Competition – Bill Darusmont

Bill Darusmont writes: 'William J. Darusmont (aka Trader Bill), has, since his retirement from investments, pursued his passion for wine that began in 1969. He has a book project, on the passion of the people listed below and others he has met in the wine industry. He also has a semi-monthly (usually) wine blog, www.traderbillonwine.com. He currently resides with his wife, Marybeth in Minnesota on beautiful Lake Minnetonka. The picture is me (right) with Carles and Mariana Pastrana at a vertical tasting of the first 25 years of Clos de l’Obac.' Here is Bill’s unedited entry in our seminal wine competition

In 1976, my wife and I moved from Los Angeles to Reno, Nevada where we lived for five years due to a job transfer. Our realtor became a close friend and introduced us to their circle of friends. The beverage of choice was beer for the guys and wine coolers for the women. I had assembled a modest collection of wines, including bottles of each vintage of Robert Mondavi Cabernet from the original 1966 which I brought with me on the move from Los Angeles to Reno. How they had done on the trip, despite my precautions, was an unknown.

One day the group asked me if I would hold a wine tasting, which I gladly agreed to. They enjoyed it and asked if I could arrange a weekend of wine tasting in Napa Valley. After the rest had left, one remained behind and said his uncle had a small winery if we would care to visit it. I, the wine snob, said “sure” with a lack of enthusiasm. It turned out his uncle was Joe Heitz who with his wife, Alice, entertained us for lunch with sausages and Riesling on their deck on a beautiful Napa Valley morning. Later, Joe took us on a tour of the winery and poured his wines. The Heitz Cellars 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon had just been released. We loved it and I bought a case at $25 a bottle, the most I had paid for any wine at the time, but keep in mind the top name California wines were $5 a bottle or less. Joe even tried to talk me out of it (due to demand), but I insisted that I was buying it because we liked it, not just due to our visit.

Over the years we enjoyed the wine until we were down to the last bottle. It has always been considered one of the top wines, and one writer even proclaimed it the “wine of the century” from California. It was also one of the stars of The Judgment of Paris. If you can find the ‘74 today, it will cost you over $1,000, clearly my best wine purchase ever.

Joe made such an impression on me that whenever we visited Napa Valley we would stop at the little red shack on Hwy 29 and if he was there and saw me he would smile and call me by name. But what Joe did that was the most important for me was to teach me that “wine is not romantic, it’s farming…agriculture.” He also said in some vintages, the winemaker can do everything right and still have a mediocre product. That is why the best sell their grapes in bad harvests rather than risk their reputation. Thus began the change in my perception of wine but it would still take time.

In 1978, Robert Parker, first published a newsletter with recommendations based on his newly-devised 100-point rating system which he felt was much better than the 20-point UC Davis system since the numbers would correspond with the equivalent of the grades you got in school (i.e. 90-100 an ‘A’, 80-90, a ‘B’, etc.). I became a believer and a follower, but soon I realized that just because of high ratings, some of the wines were not what I would have chosen: not based on quality, but my personal taste, and that I preferred some that were significantly more inexpensive. Why should you buy a wine just because someone else says it is good? How can you trust a rating if you don’t know what the reviewer’s preferences are or if they align with yours? The answer is that they are merely a guide and if you agree on taste, go for it. The preponderance of 100-point systems using different criteria, some with as many as 25 “subjective points”, and raters with various motivations, has brought us from the UC Davis scoring system, not designed to place vintners in competition, but to evaluate overall quality, to a system where as one wine merchant said, “I can sell all the 90-point wines I can get, but I can’t get them, and I can get all the 89-point wines I want, but I can’t sell them.” How many of you are capable of discerning a one point difference? That is not to say that critics can’t discern differences in quality between vintages, but even that doesn’t always tell us how they will age. Also, remember you don’t know how the wines have been cared for after leaving the winery.

Why do we place winemakers in competition with one another? We don’t do that with artists. Aren’t winemakers artists who work with what they have available and their greatest skill may be working against Mother Nature to produce a fine wine. This is particularly true in Burgundy where the weather can be the greatest foe. Lastly, Europeans are much more likely to trust their palates than Americans, perhaps because they have been drinking wine longer.

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1981, I attended a tasting of Bordeaux wines hosted by Anthony Diaz Blue and ‘the maestro’, Andre Tchelistcheff, that further changed my way of approaching wine. I have been fortunate to have met many winemakers who follow in the philosophy of Andre and Joe Heitz. Among them are Americans, Mike Grgich, Randall Graham, Jim Clendenon, Bob Lindquist, Mick Unti, Lise Ciolino, Dave Rafanelli, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and Lane Tanner. In Europe, Alejandro Fernández (Pesquera), Aimé Guibert (Mas du Daumas Gassac), Carles Pastrana (Clos de l’Obac), and Francois Peyraud, son of Lucien (Domaine Tempier), as well as the late Alfredo Currado (Vietti). These are the main ones but there were many others to whom I will be forever grateful.

My advice to wine novices: when visiting wineries visit the smaller ones where you will likely meet the owner or someone connected with the winery, rather than a ‘hired hand’ at one of the big ones. Let their passion become your passion.

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