Someone asked me to write about my life in lock down. I try to wrap my head around it, and no, I don’t want to dwell on the pluses and negatives about a life in isolation. We have brilliant essays, social media and blogs, films and Tom Hanks isolated with Wilson the volleyball that washed up on his beach to remind us of isolation. We remember Wilson somehow fondly. Others with lives in lock down, less so.
I have a lovely wife and a new adorable puppy, LuLu. My lock down has given me a wonderful period of time to spend with both of them, but it is not what I want to write about today. I may when we all can look back on a distant world battling a virus that knows no boundaries, has no prejudice, or hidden agenda. I may, but for now, I’m out of here.
I want to write about travel, adventure, getting out into the vibrant lively world I’ve been to before, crowded with poets, Lords and Ladies, winemakers and dreamers. People I can talk to inside six feet, laugh with them, break bread, open wines with them, explore their worlds.
I want to go back to Paris 1980; my first trip to France, my first trip to Europe as a young man.
I cried when my 747 hit the tarmac at Charles DeGaulle. It was April. I remember it so well, there was still a little snow that hadn’t melted on the sides of the runway. When I left Napa Valley for Europe it was getting hot. In France, it was still a cold, lingering spring and a grey day as I first stepped on French soil. But for me, it didn’t matter because I had been given the keys to the kingdom. The City of Light. My imagination of what my next two weeks would be gave me butterflies. And yes, I did cry with happiness on that late grey morning – looking back on my road to Paris.
In 1975 and 1976, I camped in the Bothe Park in Napa to first explore the wineries in Napa for retail wine shops. I was also a partner in a jazz club in Southern California, and I lived from concert to concert. Oscar Petterson, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, etc. A bohemian life, but I was legitimately broke, living in a former chauffeur’s quarters for $30 a month, and cooking for those who would and could open the great wines that inspired my move to Napa.
In 1977, I moved permanently to Napa Valley to become a vintner. Beringer had hired me, and now was sending me to France to sit down with winemakers and Chateau owners to taste, talk, dine, and absorb everything I had ever only read about in books. I was getting paid to do what I would have easily given every dollar I had to experience– but in 1977 that wouldn’t have covered the airfare.
Wine had replaced music as that primary focus in my life, the one that transformed me to a world where time disappears and your feet rarely touch the ground. Napa was my new home, and in the 70s it was a bit of the wild west for the new generation of winemakers. The vignerons of France were the establishment, and their historic Chateaus and wineries were where all the legendary wines that had inspired my journey had originated. They had class, deep roots, wisdom, and I would be asking them for their secrets over the next two weeks. Woozier.
My job at Beringer was to integrate winemaking with marketing and help define what our Reserve programs would be; to write newsletters, and communicate that we were serious about fine wine. We and other Napa vintners were fighting for respect, changing years of mediocre wine for new promises of world class Cabernets and Chardonnay. I was in France to learn and to bring back with me to Napa ideas that would help change our destiny.
Beringer owned an import company called Cross and Blackwall that imported wines from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. They had extraordinary contacts in the European wine trade. There was not one Chateau or winery in Europe that they couldn’t get me into: Domaine Romanee Conti, Petrus, Chateau LaTour, Mouton, Margeaux- they were all on my list to visit.
I spent my first afternoon and night in Paris alone. Yet, I wasn’t. The smells, the architecture, everything had history, brought romance to each step. I was in love with this City at first sight, and have remained so ever since, returning many times, building a map in my mind of its streets, museums, and restaurants. My best days in Paris have been those with no agenda. Wake up, have coffee and pastry, and start walking, seeing, and eating. That has never lost its magic.
The restaurants I experienced during that trip to France–Paris, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Lyon–all forever changed my life. I returned to the Napa Valley on a mission to elevate our hospitality and our food and wine programs at Beringer. Mondavi was beginning to go down the same road, and I was going with him. (Julia Child and Robert would ask me years later to join their founding Boards for AIWF and Copia.) It was the right road to travel, and it would change Napa Valley in so many ways over the next four decades in the Napa Valley.
Today Napa Valley is internationally known for its food and wines. That was not the case in 1980 as I walked Paris.There were no destination restaurants or hotels in the Napa Valley. Few wineries entertained, and if they did it was often with a sandwich, and the expectation the visitor would be gone by sundown. All this would change quickly, and Paris that day was shining its light on our yellow brick road.
My first meal in Paris was a simple late lunch at a corner cafe, near my hotel. No stars. I ordered turbot (a first) with green beans, and a bottle of Ravenaeu Chablis. The bread was incredible, as was the butter. I watched the people walk by and let time vanish, while I ate I studied my itinerary and Hugh Johnson’s paperback edition of The World Atlas of Wine.
The Atlas was my only source of maps to locate the wineries and vineyards I would visit. I had road maps, but no other way to find a winery or a vineyard other than what Hugh gave me. GPS – really? Years later, Hugh and I had dinner together when he was promoting a new edition to the Atlas. I presented my old beaten up paperback edition that had been on my lap so many miles through Europe for him to sign, which he did, along with a new edition. We had some good laughs. I buy a new edition every time they come out. Up to eight, signed by the brilliant co-author and friend, Jancis Robinson.
As I turned the Atlas’s pages of places I would soon visit, I realized I needed to wake up early, rent a car and drive to Epernay. My first visit was at the great, historic Champagne house, home of Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon. As I sipped my Chablis and turned pages, I worked on my French, praying I could drive in a foreign country without killing anyone or destroying the car. A friend in Napa, the GM at Moet Chandon had made the introduction, and I realized I had no idea what to expect, only that I would spend the night as Moet’s guest. Nothing else. After my visit to Champagne, my schedule was very set. Tomorrow was mostly a mystery of expectations.
An explanation of the photo (it does beg for a lot of explaining), and the rest of the story, will be continued next week. But today, I’ve been allowed to time travel and relive gentler times. Thank you. Today, we are in an all-out-war with a virus that will change the world I walk around in for the rest of my life. Our daughter is a nurse practitioner on the front lines and I’m very concerned for her. I try to be aware of all the sacrifices so many are taking so we can someday, hopefully soon, look back to this “war” in a time of peace.
May peace, love, and happiness find you all in the days to come.