What Did I Learn?

Craig Ploof, Brad Buehler, and Steven Mirassou (l to r) at Brad’s recent retirement party.

I think a lot about wine. Not just how a particular wine tastes, but even more about what wine means and how to put the craft of winemaking and the role of Beauty in wine into a communicable context.

In all the ways I’ve asked myself questions about wine, my friend and fellow winemaker, Brad Buehler, came up with a short question that has changed my thinking about this glorious thing we make. We were tasting a flight of wines recently, and came upon one that did not succeed on any level. Brad asked, “What did I learn from that wine?” The answer to the question was far less important than the nature of the question itself.

I’ve written before about great wine’s bottomlessness…it’s ability to continue to challenge one’s preconceived ideas about a place or a variety. Brad’s question opened a new avenue of inquiry, a very specific way of creating a context that get’s the wine lover directly into the meat of the wine-meaning evaluation process. While you can create a binary relationship between learned something = good wine/didn’t learn = not good, simply asking yourself the question every time you taste something, causes you to be a more thoughtful taster, causes you to create a system in your head that places value on certain characteristics of the wine, and opens you up to the myriad possibilities that have not been learned  yet.   In the end, this simple question, will – I think – go a long way to helping you create a wide-ranging context for the wines you enjoy most.


The picture above shows Craig Ploof, Brad Buehler, and I on Brad’s last day at Wente Vineyards. Brad was a constant presence for more than 40 years, and I will miss his guidance, his knowledge, and more importantly, his easy-going friendship. Cheers, buddy!

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Great Wine and Altered States

Great wine defies easy description; it makes the wine lover contemplate it…forces her, even, to be open to change, to the taking in of new flavor and aroma combinations, new structural possibilities. And in the most extraordinary cases, it creates a new reality for that person.

For that wine lover…for anyone who prizes Beauty in its many forms…the experiencing of tardisit creates a (sometimes, subconscious) need to take it in again. This moving forward to find the next new experience also creates a memory-related feedback loop to the previous times that her life was subtly altered so.  Time hiccoughs as our wine lover is at the very same moment drinking a ravishing Burgundy in the present, remembering that amazing Bordeaux blend from last year and yearning for that transcendent Barolo tomorrow. Talk about a virtuous cycle!

Great wine causes these altered states. And because I believe it is in these states that more Beauty can be created, I want to devote myself to making the kinds of wine that take the wine lover everywhere and everytime.



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balanceWhile elegance, poise, pace, and length are all words that define a beautiful wine for me, the most important aspect of beauty (and, by extension – great) wine is Balance.

A wine can have all the power and color and tannin in the world, but if it doesn’t “live” in your mouth; if it doesn’t have nuance and complexity; if it doesn’t age well; if it doesn’t seamlessly balance acid/tannin/wood/fruit; then it lacks the evanescent je ne sais quoi that underscores my sense of beauty and rightness. In a questionnaire from Ilona Thompson of PalateXposure.com, I noted this about balance:

Balance means that every part of the wine is inevitable…there are no superfluous edges or flavors or aromas. Each part of the wine—its organoleptics and structure—is in seamless service to a cohesive whole.

Balance is a moral imperative for great wine, and it is the one quality that is most important in determining how beautiful a wine is. It is also the aspect of Lineage | Livermore Valley that underscores all of our grape-growing and wine-making decisions. If a wine doesn’t start with an essential balance even as early as the beginning of fermentation, it won’t have it…ever.

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Lineage and the World’s Great Bordeaux Blends

This implicit sense of urgency informs our desire to focus on making wine that creates an emotional connection with the drinker, that shows in the style and elegance of the wine, the winemaking philosophy of the wine maker. As with any endeavor that seeks superlative excellence, it is in comparing our wine to those brands that have already reached the pinnacle we are working toward that we learn where we are and how far we have to go.

