There are perhaps as many routes into winemaking as there are winemakers, but Richard Peterson got his start by collecting discarded ice cream wrappers at the Iowa State Fair.
His dad, an Iowa miner, told him that the thousands of wrappers that visitors dropped on the ground each carried the message “Save these bags for gifts.” In a catalog, the young Peterson identified the one he wanted: a ChemCraft starter chemistry set. He could earn it by mailing 10 bags and a dollar back to an ice cream company or it was free with 1,000 bags.
This was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Peterson noted, “I’d never owned a dollar in my life and saw no possibility of doing so.” Instead, his mother sewed a handle on an empty sugar sack and he went to work. She helped him package and mail in the 1,000 wrappers to become “the happy owner of the world’s most exciting chemistry set. … I learned enough chemistry from that set by age 10 to convince me I would do something involving chemistry as my life’s work. The set had ignited my love for science.”
Peterson did “do something” with chemistry, becoming one of the most significant and respected figures in the revival of the wine industry in California after the devastation of Prohibition; and this is the story he recounts in his new memoir, “The Winemaker” (Meadowlark Publishing, $29.95).
“I've finally published the book I’ve been promising to write for about 30 years,” Peterson said.
Written with an insider’s eye and the deft touch of a storyteller, “The Winemaker” re-creates the tumultuous years when California was learning to make wine again and breathes life into the memorable characters, like Andre Tchelistcheff, and Ernest and Julio Gallo, who drove the changes.
He begins the story with his boyhood on an Iowa farm, a chapter he titles “growing up poor,” but then crosses out the word poor and overwrites it with “rich.” The lessons he learned from his hardworking parents — including “never retire” from his mom who worked into her 90s as a seamstress — became the foundation for the integrity and inspiration with which he dealt with the challenges he encountered at every turn when he entered the wine industry in 1958.
After earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Iowa State College (and making his first batch of wine, a bottle of which blew up in his first car), he served in the Marines and used his veterans benefits to earn his doctorate at UC Berkeley. From Cal, Peterson headed to the “University of Gallo,” spending the next 10 years working for and learning from the astute Gallo brothers, for whom he has high praise.
“I didn’t know at the time that most of the white wines from major wineries in California were primarily made from Thompson seedless grapes,” he writes. “Fine wine grape varieties had been ripped out of the ground in the early 1920s and replaced by ordinary ‘shipping’ grapes’ that were tough enough to stand the trip from California to eastern destinations. Thompson seedless made poor-quality white table wine but did not cost much; it had been accepted for winemaking during Prohibition when consumers were not picky.”
While wineries like Italian Swiss Colony continued to try to make wines from the flavorless Thompson grapes, the Gallo brothers forged ahead, turning to other white wine grapes, trying to create wines that were both appealing and affordable; this was despite their commercial success with Thunderbird, made from Thompson grapes, “strong lemon flavoring, 10 percent sugar (from grape juice or concentrate) and nearly 20 percent alcohol — it was essentially high-alcohol lemonade and it sold like hotcakes,” Peterson recalls.
He made the move to Napa Valley in 1968 when the “dean of California winemaking,” Andre Tchelistcheff, chose him as his successor at Beaulieu Vineyards. George de la Tour’s Beaulieu Vineyards winery was, at the time, the most highly rated and prestigious wine in America, thanks to Tchelistcheff’s French expertise, his commitment to “winegrowing” on Beaulieu’s 750 acres of vineyards, and his tireless work despite obstacles that Peterson was to discover. In particular, these had to do with the Madame de Pins, de la Tour’s daughter who refused to spend any money on the upkeep of Beaulieu Vineyards. She had inherited the winery with her father’s promise that “it would take care of her,” not, the notoriously imperious lady insisted, that she was supposed to take care of the winery. Beaulieu Vineyards in 1968, Peterson notes, “was more or less held together by baling wire and duct tape.”
Peterson’s hilarious anecdotes include the story of Tchelistcheff’s rueful admission that Madame de Pins required him to make her vinegar but only from the grapes of the prized Georges de la Tour private reserve cabernet sauvignon from Beaulieu vineyard #1. “Have you made wine vinegar before?” Tchelistcheff asked Peterson.
“No,” Peterson replied. “I’ve always taken all possible steps to avoid vinegar fermentations.”
The Beaulieu story takes a bittersweet turn when, after years of pleading on the part of Tchelistcheff, Madame de Pins finally agreed to install stainless steel tanks, only to announce a month later that she had sold the winery to the Heublein, a vodka, spirits and food corporation (thus leaving them with the bill for the tanks.)
Heublein’s subsequent destruction of the Beaulieu’s supremacy becomes a harrowing page-turner as corporate money men try to determine how to get the most profit from the winery in ways that made Mme. de Pins’ penury seem positively enlightened. Why were they making cabernet sauvignon, the winemakers were asked, when the numbers showed that gamay beaujolais promised a far more favorable return on investment?
