Dave Interviews Winemaker Jim Moore

Wi_winemakers_moore_2Jim Moore’s ship is on its way in.  He has been named one of five Winemakers To Watch by the San Francisco Chronicle and the popularity of his Cal-Ital wines are gaining popularity – we’ve even included them in a couple of our shipments of the Sideways Wine Club, and they can now be found in our affiliated wine bar Tastes Of The Valleys.

In today’s interview, Jim tells us about how he got his start in the business and where he plans to go from here…

(Dave) Hi Jim, good to see you again.  We first met when working at Bonny Doon Vineyard.  But before that zaniness you had a long career in the wine business, beginning with your job at the famed Wally’s wine shop.  Can you tell us about that and what things were like in the wine business back then?

(Jim) I graduated from UCLA in 1974, but my degree didn’t exactly put me on ‘the road to riches’ so I did what any (thinking? clever? lazy?) person might do and headed for the wine business.

Back then, in 1974-75 I worked ~50+ hours per week for only about $4.00 or $5.00 per hour while tasting myriad wines and learning about this business at a specialty wine retailer named Wally’s (which is still a thriving concern in West L.A.) 

But money was not too important back then because I was able to buy great ’71 Mosels for $2-3.00 per bottle, ’62 Bordeaux from Pauillac and St. Julien (Lynch-Bages, Beychevelle, Durcu, etc) for about $5.00 a bottle, vintage Port was selling for next to nothing and perhaps the deal of the last millennium which was ’62 Rieussec for $2.00 per bottle (we sold it first at $3.49 and increased it to $3.99).

I had access to an unbelievable array of mature wines at the height of the recent wine market crash, available at recession-period pricing.  In comparison, the embarrassment of riches during that period of time makes the recent two buck chuck craze seem particularly silly and grossly uninformed/uneducated.
(Dave) That is, undoubtedly, the first time you’ve made me wish I was old enough to have lived through that period in the wine business.  So was that your "epiphany moment", when you realized you wanted to make your living in the wine business?

(Jim)  Believe it or not I was told by David Breitstein of the Duke of Bourbon in the San Fernando Valley (LA) that "if you want to enjoy good wine frequently (he might have even said everyday) you had two choices – either make a lot of money (see above) or get into the wine business".  So I really had no choice in the matter.   

(Dave) Was Mondavi your first job after Wally’s? 

(Jim) Actually, no.  I left Wally’s to help pick grapes (I was not at all any good at this) and process them (I was better suited to pushing buttons and moving levers) at Schramsberg – where ironically, just two years previously, I was given a bottle of their 1966 Blanc de Blanc Reserve (their first reserve) as a wedding gift.  And to digress even further, we enjoyed that wine (along with a 1951 Beaulieu CS Private Reserve for our first anniversary at Valentino’s) as sort of an L.A. swan-song.  I was recently married, with a university degree and more drive than real experience.  And after experiencing a harvest and living briefly in Napa Valley, I moved away from SoCal and never looked back.

(Dave) How did you get into Mondavi with no production-side experience? 

(Jim) Actually I arrived with two years of experience at six different wineries, including a stint as assistant winemaker at the original Villa Mt Eden (which meant I was able to converse in a sort of winery/vineyard Spanish, analogous to the restaurant/kitchen Spanish I used during my teens) followed by ‘grave shift’ at Domaine Chandon during the harvest of 1979 and when as the sun rose it was ‘day shift’ at Robert Mondavi.  I suppose I was highly motivated, if not a lot more energetic, all those years ago.   

(Dave) You were at Mondavi during the heyday of the brand, while today you are eeking out a living with your own boutique brand.  What story best expresses the difference in resources available to you in those two circumstances? 

(Jim) I have thought about this quite a bit over the last few years and if I had arrived at Mondavi 2-3 years earlier I might have been even more successful during my tenure there, possibly even still working for them.  In those days, Robert was ‘the man’ and enough of an inspiration to me (and probably countless others) to take the plunge. 

I suppose the main difference between that reality and today is I had support from a vast infrastructure and strove to meet production targets while staying within a budget – as opposed to waking up everyday and trying to figure-out how, as an individual, you will successfully walk the razor’s edge of ‘cash flow’ – the humbling force to which most (all?) entrepreneurs submit.  However the freedom of being your own boss (for the most part) more than compensates for not working within a corporate structure (but having affordable medical insurance might be nice for a change).         

