Books about wine satisfy many demands. Technical texts are geared toward winemakers and grape growers. Picture books are designed for wine tourists. And there are novels that feature a wine-collecting detective.
Occasionally, the odd book is released that tries to be all things to all wine lovers. Most of these books blend the technical with the conversational, often making recommendations that are long out of date or out of stock by the time the book hits the stores. But, every once in a while, along comes a small book that strikes a balance between wine-geek facts and a personal account of the rigors and pleasures of winemaking.
Such a book is “The Mad Crush ,” an easy-reading paperback by Sean Christopher Weir.
A native of Sonoma County, Weir got his start in winemaking as a cellar worker at Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma Valley and spent a couple of harvests working as a cellar hand at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
The yarn that Weir spins focuses on the 1995 vintage under the tutelage of owner Bill Greenough and a cast of cellar workers that includes various wanderers and hippies — but is comprised entirely of people who are serious about wine. Anyone who has ever toiled in a vineyard, worked as a cellar rat — or wanted to — will relate to Weir’s experiences.
Rancho Saucelito traces its history back to 1880 when an Englishman named Henry Ditmas drove a horse-drawn carriage along a rutted, bone-rattling road, eventually arriving in a remote canyon southeast of San Luis Obispo, where he set down roots with an orchard and some zinfandel vines. Over subsequent decades, time and lack of attention worked their weathering ways on the vineyard.
When Greenough arrived in 1974, those same gnarly vines were barely alive. Undaunted, Greenough dug deeper and discovered small clusters clinging to the roots and decided to restore the vineyard, tending one old vine at a time.
Weir had previously worked with Greenough so, when he received a call from his old boss in August of 1995, asking him to return, he packed up and drove into the canyon. With hardly a slap on the back or a greeting from Greenough, Weir was put to work cleaning the cellar and preparing for the harvest. The one thing he remembered from his previous time with Greenough, was: “There’s the right way, the wrong way and then there’s the Saucelito way.”
Weir tells his story in 12 short chapters and 150 pages, with archival photographs. In Chapter Two he fondly describes his return to Saucelito Canyon as a homecoming that included a mini course in how to make red wine. This brief tutorial is a good refresher for wine connoisseurs and neophytes alike.
Assisting Weir in the cellar were Wild Bill Neely and Bobby Hyde. Before coming to Saucelito Canyon, the two teamed up to form a winemaking outfit they named the Pagan Brothers, a not-so-subtle counterpoint to a more pious Northern California winery known as the Christian Brothers.
Neely’s exploits are humorously recounted in the chapter titled “Rebellion.” Greenough, Weir and the crew got things sorted out, and they made some serious zinfandel from the 1995 vintage. Eventually, though, Weir realized that it was time for him to pack up his truck and move on.
Despite all the semi-hippie craziness that went on back in Saucelito Canyon, word leaked out about the quality of the wines, attracting such celebrities as Joan Baez and local advocates like Michael Benedict, who was famous in Santa Barbara and later throughout California for the award-winning wines of Sanford & Benedict.
Weir writes that Greenough hung in there over the years at Saucelito Canyon, slowly building a reputation as one of the premier zinfandel producers in California, before stepping back and turning the winemaking over to his son Tom. Although the winery makes small amounts of tempranillo, a blend of tempranillo and zinfandel called “Muchado,” sauvignon blanc, a grenache blanc and a southern Rhône blend called côte de blanc, it is Saucelito zinfandel that zin lovers seek out.
There is so much more in this little book. I’m a slow reader, but I finished “The Mad Crush” in one sitting.
Weir’s personal account is fun and informative, a combination that’s hard to find in wine books.
Gerald D. Boyd is a Sonoma County wine writer.