Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Mad Crush: Fine memoir about a year as a cellar rat

Wine inspires a lot of "one year documentary" projects, and frankly, most of them are dull.

It seems like a good idea to follow a winemaker, or a vineyard, or a crop, for an entire year. But it's not. Most of the action of winemaking happens in the crush, the roughly three-month period in which grapes are harvested and fermented. The other nine months of the year include a lot of essential work, but racking, bottling, filling out label approval forms ... yawn.

Part of the success of Sean Christopher Weir's book "The Mad Crush" is that, as the title implies, he concentrates not on a year at a winery, but a single crush season. He arrives in late July, just in time to prepare. And he leaves in mid-November, writing, "It was hard to believe, but there was nothing else to be done."

Weir wrote and self-published the book from memory nearly 20 years after working a single harvest, 1995, at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard on the Central Coast. It's one of the two best books I've read about a single year at a winery, and the other is a graphic novel. (Amazon link below)

Weir is a former journalist who now works in PR. In fact, he represents the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association, of which Saucelito Canyon Vineyard is a member. You can see the effect of the latter job in his descriptions of the wines; he tries to make them sound like DRC. Fortunately, most of Weir's writing has a journalist's eye, voice and sense of story construction. The book is short (just 150 pages), the prose is straightforward, and the goal is informing and entertaining, not waxing lyrical.

I hadn't heard of Saucelito Canyon Vineyard, but it has a good story. It was founded as a one-man operation by a wealthy hippie named Bill Greenough, who got his start winemaking in naked foot-stomping bacchanalias in Santa Barbara in the swinging 1960s. A taciturn man, Greenough discovered a defunct Zinfandel vineyard in the middle of nowhere that had been planted in 1880. Until the 1940s, the vines were tended by various parties who just wanted wine to drink. By the time Greenough found it, they were dry stumps -- but they weren't dead. Greenough painstakingly dug to the roots and retrained new shoots to the surface, bringing the old vines back to life.

Greenough worked by himself most of the year and until 1995 only brought in cellar rats at harvest, many as day laborers with no training. In 1995, for some reason never explained he asked Weir, who had been a very short-term cellar rat before, to live on the property and help out for the entire crush season.

Weir doesn't have much time to sit on the porch, glass of Zinfandel in hand, considering the relationship between man and nature that led to his intoxication. He's too busy driving a forklift and shooting at birds and trying to hang on to a wildly snaking pumpover hose. At the same time, he's not on the business end at all: we don't see the sales and marketing and branding. We get a good first-hand description of what it's like to make wine at a 2,000-case winery. The romance is there, but it's not shoved down our throats.

Ironically, considering Weir works in marketing now, my biggest complaint is with the way the book tries to sell its story. The jacket copy, a bit of the prologue and even the title itself, "The Mad Crush," imply that crazy things are going to happen. Naked people! Guns fired inside the winery! Dead coyotes and the legend of chupacabra!

Maybe it's harder to sell just what this book is: a short, fun, realistic depiction of a harvest season at an iconoclastic small winery. Maybe that's not sexy enough for the general reader, but for the wine lover, it should be.

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