Catching Up With R.H. Drexel

Among the most entertaining and stimulating publications that have come my way in recent years is Loam Baby, a wine culture zine published under the nom de plume of R. H. Drexel, a former wine industry insider. Each issue (there have been three so far) is devoted to exploring an American wine region, with feature articles, highly personal and offbeat winemaker interviews, music playlists, the author’s sometimes-blurry photos and hand-drawn cartoons. By providing an intimate look at the local talent, Drexel has managed to capture the essence of each region in a way that “professional” journalists rarely do.

I caught up with the elusive Drexel for an interview recently and posed some questions that had been on my mind since I read the first issue of Loam Baby in the spring of 2012. Incidentally, we will be publishing articles from the first three Loam Babys in the coming weeks, followed by the next issue, which focuses on Sonoma. Hard copies of Loam Baby are available for purchase and can be read here.

What’s the point of your journal’s title? And should it be read Loam Baby or Loam, Baby?

RHD: At first, I was going to call it Holy Schist. Ultimately I decided on Loam Baby because it’s more reflective of my intentions. I grew up on a farm, constantly around nature and animals. I’m most comfortable near the earth, near loam, so hence Loam Baby.

What made you decide to undertake this project?

RHD: The things I love: interesting people, nature, beautiful wines, storytelling. I’ve been in the business for more than half my life now . . . over 25 years, and though I love it, bullshit is rampant in this business. Some people don’t seem to mind it and just let it roll off, but bullshit confuses me because I’m kind of built to believe what people tell me, so when some winemakers bullshit when the media and somms come around, I tend to spin out a little. It gets under my skin, so Loam Baby is a way for me to spotlight people who don’t bullshit. These people encourage and inspire me to remain focused on the stuff that matters.

What kinds of BS are you referring to?

RHD: Well, you know the guys and gals, the ones who talk all about terroir and farming but are hardly ever in the vineyard. The ones who devote more time to their Twitter feed than to walking their vineyard sources. And my major peeve is winemakers who spend all of their time talking about what their colleagues are doing wrong rather than focusing on their own work. I find these guys to be huge pussies. They’re worse than the old ladies at my aunt’s assisted living community who gossip all day because they don’t have anything else to do. To me, these kinds of folks are amateurs. I steer clear of them and their insecurities.

How important is the cult of celebrity to the marketing of wine? Conversely, are shy winemakers who are ineffective self-promoters at a huge disadvantage?

RHD: The short answer is, no, shy winemakers are not at a disadvantage. The cult of celebrity is very off-putting to me. I was raised by two artists; my mother is a poet. My father is a musician. Growing up, we were constantly surrounded by an extremely diverse group of family friends. Maintenance workers, dairy men, fishermen, school teachers, other artists, celebrities, heads of state even. To this day, when my parents entertain, they bring a broad range of people together. Their only criterion is that people be interesting and kind. Neither one of my parents can abide gossip or the tearing down of others just to build oneself up, so I’m kind of like that, too.

I thrive around people who are the real deal. And I love diversity because it keeps thing fresh and interesting. “Cool kid” cliques that are exclusive and self-promoting, and which are, again, rampant in this business, bore me silly. It’s easy for me to remove them from my radar because their behavior is anathema to the real and beautiful world of wine appreciation. Some folks in the business are afraid to ignore these kinds of cliques or want to somehow be a part of them because they feel they’ll get more attention that way. I advise these folks to just keep doing what they’re doing; keep growing and making lovely wines and ignore all the noise. I tell them they’ll find an audience for their wines if they remain focused and work hard.

The folks in the wine business that I naturally gravitate toward are the real vignerons. They’re just out there quietly doing what they love without a thought to being famous. These people have my deepest admiration and respect.

I also dig on folks like Manfred and Elaine Krankl and Greg Brewer—highly creative folks who don’t pay attention to trends and who just keep doing what they’re doing in a quiet yet rebellious manner. They’re famous because of the quality of their work, not because they’re self-promoting. They know what they’re about and I respect that.  FULL DISCLOSURE: Melville Winery, for which Greg Brewer is the winemaker, is a former client of mine.

Of the winemakers you have interviewed, who was the biggest surprise in terms of public perception vs. the real person you discovered?

