Monday September 23, 2019
how did I get here?
I can’t pinpoint what got me interested in wine. I had no exposure as a kid, but developed a curiosity about wine after college. I guess it was an evolution.
As a child I gravitated to the outdoors and did a lot of camping and fishing growing up. I also had an interest in plants and started a vegetable garden and flower gardens at my parents’ home, which I maintained well into my teens. Although I moved away from gardening during college and my 20s, I liked and understood plants. My dad worked as a general contractor and developer, so I also grew up building, and loved the process. Photography and architecture were other diversions, and somehow all of these early interests seemed to fuel my later wine “hobby”.
In my 20s and well into my 40s, I was an avid runner and cyclist. When I started dating Paula, I wanted to figure a way to get her into cycling, so we started doing rides tied to a destination. This led to spending long weekends in places like Santa Ynez, the Russian River, Napa and Bodega Bay. We started riding with friends, and this grew into organized bike tours through Backroads. Most trips were tied to wine tasting, and I started collecting wine.
When Paula and I met in 1985, I owned a small townhouse. About a year and a half later we moved into a townhouse she bought. We were in our late 20s. I had long harbored a desire to build my own place, and I would take off afternoons from work to drive aimlessly through the winding roads of the Santa Monica mountains looking at properties for sale, a place to build our dream home. Somehow, I convinced Paula that we should both sell our townhouses, and use the proceeds to buy undeveloped property. We did, and with the proceeds from the sales and some savings, we started building our first home on 2.5 acres in Topanga Canyon. It took 15 months and was really just a shell when we moved in and got married there in 1991. It took the next 15 years to finish.
Shortly after moving to Topanga, our architect, Jeff Fink (a just graduated architectural student from UCLA), suggested that the unfinished basement of our new home would be a great place to make wine. He was really into Bourgogne wines, so when I expressed a mutual interest, we dove in. He convinced me that we should start with something easy like Pinot Noir (Shows how much we knew!). Somehow, in the process of talking it through, another friend and former colleague from Merrill Lynch, Sam Marmorstein, also insisted on getting involved. None of us had ever made wine, let alone ever studied viticulture or enology. We purchased our first half ton of Pinot from a small vineyard in the Russian River Valley and never looked back. After the first year we stepped up to two barrels, and then something like two Pinot and one of Chardonnay, which led into discussions of starting a vineyard. Within a few years, Jeff had started Tantara with a friend, and Sam had moved to the Central Coast (which we had introduced him to on one of our many bike trips).
After the birth of our first child, Anna, at the end of 1994, Paula and I latched on to a front-page story in the LA Times Travel section about renting an old farm house in Provence as a hub for day trips. Having read a few of the Peter Mayle books that romanticized the Rhone lifestyle, and having a young one, we thought this was a wonderful vacation idea. A year later we rented the very same house in the little village of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, just outside of Avignon,in the heart of Mayle’s Provence, close to villages like Bonnieux, Menerbe, and Roussillon.
The three-week Provençal trip was really focused on experiencing the lifestyle, eating great food, and exploring amazing wineries. One of the seminal visits was to Beaucastel, where we got to taste wine with one of the proprietors, Jean-Pierre Perrin. I told him that I was making wine in the basement of our Topanga home, and I was interested in possibly planting a small vineyard on the property. He told us about the nursery and vineyard his family and the Haas family were setting up in Adelaida. That was the beginning of Tablas Creek. On our return to the states, I went up to visit the nursery with my friend, Sam, who had just relocated to Los Olivos to open a restaurant called Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant. We were both interested in purchasing vines to plant vineyards.
This proved to be the beginning of the end for me! Driving along Vineyard and onto Adelaida Rd to arrive at Tablas Creek planted a seed that started to grow. I came back with 500 Syrah vines from the nursery, which grew to 1500 over the next few years.
Over the years, from 1996 through 2004, I toiled in the vineyard and learned a lot along the way. Our first vintage was 1999. By then we had created a legally bonded winery and started selling the wine to friends and local stores and restaurants. A whopping 60+ cases a year! In retrospect, it was my lab experiment, for the real project we would embark on in 2003. I learned a lot in the “lab” over those years, and read a lot of books on viticulture and enology.
Around the turn of the century, I was getting restless. Partly because I was feeling trapped in the massive LA metropolis, but mainly because the wine bug had really gotten a hold of me. Paula and I had talked fairly seriously about doing a winery project down the road, perhaps when the kids were all out of the house, or earlier if the stars aligned.
In early 2003, one of my clients, upon returning from a vacation in Australia, called me up to tell me that I should move the family there and pursue my interest in wine. I recall her saying that it’s a young industry, people are laid back, and with my work ethic, I could make a killing. I relayed this conversation to Paula, but quickly forgot about it. Much to my surprise, shortly after our mid-August return from our annual pilgrimage to our cabin in Canada, Paula suggested we explore moving to Australia. I’m sure it was driven by the depressive funk I always experienced for a period of weeks after the re-entry from the solitude of our Northern Ontario cabin into the craziness of Los Angeles! With the exception of my parents and two sisters, all of my family lived in Canada or Finland. Paula’s family, however, lived mostly on the west coast, so I realized pretty quickly that a move that far might prove difficult for her. As much as I wanted to jump on it, I suggested an alternative: Paso Robles. I had been to Paso numerous times and had been dreaming about how cool it would be to start a project there. Like Australia at that time, Paso was starting to get a lot of buzz. I didn’t need much encouragement; I think we went to look at property the next weekend!
As fate would have it, I had a chance conversation with yet another client/mentor/friend, Lothar Schweigert, the Monday of my return. He asked me about what I had done that weekend. After finding out about our Paso exploration, he got so excited that he called me just about every day to ask me what I was doing to pursue this. It got to the point that he and his wife, Stella, insisted on visiting Paso with me to take a look at a specific property I was contemplating. Their visit fueled the flames even more. I made offers on the property only to get shot down because of contingencies. Lothar didn’t want me to miss out, so he decided to buy the property, and on a handshake, told me he would hold it until we could sell our Topanga home and were able to write the check. That happened a year later, and in December of 2004, we moved the family up to Paso Robles.
The house was built first and completed in July of 2007. We started planning for the construction of the winery facility within a year of that, started construction in October of 2009, and were operational by September of 2010. Sixteen years after the initial spark, 12 years after moving onto the property, and 9 years after the completion of our winery, kukkula has come a long way from the original dream. By the way, I honored Lothar by naming a wine after him, Lothario. Not because he was a Casanova, but because the word “Lothario” evolved from a character also named Lothar!
These days I often find myself hearing the words of the David Byrne song from his Talking Heads days, “Once in a Lifetime”. “How did I get here?” I’m not really sure, but it’s not bad for a guy who has no formal education in viticulture or enology!