The idea was to eat lunch first, then talk about wine over a game or two of pool. So we ordered some burritos and beers and tried to stay away from the main subject. But put two winemakers at a table (along with a wine magazine publisher and a wine marketing director) and the conversation’s doomed to take that fateful turn into “business.” So, we decided to get the basics out of the way with our burrito supremes.
Marco, like most of us, enjoys the simple things in life: a walk in the evening, cooking at home and having a bit-o’-the-grape (wine, for those who need the obvious). I’ve always found that the type of individual who gets into winemaking also enjoys similar creative ventures, such as cooking, music or art. I guess it’s the inside wanting to be on the outside. His favorite music – “wopra.” Met with our blank faces, Marco explained this is his word for Italian opera. Considering he’s Italian, I think we’re safe. His opinion is that pop music isn’t a good value — you get tired of it so fast. But opera and classical music can be listened to over and over . (I assume he hasn’t listened to the Bee Gee’s “Saturday Night Fever lately.) His attitude toward wine is the same: good value equals a great wine.
We talked about influences in his life. Solid people: mother, father and the immortal Andre Tchelistcheff, the late great winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards. I tried to find some marketable influences, such as a movie star or sports hero, but sometimes a sincere response is all you get.
The conversation shifted to how critics influence the style(s) of wine. Marco admitted that they (critics) play a role in his blending practices, because for the most part people want what the critics tell them is good. So he’ll make certain compromises — purposely make a wine a little oakier and broader and fatter because he knows that style does well in the press. He’ll compromise his ideal — a wine light on oak and with tight acidity — but stop at a certain point. Has he ever crossed that line? His 1992 sangiovese, which he calls a caricature, an exaggerated “thing” because it was so oaky and so ripe and so high in alcohol that it was nothing like the classic-style sangioveses of Italy. But he laughed because the press rated it highest among all sangioveses ever produced by Swanson.
The highs and lows of the wine biz? Marco’s high is harvest. He explains, “We work two weeks straight without a day off, 12- to 14-hour days. But it’s exciting. The adrenaline is going. That’s what you’re there for. That’s where the winemaker makes wine. You really feel like you’re doing something great.”
The lows: Bottling. “It’s the most despicable job in the industry by far. Bottling is 14-hour days, six days a week. It’s a real drag. It takes the wind out of me because it’s so physically demanding, so stressful and takes so much effort.”
I can relate to both because it’s the same for me. Crush is what you work for all year. It’s either do or die. One hell of a way to get your kicks. Bottling on the other hand… The wine is finished, and all you have to do is get it in the bottle and out the door, right?. Yeah, right! Every other minute the bottling line breaks down, and you’re not sure if those high-quality corks you spent way too much money on are going to ruin your wine because some goon let them get moldy. Maybe someday we’ll all get over this “cork” thing relax and enjoy a great bottle of wine with a screw cap. Yeah, maybe someday.
Lunch was over. The burritos were safely stored. It was now time for the Wine X vs Swanson Vineyards pool challenge. Yikes!
Marco’s reputation for fine pool playing preceded him (I did my homework) so I knew the only chance Wine X had was to keep him preoccupied with questions. So as soon as we racked, I started in. (Looking back, it didn’t help.)
Marco Cappelli (left), Stewart Dorman (right)
Cappelli: The biggest misconception of winemaking is that it’s an art. It’s not an art. It’s a craft. It’s like making raspberry jam: you start with raspberries and end up with raspberry jam. We start with grapes and end up with wine. There’s a lot that’s intuitive, and decisions are made without even thinking about it. To me, though, it doesn’t qualify as an art.
Wine X: Favorite wine to make?
Cappelli: Syrah. It’s got so much personality and depth and character.
Wine X: You worked in Italy as a winemaker. Is there a big difference between what they’re doing there and what’s happening here in California?
Cappelli: The biggest difference is less in the winemaking and more in the perception of wine. Italians need to drink wine. It has to be on the table. It’s an integral part — a necessary part — of their life. It’s a staple. Americans, on the other hand, buy wine (and most products) because of the label and image.
Wine X: Italians don’t care about image?
Cappelli: Italian families will take a five-gallon jug down to the local winery or store and fill it up. Sort of like getting gas at a gas station. They just consume it. They don’t talk about it or get fancy about it. They just buy it and drink it.
Wine X: What’s your biggest wine pet peeve? (This was supposed to throw him off. He didn’t flinch.)
Cappelli: Pricing. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid to spend $60 or $70 for a bottle of fermented grape juice. You can eat for a week — two, if you’re a winemaker — for that kind of money. It’s stupid because you’re not buying the wine, you’re buying the “image” that the winery is selling. You’re becoming a sucker for a marketing campaign.
Wine X: Are California wineries pricing themselves out of the market?
Cappelli: Right now prices are in line with what the market is bearing. But the market will change. Then we’ll have priced ourselves out.
Wine X: What wines do you consider bargains?
Cappelli: California methode champenoise sparkling wines. There are some great wines produced for $14 or $15.
Wine X (trying to throw his game off again): Napa has a pretty pretentious reputation, don’t you think?
Cappelli: You mean peoples’ perceptions of what it is?
Wine X: Okay.
Cappelli: Just as some people won’t go to minor league baseball games — they only go to major league games — the Napa and Sonoma Valleys represent the wine lover’s idea of what the major leagues are. So when they come to California, I think they see and think this is the best wine country can be.
We paused (a ploy to stop Swanson’s momentum) to enjoy some Swanson Sangiovese. Good stuff.
Wine X: Do you see any new consumers coming into the market?
Updegraf (chimes in): No. I think all of us are barking up the same two-percent tree. We’re all stealing (or trying to steal) each others’ customers and not adding any new ones.
Wine X: So what are you doing to bring in new consumers?
Updegraf: Very little. We’re just gonna sit back like everyone else and let you guys take care of that.
Post Game Note: I am proud to say that Team Wine X exhibited the epitome of what the game of pool represents: skill, strategy and luck. Okay, skill and strategy were nowhere to be found, since the ball kept flying off the table. Luck was the only thing that saved us from looking like total geeks, but it’s the spirit that counts, right? Oh, who won? Well, I promised not to tell, but let’s just say that Swanson Vineyards owes Wine X a few pitchers of margaritas and a big tub o’ chips with a gallon of fresh homemade guac on the side.
Many thanks to Marco Cappelli and Michael Updegraf