RHD: I’d have to say Jayson Woodbridge. He’s a bit of a bull in a china shop—let’s say he sticks out like a sore middle finger in the relatively sedate community of St. Helena. I was pretty intimidated going into the interview with him as I’d heard that he’s rather unpleasant and causes scenes at major events, etc. I wondered if he was posturing to get attention. Anyway, what I found instead is a guy who just doesn’t suffer fools. My sense is that he’s trying to hold onto something real in a rather buttoned-up community. Essentially, he has a good heart and generous spirit. He likes to see others happy if he perceives that they’re enjoying themselves and not just fronting. He seems to act out when he senses that folks aren’t being real, which I get. Anyway, it’s probably not fashionable to say so among the wine industry elite, but I like him. I’d like to tie one on with him some day. I think that would be fun.

Have you ever had winemakers turn down your request for an interview?  What were the reasons they gave?

RHD: Not yet. I’ve been very fortunate. Of the four people that I really wish I could interview now, three have already passed: the great Henri Jayer, the Maestro Bepi Quintarelli and Julia Child. The fourth is living and working still: Bill Cunningham of the New York Times. I’d flip if I could ever interview him. He’s not in the world of wine, but the way he has comported himself throughout his lengthy career has inspired me endlessly. He’s my hero, and I think I would have left the wine business a while ago had it not been for his example. He is a keeper of the flame. He’s humane and he works hard.

Could you ever be an objective critic of a winemaker’s wines after getting to know him or her so intimately?

RHD: No. I don’t know how that would be possible for me, to tell you the truth. That’s just not how I’m built. I’m sure it can be done, but I’m an emotional person and I’m not a journalist. This little zine is a labor of love; I pay for it myself without any advertising and I don’t offer editorial guidelines as that’s not what this is really all about. It’s just about storytelling, not really reviewing wines.

Is Napa Valley as intensely competitive a place as we all think it is? And are winemakers in more laid-back regions like Santa Cruz and Paso Robles really more collegial?

RHD: I’ve found Napa winemakers to be quite collegial with me, but yes, I think they’re pretty competitive with one another. Not so much the younger folks coming up now, but some of the more established ones seem pretty competitive. Overall, I’ve found challenging and fun personalities in each of the four regions I’ve covered thus far: Santa Cruz Mountains, Napa Valley, Santa Barbara and now, the Sonoma Coast.

I try very hard not to issue value judgments about regions, as we’re talking about Mother Nature here. How arrogant would it be of me to come out more positive about one region than another? There’s so much untapped potential in every region I’ve visited thus far. As far as the people and cultures of the various regions, those too are hard to compare. The culture of each region is singular, so I just try to appreciate them for what they are rather than dissect and judge them.

From your experience showering with winemakers, do you find that there’s a positive correlation between penis size and wine size? And what’s the deal with women winemakers and huge Napa Valley cabernets?

RHD: That’s an awesome question. All I will say about interviewing winemakers in the shower is this: what happens in the shower stays in the shower. I will also say that I truly and profoundly appreciate a woman with lovely jugs…of cabernet.

Have you observed any general differences between what women and men bring to the process of winemaking, or is wine totally sex-neutral?

RHD: Winegrowing and winemaking are totally sex-neutral in my book.

From your travels in California, can you name a few consistently outstanding small wineries that most consumers have never heard of—and perhaps the specific wines to look for?

RHD: I dig what the Arnot-Roberts guys are doing. I know they’re relatively well known among the trade, but they’re worth talking about. Their Clary Ranch Syrahs are consistently outstanding.

I’m also super excited to see what comes out of Matt Taylor’s work with Pearl Morrissette, a new project on the Sonoma Coast. They’re developing vineyards on Taylor Lane and Coleman Valley Road, both near Occidental. They haven’t released anything yet, but I was pretty blown away by what I tasted and the sites I visited. They’ve got about three vintages under their belt so far. I can’t wait for their first release, which they tell me will be some time this year. Matt Taylor is the real deal. He has a very bright future ahead of him.

Another project that I immediately fell in love with is Gros Ventre, owned by Chris and Sarah Pittenger. They have a Pinot Noir from the Campbell Ranch in the Sonoma Coast that haunts me to this day. It is so beautiful–like nothing I’ve had before. They absolutely found the voice of that particular site and captured it in this really humble way.

John and Phoebe Raytek of Ceritas make lovely wines. I really like their Porter-Bass Chardonnays. They have this lovely green tint to them; they’re so fresh, vibrant and arresting. I could drink those every day!

