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California Wine and the Sorting Table

Yesterday was a tough day for California wine.

It began in the morning, when Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle published an article bluntly headlined, “California wine is in serious trouble” (The California wine industry is in serious trouble ( Unlike many of Esther’s articles (which tend to focus on smaller, somewhat esoteric producers), this article drew from the experiences of an entire gamut of California wineries, and the news was not positive. Esther quotes Michael Honig, at long-time industry veteran and president of Honig Vineyard and Winery, “A lot of brands are dead but they don’t even know it right now.”

Then, in the afternoon, the news broke that Constellation Brands had purchased fan-favorite Sea Smoke Winery. This was one of the worst kept secrets within wine industry circles, but for many of Sea Smoke’s loyal customers who live in the real world, it came as a shock. Sea Smoke has a level of commercial popularity and loyal following unusual for a fairly expensive, modest-sized Pinot Noir producer. The news spread quickly on various social media outlets, which comments like “RIP Sea Smoke” and “Crap. Been a list member for at least 2 decades, but this will have me rethinking that.” Obviously, it remains to be seen what Constellation actually does with Sea Smoke, but the gut feeling is never good when a larger corporate entity purchases a smaller production winery.

I woke up early this morning, thinking about these two “events” and, for a reason that wasn’t immediately apparent to me, my mind kept being drawn to the grape sorting table. Yes, the grape sorting table. We are a long way from harvest, with the young clusters just now barely appearing on the vines, so why in the world would I be thinking about the sorting table? Honestly, I had no idea.

Here’s what the sorting table looks like:

When freshly picked grapes arrive at the winery, we gather around a moving table as the grapes go by and we pick out leaves, any clusters that we might not want in the fermenting tank and any other odd thing that might pass our way (and over 30 harvests you might not believe some of the odd things I’ve seen at the sorting table). As a smaller winery, we often rely on the kindness of friends and eager volunteers to help us sort. It’s not particularly difficult work, but it does require someone who can stand for hours on end and who can concentrate on what’s happening in front of them. Pay is minimal, unless you think free wine and perhaps a decent meal makes for good wages.

In addition to being essential to producing better wine, the sorting table does one other thing – it brings a diverse group of people together. I’ve been making wine now for 30 years, and my memory isn’t what it once was, but some of my favorite winemaking memories center around the sorting table.

I remember harvest intern Amy, a young worker from Alabama, who was head over heels in a new relationship and was swearing to all of us that she was going to marry her short-time beau. Those of us that were older and “more experienced” laughed at her naivete. I was so skeptical that I bet her six bottles of every Siduri Pinot Noir produced during her harvest year that she wouldn’t get married to that guy. Amy and that young boyfriend are now parents to three wonderful children, and I was forced to pay up in wine…much of which was poured at their wedding.

I remember the one year when we were so desperate for sorters that we had to hire them from a temporary agency. I could swear that we found Snoop Dogg’s brother in the sorter, Josie. He’d bike into work, always chill AF, and probably…usually…high. But he’d stand there with the rest of us, pulling out leaves and tendrils and damaged clusters. We always got a different perspective on life from Josie.

And I remember perhaps the worst sin I’ve committed in the wine world – the volunteer who was working at UCSF Medical Center curing cancer. He’d become enthralled with the wine world and came up for a week to help us sort grapes. I got to know Carl well during that week. He was brilliant. I truly believed that he actually had a chance to cure cancer. I was so disappointed when he called me after harvest and said that he was considering quitting his job at UCSF and getting into wine full-time. I begged him not to – promising him more wine than I gave Amy – if only he’d continue curing cancer. I told him that we had enough winemakers already, but not nearly enough brilliant medical researchers. Carl now works as an assistant winemaker at one of Sonoma County’s leading Pinot Noir producers.

Those are only three stories out of dozens – perhaps hundreds – that I could pull from my brain about what happens around the sorting table. Good stories, no doubt, but why did yesterday’s events make me think of the sorting table…so much so that I am unable to sleep?

Then I reread Esther’s article and this line that she wrote stood out to me: “The entire $55 billion California wine industry is, like the wine industry worldwide, experiencing an unprecedented downturn right now. No sector is immune — not the luxury tier, not the big conglomerates, not the upstart natural wines.”

For perhaps the last 15 or so years, the wine business has gone astray. I won’t speculate on the causes or detail the pertinent events, but ever since the death of Robert Mondavi and his vision of promoting California wine as a whole, we’ve become more focused on our differences rather than our commonalities. We argue about whether wine can be balanced at certain alcohol levels, or if a wine can be so sweet and still be a good representative of Cabernet, or whether a big winery is necessarily worse than a smaller winery, or if Robert Parker made California wine or ruined it, or on and on and on. These disagreements may have some value internally as discussion points, but instead they’ve spilled out into the greater world and have ruined consumer’s belief in the beauty and vison of what we are doing. And now that is coming back to haunt us – all of us.

It seems to me that we need to spend some time together at the sorting table. We need somehow to get the Gallos and the Jacksons, the Wagners and the Jamie Kutch-es, the Hardy Wallaces and the Bill Foleys, all together to figure out how we can work together to save this wine world that we love so much. Maybe I’m calling for some sort of summit, a California Zoom meeting of sorts, where we could come up with just one or two concrete ideas to help this wine world that we love so much. Perhaps there’s a wine organization out there that would take this on as their mission.

One final point. Harvest, and the sorting table, don’t allow for delays. As a winemaker and winery owner and winery salesperson and on and on, i always seem to have so many jobs to do. But the grapes don’t care about my to-do list. The grapes ripen and need to be harvested and sorted no matter what else is happening.

I still believe in the possibility of grapes bringing us together. I’ve seen too many harvests and spent too many hours around the sorting table with some of the most diverse, wonderful, frustrating, brilliant people in the world. We are so different and yet we come together in one common purpose. Somehow, every year, it happens, and it works. I believe that we can do that now as an industry if we just gather together at the sorting table.

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