At some point in the early 1980s, photojournalist Eric Luse peered through his camera lens and caught a glimpse of his second career.
The award-winning photographer was just starting out with the San Francisco Chronicle, making regular trips to the Napa and Sonoma area to cover the evolving wine industry.
“We covered the industry so I would come up and often times photograph people who were actively part of it. It gave me an early introduction to growers, especially up here, who were on the cutting edge,” Luse said.
He became fascinated with vineyards and winemaking and, as often happens, the artist fell in love with his subject. Soon he made a batch of wine, enrolled in enology and viticulture classes and, in 1993, with a fellow photographer started Eric Ross Winery in western Sonoma County.
They eventually moved the winery to Sonoma Valley.
Sitting by a fireplace in the homey Eric Ross tasting room in Glen Ellen, Luse is surrounded by evidence of his two trades. Enlarged photographs depicting vineyard workers and wine country scenes form a colorful backdrop to bottles containing his small-batch wines. Luse serves as winemaker and, after buying out his partner a few years ago, is sole proprietor of Eric Ross.
“Much like photography,” he said, “I feel like it’s about the subject — who you are photographing or, in this case, what wine you are making. It’s not about you.”
The “subject” that is the focus of Eric Ross wines, Luse said, is high-end varietal fruit sourced from premium vineyards located throughout Northern California. From his early days as a winemaker, Luse has taken a minimalist approach to his winemaking that, he said, highlights the true character of this quality fruit. It is a philosophy that also guides his approach to photography.
“A buddy of mine who was a photojournalist at the Chronicle pointed out to me that I was really doing nothing different than what I did as a photographer,” Luse said, “which was respecting what the subject was about and reflecting what the subject was about. In this case, I was reflecting what these high-end vineyards were about.”
Born and raised in Modesto, Luse had little interest in photography or wine when, at age 18, he joined the Navy. It was the Viet Nam era and, faced with the likelihood of being drafted, Luse enlisted. Soon, an onboard incident would contribute to his ultimate career path.
“I was a damage control man and had a pretty serious situation going on in the engine room,” he said. “We thought that there was a hole, basically, in the bottom of the ship. I took a group of guys down there to try to figure out where this hole was … and I was thinking ‘you know what, this would not be the best place in the world to die, in the bottom of an engine room.’”
He appealed to his commanding officers to allow him to take an exam to become a photographer’s mate. He passed and served out his Navy tenure carrying a camera.
Returning to civilian life, Luse enrolled in San Jose State University and studied photojournalism “with the idea that you could take a picture that said something rather than just a pretty picture,” he said. After an internship with the San Jose Mercury News and some freelancing, Luse returned to the Central Valley for a job with the Merced Sun Star. In 1979, he moved to San Francisco and started freelancing with the San Francisco Examiner. The Chronicle hired him full-time in 1980.
On wine country assignments, Luse observed and photographed the wine industry during a period of intense growth and innovation.
“When you are doing stories they are usually about people that are interesting or on the cutting edge or doing something unique,” he said. “These are the people that I met back then.”
One of the people he met was Dave Steiner, who was growing pinot noir on Sonoma Mountain near Santa Rosa.
“I think Dave got tired of all of my little questions,” Luse said. “He had a bin of fruit, a stemmer/crusher and he basically told me ‘You’re gonna go make that stuff.’ I remember telling Dave that I didn’t think I was quite ready for it but he was, like, ‘Just go do it.’”
After making that first vintage, which “was good, not great … but it was drinkable, ” Luse began taking classes at UC Davis. After about three years, he continued his winemaking education at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“I always believed that the viticulture part of it (winemaking) was crucially important,” he said. “I felt like understanding viticulture would really help me understand winemaking. That’s why I started taking classes from Rich Thomas (at SRJC). Rich taught me a lot about winemaking even though it was all about grape growing.”
In the early 1990s, Luse and his friend,, John Ross Storey, a sports photographer for the San Francisco Examiner , decided to start a winery near Occidental in the Russian River valley. The two combined elements of their names for the winery’s moniker “Eric Ross.” Luse bought out Storey in 2008, took early retirement from the Chronicle and became a full-time winery owner/winemaker.
The current offerings on the Eric Ross tasting menu reveal Luse’s penchant for crafting wines sourced from artisanal grape growers ranging from Mendocino County to the Central Valley. The Eric Ross Pinot Noir is sourced from famed Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. Luse said “a couple of Spanish numbers,” an albarino and a tempranillo,come from Lodi. The Gout de la Vigne (Taste The Vineyard) Syrah is created from cold-climate syrah grown at Alder Springs Vineyard in northern Mendocino County. Luse also makes a couple of ports, including one from Portuguese varietals.
The Struttin’ Red winemaker’s blend is an ever-changing wine that each year allows Luse to experiment and improvise, blending new or exceptional varietals that he finds, like a chef creates a new dish. The 2011 version is a Grenache-based Rhone blend that includes syrah and mouvedre. The Struttin’ Red label prominently features a colorful rendition of a proud, self-absorbed rooster. Other Eric Ross wines carry labels with a more subdued rooster image.
Luse explains that the chicken became part of the brand after an incident during the 1999 harvest. At the time, the winery was searching for a new label design.
“I was on a forklift bringing in about a thousand pounds of fruit and our resident rooster came popping out in front of me,” he said. “I didn’t want to hit him so I popped on the brakes not thinking about that thousand pounds of mass still going forward.”
Luse nearly lost the load but “didn’t kill the damn rooster.” On the contrary, he said, the chicken gained a form of immortality in the form of a label logo depicting a strutting rooster silhouetted under a symbolic barn gable.
While Luse devotes most of his time to the winery, his camera is never far from his reach. At the tasting room, recent Luse photographs feature bold, simple images of work-worn hands of vineyard workers, proud grape growers during harvest and stunning vineyard scenes. Also displayed are reminders of Luse’s exciting career as a full-time photojournalist, including an intimate shot of Diane Feinstein embracing staff members after she was elected mayor of San Francisco. Another, poster-size image shows Luse in 1987 perched on the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge during the structure’s 50th anniversary celebration. Draped with camera equipment, a relaxed Luse is talking on an ungainly “state-of-the-art” cellphone overlooking the bridge and bay hundreds of feet below.
“It’s like photography,” Luse said, turning the conversation back to winemaking. “If you asked me to go out and shoot something I wouldn’t be thinking about the exposure and shutter speeds. I’d be thinking about the photo … and you get into that stream of thought without thinking about it.
“It’s the same thing with winemaking. I don’t really micro-think it through like I did, say, 20 years ago. That’s where you finally can get good at things. You flow with it and it becomes part of who you are without really over-thinking it.”