March 21, 2013

Epistolary wine

There are many stories about how I came to make wine. Sometimes I'm not sure which ones are real and which are fiction, not in a lie sense but perhaps wishful thinking. The epiphany bottle. The childhood scent memory of a barrel cellar. The book of tasting notes I've kept all this time. They all happened but maybe they weren't as singularly pivotal as they seem at times.

The story I've come to understand is most true, however unlikely, is the muse of strangely beautiful music, in this case Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet's now 20 years gone recording The Juliet Letters. For many Costello fans it seems the record is best forgotten, a one-off dalliance of a rock and roller posturing with classical music. It's hardly surprising given the vitiriol some Costello devotees save for anything not from the first several albums with his groundbreaking band the Attractions. It's as if anything since then is a slap in the face of that greatness.

I guess I see things differently. All that earlier music is wonderful, but the recording I keep going back to is The Juliet Letters (even more than King of America, which now seems oddly dated - maybe it's the hollow remaster from Rykodisc, whatever). The Juliet Letters is the most true to me, and my simple approach to wine. Even why I make Pinot Noir is best expressed in terms of this record. Lyrical. Acoustic. Quiet. Pure. Heartbreaking. Epistolary.

As is the case with so many significant things in a life, the recording came at the right time for me. It was something reflective I needed in that moment. I didn't love it at first and maybe that's where most listeners left off. The difference for me might have been my lucky attendance at Elvis and the Brodskys' performance at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus near my childhood home. Royce Hall to that point was a site of horror for me, the place my parents sent my brother and me for interminable theater performances for children. I've blocked out what we actually saw. I just remember any trip to Royce Hall would gladly have been traded for a few cavity fillings at the dentist.

Image stolen from

A dear old friend and Elvis fanatic was in grad school at UCLA and got us two student tickets right on the floor, maybe 20 rows back. We walked in, the horror of Royce Hall immediately exorcised when we sat down and I noticed the familiar, incredibly beautiful neck of Jamie Lee Curtis right in front of me. We'd all received pens from the ushers when we walked in and I mused out loud, why the pens? Jamie Lee turned around and answered - The Juliet Letters. Get it?

Uh, yeah. By the way, I love you.

Happily I didn't actually say that. She just smiled, I felt stupid and said, of course, and she turned around. In the moment I thought - wait, I knew your half-brother Nick, he was a childhood friend and he had recently passed away. I wanted to say something but obviously this wasn't the place. The show was about to start. I still think about him though, and when the curtain went up I was in a heightened place emotionally.

This concert was the best performance I've ever seen. The music, even Elvis' imperfect but incredibly committed vocals, blew me away. In the current vernacular, he owned it, dog. And I wasn't alone in the rapture. I've never heard an audience applaud like we all did that night, to the point where, after several encores, we pleaded for even more and the performers were visibly taken aback, saying they simply didn't have any more material.

They'd performed the whole record in two movements, then played a few of old Costello gems, Tom Waits' More Than Rain, and what was that, were they teasing us with The Beach Boys' God One Knows? Yes, they wound around into it, giving perhaps the most perfect song I've ever heard and maybe ever will. The crowd could not be silenced until the performers decided they'd sort of messed up one of the initial numbers and asked, in lieu of having anything else, could they play it again? Yes, of course.

I walked out of Royce Hall that night changed in a way I didn't understand at the time. I still don't, quite. I just heard the violin that night in a way I've never forgotten. My parents had taken me to see Pearlman at the Hollywood Bowl a couple times. I knew the instrument was singular. It's just this night it slugged me in the gut and hasn't ever gone away.

You see, Pinot Noir is the violin. It's the one. It's one note, long, singular, incredibly pure. It's a small chord, the growl of assertive bowing, weightless with finesse and muscular in strength. It's often overwhelmed in the rock and roll of new world terroir. It will change your life before you know what's happened.

It did for me. Not immediately, but I was searching for that sound in some part of my life, that incredibly beautiful tone, the lyric. I already had a passion for wine and it wasn't really until years later that Pinot emerged in me. But it did, and I moved to Oregon, to me the most exciting place for wine in the new world, even if so much of the wine world overlooks it in favor of the canonical classics. I'm not provinical. I love the world of wine. But this place is the one where I'm writing from.

And so, epistolary wine. We learned in college literature classes that epistolary novels are those typically written in letters. Les Liaisons dangereuses is a classic example and well worth reading. Likewise, The Juliet Letters is epistolary music, each song a letter, the concept apparently inspired by letters so many people around the world have apparently written to the mythic Juliet and mailed to somewhere in Verona. Searching for something.

Only some of the lyrics actually refer to Juliet or Romeo. Instead there are letters of all kinds, letters of suspicion, letters of lost love, a suicide note, even a letter that gets to the heart of the matter, admitting in the song "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet' - I don't know why I'm writing to you.

We don't always know why we write, but I know now why I make wine. Each one is an epistle, a letter home from the time and place, the year of the wine and ofmy life. These bottles are where I'm coming from, something I need you to know, written in the single note or powerful chord of a grape, so that twenty years later it's still there, ringing true, compelling, crying it hurts of its story so bad.

That's why I'm writing to you.


Jim Fritzsche said...

That's amazing Vince!

Anonymous said...


Vincent Fritzsche said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A really lovely read.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Thanks. I'd been thinking about this one for a while.