(Dave) Do I recall correctly that you led Mondavi’s joint venture with the Frescobaldi family?  How were they chosen over other stalwarts such as Gaja or Antinori? 

(Jim)  Led or followed?  I was the lone voice for Italian cultivars at Mondavi when everybody was clamoring for Syrah or Viognier.  Since I actually knew something about Italian wines and their wine industry, it was something of a ‘no brainer’ to have me involved in the project.  I thought I was important to the project but for all I know, the brass at Mondavi saw me as a Chris Elliot-like ‘Cabin Boy’

How was Frescobaldi chosen?  I was not part of that process but learned after the fact they were quite interested and eager – whereas Antinori was not.  I doubt that Gaja was ever even a consideration, let alone approached.  Remember, most Americans equate Tuscany with Italy and except for gourmands and winelovers – I suspect (pre-Torino Olympics) that Piemonte was only slightly more familiar than Liechtenstein. 

Secondarily, Americans tend to like somewhat simple categorization and can relate to arbitrarily contrived and somewhat meaningless terms like ‘Super Tuscan’ (whether that category is defined by Antinori’s "renegade" Chianti, Tignanello – which is mostly Sangiovese – or wine from Bolgheri like Ornellaia or Sassicia, which are vinified from classic Bordeaux varieties) whereas Nebbiolo is just a little too weird for many or most. 

Anyway, I really like all the Frescobaldi’s and we still have some contact to this day.  However it is unfortunate that this project was never as successful as it might have been.  In fact it tended to point-out many of the weird undercurrents and weaknesses of the enterprise and might have been an unintentional catalyst which caused the eventual unraveling of the Mondavi ’empire’.   

(Dave) You survived the removal of a brain tumor in the late 90’s.  Even though it was non-cancerous, I imagine you still faced the chance you wouldn’t wake up from surgery.  Did this make you re-evaluate anything about your life and career?

(Jim)  I had already starting making my own wine (though in very small quantities).  After the successful surgery it was time to take more control of my life.  Unfortunately, it is probably the only one I will ever know (and in two or three more lifetimes we just might have some really good Nebbiolo here in California and I could make the kind of wine I aspire to make).  So I left Mondavi and went on down the path to ‘fame and glory’.

(Dave) How did you and Randall Graham (of Bonny Doon Vineyard) meet, and how did you come to work for him? 

(Jim)  This is a long (and probably boring) story.   Randall and I had met at a tasting in Westwood in ’74 – I think it was a David Bruce ‘trade tasting’, where he was presenting the first CA Chardonnay (his 1972?) to ever capture my interest.  Until that time, except for the occasional white Burgundy, white wine for me had to be off-dry, if not sweet. 

So he pours this big, rich and oaky monster – it probably looked more like a urine sample than an actual wine, but it made an indelible impression.  Anyway, subsequent to this chance meeting (and around this time) we began to ‘chum it up’ for a few years.  Then he went off (to wherever – first Heidelberg, then UCSC finally ending-up at UCD) and I moved to Napa Valley.  Then beginning around 1985, after he had achieved some relatively swift notoriety for his Rhone-style wines, he approached me and suggested working together to make Italian varietals. 

Nothing professional came out of that encounter.  However we remained in limited contact while I had a day job, bought a house and started having children to raise.  In 1987 I took my oldest daughter (then four years old) camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains, down to the Pinnacles (we stayed at a rustic cabin at Chalone) and wound-up at a friend’s house in Arroyo Grande to surf around Pismo.  During the first leg of this trip I reconnected with Randall and truly became enchanted with the Bonny Doon area – which I had never visited. 

Talks of working together were, in retrospect, motivating and inspiring.  I worked at what was a new generation version of an old guard Napa Valley winery (before it essentially became a CS ‘house of chocolate’, Mondavi did offer a portfolio that included  Riesling, Chenin blanc, Gamay (rouge), Gamay Rose and Moscato – which is still being made today).  Anyway, Randall had a hard time limiting himself to 31 flavors – most of them relatively exotic by Napa standards.  And his interest in Italian wines did pique my curiosity enough that I began a somewhat vigorous investigation into the more contemporary and generally higher quality wines from the ’83 and ’85 vintages – vintages that were in many cases qualitatively much better than the wines from just 10 years earlier. 

Italy had begun a quality evolution/revolution and the strong recent vintages reflected their dramatic success.  So by the time I was ‘primed and ready’ Ca’ del Solo was already underway – but it did not stop me from stopping in and experiencing Bonny Doon’s reality on a periodic basis.

