TV show: "South Park"
So, being the dedicated journalist that I am, I decided we should do the interview while skiing. George, Wine X and a mountain. Something's gotta give. And I had a bad feeling it wasn't gonna be George or the mountain.
Wine X: How much are the lift tickets? My editor only gave me 20 bucks per diem.
Hambrecht: The interview hasn't even started yet and you're already in trouble. Here. You owe me.
Wine X: (laughing under my breath) Thanks. I'm sure the magazine will reimburse you.
Hambrecht: Uh huh.
Wine X: First, where'd you go to college?
Hambrecht: Bard College, on the East Coast. Graduated in '94.
Wine X: What'd you study?
Hambrecht: History. I found history rather sexy and spiritual. I wanted to teach high school, but the wine business eventually won out.
Wine X: That's a big flip from history to wine. How do these things work?
Hambrecht: Stick your toe in there... now snap your heal down hard to lock in. But you're gonna wanna...
Hambrecht: ...remove your hand first. Here... that's how you release.
Wine X: I think I'm gettin' the hang of it. So, history to wine...
Hambrecht: Yeah. I'd love to pair wine with history and write about it -- to unearth the history of wine.
Wine X: Well, here's your chance. So where did wine come from?
Hambrecht: The origination of wine goes back to 3 million BC. Just kidding. Nobody really knows where or how it started. The first person to drink fermented grape juice must have had one wild look on his or her face and probably got knocked on his or her ass. They probably thought it was some kind of religious experience. Probably started the whole Dionysius thing. There obviously weren't a lot of us around at the time, so it's hard to tell. Eventually wine moved from Egypt to Greece, two millennia later to Crete, then spread from the Mediterranean to central Asia and western China.
Wine X: That was extremely enlightening, thanks. So, you're studying history... how'd you end up in the wine biz?
Hambrecht: My family started Belvedere Winery in 1979, so I basically grew up in the business. I came home during summer breaks and worked in the vineyards. And after graduating, I decided that that's what I wanted to do.
Wine X: I think these skis are broken. I can't move.
Hambrecht: 'S cause they'll still locked to the rack.
Wine X: Ah. Right. Hey, what's pruning like? You hear so much about it.
Hambrecht: Pruning's like this: the first 20 vines are fun, the next hundred are a bummer, and the next two thousand are somewhat Zen.
Wine X: What do you think about when you're out there Zenning? History? Great writers? Women?
Hambrecht: I'm thinkin' 'why are all the other workers going so much faster than I am? What are they doing that I'm not?' I'm just in awe of the other workers; their speed and incredible efficiency on 105 degree days.
Wine X: What's that hip term you guys use for powdery snow?
Wine X: Oh.
Hambrecht: So what'd'ya wanna ski? Which one looks good?
Wine X: That one looks pretty challenging.
Wine X: If you could live in another century, which would it be? I know, it's stupid, but it's supposed to be one of those insightful interview-type questions. The magazine makes me ask 'em.
Hambrecht: Okay, I'll play along. Well Stewart, I'd go back to 2nd Century Rome -- the time of the Good Emperors.
STEWART'S PERSONAL NOTE: For those of you who are curious, the good emperors where Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. And you thought I was just another pretty face.
Wine X: So what was so cool about 2nd Century Rome?
Hambrecht: Great food, vast amounts of vineyards and great writers. Wine was all over the Mediterranean -- the water was so bad everybody had to drink wine -- so it became a staple in their lives. From the very rich to the very poor. Some would add vinegar or spices to it, such as saffron, nutmeg and pine resin (for Retsina) and pass it off as good wine. At parties it was often cut with water and, as the party progressed and became more obnoxious, it was cut with more water. You know, that's how it should be today. You go to some of these "tasting events" today, and it's just one big drink fest. What's the purpose of a winery participating in that?
Wine X: Were there any wine snobs back then?
Hambrecht: The best wine back then was Falernin, which, of course, became the wine snobs' wine! They'd age it for a hundred years to the point that is was like syrup. They'd use it for medicine or they'd add it to current vintage wine to give it backbone.
Wine X: What happened between then and now?
Hambrecht: You want the whole history?
Wine X: Cliff notes?
Hambrecht: America was discovered, we drank mass-produced beer, people stopped drinking wine.
Wine X: Hey, this is really fun.
Hambrecht: This is the tow rope, Stewart. It takes us to the top. Then we ski down.
