“I’d like to be remembered as someone who made a difference in the lives of young people – that I nurtured someone and taught them to pursue their dreams and their careers, to leave a legacy.” – Andre Leon Talley
This past week, during the midst of harvest, Morét and I attended Joe Rochioli Jr.’s funeral. Any of you who are familiar with Pinot Noir know the name “Rochioli.” Rochioli Winery is one of the world’s great Pinot Noir producers and their grapes are recognized as being some of the finest in the world – as evidenced by the number of outstanding wineries with a “Rochioli Vineyard” bottling.
It was Joe who, in 1968, replanted some of the French Colombard with Pinot Noir. At that time, the common wisdom was that America would never grow, much less make, great Pinot Noir. That was something reserved for the French and the Burgundians, in particular. Thus, it took remarkable vision to replant a proven crop with something seemingly destined for failure. Joe was also insistent of thinning Pinot Noir – reducing yields to assure that the remaining fruit was of the highest possible quality.
I won’t recount all the details of Joe’s life. For one thing, I don’t know them well and for another they have already been well documented in memorials by Wine Spectator (https://www.winespectator.com/articles/joe-rochioli-russian-river-valleys-pinot-pioneer-dies) and the Press Democrat (https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/joe-rochioli-jr-pioneering-russian-river-valley-pinot-vintner-dies-at-88/). I simply want to explain how a person’s legacy sometimes extends beyond what they or their family realizes.
In 1986, I was a junior in college in San Antonio, Texas. My knowledge of wine went no further than the occasional jug of Ernest & Julio Gallo Rhine Wine that we would drink while playing Twister in our dorm rooms. Honestly, bourbon was my preferred drink as it “got you there quicker.” In the Spring of that year I began dating a young lady who was one year my senior and who, after college, got a job working for an oil company in Northern California. I was smitten and decided to spend my summer with her in the East Bay. On weekends, we would often find ourselves heading north for a day’s worth of wine tasting. Our wine expertise extended to knowing that we preferred Mondavi White Zinfandel over Sutter Home White Zin. When we weren’t visiting wineries, we would go to concerts at Stern Grove in San Francisco and those were inevitably paired with a bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Riesling. In other words, sweet wine was good.
One day, for reasons I still don’t recall, we decided to venture to Sonoma County and found ourselves on Westside Road. We had packed a picnic lunch and stopped in a local winery to taste their wines and have a bottle at their picnic table. It was a bucolic setting, overlooking the vines and Russian River, and being infatuated, I probably would have found any fruity wine to be appealing. But it wasn’t any wine that I discovered there. For the first time in my life, I discovered a red wine that I liked…not just liked, I loved it. Suddenly, the wine that accompanied our picnic was a red wine and that red wine was the 1984 Rochioli Pinot Noir. The relationship with the girl didn’t last but that one day I started a relationship with a grape and a wine that has never let me down.
A few years later, after graduating college with a degree in French History and thus being imminently employable, I was working in a wine store in Austin, Texas. It was a remarkable store (actually a group of three stores) and we seemingly had all the bases covered, selling truckloads of 1985 and 1986 Bordeaux wines, 1985 California Cabernets, and great wines from around the world thanks to importers such as Bobby Kacher, Terry Theise, and Marco de Grazia. I still remember the day when I told Sam, the owner of the store, that California was making great Pinot Noir. I was almost laughed out of a job. But I insisted and it turned out the Rochioli wines were available in Texas through Paterno Imports though nobody was really selling them. Mark, our local salesperson, pulled us a sample and we tasted it in the storage room of the store and “Holy shit, Adam was right” was the exclamation of the day. A year or so later, I was told by the Texas Paterno Rep that Austin Wine & Spirits was the biggest seller of Rochioli wines in the country.
Empowered with a newfound respect at work thanks to a bottle of Rochioli Pinot Noir, Sam asked me to go out to California and find out if anybody else was making equally high-quality Pinot Noir. I took along a really great customer and good friend, John Baggett. We “discovered” and quickly brought in the wines of El Molino, Kent Rasmussen, Calera, Gary Farrell and more. Of course, a trip to Rochioli was a must. Well, John and I were running late – terribly late. We called and let them know that, but in the age before cell phones and GPS, I don’t think we even knew how late we were. We showed up and profusely apologized and Tom Rochioli, Joe’s son, told us it was no big deal. We had only tasted one wine in the cellar when Theresa, Tom’s wife, came in and reminded Tom that they needed to leave for a movie. When she left the room, we apologized again and prepared to leave when Tom paused and said, “I didn’t want to go see that movie anyhow. You two might not be welcome back for a while, but that will pass. I was in France last year and became inspired to make a Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and I want you to taste that from barrel.” It was that evening that Tom also told us about these two guys down the street, Burt and Ed, that were making terrific Pinot Noir from his grapes, and we should go see them. That’s how Williams Selyem wines were introduced to Texas.
Over the years, I think I only met Joe twice. I’ve had more interactions with Tom (yes, I am now allowed back there, although I think I owe Theresa a movie). At Joe’s funeral, I saw Jeff Mangahas and Bob Cabral, the current and former winemakers at Willams Selyem. John Holdredge, who makes a superb Rochioli Pinot Noir, was in attendance and so was Theresa Heredia who also produces both great Rochioli designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
David Ramey, the legendary winemaker who makes a remarkable Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay, and I were talking after the service, and he asked me, “Adam, why are you here? You don’t get Rochioli fruit, do you?” I said, “David, no I don’t get fruit, but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Joe Rochioli.”
I’m certain David didn’t know how true my answer was…but I know it.
That’s a legacy. Thank you, Joe.