinkable or if they wanted a wine that would beneifit from extended aging—they had everything and they had the advantage over most of the other celebrities that we had visited and that was tremendously interesting. They even were able to pick and choose certain vineyards that they wanted to buy to add a little bit of flavor to one grape, to one Cuvée, I should say, and they also were sustainable! It was amazing. They were using mechanics to do away with the need for humans to have any sort of relationship with the grapes in a way so they had very few employees in the vineyards, which is really weird, because usually you see a lot of, well certainly in California anyway, Mexicans, who will go along and pick all the grapes, and being mechanized they did away with all of that need. In the winery they had very, very advanced equipment, so they didn't need extra people to leave a bigger footprint on the world as a whole.
You also went to Canada. The thought that Dan Aykroyd is making wine is just absolutely adorable, there's something that is just hilarious about it. Did he bring the sort of funny side of himself, so to speak, to his winemaking?
Well Dan is a...he's a pretty complex individual, actually. He is funny, but he also makes vodka as well, Crystal Head Vodka, and Tequila, I believe, as well, but he wanted to go into the wine trade as well. A lot of people, especially in Canada wanted to go into it for the reasons of helping different causes, helping children, put proceeds towards different programs, and he certainly does his part in doing that, but Canada is a very difficult place to make wine just because Canada is so cold and we found most of the red wines and white wines virtually, I won't say undrinkable, but very very tough to drink because they have such high levels of acidity, but it's perfect for making one type of wine and that's called ice wine.
Which I have never heard of — what is that?
What they do is they leave the grapes on the vine way into the winter and then the grapes on the vine freeze solid and then they pick them virtually into the new year, sometimes way into the new year sometimes like February some of them do and then they take them to the winery frozen and then they crush them quite softly pneumatically with a press, and it separates the juice from the frozen water, which makes an incredibly powerful, sweet, kind of elixir type of wine. Kind of like a sauternes.
Like a dessert wine?
Yea, it's a dessert wine, kind of like a sauternes and even more powerful in a way, with high levels of acidity, these wines they last forever, you can put them on your salad or drink them 60 years later and they'll still be kicking.
So it sounds like this adventure panned out for you — you not only met some amazing people, but you actually also drank some extraordinary wines.
Yea, I think the whole point was to go out and see whether the wines firstly were drinkable and it was incredible to see how many of these so called celebrities made absolutely beautiful wines and very complex wines and wines that could compete with the best in the world and from celebrities as disparate as Savanna Samson who is a porn actress, who makes some of the best Italian wines that I've tasted from that region, to racing car drivers, to singers, and it was a real joy to find that these wines were good because we expected them to be, if you want me to honest, pretty dire, we thought they were gonna be, but we were pleasantly surprised that they were that good.
This makes me think that there's gotta be another book coming?
Well, we covered such a small — it was a long trip — but we covered a very small part of the world, so we're very interested now in the other side — we want to do the other side of the world. China has become very big in wine, Australia has always been a big area, and you have also South Africa, and you have also a lot of celebrities in those areas, you have a lot of golfers in South Africa, and in Australia like Bert Norman, Ernie Els in South Africa, racecar drivers like Joe Schumacher, and China whose becoming...Roederer, one of the big companies that make Champagne just invested quite heavily in China, so we want to do that side and expose that side. In Australia, there's a bunch of people from Sam Neill, who was in Jurassic Park, making Pinot Noir, and who else do we have over there,what other big one, there's Michael Seresin, whose a screen writer, so there's a lot more to cover than just what we have done, so hopefully there's gonna be a companion side to the book.
So who do you think is gonna want to buy the book - who do you think the ideal reader is?
The book is positioned that, or written, so it's a fun read, it's not a technical read, it's not full of technical specifics and you don't really have to know about pH levels and how everything is exactly made, its more of a travel book of our experiences and how we loved to journey and find these different examples of wines, so I'd say it's more of a Bill Bryson approach to it and it had a lot of fun to it as well, it wasn't something that we just sat in a room and we were tasting different celebrities wines, we actually got out there and went to each one and the travel itself, going from Piedmont to Tuscany or whatever is a trip and journey and tremendous fun.
When you say we, who were you travelling with?
I was travelling with Linda Sunshine who is a very good friend of mine, and a great editor. She's also a much sought—after editor and a writer in her own right; she's written I think over 20 books herself. She became very interested in wine a few years ago after I initially met her and said, "look we should do this book almost together" and she said "well I'm very good at talking and expressing myself" and I said well I'm not too good at that but I can certainly tell you about wine, so we made a fantastic team, and it was a lovely experience to have—to both have her learn about it and for me to learn more about my passion, and I think now she's become a wine expert in her own right.
Well thank you so much, Nick.