Words and photography, Jesse Jackson IV |

The story of a great bottle of wine is one of struggle, with a soupçon of serendipity. Viniculture is agriculture, at its core, and there is no harder worker, especially in the American psyche, than the farmer. Even a viticulturist in the most modern of vineyards, with the best equipment available, is beholden to the whims of the seasons and the demands of the grapes. Often, winemakers are in the field, tasting, testing, tending to their vines – trimming where required, grafting new vines onto old where needed. You needn’t squint very hard to recognize the rhythms of a farmer of any other sort, or to understand the sometimes backbreaking work necessary to be successful. The vines themselves actually need to struggle – to fight through the varied strata of the terroir to reach water, by way of example, which is where the minerality you may experience in a chardonnay from Chablis or Sancerre may arise.

To fight the elements, in search of an ideal balance – not too hot for risk of overripening, not too cold for risk of winter injury; just warm enough to give the desired body to the wine, just cool enough for a precise acidity. You may recall the almost fairytale images of fires burning in Burgundy during a late spring freeze, and while that was certainly an idealistic setting for those outside of the business, the reality was that it was a struggle for the survival of any number of livelihoods. I would venture a guess that a few of the wines produced from that harvest will be special, indeed. After all, are we ever as drawn to things we do not have to strive for?

In fact, American wine as we know it would not be the same were it not for the combination of struggle and serendipity. The oenophiles among us well know the story of The Judgment of Paris, but I offer a summation for the uninitiated. Steven Spurrier, a British vintner based in Paris, organized a blind tasting comparing the best French wines to the best Californians, believing (as the majority of people did) in the inherent superiority of the French.

The Hills of Napa Valley

Shockingly, American wines from the Napa Valley won in both the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon categories, with the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars taking the honors in the red category and a 1973 Chateau Montelena taking the white. Bottle Shock, a 2008 Randall Miller film starring Chris Pine and Alan Rickman, dramatizes the event well. The film also contextualizes the knife’s edge between glory and despair, persistence in the face of adverse odds, and lionizes the magic found on the margins. As the film recounts, Chateau Montelena was on the verge of bankruptcy before the Judgment in 1976, no doubt leading to many a sleepless night for Jim and Bo Barrett, while their salvation was slowly aging in the cellar. The old adage of luck being the marriage of preparation and opportunity – struggle and serendipity – rang true.

From a certain perspective, our lives are driven by serendipity. How often has a word in passing ended up defining years of our lives? If you hadn’t been in that place, at that time, who would you have become? With hindsight, looking at the roads that lead us where we are today, it is easier to determine which moments mattered and which did not. From the outside, it may seem as though a lucky so and so was carried by the winds of destiny, winds which deigned to alight them on top of whatever mountain they desired to climb. In such cases, there may appear to be some birthright, some inherent quality that leads to an inevitable outcome — joining the family business, climbing the career ladder, fame, fortune, and all the rest— because that is the way things are meant to be. From this predeterministic perspective, one may adopt a laissez-faire approach to life, a sense that what will be will be and thus one should go along to get along, fait accompli. In an age where the work it takes to achieve is done in or relegated to the shadows and accomplishment amplified, an increase in the number of people who feel resigned to their station should come as no surprise.

Towards the Valley

Pressure to provide, pressure to repay, pressure to prove external worth — all of these things serve to anchor us to the lives we have, impeding our journey towards the lives we may wish to create. All of these things give us pause, and stop us asking, “Why not me?” Those chosen few who appear to have every advantage are, in fact, no different to the rest. Struggle may be relative, but each of us experience it in our own way, and in our struggle we face the same question — can we rise above the things that constrain us in order to become who we wish to be? This may feel like a rather large question, and taken at face value it is; as with many things, however, the answer is found in the steps we take day to day in order to discover it.

On closer reflection, there may be but one difference between the moments that matter and the ones that merely pass by — the manner in which we respond to them. “It is not the streets that matter, but rather, where the streets take you.” This story is about both a literal journey, to California wine country, and a metaphorical one, about a writer and a photographer who searched for years for the courage to refer to himself as such and who found it in the company of world-class vintners.

