The chief of design for the Ford Motor Comp. probably knows the design chief for Cadillac. But regardless of how friendly they may be in off hours, trade secrets are always verboten.
The same goes for everyone in almost every competitive field, whether it’s shoes, banking, computers, perfume or screwdrivers.
Wine is different. And now, with harvest under way throughout California in the northern hemisphere, wine makers everywhere, from Bulgaria to Humboldt County, go into hyper mode, experiencing relatively similar agonies — long days, equipment failures, labor issues, and every imaginable problem.
And a few unimaginable.
They all face similar problems, so they commiserate with colleagues at other wineries. And even help each other in times of dire need.
Harvest time, also called “crush” around here, isn’t only hectic, but fraught with tensions that produce enough furrowed brows, perspiration, and frayed nerves to last a year — until next year when it all returns.
No one survives without an extra dose of adrenaline. The preferred drink, after a cold beer, is coffee.
Typical days run into nights; sleep is at a premium. These days, many men sport what they call “crush beards,” a sign that they don’t even have time to shave.
Anyone who contacts a winery at this time of year might well encounter some testiness, even from the tasting room staff.
And no, the winemaker is not available. Don’t even ask.
Some people believe winemakers work for only a few months of the year. That is ludicrous. For the 10 months since the prior harvest, daily work has filled their hours, dealing with growers, planting decisions, farming nightmares, preparing equipment for the amazingly intense eight-week period when the entire year culminates in such frenzied days and nights that everyone is on the edge.
For most winemakers, intense work starts even before a grape is picked. They all have to create tank and barrel space by bottling the remaining unbottled wine from past vintages. Some actually finish bottling the last few gallons the day they begin receiving grapes!
Because of the intensity of the harvest season for almost everyone, friendships are shelved. Everyone understands what others are facing.
It is only when harvest is finally over, and the tension has eased a bit, that winemakers get together to share tales of woe, most of which they know others just experienced, at least in similar kind.
The amazing thing about listening to a chat between winemakers is that they so often share what in other industries might be considered trade secrets. Winemakers share information about yeast strains, barrels, vineyard pests, techniques, and relationships with growers.
The reason they can comfortably do this is that the raw material they use is at the heart of the difference between their products. Grapes may be the same variety, but they differ.
Even if two winemakers are using cabernet grapes from Alexander Valley, the vineyards they come from are different, harvest dates differ, and the techniques they use are never identical — so their products come out differently.
Sure, jealousies exist. But for the most part the wine industry is unlike any other in that the shared experiences bind people from different companies as friendly colleagues, not arch rivals.
Last Saturday, hundreds of people from all areas of the wine industry gathered for a memorial service for the respected Denny Martin, former head winemaker for Fetzer.
If this had been any other field, the respect would have been cordial and reserved. This crowd of former “competitors” told hilarious stories about the headaches all of them had faced, and how Martin had dealt with them, in his inimitable fashion.
Among those in the crowd were winemakers from Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Lodi, and even a few from south of San Francisco.
To them, Denny was a dear colleague, not a rival. The dress code illustrated the casual friendship he had with so many. Martin always wore shorts and Hawaiian shirts. His wife, Carla, asked that attendees at last Saturday’s memorial service do the same.
Sixty-nine Hawaiian shirts hung from the rafters, all from Denny’s closet, one for each year of his life.
Sure, competition exists in the wine business. But you see it most among sales people and marketing managers.
Wine makers survive by being able to revel in their friendships, sharing stories of headaches they all have had.
The one touchstone in all of their lives is Crush. It creates a bond about which outsiders can only speculate.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages ($15): This is the follow up to nouveau Beaujolais, the frivolous younger brother that always kicks off the vintage with brashness in the fall of the year of harvest. This wine isn’t radically different, but has more substance. It is grapey, simple, and best served slightly chilled. Think of it as a white wine with red color. The more serious Cru Beaujolais wines will be out very soon.