(Dave) What story can you tell that would illustrate the difference in corporate cultures between Bonny Doon and Mondavi. 

(Jim)  Not really a story, more like a quip: if you think of Mondavi as being a Montessori pre-school then Bonny Doon was like The Breakfast Club.  By the time I was ready to depart Mondavi it had devolved into a somnambulant existence for me but it was still over five years until my personal space-craft landed in the Cruz.  And once firmly on the ground there it still felt very much like a strange and wonderful wild ride.

(Dave) OK, enough preamble – tell us about your brand L’Uvaggio di Giacomo.  Breaking it down, I know that "Uva" is "grape" in Italian, so I assume "Uvaggio" is "blend"?  And "Giacomo" is "James"?  So your label is, essentially, "the blend of Jim’s", correct? 

(Jim)  Or as I would say ‘Jim’s wine’.  Though my surname ends in a vowel it is not the right kind – but when I grow-up I do aspire to be an Italian.  But enough joking – if I had it to do all over again I would elect to use a name that is a lot less daunting.  Selling wine with this name has been an education.  And sometimes for fun I do not tell people they are from California and more often than not, they are perceived to be Italian (which I feel is a good thing). 

(Dave) Why did you choose to produce Italian varietals in the U.S. instead of going with grapes better known by American consumers? 

(Jim) Because Americans need to be challenged, not complacent and accepting.  Besides wine is meant to accompany food and for my taste, Italian cultivars are vastly superior to almost anything from France for the simple California-type cuisine, augmented with pasta, that I usually eat. 

While I enjoy Sauvignon blanc and Pinot noir, plus manage to drink an occasional Chardonnay – when would I drink a Cabernet Sauvignon?  Perhaps just at Christmas dinner with prime rib!  In fact at lunch the other day, my companion was joking about how few of the foods we eat in the greater Bay Area are well suited to Cabernet and as the price increases the food pairing opportunities seem to diminish.  So unless one is interested in an adult version of collecting baseball cards – why bother at all with those trophy-type Cabs?      

(Dave) What do you see as the major forces shaping your success in the coming years?

(Jim) A rare and unique combination of stubbornness, zeal, stubbornness, passion and stubbornness.

(Dave) Huh, I always assumed it was your stubbornness.  (Sorry, too easy.)  What are your thoughts on today’s wine industry, dominated by multi-nationals (who produce decent wine at an affordable price) and the explosion of boutique producers crafting wines from the heart?  With the TTB now reporting over 200,000 registered labels, can the boutique producer survive?  Or do you think the direct-sales laws will continue to relax and allow the survival of smaller producers?

(Jim) The effects of consolidation on the distribution channels make it very tough on enterprises such as mine.  How many ‘800 pound gorillas’ are out there commanding the attention of the facilitator (which is basically what distributors do – seldom do they champion a brand and actually get out and sell something with conviction). 

However we might have brought this on ourselves.  We have a global plethora of wine brands at every conceivable price-point which is somewhat the consequence of the ‘big guys’ needing to be all things to all people (and I do not want to get started on the tsunami of inexpensive product emanating from the Southern Hemisphere).  In my experience a ’boutique’ producer needs to be well funded to manage to survive and it helps if it is a second career because then they come at it with some business experience and out of desire. 

One final comment about direct sales – how do those consumer find you?  With a gazillion brands out there you still need reviews, publicity or plain old ‘word of mouth’ – because the chances are they will not stumble across you by accident.

(Dave) Finally, what do you see as the future of the wine industry in the coming decade?  Now that it is more popular than beer, are these the golden years or the beginning of the end?

(Jim) What are you?  Certainly not Gen-X or Gen-Y, an echo boomer or a millennial.  I cannot figure-out my own kids (who were exposed to good wine and food throughout their childhood, had several opportunities to travel to Europe and lived in Italy for a year post high school).  I do what I can and try to avoid being too curmudgeonly.  All I have is some faith, just a little money and limited courage.  I hope for the best and plan to ride it out making wine another 15-20 years – then I will be done.  Besides wasn’t Golden Years a David Bowie song from thirty-years ago?

(Dave) Thanks Jim, I appreciate your time. 
And to our readers, please don’t hesitate to use the comment link, below, to ask Jim a question or post a comment for him.  He’ll reply when he can.

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Swclogogs3x3_10 Cheers!
Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant
Toll Free 866-746-7293

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