To me, meeting a famous winemaker or owner is like meeting a rock star. My nerves kick in, I get a little sweaty, and my knees shake. I stammer a little because these are celebrities in my industry and I never know quite what to say. So I usually end up gushing inarticulately, saying something lame like “Gosh, I just love your wines.” Yeah, smoooooooth. More often than not I am able to recover, but I don’t think I will ever escape the butterflies.
My most recent brush with fame was yesterday afternoon, when one of our favorite reps waltzed in with one of her ride-alongs in tow. “I brought some treats in for you guys in case you’re thirsty,” she said with a wink. Being that it was well after lunch time, we were indeed thirsty. Then, almost as an afterthought, she motioned to the fellow next to her and said “Oh, this is Steve Beckmen.”
Beckmen Vineyards is one of the great wineries in Santa Ynez and has been one of my favorites in that area for many years now. They’re credited as one of the pioneers of the “Rhone Ranger” wineries in Southern California, and have built a superb reputation for meticulous work in their vineyards, as well as for their finely crafted, all estate grown wines. Probably the most notable bottling is the Cuvée le Bec, a Rhone-style blend that rocks your face off for only about $18. It’s one of those wines that is always good, every vintage, on every occasion. I’ve only tasted their entry level, higher production wines, but I imagine their single vineyard and single block stuff (mostly wine club only) is to die for.
So when the introductions were made, I stiff-armed my colleague, practically jumped across my desk, shook Steve’s hand vigorously and said “It’s sooooooo nice to meet you. Gosh, I just love your wines.” Oh. Shit. No, no, this isn’t going to happen today, I thought. I took a breath, regained my composure, found my glass and dove in. We spent about twenty minutes chatting and tasting a few of his wines. We talked about the rise in popularity of Rhone varietals, about biodynamic farming, and about the possible addition of the new Happy Canyon AVA. He was kind, gracious, intelligent, and meeting him will certainly turn out to be one of the highlights of my year.
Honestly, meeting people like Steve is the best part of my job. Of course I love tasting wine– especially really good ones. But most of my best memories with regard to wine involve the people behind them. I’ve had wonderful encounters with the likes of Walt Flowers, Peter Franus, David Hopkins (Bridlewood,) Jennifer Halleck, and Steve Bird. Jim Clendenon (Au Bon Climat, Clendenen Family Vineyards) is one of the coolest, most intelligent people I’ve met; and discussing his wines with him is like what I’d imagine talking sonatas with Mozart would be like. I saw a twinkle in his eye once, like a kid on Christmas morning, when I mentioned his syrah was a dead ringer for a great Côte Rôtie. Clendenen is the Peyton Manning of winemakers. Even if you’re not a fan (how could you not be) you still have to respect his talent and admire his ambition. Then there’s Niccolo Capponi, one of the owners of Villa Calcinaia in Italy. I met him four years ago and his booming voice and contagious, boisterous laugh still echo in my memory. “This is my Kate Moss wine” he told me that afternoon. “It’s like, there’s not a lot of meat on its bones but it’s really nice to look at and its so sexy, eh?” I told so many people that story in the following months, and every single one of them bought at least one bottle. He makes great wines and he’s easily one of the most unique characters I’ve ever come across.
These are the people that make wine wonderful. They make it taste good; but more importantly, they make it tell a beautiful story. And though I imagine none of them remembers me, I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to meet them and I look forward to my next rock star moment. Even if I stutter like a moron.