I spent the 4th of July with close friends and family at the winery. It was a lovely day full of laughter and wine and food.
And just as the sun was setting we made our way to the top of Sachau Vineyard, one of our pre-eminent sites for world-class Cabernet. The heat of the day had mellowed, a soft breeze came in from the Bay, fireworks winked like fireflies down below in town.
We watched from the bed of a pickup – drinking great wine – the kids race the dogs up and down the hill. The full and beautiful moon then rose like a spotlight behind the hills to the east and we all lost our breaths and were compelled by the same otherworldly synchrony of being there at that place at that time with that group of people knowing the specialness of the moment and knowing that it was likely those young kids would recount (like my grown kids do the magic of Lake Powell or the simple shoulder-loosening wonder of the beach at Capitola) forever, that glorious night when the troubles of men were washed away by the soft, nursing hands of nature and love was abundant.
I am fortunate to be working in the Livermore Valley, a too-little known gem that is demonstrating – at its best – the ability to grow Cabernet Sauvignon as great as any in the world. I’m also fortunate to have been born into the oldest winemaking family in America – a family for whom wine has been a singular professional focus for nearly 160 years.
Lineage|Livermore Valley is meant to be one of the great Cabernet-based wines in the world. I apologize in advance if the preceding statement sounds immodest. It is meant only to describe the intended trajectory of a life-time mission. My thinking is that If I’m going to devote my career to trying to accomplish one thing, It might as well be a BIG thing. I’m going to follow the Boss’s advice here and walk tall, or don’t walk at all.
What really gives this personal bet a chance of paying off—in the end—is the spectacular viticultural quality of the Livermore Valley. Oriented east-west, and situated between two ranges of mountains, 30 miles east of San Francisco Bay, our Valley is warm during the day and really cool during the night. This dramatic diurnal temperature range describes and circumscribes the sugar-producing photosynthetic activity of day and the maintenance of balancing acidity that happens in the cool of the dark. Only the best regions have this dramatic range, and coupled with a multiplicity of soil types (there are six alone ribboning through one of our estate vineyards), and microclimates afforded by an elevation range of 500′ to more than 1000′ above sea level, Cabernet and its Bordeaux cousins thrive.
I am most attracted to wines that are elegant and beautiful and balanced. Lineage|Livermore Valley must be compelling; it must have vitality and movement, depth and length and complexity. More than any individual characteristic, though, is that the wine must have a sense of cohesion (and with a blend of the five classic varietals, this is one wonderful challenge); it must seem inevitably of one piece.
The intricacies of getting five different grapes from several different vineyards – from those vineyards through the crush pad and fermentors into barrels and onto the blending table and finally into bottle where the life of Lineage|Livermore Valley begins is what obsesses me.
VI adorns the wine’s capsule and label. It marks six generations of winemaking and stands as the aegis under which all of my winemaking energy and love will fall. The more wonderful thing in terms of lineage is that the VI may soon need to be amended to VII as my son, Aidan Mirassou, is now managing our cellar. To be connected to previous generations of the family who labored as I have, who have crushed and pressed and bottled at the same time of year…separated by a sesquicentennial, is a compelling place to be. But to be the generation that shows that same magic to the succeeding line, and serves as the link to the past AND the springboard to the future goes deeper than words.
I’ll be heading to Southern California in a couple of weeks to do a wine dinner and to work the market. I won’t be at home with my girlfriend and dogs (my favorite place) nor at the winery (the next best), and I’m hoping that what I’ll do over those couple of days will yield positive results. And as I’m writing this in the sensory lab at the winery about to pitch yeast into a fermenter, I’m feeling just a little melancholy. So many trips like this in the past and so little ability to determine if the results have led me anywhere other than away.
Certainly not just the fact I’m over 50 now, or a grandfather of two perfect grandchildren, but I’m acutely aware of time passing and all too aware also of the fragility of life – the lives of loved ones and of companies. Success is taking on a different meaning for me now. While it can never, nor should be, uncoupled completely from the inevitability of commerce, it is the pure, more fundamental relationships, that drive me now.
Being a small brand with world-class aspirations (and wanting to be holistically complete) my idea of success for my brands is being circumscribed evermore completely by relationships. My idea of the proper relationship for winemaker and the vineyard and the craft has changed dramatically. No more am I trying to twist and mold and lengthen and compress. Now, I’m in a symbiotic relationship that is less about control and “making” than it is about revelation. Each element works in concert with the others and the process of sharing energy and desire with all my “partners” can lead to moments of perfection, or a state of perfect now-ness.
I am happy that I’ve realized this now so that I can spend the rest of my career unlayering complication in myself and in my wines in order to approach true clarity. Each little stage of this process – a moment of seeing my work for what it is and what it means – is a successful one.
Success, too, looks like my wine club members and my guests at the winery coming away from their experience with a deeper sense of the magic of wine and of the place that wine holds in a well-wined life. Without an avid and enthusiastic receiver of experience, the most magical moments echo soundless in the vast nothingness of today’s techno-reverb. It is my hope that this “sloughing-off” we are trying to accomplish will invite one to contemplate a more authentic and atavistic experience. When this happens – even if only rarely – that will be a deep and good thing.
The final piece of my evolving vision of success is the caretaking of our land. There are a multitude of sources available to describe how one can farm organically or biodynamically, and they have profoundly affected my thinking about what we are doing now and where we ought go. The simplest way for me to describe this relationship to the vineyard is embodied in a phrase you see if you’ve ever hiked in the White Mountains.”Pack in. Pack out.” Simple. Don’t leave footprints. Leave things the way you found them if they’re right. Make them right if they’re not. It is crucial – as with every other relationship – to work to reverberate at the same frequency so that outputs naturally come from what has been put into them.
Perfection doesn’t mean a lack of flaws, and it comes about by doing just those true things that need to be done. The well-lived life is spent discovering what those true things are.
Our harvest of red grapes began today with a few picking bins of Sangiovese. And three days ago I became a grandfather for the second time. These two events are bound up in my head and batting around them are words I remember from a Willa Cather book about the circle of one’s experiences and how small and intimate those circles tend to be.
I’m the sixth in a line of winemakers in California that stretch back to before Abraham Lincoln was president, and it will hit me at odd moments that what I’m doing in the cellar on a particular day was the
same thing my great-great-great grandfather was doing a sesquicentennial before. There exists in this business a strange phasing in and out of Time…at one moment I’m pressing off grapes in the Livermore Valley in 2018 and the next I’m my own ancestor racking finished wine to barrel in 1910 San Jose. This sense of existing across Time is mirrored in our cellars every year too. We are never working on just one vintage of wine…one day I’m tasting through fermentation bins in the morning and in the afternoon, I’m making blends of wine that came to life 2 years before.
And that night, I’m topping barrels from the previous year…when so much…and so little were different.
My daughter, April, had a son (Calvin Patrick Coffey) on September 18, 2018. He is a beautiful child and will be, along with his sister, Autumn, rightly cherished and loved by his entire family. He is both start and finish of that most intimate of circles – the one that ties him inextricably to all of those that gave him life and to all of those to whom he will give it. Many are no longer here, and we feel that loss dearly. At the same time we understand that they will always be there, moving in Calvin’s blood.
WE ARE to whom and to what we are most connected, I think. I take great solace in the notion that my years revolve reassuringly around an axis that connects me to a family lineage extending (in real time) forward and back and in my work, to the very heart of the earth itself.