Last week we had the great pleasure of hosting a very rare blind tasting for 22 of our Lineage Collectors that compared the 2010 vintage of Lineage | Livermore Valley with Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and Harlan

Steven Mirassou with Bottles from First Growth Tasting

Estate from California. These are widely considered to be the greatest (and most expensive) wines of their type in the world, and – in the case of the wines from the Left Bank of Bordeaux – have been for centuries!

Tastings such as these serve as a snapshot in time…if the same tasting was done the next day, the results inevitably would be different…but they are nonetheless valuable in gauging progress. After the tasters ranked the wines, the results were tallied and the 2010 Lineage finished in third place!

This showing was unexpected and incredibly gratifying. Even more important for us as winemakers, though, was to be able to see the similarities and differences between the wines. We still have a tremendous distance to travel until we have made our finest wines, but it is comforting to know that we seem to be traveling on the correct road!

The first three wines:

Harlan Estate                           2.5 (average score)  $815 (price per bottle)
Ch. Haut-Brion                        2.8                              $976
Lineage | Livermore Valley   3.7                               $185


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Wine is Magical

Wine is not the romantic and mystical product so many of those invested in it want us to believe it is. –Hosemaster of Wine 

My friend, Ron Washam, is the “Hosemaster of Wine”…a gifted satirist who has had a long history in a number of capacities in the wine business. He posted today on his site his wine wishes for the New Year. In the course of a significantly long post was the quotation I note above. Below is an excerpt of my response to that post.

Wine is magical…

Notwithstanding any “religious” experience one might have had with wine, the mystic traffics in the unknowable-placing himself above and apart from others by virtue of his unique ability to know what no one else can know. Now, while this may describe certain wine professionals it does not describe wine.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to spend years helping to shepherd grapes from the crusher to the fermenter to the bottle, from the fermentation itself, through extended cropped-lineage-capsule-cropped-small.jpgmaceration, and then through barrel-aging and time spent in the bottle can never be so blasé about how emotionally full…how magical that process is. Each fermenter is its own Big Bang – a new world coming into existence from the nothingness of grape juice, and while we know a lot about how and why a wine ends up specifically like it does, even 20 years later, the process is sufficiently complex as to still appear magical to me.

There are a lot of people who don’t care about how the thing gets from A to Z…they’re only concerned with how it tastes. There’s nothing wrong with that. Wine’s first job, by its very nature, is to be delicious. But just because one’s interest extends only part way doesn’t mean there aren’t many more depths to plumb.




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Telling the Lineage (hiS)tory

History and story are inextricably bound…the Story is what we tell to make sense of where we came from and from whom. As we know from great literature, the two are very malleable. In America – maybe most especially – if you don’t like the reality of the history, simply tell a different story.

The Lineage Wine Company story is simple: Because of the inherent viticultural excellence of our growing area in general and the magic of our Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard in particular, we believe we can make a single wine that can eventually be favorably compared to the best, most iconic wines in history.

Everything we do in the vineyard and in the cellar is meant to reinforce this true story. Indeed, every effort at storytelling (including this very blog post) is also meant to break down resistance to our admittedly audacious mission.

We’d contend that in the world of great wine, the bar to the “true story” is set significantly higher than real life, and no matter how many different ways a winery tries to tell it (instagram, facebook, soundcloud, twitter), the reality will always and only be found when the cork is pulled. Each successive vintage is another chapter in the on-going, wonderfully complicated tale that is part vineyard, part season, part winemaking philosophy, and part luck.


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First Principles


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What Success Looks Like…

I’m heading to Florida early in the morning. Two flights, 3000 miles, all day. I’m not at home with my wife and dogs (my favorite place) nor at the winery (the next best), and I’m hoping that what I’ll do over the next couple of days will yield positive results. And as I’m listening to Bob Seger’s Against the Wind I’m feeling just a little melancholy. So many IMG_0901trips like this in the past and so little ability to determine if the results have led me anywhere other than away.

Certainly not just the fact I’m 50 now, or a first time grandfather, but I’m acutely aware of time passing and all too aware also of the fragility of life – the lives of loved ones and of companies. Success is taking on a different meaning for me now. While it can never, nor should be, uncoupled completely from the inevitability of commerce, it is the pure, more fundamental relationships, that drive me now.

