Scary Wine Country Tales / Big Cab Tasting

We do not commonly think of wine tied to horror. The truth is, sometimes wines and the wine industry can lead to some pretty awful circumstances. Halloween passed this week. Kids in costumes came by the house. We attended a Hallow-Wine party where the good shit was downstairs on a table in front of two guys older than tBoW. Those grim details follow these true life stories. Read our three recounts of vinous venality where red is more than the color of wine.

#1 Sonoma Rampage: The wine country is a place where gentlemen farmers grow Cabernet and Merlot, pick the ripe grape bunches, crush them tenderly, scrutinize fermentation and eventually transfer the bulk to barrels then to bottles with labels. The romance squeaks satisfaction and fulfillment. It is what everyone wants. But it is not for everyone in wine country. Life is tougher for the migrant workers that roam the wine valleys, catching on with a crew, listening to lame-ass insults if the foreman does not like you maybe just because you’re Mexican. This was the life of Ramon Salcido who worked at Gran Cru in Sonoma Valley. Ramon was there without a visa. He married a local gal and she bore three daughters who were 1, 3 and 4 when he slit their throats. He worked the bottling line at the winery. He was not sure who was the father of one of the daughters and he suspected his wife was sleeping with his supervisor.

One night in April 1989 Ramon and a pal partied all night on champagne and cocaine. He made up his mind it was time to settle things in Sonoma and return to Mexico. Juiced and fried he went home about 7:00 looking for his wife. She was gone. He put the girls in the truck and drove to a dump where he administered deep cuts from ear to ear and left them with the trash. He drive to his mother-in-law’s home hunting for his wife. He beat the mother-in-law with a tire iron then sexually assaulted her. While he was slashing the throats of her two pre-teen daughters the mother-in-law stumbled out of the garage where he had left her for dead. Ramon finished the job with his best left to right gullet maneuver. He grabbed her husband’s rifle. He went back to his house where he finally found his wife. Shot her twice in the head.

surviving daughter

Only one thing left to do. He went to work. At the Gran Cru winery he found the supervisor who was screwing his wife and shot him to death. Then he drove to the home of the other supe and wounded him with a bullet. Exhausted, he drove to Mexico where he was found and returned to Sonoma to stand trial. Today Mr. Salcido is on death row. Amazingly, his youngest daughter survived 30 hours alone in the garbage pile with her chin resting on her chest. She and Ramon are the last two family members. She gave him a bible and he became a jailhouse minister.

1996 Harlan the Maiden $200: This is the second label from the well known “Napa cult winery,” This wine is 16 years old. Dark red, tannic flavors, tons of tannin that coats the mouth. Lots of fruit still there but honestly who could tell? Way too big for our wimpy palates. So dark we cannot detect the alcohol. Just saw Real Steel the movie about fighting robots if ya get my drift. 100% Napa Horrorshow. The winery does not release the blend instead referring to it as a proprietary blend. How First Growth!

#2 Modesto Mayhem: Every family has private matters that are best left in a closet corner, even the greatest of them all. There is also the popular axiom that behind every wealthy family is a crime. One of the oldest and most successful wine families has such a story buried in its past. Joe Gallo Sr. was among the earliest growers in the pre-prohibition San Joaquin Valley. His sons were witnesses to elder Joe’s success running an unlicensed cross-country wine business during Prohibition. Joe and his brother Mike had Ernest with them selling wine in Chicago and the eastern seaboard. Al Capone was supposed to have been a loyal customer. Mike was eventually arrested multiple times as a notorious “rum runner” while Papa Joe slipped away.

Papa Joe’s sons, Ernest and Julio, wanted to do more. They wanted to grow the business their own way. They wanted to be partners. Ernest in particular butted heads with Old Country Joe who was accustomed to beating both sons repeatedly with a strap, teaching them all he knew about growing grapes. The discussion simmered for years until the boys pulled out. In 1933 Ernest applied for a post-Prohibition bond to make wine but was denied because he did not own any vineyards. One week later both parents were found shot to death by a ranch hand. Mama was in the yard and Joe was in the house. Her wound was back of the head. His was right temple. The official verdict was murder/suicide. There were two gossip choices: mob hit or stock losses. But the market crashed in 1929 and Joe had already gone legit acquiring new acreage and building underground wine tanks. The locals said Papa always went first so he probably shot himself then his wife. Oh yes. Both pet dogs also perished by bullets. The estate was wrapped up quickly, Ernest got his vineyards and winery, and the brothers never…looked…back.

