It wasn’t the smoothest of introductions but, as I would soon learn, Ross Cobb isn’t one of those hard-edged, judgmental types who close off at the slightest provocation. Later that night, after I’d scored an embarrassing 44 points in our second round of bowling, Ross said: “There are more important things in life than excelling at bowling.” He was serious. A week after our interview, he was still talking me down, via email: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson — Life Principles for 2001 from the Dalai Lama.” It makes so much sense, this young man making wine.
We spoke about wine and work (and the art thereof) between rounds. Ross had to yell over the Bob Marley soundtrack and the birthday serenades and the gentle but constant crash of bowling balls against dopey pins. There were so many questions to ask: I wanted to know how a hip, 30-year-old raised in Marin County landed a gig alongside renowned winemakers at one of Sonoma’s elite pinot vineyards. I wanted to know where he bought his Cholo shirt. And I wanted to know why his hands were stained a deep shade of purple. I think Ross was hoarse by the time we left.
|Wine X: How’d you end up a winemaker?Ross: When I was a freshman in college, my parents left Marin County and bought a four-acre vineyard in Occidental [California]. We’d been making homemade wine since I was eight or nine, which my dad was really into. We had some good vintages, actually. Zinfandels and pinots. We basically taught ourselves how to grow wine grapes. My Dad had a couple master’s degrees in ecology, so he understood roots and soil. I started working in our vineyard during summer and spring break. Then I decided to major in soil chemistry at UC Santa Cruz. It’s been wine ever since.
W: So basically you were a suburban kid who became a farmer overnight?
R: Yeah, pretty much.
W: So now you’re an assistant winemaker at Flowers. What does that mean exactly?
R: Well, at Flowers, because we’re only making about 10,000 cases a year, it means a lot. I do everything the winemaker does. My day could go from rolling and cleaning barrels to running lab analyses. There may be floors to scrub. I could spend a couple hours counting grape clusters out in the vineyard. I might have to dig a hole, fix machinery in the shop, plug bung holes.
|W: Bung holes?R: A bung hole is really any hole. In the wine world it’s the hole on the top of the barrel. You get the wine in and out of the barrel through the bung hole. Any guesses on what we seal the bung hole with?
W: A bung?
R: You’ve been studying. That’s right. A bung can be anything, really, but it’s usually glass, wood or silicone. In our case it’s silicone, which makes a good, tight seal against the surface of the barrel and protects the wine.
W: So, why do you like what you do? From what you’ve described it sounds like a lot of cleaning and babysitting grapes?
R: Within one day I get to play mechanic, aggie and wine critic. I’m never bored. I love that. And it’s tactile. I’m working with my hands. And people love the idea of wine. They love to learn about wine. It’s not a product that you sell and it’s gone. You can talk about it after it’s sold. It reflects human involvement.
W: Is there one language you use when you talk about wine with winemakers and another language you use when you talk about wine with novices like me?
R: Yeah, sure. I might go up to our winemaker and say, “Hugh, I want you to listen to this barrel. I think it’s still going through malolactic. Let’s taste it and run a pH on it and see if it’s through.” To you I’d say, “The wine is losing some of its fruity acidity and getting creamy.”
W: And when you say, “Hugh, I want you to listen to this barrel,” you don’t really mean “listen,” do you?
R: Actually I do. The bacteria that convert malic acid to lactic acid give off small bubbles that you can hear. It’s like listening to a 7-Up can — the little crackling.
W: And where do you put your ear to hear that?
R: The bung hole.
W: I just like the sound of that.
R: Yeah, bung holes all day long.
W: Let’s talk about your purple hands.
R: It’s wine. It washes off after a couple days. People have confused me for a mechanic.
W: I’ve never seen that before.
R: Then you’ve never met a true winemaker.
W: Touche. So considering all this time you spend up at the winery dyeing your hands purple, you don’t actually live there, right?
R: No, not most of the time. But I do live in a trailer on the property during crush so I can be near the grapes 24 hours a day. Sometimes we’re up ’til two in the morning dealing with grapes. So for about two months a year I pretty much speak to no one outside the winery.
W: Wait, rewind. You live in a trailer for two months every year?
R: Yeah, it’s your basic trailer. Running water. Stove. Refrigerator. Space heater.
R: Ah… no. But we can call a masseuse who works in town if we want.
W: You’re not really bonded with your trailer are you?
R: It does the job when I have to be up at six a.m. It means I only have to walk a few feet to get to work.
W: Now, I was reading up on Flowers, and I kept coming across something called the “Burgundian process.” Sounds rather high-falutin’.
R: Well, the Burgundian process is sort of a vague term that means we’re heavily influenced by winemakers in the Burgundy region of France, which is where some of the best pinots and chardonnays come from. To follow age-old Burgundian techniques basically means growing grapes with utmost care, paying attention to vine health and picking the fruit at the right time. It means we’re not into industrialized winemaking, essentially.
W: Industrialized as in there’s no giant factory churning out Flowers wine?
R: We’re handcrafting it. We’re smelling it, and we’re talking about it. And we treat each batch of grapes that comes in from the vineyard differently.
W: What’s so special about Flowers wine?
R: We’re the westernmost winery in Sonoma County. The ocean’s right there, about two miles from us. You can see it on clear days. It works as a natural thermostat. The fruit grows in a moderate climate that allows it to get ripe and fruity very slowly. That’s everything. That’s the reason our wines — our chardonnays and pinots — are so expensive and so hard to get. It’s very difficult to grow out here. In the ’70s, people started thinking that this area, as opposed to the land in the Napa Valley, would grow grapes most similar to the Burgundy region in France. They’ve been proven right.
W: So are there really lazy winemakers out there who couldn’t care less about the Burgundian process?
R: Well, I think there are winemakers who’ve lost contact with the juice, the wine. It’s like taking a walk as opposed to driving your car. You notice things if you walk. You can drive really slowly if you want to, but you might as well get out of the car. We get out of the car to make our wine.
W: So you’re appealing to walkers as opposed to drivers?
R: It’s an analogy.
It’s right about this time that one of the tank-topped chippies, bowling near us, interrupts the flow of conversation. She’d like to know if we’re shooting a cover for a bowling magazine. She thinks Ross might be famous. “Yes, I’m a prodigy bowler,” Ross says, looking up at the televised scoreboard where his second-round total, 77, is flashing. And then, just to me, he adds, “After a few bottles of wine, maybe.