Along the Central Coast, I’m really interested these days in what this guy named Justin Willett is doing. He’s got a couple of different projects going—his own project, named Tyler, and Lieu Dit, with sommelier Eric Railsback. These guys are creative and uber-focused and I very much enjoy their wines. I also really dig Ernst Storm; man that guy has a deft touch with his wines. His brand is called Storm. A little gem in the Sta. Rita Hills is LaBarge Vineyards, owned by Allison and Pierre LaBarge IV. Their estate vineyard is young, but those wines are already so tremendously good. They have about them an uncommon purity and energy. And then of course there’s Matt Dees. He has his hands in several projects, including Jonata and The Hilt. It’s wonderful to watch him work; he is so deeply in touch with each one of his vineyard sources. He’s extraordinarily talented.

As far as the Napa Valley goes, the most exciting younger folks up there now, at least for me, are Alex Kongsgaard, Ketan Mody and Massimo Di Costanzo. Mody has this project called Beta that I think may be a game-changer, simply because it’s so pure in its intention. I don’t know of anything else like it out there these days. There’s no marketing plan behind it. No brand launch plan behind it. It just is, which I find completely refreshing.

What’s up next for Loam Baby?

RHD: I’m currently working on the Sonoma Coast issue. Then, I’ll more than likely head to Michigan, New York, Oregon and Colorado before heading back to California for some further exploration. El Dorado, in California, and the wines from a producer named Skinner, inspired me to want to explore that region further. Also, Lodi; there’s some seriously legit stuff going on in Lodi. The United States has so much to offer viticulturally and enologically, so hopefully this Loam Baby hobby will last until I’m too old to make the road trips and walk the vineyards.

What do you see in the future for wine in California, now that it appears that climate change is NOT dooming Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon as we know it?

RHD: You know, there are a lot of beautiful young people coming up in the business these days. In nearly every sector: great young winemakers, somms, retail buyers, chefs and this spectacular new crop of brokers on the scene. These young people love wine and they have energy and they want to soak everything up. But I don’t think the folks they look up to—what we call gatekeepers and influencers—are doing these kids any favors. They’re all on Twitter, following these gatekeepers, hanging on their every word, and these people in positions of influence are mostly drinking imports.

I have a young somm friend whom I really like. He’s smart as a whip, has a great palate and is extremely ambitious. I tell him, “Do you think the first wine that ever came out of Burgundy tasted like these grand crus that everyone seems to be pining for these days? Fuck no. That took centuries.”

Legacies are created because the people who built them believed in what they were doing. They fought for what they believed in and they focused, worked hard and, most importantly, they had pride of ownership. Do you think Burgundy would be where it is today if over the centuries their own communities didn’t drink their wines?

I mean, think about it. You had these folks in places like Burgundy or Cornas, hundreds of years ago, trying to grow grapes that would make a wine they were proud of, that they enjoyed drinking. So, over time, if they noticed that there was a certain parcel​ that was responding to certain growing conditions differently than others, and they liked what they tasted, they might make an adjustment to farming to keep that parcel expression coming in different vintages. Or they might change their cellar practices. These things take time and focus, and, ultimately, the support of others.

We have family-owned and farmed wineries and brands in California that have been around for 10, 20, 30 years or more. Over time, these folks have gotten to know their vineyard sources. Their understanding of their parcels has evolved, and they’ve been mindful in their cellars, trying to learn how to best express their land. I find these kinds of projects endlessly fascinating. They’ve been able to keep the lights on for a while now, farming and making wine, but they don’t get the recognition they deserve because they’re not deemed fashionable by the gatekeepers.

I tell younger folks all the time: hop in your car, drive around, do some research. You’re making assumptions about wines you don’t think you’ll like that you haven’t taken time to taste lately, or at all. Slow down. See what is really happening in California and the rest of the United States.

I love putting six-packs of wine together for these kids. Stuff they can buy for between 20 and 40 dollars a bottle, that is being well-farmed and well-made, and that is available and easy to source. Next year, I’ll be doing a special edition of Loam Baby on wineries that fit just this profile, and frankly I can’t wait.

I have this one fantasy that when I’m 80 years old, if I’m still lucky enough to have young people in my life, that I’ll be at some young kids’ backyard party, and a gatekeeper will arrive carrying a bottle of cheap American wine they bought at a grocery store . . . the way they walk in with six-packs of PBR or Coors Lite these days, and that that will be considered okay, cool even. And everyone will just sip wine and enjoy themselves. If that happens, I’ll die happy.

Editors Note: This interview was first published in Stephen Tanzer’s Winophilia in May, 2014.

-- Stephen Tanzer