The Devil Made Me Do It
Back in the Summer of 1988 I got interviewed for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the first time I’d been asked (for public consumption) for my thoughts on anything, and when they sent a photographer out to shoot something for the story, I have to admit I was thrilled. Nobody in my family had ever made the papers before, let alone had his picture appear.
Before my head got too big, though, I was able to figure out that it was a lot quicker and cheaper to send the cameraman to Berkeley than to send him to Napa.
The story appeared the first Wednesday in August of 1988. There was even a teaser for it on Page One, though the article itself was in the food section. “The Mediterraneans Are Coming!” read the banner headline! Quick!!! Hide the women and children!!! The text was about the emergence of wines made in California from grapes other than Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Zinfandel (of whatever color), i.e., Southern French and Italian varietals, like Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, etc..
And there was the picture: I stood beside a 132 gallon barrel, holding a glass of wine up to the light, and squinting, like Joe Heitz, himself!
My horoscope in the Chronicle that same day read: “you profit from the written word.” (I kid you not) Far out, I thought, even Jeanne Dixon knows.
Well, fame seems a bit more elusive than I might once have thought. I’ve been in a few more articles since then (none in the Chronicle, though), and I’m pretty sure reports of my immortal words and stirring deeds have lined a fair number of birdcages by now.
But if you missed them, fear not; there’s a new one on the way. A publication called Diablo is printing an article in the next month or so.
The photographer called a few days ago. She spoke with a pronounced accent–she’s from Austria. She wanted to take some shots, she said, that would be “earthy.” “Not some modern warehouse,” she’d insisted, with considerable disdain. “My father used to make wine, and he had, you know, just a small, old-fashioned cellar that was dark and underground. Not like today. And that’s what I want in the pictures — that earthiness — you know?”
Hmm, said I, to myself, wondering if I could marshal enough enthusiasm for this. I suggested we meet in a vineyard, and after a bit of give-and-take, she agreed to meet me mid-afternoon Friday, at Parmelee-Hill Vineyard.
Part of the give-and-take was that I’d explained to her that we would probably be met at the vineyard by Steve Hill, who owns and farms Parmelee-Hill. I’d tried to convey that, earthy as I, myself, may be, I actually buy my grapes from other people. I also tried to emphasize that perhaps, because I don’t grow my own fruit, the most important part of my job, maybe my biggest contribution to the success or failure of my enterprise is the effort to work in concert with my growers, so that I can have optimally grown and ripened grapes from which to produce my wines. So maybe she’d want to photograph Steve Hill and me together.
But she wasn’t buying it. In fact, having already read the article, she was certain that the important thing was just to focus on me. Maybe the grower could be in the background somewhere, “doing something else.”
Sooooo… let’s see if I’ve got this straight. They want to show the readers a picture or two of the guy the article’s about. Visual aids to help one get a feel for who this guy is, and what it’s like to do what he does. So far, so good?
But then, when it comes to what he really does, and how he really does it, if that conflicts somehow with what the article says, then it doesn’t work to have that in there, does it? By golly, it sure makes you stop and think.
I resisted the impulse to ask to see a copy of the article. After all, I rationalized, what do I know about the photography business? Or the magazine business? As I drove to Sonoma Friday afternoon I tried to imagine how the article would read. It was hard not to think it would be little more than a fluff piece, designed to leave the reader feeling warm and fuzzy, so they’d come back next month and buy another magazine.
My wife and I recently saw the play Copenhagen, (it was pretty spellbinding) and it was a great illustration of how that which is observed is altered by the attention of the observer. If my story changes once I’ve told it, maybe it’s just out of my hands, after that. I know I shouldn’t complain. I like getting the publicity; I’m truly grateful for it. (I always hope it will help to sell more wine)
When I arrived at Parmelee-Hill, the sun was really low in the southwestern sky. The photographer had wanted to shoot even later in the day, to get more of the sunset light, but I’d argued for trying to be done before the Friday afternoon commute got too thick. It’s a good thing I did; it was a really hazy afternoon, and both visibility and light seemed to be in short supply.
It took Rosemary (the photographer) awhile before she got set up, and began to shoot. I studiously ignored her, in an effort to stave off self-consciousness. It was freezing cold, and there was a wind out of the north, though, thankfully, not a strong one. When she did begin, she asked me to reposition my head, or arm, the wineglass I held, my fingers around the stem, etc., more or less continuously as she shot, for roughly an hour and a half. She kept trying to get me to look “natural” Since what I was doing wasn’t anything I normally do (except of course drinking a bit of wine) I felt pretty unnatural, and I was acutely aware of it. Until I began to take an interest in her.
As she worked, repositioning herself for a better angle or vantage-point from which to shoot, she moved almost like a dancer. Her body loosened and lengthened, became more sinuous and lithe. She stood, she slouched, she crouched, and kneeled, leaned, hunkered, pointed on knees and elbows. Her face at once brightened and softened. Her smile, at first courteous, but cool, warmed and became friendly. We began to talk. I let my awareness move from being seen to being engaged, and gave up thinking about what the pictures would look like. (I hope they turn out ok.)
When the shooting was all done Rosemary was eager to taste the wine I’d opened as a prop, a glass of which I nursed for over an hour, in the diminishing light. It was a 1994 Durell Vineyard Syrah. About 80% of the grapes from which it was made had grown on the site at the bottom of the hill on which we’d spent the afternoon. She found the taste of the wine surprising. “So rich,” she said, “I didn’t think California wines could taste like this.”
Now, I couldn’t help wondering, when she said that, whether the pictures would have been quite a bit different if she’d tasted the wine before she’d begun to shoot.
Tantalizing, ain’t it?