Columnist, Food

So you want to become a winemaker? Are you willing to quit your job, uproot your family, spend all your savings to plant a vineyard, tend it for three years before harvesting a crop, then hope that someone will buy your wine? 

It takes a certain personality to do that, a compulsive nature that listens to inner voices calling them away from the security and comfort of an office cubicle to search for greater fulfillment in helping earth express itself in fermented grape juice. (An image comes to mind of Richard Dreyfus sculpting the Devil’s Tower out of mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”)

“American Wine Story,” a new documentary by Three Crows Media, profiles several successful vintners who listened to those inner voices. Those of us who love to drink wine might feel this film tugging us in a similar direction.

Written, directed and narrated by David Baker (and funded through Kickstarter), the film seeks to explain the siren call of the vineyard, profiling winemakers who had abandoned other careers. Michael Officer was a software developer when he and his wife, Kendall, launched Carlisle Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif. Drew Bledsoe founded Doubleback Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., after a 14-year career as an NFL quarterback because “when you’re 35 and they tell you you’re too old to play, get out of here, you’re still too young for a rocking chair.” Dick Erath, an Oregon wine pioneer, describes how he helped establish a wine industry in Arizona.

Al and Cindy Schornberg of Keswick Vineyards in Virginia describe a near-death experience in a private-plane crash in 1995 that inspired them to sell their high-tech company in Michigan and seek a more relaxed life as winery owners. And Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards, Virginia’s premier winemaker today, tells how an early taste of nebbiolo in his home town in Piemonte, Italy, made him feel as though he was floating on air.

Much of the film centers on the story of Jimi Brooks, a dynamic young winemaker who became a symbol of Oregon’s Willamette Valley after he died of a heart attack at age 38 in September 2004. Brooks had endeared himself to the close-knit Willamette winemaking community and ignited an interest in Oregon Riesling that continues to flourish today.

When Brooks died, just before harvest, his fellow winemakers banded together and made the wines. They persuaded Jimi’s sister, Janie Brooks Heuck, to abandon her business career and take over management of the winery to keep her brother’s dream alive. Jimi’s son, Pascal, then only 8 years old, became the country’s youngest winery owner. In the decade since, Janie and winemaker Chris Williams have grown Brooks wines into a Willamette Valley star.

Many wineries fail, and their owners go on to pursue other dreams or return to jobs that pay the bills. The successful winemakers in “American Wine Story” combine the grit, perseverance, vision and luck needed to make their dreams come true.

“When pioneers learn that something’s never been done before, they don’t hear it as a caution,” Baker says in his narration. “They take it up as a challenge.”

Winemakers also need patience to work with nature and an intellectual curiosity about geology, geography and chemistry — and about how to express those factors of nature in a glass.

As Katherine Cole, a Portland, Ore.-based wine writer, says in the film, “I’ve never had a boring conversation with a winemaker.”

The history of American wine is short. Our wine industry is too young to have a tradition of vineyards passing from one generation to the next, as in Burgundy or Bordeaux. But several winemakers in this film express a desire to create something for their children, hoping they will stay with the vineyard rather than pursue their own dreams and careers.

Pascal Brooks, all of 18 today and a freshman in college, says he intends to work at the winery he owns. He sums up the winemaker’s adventurous spirit when he says, “I’m not afraid to die, but I’m really afraid not to live.”

Heart’s Delight, the annual wine auction of the American Heart Association, will sponsor a benefit screening of “American Wine Story” Nov. 13 at E Street Cinema, followed by a panel discussion of winemakers featured in the film (moderated by this writer) and a wine tasting. Details at www.heartsdelightwineauction.org.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will sponsor a discussion Oct. 29 of five decades of American wine to mark the museum’s 50th anniversary. Speakers will include representatives of pioneering wineries from California, Oregon and New York. Details at americanhistory.si.edu/press/releases/fifty-years-american-winemaking

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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