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On a Friendship

My friend Josh died today.

I know, I know…I am a winemaker and Josh Raynolds was a wine writer and as such, per the unwritten code of these relationships, we aren’t supposed to be friends. I was supposed to present my wines to Josh, filling out the appropriate sample spreadsheet with details of the wine expressed by a few words (pH, new oak %, vineyard name, etc.) that fit not-so-neatly in an Excel column. And Josh was supposed to taste the wine objectively, asking questions if any came up, jotting down his impressions of the wine before bestowing a numerical judgment on what he tasted.

This wasn’t how Josh and I operated.

I knew about Josh for several years before I met him. Josh was writing about wine for Stephen Tanzer’s brilliant International Wine Cellar publication. Josh covered the Central Coast – from the Santa Lucia Highlands down through Santa Barbara County. My winery at the time, Siduri Wines, made a lot of wines from that area, but we also produced a large number of wines from the North Coast and Oregon, and those regions were covered by Stephen Tanzer. In the interest of expediency and simplicity, I had Stephen review all of Siduri’s wines. At some point, I pissed off Stephen. I no longer recall exactly what I did…I think I took some exception in a public forum to something he wrote about one of my wines. I’d like to use the excuse that I was young and thus full of myself and full of shit, but now, in my old age, I occasionally still do similarly asinine things. In any case, Stephen declined to review my wines going forward and so Siduri went several years with no mention in the International Wine Cellar.

Flash forward to 2012 and the annual Wine & Fire Event put on each year by the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Growers Alliance. Josh and I were slated to be on a panel together and, quite frankly, I wasn’t certain what to expect. I wasn’t even sure what he looked like when he came up to me and introduced himself and said something along the lines of, “I hear from my boss that you’re a real jerk, but I’d like to see for myself and perhaps even taste your wines.” At some point that night we ended up playing pool together at the Wicked Shamrock. I still have the email I sent to him a week or so after that, far more soberly apologizing for my poor pool skills and asking him how to send him samples. Looking back on those early emails they seem far more formal than Josh and I ended up being.

It was the next year, and my first In-person tasting with Josh, when our relationship truly took off. Josh asked if we could taste at the Wine & Fire event. I agreed (and asked if I could also show the Roar Wines, which I consult on), but with the conflicts created by various events the only agreeable time we could come up with was 6am in my room at the luxurious Embassy Suites in Lompoc. I could scarcely believe that this was really happening as I was prepping over 30 wines to be tasted prior to 5am, but sure enough, Josh showed up on time and we were off. Honestly, I believe we were late to our first Wine & Fire event that morning because our tasting went so well. Josh loved to talk, loved to share jokes, loved to taste wines, loved to drink wines. We did all of that and more that early morning.

Over the next few years our friendship grew. I won’t bore you with all the details, but there were many tastings of my wines. There were also more than a few drinkings. There were two all-nighters – one in Paso Robles and one in Gonzales (believe me, neither town is the easiest to find entertainment in at 4am). We talked music (Josh hated the old-school hip hop that I loved, much preferring the Smiths and other similar artists). Josh thought that multi-hour, multi-course tasting dinners had become more show that dining and craved more simple foods. In fact, Josh sometimes ate like shit. Oh, he ate good food, but he also treasured fast food. When Jack in the Box introduced the Late-Night Munchie Box, he was in heaven. The return of the McRib was an event to be celebrated. Together, our tastes usually converged on Denny’s in the hours before sunrise.

In 2019, our relationship hit a snag – we talked politics. I skew to the liberal side of things and Josh ran conservative. Somehow, we let our stubbornly held beliefs over issues about which we had no sway get in the way of our friendship. That rupture was real, and it was felt by me, and I believe by Josh as well. We didn’t talk for months. No stupid memes on Instagram, no wine gossip shared via email or text, no communication whatsoever. Then, in February of 2020, my Mom died. It was not unexpected (she was almost 98), it was not particularly sudden, nor was it even tremendously sad as I would never have wanted her to have been alone in a nursing home during COVID. But it was enough to break the stupid logjam that Josh and I had erected. Josh reached out to me, and things returned to normal between us, and we made certain to give politics a wide berth going forward.

It was during COVID that Josh appeared on what was one of the best of my Clarice Wine Company Zoom interviews. That interview is here:

In it, you’ll see how brilliant and quick Josh was, jumping from subject to subject with ease, and yet possessing remarkable in-depth knowledge on virtually every subject we broached. Josh was one of the smartest people I ever met. When I told him that I was naming my winery, Clarice, after my grandmother and that I was making wine in the same manner that she taught me to cook and that she cooked for my grandfather – in a crockpot – Josh immediately corrected me and said that she may well have taught me to cook in a crockpot but that she assuredly cooked for my grandfather in a large pot, slowly over a stove, because the crockpot wasn’t invented until just before World War 2. I later googled it and the crockpot was created in 1940.

All of this may lead one to wonder how objective Josh’s reviews could possibly be. Josh occasionally wondered about that out loud with me. I know that Josh’s ratings of my wines were not consistently higher, nor consistently lower, than those emanating from many other critics. In fact, now that he’s gone, I find myself joking in my mind with Josh saying “Dammit, man! Would a couple of extra points here and there really have hurt you so much?”

But really, Josh’s reviews were never about the points, they were about the words he used to describe the wines. I might get higher points from some other critic, but I’d almost always want to use Josh’s words with those points. I remember one morning, tasting Roar Chardonnay with Josh and with Gary Franscioni. Josh came up with a particularly accurate, but remarkably obscure, fruit descriptor for the wine. Gary and I were both amazed – “that’s it exactly!” one of us exclaimed. Gary asked Josh how in the world he came up with that exact word. Josh explained to us that it was fairly easy actually. He had memorized the world’s fruits in order from lightest to heaviest and he simply ran down the list in his head when he tasted a wine until he came to the right fruit and then used that word to describe the wine. That was easy for Josh.

I could go on and on telling Josh stories. His jokes were bawdy. His criticism of things he didn’t care for was sharp (he once described a rather well-known “crafted wine” this way, “Sickly sweet and disturbingly viscous in texture, with a finish that, unfortunately, doesn’t want to let up. It was a thankless chore to taste this beverage, which is apparently made from grapes. Just say “no”). I am quite certain I wasn’t spared from his criticism, deservedly so. But I am equally certain that Josh loved me.

I must end with this. In all of the late-night debaucherous discussions, in all of the sit-down tastings, from Tex-Somm to New York to the Embassy Suites in Lompoc, there was one thing that I always heard Josh rejoice in …and that was his family. Josh loved his wife, Merrie-Louise, and he was over the moon with his daughters, Frances and Barbara Ann. Josh’s job may have taken him away from them far too often – and out on the town with the likes of me – but they were never far from his mind. He loved them more than all the great wines he ever tasted and all the In-n-Out 4×4 Burgers he ever consumed. I owe them a debt of gratitude for sharing Josh with me.

God, you better be ready – Josh is on the way.

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