Winemaker David Jelinik

The story begins, as many often do, steeped in serendipity. My wife and I were out to dinner on a Friday evening at our local haunt, the beverage director, general manager (and dear friend) Jared Givens, approached my table with what can only be described as a mischievous glint in his eye and asked if it were possible for me to free my schedule for a few days in mid-April, without specifying what for. Never one to turn down an adventure, and without checking my calendar, I responded in the affirmative, after which the details of the trip were laid out — we would be traveling to San Francisco, California and the Napa Valley to visit the vineyards of the Huneeus Wines portfolio, including labels Quintessa, Flowers, Faust, Benton-Lane, Leviathan, and Illumination. Our traveling companions would include some of the brightest wine minds in the city of Dallas, if not the state of Texas. He had been invited by Huneeus, and was given the privilege of choosing a travel companion. Circumstance prevented his wife from joining, and given we had traveled to the Willamette Valley, near Portland, Oregon, the prior summer on a similar trip, I was next on the list. As a nascent to budding oenophile, this represented a sort of dream trip akin to visiting Zegna mills with your three favorite tailors and carte blanche with a corporate card. After deftly navigating my wife’s mock jealousy, the trip was set, and while there remained questions to be answered on travel accommodations, you may be able to guess the next few thoughts on my mind — whatever would I wear?

With the wardrobe sorted, the next step was to get there. I booked a first class round trip ticket from DFW to land in SFO. This is a point of playful contention between my friends and I, many of whom are of the mindset that they would rather save on airfare and spend on accommodations or souvenirs from the destination. “Why spend that money on something so inconsequential as an airplane ticket,” they may say, “when you could spend the same amount and perhaps go to three different locales?” It is certainly a valid point. My (admittedly) somewhat shoddy defense starts with objective facts and then moves perilously close to being lifted directly from the mind of Niles Crane, but I will present it here nonetheless. I am a large man, being roughly 6’7 inches (or roughly 2 meters) tall and weighing around 240 pounds (nigh 108 kilograms). The seats in the vast majority of economy or premium economy sections of airlines are simply not designed to accommodate men of my physical stature. My general workaround for the past few years has been ensuring I have an exit row ticket or priority boarding, which both come at a premium and set one down the road towards being willing to ensure maximum comfort for a price - I simply follow the road to its logical conclusion! With a first class ticket, I guarantee the legroom and seat size my frame requires and the peace of mind a vacation deserves. No awkward queueing 20 minutes before boarding begins, jostling with passengers in front and behind, no politicking for exit versus aisle rows. One can simply sit down and get on with it.

In the Clouds

The subjective argument, such as it is, is that the first class experience extends well beyond the flight itself, and in fact often starts with check in. The modern airport experience is a far cry from the jet set era Slim Aarons so evocatively captured. Today, it more closely resembles a cattle call, wherein we are stripped of our humanity and processed as ticket numbers through nameless, faceless bureaucracy. It’s little wonder jet travel lost its elegance! A first class ticket allows one to bypass a line or two, to check an extra bag with little to no hassle, and to generally board the flight with minimal irritation. This is to say nothing of the difference of the in-flight experience itself, which is so different from an economy or premium economy ticket that they may as well be different flights entirely. In my case, there is an additional, underlying appeal to flying first class. To state it plainly, folks who look like me are not necessarily expected to be there. As such, there invariably comes a time when curiosity finally overcomes a fellow passenger or two, and I am either asked my occupation (on a good day) or it is assumed (perhaps, on a slightly less good day). The assumption is that I am some sort of athlete. This is not unfair, especially given my aforementioned size, but it is tiresome to a degree - as though it is all I could aspire to, or the only way success, such as it is, could have found me. There is a small pleasure in informing the inquiring mind that no, I am not an athlete or a musician, but a designer and writer. I take the occasional opportunity to widen someone’s aperture when it presents itself.