Wine X: Oh. What do you think it'll take to get wine back into everyday life again?
Hambrecht: The wine industry is currently talking to the same ad agency that gave us the "Got Milk?" ad campaign to develop a similar campaign for wine. We already ripped off their "Got Milk?" tee shirts with "Got Wine?." What's next, a cabernet mustache? With all the juice coming on-line in the next few years, we'll need to ban together as an industry and develop our own original marketing idea. If we don't, some of us are going to fall. Our generation isn't drinking much wine, and because the industry ignores us, its only going to get worse. So where's all this wine going to go?
Wine X: China?
Hambrecht: Actually the Chinese are buying cheap wines and cutting it with soda (Coke or Tab). It's a good beginning, but it's not going to support the industry.
Wine X: What else can we do ?
Hambrecht: Have a good wine in a box! Or, how 'bout parents letting us have a little wine with our dinners, so when we shuffle off to college we don't turn into a bunch of drunken, meathead frat boys. TREE TREE!
Wine X: What?
Hambrecht: That hurt. You okay?
Wine X: Fine, fine. No problem. No worries. I'll be fine... once the bleeding stops. Really. I do this all the time.
Hambrecht: I would've never guessed.
Wine X: So what's in your near future at Belvedere?
Hambrecht: We're starting a new winery, Bradford Mountain. We're going to concentrate on zin, syrah and a cab blend.
Wine X: Cool. Here's something that a lot of people ask me. When you're looking to plant a vineyard or, in your case, starting a new winery, how do you find the right piece of land to plant your vines?
Hambrecht: We look for land that has good sun exposure, soil and sees just a little fog. Sometimes we use the history of vineyards in the area. That way we can fine tune or tweak where, how and what vines we should plant. Lately we've been looking off of Eastside Road in the Russian River Valley. It has a nice, cool climate, good soil, and we particularly like the hills for pinot noir. We've also been focusing on Dry Creek Valley and Anderson Valley. But I guess what it really comes down to is instinct. That's how we ultimately determine where we want to plant new vineyards.
Wine X: How much does it cost to plant an acre of vineyard?
Hambrecht: Depends on the area. In California, valley floor acreage costs anywhere from $16,000 to $20,000 an acre. In Argentina, it costs about $12,000 an acre.
Wine X: And that's not including the cost of the land.
Hambrecht: You know, you're editor was wrong. You're actually pretty smart.
Wine X: Well, if you look past the long hair and handsome good looks you get to the real me.
Hambrecht: He also said you were modest.
Wine X: Well, I think that goes without saying. Now. Where were we? Oh yeah. Can you give our readers some wines to look for.
Hambrecht: Argentinean malbec is excellent. It's the best thing they make. Look for stuff from the Mendoza region.
We finally make it to the bottom.
Wine X: Wow. That's a pretty challenging run. What was it? Double black?
Hambrecht: Bunny slope.
Wine X: Whatever. I beat that one group down, though.
Hambrecht: They were eight year-olds.
Wine X: Well some of those eight year olds are pretty damn good for their age.
We catch our breath (okay, my breath).
Wine X: So what's your best day? I know, another stupid interview question.
Hambrecht: I love working in the vineyards, testing sugars, pruning, getting to know the vines. And having my dog Cyrus close by. That's a great day.
Wine X: What about wine labels?
Hambrecht: I'm all for 'em. Takes the guess work outta what's in the bottle. Seriously, I think there's too much information on wine labels today. We need to simplify them, make them more consumer-friendly.
Wine X: Where's the most promising wine market in the United States?
Hambrecht: Minnesota -- "The Twin Cities" -- has the most potential for being the next big wine drinking area.
Wine X: How about wine growing areas other than California?
Hambrecht: I think Virginia has a big future.
Wine X: What is the wildest "alcohol" thing you've ever heard of ?
Hambrecht: The Austrians do this thing where they get this huge cone of sugar, pour this absurd amount of high proof brandy over it, then light it. As the sugar liquefies, it drips into a bucket of red wine sitting on the stove. Now that's hot and absurd.
Wine X: George, I gotta go. I've got so much snow in my pants I feel like a human icicle. But before I turn blue, leave us with your goal in life.
Hambrecht: I'd love to write of few good books about wine and history. And, of course, I'd love to have great wine associated with my family.
Wine X: Thanks, man. God I'm cold!
Hambrecht: Next time don't wear shorts.