One of the most startling stories is an account of a conversation with Andy Beckstoffer, who had come to Napa Valley as acquisitions manager for Heublein.
“He asked me why I was using Chenin Blanc to make BV Champagne,” Peterson writes. “I assumed he was questioning the quality level of the champagne, and I felt pleased that Andy appeared to care about quality after all — maybe I had misjudged him. l was apologetic and told him that I had wanted to use Chardonnay, of course, and that Andre had wanted to use better grapes as well. The problem was we needed all of our Chardonnay grapes for the Beaufort Chardonnay table wine label and I had to use the next best variety, Chenin Blanc for champagne. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ he interrupted. … ‘Don’t you realize you’re paying $900 a ton for Chardonnay when you could get Thompson Seedless for $60?’
“I was absolutely stunned,” Peterson continues, “… I said, ‘Andy, there isn’t anything you could say or do to cause me to use Thompson in BV wine …’ With a condescending grin, Andy looked at me and said, ‘Dick, you’ll never make a million dollars.’”
Peterson notes that he could not think of an answer. But later, when he recounted the story to a Beaulieu colleague, Legh Knowles suggested he should have said, “What will you do with the millions you make? Enjoy Italian Swiss Colony raisin wine?”
The Heublein purchase, however, ultimately ended in heartbreak when Heublein decided to sell BV’s vineyards to Beckstoffer.
“I only saw Andre Tchelistcheff upset, really mad only about five times in my life. In each one of those instances, his anger was directed at Heublein. The worst time was shortly after the vineyard ownership was transferred to Beckstoffer. Andre came to the winery and told me, tearfully, that Beckstoffer’s manager had asked him to leave Beaulieu vineyard #3, saying that his presence in any of the vineyards was no longer desired. He told me he felt like a wooden stake had been driven through his heart … I, too, was no longer allowed to farm the famous vineyards of Beaulieu. Both Andre Tchelistcheff and I had lost our winegrowing jobs. Heublein did not recognize it but there were two even bigger losers: Beaulieu had lost its winegrowing image, and Heublein had destroyed the public perception of its famous Beaulieu Vineayard wines.”
Peterson’s subsequent winemaking job took him to Monterey to help develop Monterey Vineyard and the Taylor California Cellars brand. Here, another corporate encounter brought in the Coca-Cola company, eager at the time to expand into wine. With Coca-Cola's support, they were able to build an astonishing success only to discover the corporation was selling out. However profitable, the wine business just could not match the “obscene profits” of selling soft drinks, he discovered.
His vigorous battles with the corporate mentality can be expressed in one conversation he had with Legh Knowles at Beaulieu. “‘Saying no to a big corporation is something that just isn’t done,’ Legh told me. I told him, ‘I’d rather get fired than tell them I can do something that cannot be done.’”
Eventually, Peterson would return to Napa Valley, “and I noticed that Napa Valley in 1986 was very different from the place I had left in 1974.
“Most of the old wine industry names were still there, but they were completely overshadowed by dozens of wide-eyed newcomers. It was equally refreshing and disturbing. One the one hand, new intelligent entrepreneurs brought in big ideas and excitement … on the other hand, most were not trained in winemaking or experienced in handling wine, and a great many mistakes had to be corrected before some of the new wine labels would become reliable bets.”
After one more corporate fiasco, Peterson became a consultant, working for himself and with pride the flowering of his daughters’ talents in the world of food and wine. Today, he makes a “minuscule amount" of sparkling wine from a rare grape he discovered in the UK, Wrotham pinot noir.
Peterson’s 50-plus years in the wine industry have created a rich legacy from a time when people were drawn to the wine industry by intelligence, creativity, and inspiration — a challenge to see how things could be made better, done better. Peterson, for example, after witnessing the problem of moving and storing barrels, designed the Peterson barrel pallets, and instead of patenting the design now used in wineries around the world, he presented it as a gift at the Wine Industry Technical Seminar in 1974. “I don’t deny that it was a terrific ego builder when the audience gave me a standing ovation,” he writes, noting that his satisfaction come from knowing that his design “saved a huge amount of effort and prevented worker injuries.”
Of Napa Valley today, he writes with equal candor. It now shares the stage with outstanding wine producing areas from around the country. He doesn’t care for the high-alcohol creations of today, noting “an astonishingly high percentage of today’s table wines contain far too much alcohol and too little varietal character. … Most do not age well in bottle and are impossible to enjoy with food. They taste hot, agressive, rough and devoid of varietal elegance. The winemaker screams, 'My wines are bigger and (therefore) better than anybody else’s. Can quality be judged by weight?'”
Although at 399 pages, “The Winemaker” might be deemed a “weighty” book, it is balanced with finesse, humor and insight. It’s a wonderful read.
"The Winemaker" is available through www.richardgpeterson.com