Being a small brand with world-class aspirations (and wanting to be holistically complete) my idea of success for Lineage | Livermore Valley is being circumscribed evermore completely by relationships. My idea of the proper relationship for winemaker and the IMG_0938vineyard and the craft has changed dramatically. No more am I trying to twist and mold and lengthen and compress. Now, I’m in a symbiotic relationship that is less about control and “making” than it is about revelation. Each element works in concert with the others and the process of sharing energy and desire with all my “partners” can lead to moments of perfection, or a state of perfect now-ness.

I am happy that I’ve realized this now so that I can spend the rest of my career unlayering complication in myself and in my wines in order to approach true clarity. Each little stage of this process, a moment of seeing my work for what it is and what it means, is a successful one.

Success, too, looks like my Lineage Collectors and my guests at the winery coming away from their experience with a deeper sense of the magic of wine and of the place that wine holds in a well-wined life. Without an avid and enthusiastic receiver of experience, the IMG_0946most magical moments echo soundless in the vast nothingness of today’s techno-reverb. It is my hope that this “sloughing-off” we are trying to accomplish will invite one to contemplate a more authentic and atavistic experience. When this happens – even if only rarely – that will be a deep and good thing.

The final piece of my evolving vision of success is the caretaking of our land. There are a multitude of sources available to describe how one can farm organically or biodynamically, and they have profoundly affected my thinking about what we are doing now and where we ought go. The simplest way for me to describe this relationship to the vineyard is embodied in a phrase you see if you’ve ever hiked in the White Mountains.”Pack in. Pack out.” Simple. Don’t leave footprints. Leave things the way you found them if they’re right. Make them right if they’re not.  It is crucial – as with every other relationship – to work to reverberate at the same frequency so that outputs naturally come from what has been put into them.

Perfection doesn’t mean a lack of flaws, and it comes about by doing just those true things that need to be done. The well-lived life is spent discovering what those true things are.

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What Does It Mean to Have a Wine Culture?

Jon Bonné, former San Francisco Chronicle wine writer, was the Keynote Speaker at the In Pursuit of Balance tasting held in San Francisco a week or so ago and which I wrote about here. Bonné recently wrote a book in which he segregated winemakers here into the “old” (read, those who are doing it all wrong) and “new” camps.

Bonné does not love California, neither the predominant wine “style” (if such a thing actually exists) nor the wine scene in his erstwhile home town. If one wanted to be sensitive, much of what he spoke about were the viticultural and enological failings of CA when implicitly compared to Old World regions that he obviously prizes (I look at Bonné as I would anybody else trying to sell something. He’s attempting to build his brand, and whether he actually believes what he writes or not, it may be “good business” to move against what he perceives to be the overarching critical flow of the moment). Though he didn’t flesh the point out well, Bonné noted that great wine culture was about intent and that great wine was, among other things, culturally significant.  This argument is somewhat self-referential and circular, but I think I understand what he means.

Great wine is made with a very specific and thoughtful philosophy and rationale. The winemaker shepherds and escorts grapes through the fermentation process and helps the fruit to achieve its inherent best so that it reflects a time and a place and that philosophy. Though I may take issue with Bonné’s attention-seeking style, his lack of deep knowledge about California wine history, and his very cursory tasting of the bounty of CA wine, this subject is at the heart of winemaking and profoundly resonates with me. Much more waits to be written about it.


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I believe strongly in listening to and telling stories. Storytelling is how we share (family history), how we teach (family craft), and how we connect emotionally.

There are a lot of ways to tell stories, and I will be trying many of them out. Just as I amfire stories never quite sure how one of my wines will be received, I do not know whether a picture or a recording or a video will be the thing that connects me to another wine lover.

Time flees, and I am honored by any little bit you care to share. Here are some links:

To listen. To watch. To read. To view. To note. To tweet.

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