How does a redneck from the South become ingrained in the fine wine business in Napa Valley?
In 2003 I moved out to Lake Tahoe to pursue my dream, to ski big mountains in Lake Tahoe.
I grew up in Florida and North Carolina and at that time Lake Tahoe was the furthest west I had ever traveled. I was happy as a pig in shit living in Lake Tahoe and skiing mountains I had grew up reading about in ski magazines and watching in ski films.
In February 2004, my first winter in Tahoe, my favorite uncle, Uncle Robert came out to visit me and he brought his friend Jim Allen.
Growing up I had heard stories that Uncle Rob owned a winery somewhere out west. It wasn’t that big of a deal because there were a lot of wild stories about Uncle Rob, and him owning a winery sounded about right.
What I didn’t know was that he didn’t fully own a winery, he was the one of the first outside investors in a winery called Sequoia Grove Vineyards in Rutherford, Napa Valley, California. The founder Sequoia Grove was Jim Allen, the friend that Uncle Robert had brought when he visited me in Tahoe.
At the time, I didn’t know shit about wine. I had tasted shitty wine once or twice and I realized if you drank that wine really fast, it didn’t taste as bad.
Well Uncle Rob and Jim came and visited me in Tahoe and I took them skiing, which is kinda funny because Jim was over weight and out of shape at the time. I’m pretty sure that was the last time Jim ever went skiing.
Anyway, that night Jim and Uncle Rob opened a few bottles of Jim’s cabernet sauvignon with me. As I said, I didn’t know shit about wine or Napa Valley at the time, but I knew that Uncle Robert knew the coolest people and had the best adventurers, so if he was inviting me to try some of Jim’s wine, then it was probably a good thing.
Both Jim and my Uncle were some of the most down to earth, cool people ever. They poured me some of Jim’s cab, then just asked me what I thought about it. I remember that it did not taste like the crap wine I had tried a couple times in college.
I said to them, “It tastes smooth.”
And it did.
They did not try to tell me how cool and special Napa Valley was, they didn’t try to tell me how cool the vineyards were, or try to influence my opinion in anyway. They just wanted to know what I thought of the wine.
I immediately like Jim Allen because he was a cool guy, and I thought his wine was pretty decent.
Both Jim and my uncle said I needed to get down to the winery. I had just been in Tahoe for a few months and it was the middle of ski season and I had worked most of my life to be there and I told them that I was not going anywhere until the snow melted.
And I meant it.
Well the end of the ski season came in May and I called Jim and asked for directions to the winery in Napa. This was in 2004 before smartphones, navigation, and Google Maps, so I wrote down the directions on a piece of paper.
I packed up my car and drove to Sierra at Tahoe, the ski resort that reside on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is the last ski resort leaving Lake Tahoe traveling west to the Central Valley and Bay Area.
I spent the day getting wonderous spring corn snow turns in the sunshine at Sierra at Tahoe, then packed my ski gear in my car and drove down to Jim’s in Napa.
Of course I didn’t know where I was going because that was the farthest west I had ever traveled. And because I skied all day by the time I got down into the Bay Area it was getting dark, so of course I missed turns and wasted a whole bunch of time getting to Jim’s.
In 2004 Jim stilled lived on the property at Sequoia Grove in the 100 year old farmhouse. I eventually stumbled on to iconic Highway 29 driving north through Napa and eventually, after pulling over and making many phone calls for directions, pulled into Sequoia in the dark.
At this point, I still had not seen Napa Valley because it was dark. I had no idea the beauty of the place, but I could feel it in the air that something was special. And when I pulled into the parking lot and up to Jim’s house, I could smell the wine in the barrels and tanks of the winery.
And that began my friendship with Jim Allen the founder and winemaker of Sequoia Grove Vineyards.
Over the years I spent as much time with Jim as I could. I loved his easy going style, his vast knowledge of wine, and his dedication to Napa Valley and making the best cabernet sauvignon possible.
One of my favorite things to do was to ask a question that I knew would get Jim started, then just shut up and listen as Jim talked story.
Back in Tahoe I quickly realized something about Napa Valley cabernet, yes it was good, but damn it was expensive! I was earning $8/hr at my job at the time and I bought 1 bottle of Sequoia Grove cab at retail and my eyes almost popped out my head. I couldn’t afford that stuff!
I told Uncle Rob how I loved Sequoia Grove but couldn’t afford to drink it. He said, “No shit.” Then he told me how there is plenty of great wine made all over the world at all types of price points. He told me to look for malbec’s from Argentina. He said they’re similar in taste to Napa Cab’s but a fraction of the price.
And that started my obsession with malbecs and great wines at reasonable prices.
That’s how I got introduced to wine, by two old and very cool guys. They left a huge mark on me. I greatly respected both Jim and Uncle Rob, and I took that laid back approach when I’d go on to introduce many friends to fine wines over the years.
No pretentiousness, not haughty taughtly high end b.s. Just great wines and cool stories.
And I continue that tradition to this day.
This post got a bit long. I got tired of typing.
Let me know if you found this interesting and want to hear more stories.
I went on to work in the wine biz in Napa and had lots of fun adventures, so there are more stories to tell.