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PR: If you look at our labels, they prominently show the names of the vineyards, which he named after the soils: Volcanic Hill has soil that looks like volcanic ash; Red Rock Terrace has red rocky soil; Gravelly Meadow has big chunks of rock. These names are printed in big letters! And that was revolutionary because it was done at a time when Americans thought of Burgundy simply as a red wine, rather than a place that represented a very specific style of wine. He believed so much in the concept of place, that even though he was proud to be making one of the best Cabernets in Napa, he didn't want the words 'Cabernet Sauvignon' or 'Napa Valley' to be prominent on the labels —in fact, they're very understated on the bottles to this day — because for him, it was all about a sense of place, a very specific place.
BB: He wanted the wines to be known [simply] as Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace, and Gravelly Meadow — not as Cabernets from Napa. So if you would mentioned one of those vineyard names to someone, they would know it was Diamond Creek. On the other hand, even though Al really looked up to the French and was so involved in recreating something they had started, he felt that since we're here in California, the wines should have a label in a style that was Californian, not French. Furthermore, he always thought of California as being very western and he wanted to promote that: "We, here in the west, can make fine wine." And that's why our label looks the way it does, 'Old West' and not in the slightest bit French.
"Even though Al was proud to be making one of the best Cabernets in Napa, he didn't want the words 'Cabernet Sauvignon' or 'Napa Valley' to be prominent on the labels. Because for him, it was all about a sense of place, a very specific place."
NM: He struck a balance, then, in that he recognized that there was a tremendous amount of value and significance in emulating the French in their extreme focus on a sense of place, but on the flip side acknowledged that California is nevertheless a very different region from that which he took his inspiration and therefore felt compelled to reflect that.
BB: Exactly — reflect and promote it! Promote it! That was very important.
NM: So, he was clear in his vision and intentions. But how did he go about actually carrying them out in the vineyards? Being new to all of this, how did he learn his viticultural practices?
PR: There was a lot of experimentation going on, and it was a fun time in the industry because of that. Everybody talked to each other. Everybody who was making Cabernet in Napa County — there weren't that many — were talking to one another, seeing what each other was doing, sharing space and equipment. A lot of the early knowledge just came by doing, by trial and error, seeing what worked and what didn't.
BB: One big help for Al came from our first consulting winemaker, Jerry Luper. Because although he did take a lot of classes and learn a lot about winemaking, Al would tell you from the very beginning that he was not a winemaker. But Jerry supported Al on his decision to bottle our vineyards separately, because he agreed with Al that they really were different. And that was huge because everybody else at the time was blending everything together. We were very fortunate that Jerry was part of our beginning.
PR: He was a wonderful winemaker. He went on to make wine in Portugal and recently retired.
BB: Jerry was a great influence. And he was very supportive. Although, Al didn't really care about what anybody thought; he believed in himself. And that's what carried Al: he believed in what he was doing and nobody was going to change his mind. He had a vision and had to do it his way!
NM: He sounds like a very strong-willed man. Given that, I'm wondering how he managed all of this in the face of such a potentially debilitating disease as Parkinson's.