It was Robert Mondavi who first told me about Dick Splooge the last time we dined together at French Laundry in Yountville, the quaint town named for Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Thomas Keller manned the kitchen at his eponymous restaurant himself that night, apparently not trusting his Native American (Sioux) chef to prepare a meal for such an influential and important figure in American wine. Or for Mr. Mondavi either. Mr. Mondavi was accompanied by his wife, the famed Belgian surrealist Magritte. Magritte is a handsome woman, old and wealthy, which I find irresistible, who insisted during dinner that she needed to paint a portrait of me, “If only,” she said, “to illustrate that it is not only your prose that is flat.”
Geographically, the Napa Valley is a mere thirty miles long, and roughly fourteen feet wide. And yet it contains some of the most valuable soil in the wine world. There is the justly famous Rutherford Bench, as well as the lesser-known Oakville Bus Stop. Historically, it was the famous Captain Gustave Niebaum-Coppola (no relation to Sofia, who once asked me to star in a film version of my novel, The Great Gatsby) who discovered the brilliance of wines from the Rutherford Bench, and to this day his legacy is honored when we speak about the greatness of Rutherford Cabernet’s Finnish.
When Robert Mondavi began his eponymous winery in the heart of Oakville, after an ugly family dispute involving his brother and a camel drove him to leave Charles Krug Winery, where he’d crafted some of the planet’s finest Champagnes—the 1965 Krug remains one of the greatest bottles of sparkling wine that has ever gone up my nose—there weren’t any “cult” wineries yet in the Napa Valley. The potential for wringing money out of the valuable soils of the Napa Valley was virtually unexplored. Foolishly, the winemakers in Napa Valley at the time sold Cabernet Sauvignon for a modest profit, while their French counterparts in Bordeaux were wisely soaking the gullible Brits into paying a lot of money for underripe and overhyped Frog juice. Not even Petrus or Ausone, where I recently spent several nights at the request of the French government (the details of which I am legally sworn never to divulge, except to say I shared a bunk bed with Julian Assange, who snores and has abhorrent nocturnal emissions, called Wikileaks), but, shamefully, Second Growths! I don’t believe I’ve ever consumed a Second Growth, at least not wittingly, but I’ve been told that it’s the equivalent of sleeping with an actress with an “Also Starring” billing—one can only imagine sinking to the level of a Nicolas Cage.
Thomas Keller had just personally served us our third course at French Laundry, a light and ineffable bite whimsically called “DNA en croute,” when the subject of cult Napa Valley wines came up. I had mentioned Bill Harlan, whose wise countenance and ruggedly handsome booty seemed a reflection of my own future, and Robert began to reminisce about his founding of the eponymous Opus One, considered one of the first cult Napa Valley wines, though far too common for my taste. The conversation soon bored me, and I turned it back to a more interesting subject—my own experiences with the legendary cult Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley.
Fortuitously, I had just come from a complete vertical tasting of Harlan Estate, which included some of the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted. I confess that I consider Harlan Estate the greatest winery in California, in no small part because the label looks like money. There was a time when wine writers failed to see the paramount connection of money to great wine. Wines were approached critically from the primitive and resolutely ignorant perspective of quality, and their accurate reflection of “terroir” (a vague and mostly discredited French word that loosely translated means, “dirt poor”). It’s only recently, when a new generation of wine writers has emerged, the most important of whom first published unreadable, autobiographical, eponymous novels, that the undeniable link between the greatness of wine and the wealth of the winery owner has come to be accepted. Now it seems to be all that I write about. Wine knowledge and a sense of wine history have become vestigial when it comes to wine writing, qualifications that are long outdated and completely overvalued, as my WSJ editors will attest. You want greatness in wine? Follow me, and follow the money.
Mr. Mondavi had been talking animatedly for several minutes, tolerable only because it was fascinating speculation about my formidable palate, when he paused and asked me if I’d ever met Dick Splooge. Splooge Estate, the winery now synonymous with both Natural and Cult wines, was still just an inkling in Dick’s prostate at the time, and I confessed I had not heard of Mr. Splooge (though, in a strange coincidence, that had been Raymond Carver’s nickname for me).
“Dick Splooge,” Robert Mondavi told me, as we sampled Mr. Keller’s next course, a delicious ham and melon dish eponymously named “Ass Hat,” “is a visionary the likes of which Napa Valley hasn’t seen since Georges de la Tour.”--an obscure reference to the visionary behind the Tour de France. “I think you should meet him.”
I wouldn’t normally take advice from a washed-up Napa Valley icon, not even James Laube, but something that day told me I should. Maybe it was the Mr. Splooge nickname coincidence, or maybe it was Magritte slipping me the tongue as we kissed good night, I’m not sure. Yet there was something I needed to know first, something critical to whether or not I’d even consider meeting Dick Splooge at his under-construction Splooge Estate.
“How did he make his money?”
A simple question, but the only question that matters in the world of Napa Valley, thirty miles long and roughly forty feet wide. The question most asked in every tasting room in the county. The question that most certainly determines the value of the resulting wines. And the question that certainly determines whether or not I’ll visit a winery, whether I’ll write about it, whether, first and foremost, I can be entertained there in the fashion to which I am accustomed.
“Where did Dick Splooge make his money?” Mr. Mondavi replied. “Just where you’d expect a Splooge to make it.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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