Winemaker 101: a Day in the Life

We were recently struck by two moments of clarity. The scene is a popular Malibu dining establishment where some of the ‘Bu winemakers hang. Our company that evening was Napa winemaker Jim Moore of Uvaggio who at one point was having a conversation about grapes with a local Pinot producer. She asked how many cases he made in 2009 and he said 6,000, “a small number.” He asked and she answered she made 45 cases in 09 to which Jim replied “that’s a hobby isn’t it?” Later the same week when I called Jim on the phone he asked me to call back because he was “loading a truck with cases.” Got me to thinking…what is it like to be a full time winemaker on a day to day basis in 2010?

There was a time when the “romance” kind of fit the reality. All it took was a boat load of cash. [ed. please DO NOT email “how do you make a million bucks in the wine business? Start with three.”] It was called custom crush. Hire a winemaker who buys the grapes, rent a slot to crush and ferment in somebody else’s winery, buy some very expensive barrels, design the labels!

If you went whole hog in the Mondavi era [ed. 1975-1995] and actually became a winemaker instead of doing it virtually, you would have bought some land, hopefully with a barn or some kind of structure, vineyards already planted with a “field blend” and probably untended for decades, and started growing vines and making wine. You would have rented a mobile bottler and used somebody’s 2 and 3 y.o. barrels for your first vintage. You could do this back then with a physician’s savings. See Wellington Vineyards in Sonoma. Or if you were an ophthalmologist who made a fortune on ocular surgeries for elderly patients with MACD you would have started the Robert Sinskey Vineyards on Silverado Trail. But these are folks who took the easier route.

What if you were a cellar rat who paid two decades of dues for the Mondavi empire including spearheading the launch of various Italian corporate appendages after which you decided it was time to strike out on your own with a fresh idea like instead of making premium wines go against the grain and make easy to drink quality wines labeled Red and White priced near $10. The valley was awash in unsold juice produced by individuals and corporate groups that had overrun Highway 29 from Napa to Calistoga. Why not scoop up the best overrun, bottle it on the cheap, slap a label like the old California fruit crates on it and sell it to every market in NoCal. What if somehow Coppola had the same idea and got there first?

Plan B: start your own label anyway, call it Uvaggio. Work out of wineries operated by a network of friends whose confidence you gained 30 years in the Valley and encouraged a few growers to plant unique, distinctive varieties like Vermentino in underappreciated, workhorse locations such as “pedestrian” sites like Lodi (where the earliest California vinifera went in the ground). What would you be doing TODAY to make it all work? What would you say about the business and yourself, given the chance?

tBoW: How could one tell they were standing next to a winemaker while waiting for a table at Don Giovanni?

JM: More likely than not there is a vest with a logo or at least a logo cap. The shoes – a very important part of the uniform – are Aussie slip-ons called “blundstones”. No Carhartt overalls, Carhart shorts however are de rigueur. The attitude is a key: smugly self confident, manifested with subtlety. Look for the same indifferent swagger when sauntering into Dean & Deluca or the Oakville Grocery for a mid-morning cappuccino.

tBoW: How long have you been making wine?

JM: 35 years

tBoW: Any special achievements in wine?

JM: The San Francisco Chronicle named me a ‘winemaker to watch’ back in 2005 or 2006. After ~30 years in the biz this was a sort of melancholy, hallmark greeting card moment.

tBoW: Any milestones that have changed the business?

JM: To quote David Byrne, “same as it ever was‚Ķ” We are in the midst of another major recession in which scared witless consumers make sheep-like buying decisions based on promotion, prominent product placements and media push while the corporate giants sit back and shuffle the deck. Essentially the current state of an ever consolidating three tier system is facilitating sales of corporatized wines; a situation somewhat analogous to that frog in the boiling water.

tBoW: What things do you do today that you did not anticipate 15 years ago when you left Mondavi?

JM: When I left 13 years ago I was a somewhat sheltered, slightly naïve, cube-dwelling technocratic (a la dilbert) not ready to face a harsh reality of figuring out just how do I get the job done.

tBoW: “I gotta call you back. I’m loading the truck.” How often does this happen in a week?

JM: Given that my motto is “when you earn nothing per hour, you have to make every minute count”, loading trucks and other such activities happen just about every day.

tBoW: What about your greatest disappointments in the business.

JM: My small tract home garage is not large enough to accommodate our his and hers Maserati convertibles.

tBoW: The future…?

JM: To quote Leonard Cohen “I have seen the future, brother, it is murder‚Ķ” With Chardonnay currently the most popular domestic white wine, things will be getting worse before they get any better.

tBoW: If you could fix one thing…

JM: I am too old, dispirited and yet strangely preoccupied to fix anything.

tBoW: List ten things you do every day in the business especially the mundane.

JM: (1) spend a minimum of 2.5-3.0 hours dealing with email – virtually all of it mundane. (2) spend a minimum of 1.5-2.0 hours trying to sell wine – most of the time unsuccessfully. (3) spend a minimum of 1.5-2.0 hours on the cell phone – a lot of it is frustrating, due to AT&T’s new policy of fewer bars in less places. (4) spend ~0.5 hours juggling finances, dealing with accounting issues and paying bills. (5) spend ~0.25 hours checking the corporate bank account on-line – to accomplish the above. (6) spend ~1.5-2.0 hours picking-up wine from our warehouse and making local deliveries. (7) spend ~0.25 hours checking the warehouse inventory on-line – to decide what to try and address next. (8) spend ~0.5 hours going to/from the p.o. box – hoping to find checks but mostly it consists of bills and solicitations. (9) spend ~1.0 hours researching products and/or techniques – to either save money or improve quality, occasionally both. (10) spend every working moment pushing a huge bolder uphill, all the while worshiping my god – Sisyphus.

Jim Moore is the co-owner of Uvaggio Winery. He was a founding member of the Consorzio Cal-Ital and a terrific winemaker whose wines always show a light touch, fresh flavors and reds with superb age-ability. His focus today is primarily Vermentino and secondarily Primitivo – both are fruit forward ‘food wines’ deftly crafted – for all the right reasons. If you ever see his older red wines – Il Lupo Barbera & Nebbiolo and especially his Il Ponte Sangiovese, be sure to snap them up. Classics.

Don’t worry too much about Jim Moore. If you search the Chronicle archive you will find 20 articles in which he is mentioned or featured. Then migrate to the Sacramento Bee. He is not just a local favorite; more like an insider’s winemaker. It takes a lot of commitment and belief in yourself to push domestic Italian varietals on a Cab and Chard loving public. He got the price point right well in advance of the recession [ed. and this blog!]

It ain’t easy folks! I don’t care if you are a winemaker, a teacher, a nurse or an entrepreneur. Please drink the best wines this holiday. We have all earned it.

2 Comments

  1. Wavatar
    mouse says:

    Didn’t Burt Williams quit ’cause his back wasn’t good for heavy lifting any longer? Does tBoW now like California Italians? This would be news…. I sincerely hope so.

  2. Wavatar
    Bacchus says:

    I had not heard the Burt Williams story. Thanks for rumor! tBoW likes Jim Moore’s wines which are the most among the Cal-Ital like what one finds in Italy. We should ask him about growing Sagrantino in Lodi. I know were you’re going with this…if you put the Palmina Sangio in front of me I will taste it. Remind me to open one of the older Uvaggio wines I mentioned when you are in da houws!

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