My tendency is to eat and drink very little while on a flight, in order to minimize trips to a cloyingly small lavatory, but I have succumbed to the temptation of an exceptional in-flight dining experience now and again. Given that this flight to San Francisco was in the morning, I availed myself of a doppio and a croissant and settled in to watch Roger Vadim’s Don Juan and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. I have found the transition to purchasing first class plane tickets to be similar in many respects to the transition from buying off the rack to commissioning made to measure and then bespoke menswear. I was forced into each by my size, but ultimately seduced by the superior customer and client experience of each. My particular preference in these instances, and life in general, is to reduce the amount of items, or trips, but to increase the quality of the lot.

The Hills, cont.

That particular eye towards quality is worthy of a closer look. How does one determine what is quality and what is not? There are various ways of approaching this problem, but I tend to focus on one aspect in particular, and that is difficulty. From a bird’s eye view, taking into account research, development, and training, how difficult was the good or service to produce or provide? There are undoubtedly difficulties in establishing relationships and economies of scale, the production lines, along with the accompanying business models, to run a profitable fast fashion business. However, the core goods are essentially trivial to produce, and thus of low quality. Lest this read as an anti-industrialist screed, I recognize that it is not necessarily the industrialization of production itself that lessens the quality of the core good (as evinced by the caliber 3230 powering my Rolex Submariner) but rather the care invested in the final product. However, it would be fair to posit that the smaller the production number, the greater effort required to create the product. Thus, scarcity becomes a useful shorthand for value.

Difficulty, though subjective, is easier to uncover when working directly with artisans themselves. One can more easily surmise the cost of goods and the value the artisan places on his or her individual labor, without regard for the added percentages that go towards supporting various aspects of larger operations. I have found shoemaking an evocative metaphor when elucidating the difference between an off the rack product and a bench made one, and while I am quite sure this audience already understands this, suffice to say it generally comes down to division of labor. A bench made shoe can often be the product of one pair of hands, from measurement to final application of patina, to packaging and shipping, and everything between. There is an incredible charm to that process, to that struggle, that is rarely replicated. The challenge many artisans have faced in the past is having the time to tell the story of the product. It is crucial to differentiate the finer points of make as a high quality individual artisan, as the advertising machines of the larger houses are one of the key advantages of scale. However, even sans the well packaged story, you can find those artisans if you’re willing to look, and the world of winemaking is no different.

Faust Haus
Our first appointment in the Valley was with Faust Wines, at the inimitable Faust Haus - a locale menswear aficionados will likely be familiar with, as they have done a fantastic job of inviting folks into their space.

A Chair, Faust.
Aaron Huneeus has graced the pages of Wm Brown Magazine, and the rest of the Christopher Street cognoscenti staged a bit of a Pitti West during one of the various lockdowns. For those who are less familiar, Faust Haus was founded as a way to highlight the tremendous work the team at Huneeus Wines have done to celebrate the Coombsville AVA and the wines they are able to produce with both Faust and the select Pact wines. Given that I was in the presence of quite a few wine professionals, I sought to better understand how they taste, what they value from bottle to bottle, and the process of building a beverage program that attracts the right mix of guests for the concept to gain success. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not all that different to how you or I may approach thinking about wine – just with a focus on guest palate, rather than personal preference.

There was a particular exchange that illuminated a sensitive subject related to quality, as explored before, and that is scarcity. There is a prevailing belief that limited case production is inversely related to quality of the wine produced – fewer cases produced equals higher quality. This perceived relationship holds true in the wider world of luxury goods, whether it be cars, watches, or clothing, but it can be especially challenging for winemakers in communicating what may be special about a certain vintage. From the perspective of the winemaker, every bottle in a year may be special given what challenges Mother Nature may have presented. If she were specially generous, and each parcel in each vineyard produced something exceptional for a label, high production numbers do not indicate a slackening of their standards at all, but instead indicate that very generosity. In such instances, that correlation of value or quality to scarcity is disrespectful to the bounty Nature provides. In light of this fact, and perhaps as a response to that perception, the actual case number produced is a closely guarded secret. Artificial scarcity as a marketing tactic is distasteful to many, and in some cases downright harmful to the environment.

At the tasting table.

This theme, the tension between producing enough to satisfy the commercial needs of the business while ensuring some level of artistic integrity, was a throughline for all of our appointments.

