Yale '62 - Of Wine and Scandal - Bill Wheeler

"California Wine and the Internet"
By Bill Wheeler

How frequently it is that the simplest things, if they proceed quietly and productively over a long period of time, escape our notice. We see the inevitable lapses and surges along the way quite clearly. The Internet, for example. It remains a powerful, ubiquitous tool, embedding itself in our lives ever more deeply. But we ruminate on its recent failings and setbacks more than its successes. (Oh, that cruel stock marketÖif only weídÖ) I donít want to force the comparison, but the success of the California wine industry falls a bit into that stealth development category too.

I well remember our own first tentative steps in 1970, buying an old prune orchard in the Dry Creek Valley and dreaming of rows of beautiful vines. Most of our friends and certainly my parents thought Iíd finally, at age 30, lost it completely.

Yale '62 Poll
Wine Favorites Poll
What grape is the principal ingredient in your favorite wines? (Select one)
Cabernet Sauvignon
Sauvignon Blanc

There were much easier ways to make money, as many of our classmates discovered. An ordinary bottle of California red (Cabernet and Merlot were virtually unknown, except to the cognoscenti) sold for $1.60; nobody sang the virtues of California wine, except Gallo. California Wineís past days of glory, mostly misremembered, had been ephemeral, sometime between the Gold Rush and Prohibition.

Bars poured the same hard liquor we drank at Yale; many of you reprobates still do. Wine guides and restaurants ignored California and wine merchants looked to France and perhaps Italy for their inspiration and trade. How different is the scene today!

There are thousands of California wines, filling the brimming shelves and lengthening wine lists, and there are California winemakers spreading their knowledge all over the world, including to Europe. I believe it was Opus One, the seminal joint venture of Mondavi-Rothschild that not only produced the first bottle of $50 wine, but legitimized the product and set the flag way out in front for the other California growers.

In leafing through the recent Forbes 400 richest, I see the name of Jess Stonestreet Jackson, number 100 on the list, at $1.8 Billion. Wait a minute! I knew Jess at that moment in time when the Wm Wheeler Winery and Kendall-Jackson were about the same size, say 10,000 cases in maybe 1983. Now K-J is producing 4.5 million cases annually and grossing $485 million. No one knows for sure how much drops to the bottom line into Jessís pocket. My guess is $20-40 million. Hey! Thatís real money, and itís an amazing story.

Please donít misunderstand me. There is only one Jess Jackson, and the industry is still filled with people who dream of rows of beautiful vines and of making the great American Cabernet or Pinot Noir or Mourvedre or Zinfandel. They toil long hours for marginal returns. But, look at the distance traveled by this magnificent and precocious child. California wine, first the brash newcomer, is now at the top tier in the world of gracious living. What a change in the last forty years -- all since our graduation.

Al Chambers, our Web Site enthusiast, asked me to write this article. He said, "make it edgy and controversial. We need some action on the website." And here Iíve come up with a teary-eyed flack piece. All right, letís go back to the Opus One example. I personally would never spend 50 bucks on a bottle of wine, unless they threw in the woman for free. And I think the insane prices paid at the Napa Valley Wine Auction are the most flagrant examples of egregious, sophomoric behavior I can imagine. Get a life! What is this? Dennis Kozlowsky meets Jack Welsh for the big dollar shootout in an orgy of self-congratulatory (masturbatory) paddle waving? Hey,guys, itís only a beverage, not an investment vehicle or a bottle of Viagra. I mean, donít expect miracles!

You got an opinion on the subject? Iíd be interested.

Note: Bill and Ingrid Wheeler sold their vineyard and winery to Banque Paribas in 1989 before the recent boom carried vineyard properties to new heights. They now live on Belvedere Island overlooking the San Francisco Bay and rows of beautiful yacht masts. They can be reached at 415-789-0135 or skyhigh2@aol.com