Those who taught you
By: George Balling
While preparing for a dinner party of our own last week Mary was arranging flowers for the table at our home. She reflected on one of her floral design instructors when she attended classes at the Filoli Gardens south of San Francisco. It was a great memory to revisit, and the skills Mary enhanced while attending Filoli have resulted in some beautiful floral arrangements in our home over the years.
From this conversation I started reflecting on all of those who have taught us so much about wine, and whether directly or indirectly contributed to the success of our shop. We have been around many great wine professionals in this career and many great leaders throughout all of our careers. I have always tried to hang on to at least one piece of advice from all I have worked for in any career even those who were less inspirational. Then there are those who really taught me great things about wine and the wine business.
Mary and I first really started to get heavily into wine when we bought our small home in Kenwood in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The small mid-century house was nestled next to the estate vineyards of Chateau St. Jean, the setting was beautiful and inspirational. When we moved in, we asked Mary’s brother John Lancaster, who many of you know, to bring some wine up for us to get started. Boy, did it get us started it was the first step in the journey that continues to this day. John has taught us much about wine. His palate memory is better than any wine professional we have ever met and his knowledge spans the appellations of the world. His knowledge is so vast and so intimate that even the small amount we retain is impactful to us.
When I went to work at Balletto Vineyards, Dan Cederquist was the winemaker. Dan and I got along great and we set out on a project to get John Balletto to bottle a dry rose from some of his Pinot Noir crop. Over several tastings Dan and I worked together on the profile we wanted for the wine. It was certainly educational as we identified flavors, aromatics and textures we wanted in the Balletto rose. Dan taught me much about where we would attain the characteristics we were striving for, whether it be from yeast strains, or specific clones or the time on the skins. While the inspiration was ours, the talent was Dan’s, and that first rose release from Balletto later won a gold medal at a tasting in San Francisco.
Dan always said that Chardonnay was the easiest grape to make into wine and it showed. His Chardonnay is and always has been lovely. I would suggest that it was likely not that easy for everyone, rather Dan had a talent for making great wine, rose, Chardonnay and the rest. As a great teacher he shared it.
While I don’t personally know Bruce Neyers, I know much of him. Over his career he has worked with the famed Kermit Lynch, runs his own winery Neyers Vineyards and had stops at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and others. What Bruce taught me is how interconnected the wine business is. His history alone will tell you that, but then I learned that Bruce was instrumental in launching John Lancaster’s winery Skylark. Not financially or logistically but in helping John learn about all the ins and outs of making wine, and acquiring world class fruit for his wine. Through John’s history with Bruce, I learned much about how much all of us in the wine industry are tied together and what a small industry it really is.
My time at Balletto Vineyards was brief but I learned a lot from John Balletto. One of the most important lessons I learned is how John prepared for harvest. It’s not surprising, John’s farming empire is vast and with the unpredictability of even the smoothest of harvests he needed to be ready for just about anything. The one thing he couldn’t have is equipment problems. Harvest typically starts in late August and in some years can stretch to Thanksgiving. In early July John would start to fine tune all of his equipment. Tractors and trucks would be tuned up and be in peak running condition. Wine making equipment would be checked and thoroughly cleaned. Barrells would be sorted, stacked and ready for their roll after fermentation. Even the grape bins used to gather the grapes in the vineyard were cleaned out and stacked neatly, ready to go. This meticulous preparation taught me much about our being prepared for our events, each of our wine club releases and most every aspect of our business.
There are more people than I can name that helped prepare us for running our shop. Probably even some I have forgotten but their memories will reemerge precisely when we need that true knowledge the most. It is important to hang on to.