1996 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon $80: So by now you have figured out that the fellas holding court and filling tBoW’s glass are fans of Big Red Cabs. Montelena has always produced one of the more elegant style Napa Cab. The Barrets never fell all over themselves to satisfy Parker’s palate. No surprise this was far more interesting than the Harlan nuke. Full bodied, sinewy, great mellowed fruit still showing some power. Solid Napa Cabernet flavors. No choco, no raspberries, no cassis. Just Napa Cab at its best. Bloody good. 13.5%

#3 Blunt Force Message: This case is open. In fact, it is not officially a murder case although every signal points that direction. Wine festivals are an important part of the summer season. For the price of a mid range bottle of wine you can meander through rows of tables that offer, if you are lucky, samples of worthwhile wines and delicious foods. We attended the Santa Barbara wine festival this year. We tasted the some of the best known wines the region has to offer.

FBI looking for something

All the heavy hitters had a table and we were able to taste a wonderful array of Pinot Noir from each of the “big names” including Brewer Clifton, Au Bon Climat and Sanford.

The last table on the pathway to the parking lot held a great surprise; Sweeney Canyon Winery. The winemaker Kristi and and her vineyard manager and husband Chris Marks poured their samples telling a story. They had originally planted the vineyard to sell grapes to other area winemakers. Interest in their fruit quickly grew. The wines they poured from four vintages under their own label were impressive. They showed low alcohol levels and perfectly balanced fruit flavors that seemed to capture the essential nature of Santa Rita Hills which is a region otherwise known for wines too ripe and too alcoholic to enjoy peaceably. We wanted to tell this story but we could not capture their interest. When our publisher finally caught up with the vineyard manager he sharply informed her they were not interested in any coverage thank you and that was the end of that call. Maybe we were pests. Maybe something else was holding his attention. A couple months later we were told at a local harvest party that husband and vineyard manager Chris Marks had been found dead. The first reports said he had fallen 40 feet from a bluff as though he had been pushed. The next report said he died from blunt trauma to the back of the head, consistent with a gunshot. Detectives interviewed the family and business partners. Latest reports describe a trail of lawsuits and millions in debt. People like to say the best way to make a million bucks in wine is to start with three million. Perhaps if you pass a few million in the wrong direction you can also get killed.

1982 Calon Segur $150 at auction otherwise $200: This is a Third Growth St Estephe wine from the first “vintage of the century.” 1982 was the first vintage purchased strongly by a new generation of wine consumers including yours truly. First we drank Cabernet and Chardonnay from California because we live here and the Napa Story was hot off the presses. Once we learned that Bordeaux was the inspiration for Napa Cabernet, well, we had to have Bordeaux. The wine was rusty colored with a soft nose. It IS 30 years old. Blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc. Flavors have old fruit with that slight tingly quality. Balance is good. This is a grande dame of a wine, delicate, elegant, and doing just fine for her age. My favorite of the three. 13%

We would have tasted more if we were Cabernet drinkers. We missed several 1989 Bordeaux including Pichon Baron. These are no longer our wines but we appreciate what they are and welcome the opportunity to have revisited the Montelena and Calon Segur. Hope our stories are not too ghoulish. Please vote on the 6th.


  1. Wavatar
    igty says:

    i was too blind to read it so i imagined the drivel you probably wrote. what a riot.

    • Wavatar
      Bacchus says:

      Incredible. I write the darkest post I have ever written fearing horrified and rejecting replies and only the blind guy comments. I would also point out you were unable to open the great pics I sent you of the Stella Artois hostess who posed for us at the LA Mag wine fest. Keep your face down so that gas bubble stays positioned, please.

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