Our first appointment the following morning was at Quintessa. Intermittent fog interspered with bursts of sunlight covered the estate as we approaced a rust colored gate that opened on an elongated drive towards an ultra modern building that would serve perfectly as a secondary base of operations for SPECTRE.

Quintessa Entry
The atmosphere on the grounds, contrary to the sharp edges and hard stone used as building materials, was one of incredible softness, peace, and tranquility. As we ascended the steps towards the pavilion (a familiar sight for fans of Amy Poehler’s recent film Wine Country) we had a view to nearly the entirety of the estate, which was a sight indeed. The incredible variety in topography and soil composition available were a leading indicator for the wines that we were to taste, but the winemaking philosophy established by Aaron and Valeria Huneeus and exercised by the winemaking team, lead by Rebekah Wineburg, is what ultimately carries the expression of the vineyards to new heights.

Quintessa Entry
Quintessa Entry

As we stood atop the hill, overlooking Dragon’s Terrace off towards the Napa River, Rebekah lead us through tasting the 2020 Illumination, a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which was followed in the cellar by the 2019 vintage, the eponymous 2018 Quintessa, and finally a 2011 Quintessa. Again, the question of wine as an expression of place and time balanced with the expectation of what the label demands be delivered was explored. Rebekah’s deep knowledge of viticulture was on full display, as well as her understanding of the history of various winemaking techniques and their applicability from year to year.

More so than any one element, I believe it is passion that ensures a proper balance between art and commerce is struck – at least if you believe, as I do, that wine is art and should be understood as such.

Haus of Flowers
On departure from Quintessa, we set off towards the Sonoma coast for our last appointment of the trip, at the House of Flowers with winemaker Chantal Forthun. The road to the Sonoma coast is a long and winding one, up and around quite a few hills. Though the House of Flowers was only 16 miles from our lunch destination, the Calistoga Inn, it took the better part of an hour to arrive due to the switchbacks and roundabouts. Though it is a recurring theme in the Valley, the payoff was well worth it.

Quintessa Entry

Walking on to the Flowers estate was like pouring over a Kinfolk magazine, so attentively that you find yourself transported directly into its folds, so meticulously detailed was each vignette, with a natural, unassuming beauty achieved by only the most fortunate. On arrival, we enjoyed a pour of the 2021 Flowers Rosè, which we drank in along with the almost unparalleled beauty of the place. Our conversation with Chantal echoed those we had with Rebekah and David, though the focus this time was on vintage variation and consistency as a marker of quality.

Quintessa Entry
Quintessa Entry

I understand the position; the genius of Starbucks is that no matter where in the world you are, you know what to expect and what you will receive when you order a grande salted caramel latte. When you experience a deviation from that norm, you are justifiably upset, because what Starbucks is selling is consistency. It does what it says on the tin. By contrast, I have ordered many a pour over from a third wave coffee shop that disappointed in one way or another – perhaps brewed too hot, perhaps beans roasted too long – but when all of those variables are in tune, it can be truly sublime.

Though it is certainly important, consistency is not the first marker I look for when determining if a good is quality - especially not at the micro level. If the choice has to be made, I have a greater appreciation for those who optimize for excellence. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; bigger swings for the fences lead to interesting “failures” and higher heights. There is a fantasy in that inconsistency, a magic in chasing a vintage that does something no vintage has before or since. Chantal shared stories of the struggles winemakers in Napa Valley were presented during 2020, an exceptionally challenging year for the reasons we are all too familiar with, in addition to widespread fires near harvest. I asked Chantal if she had any special feeling for that 2020 vintage given the challenges in creating it that she shared with us – she said that she is particularly protective of it.


It is the struggle to create that gives the creation feeling. When the artist is compelled to search themselves more deeply than before, eventually becoming completely uncertain whether or not what he has created is even art, as Pollock asked his wife of his drip paintings – that is what I find most intriguing.

The struggle, the serendipitous confluence of events creating a one of a kind vintage. The craft, the application of specific techniques to respond to specific circumstances in search of something exceptional.

That is the magic I crave.