Ξ May 14th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine Bars |
It was my distinct pleasure to interview Patrice Boyle, owner of Soif, a relatively new but now well-established wine bar in downtown Santa Cruz. I’ve known of her, seen her around the shop, for a few years. But familiarity is often lazy, as I was to find out when I sat down with her. Turns out I didn’t know anything about her at all.
I didn’t know she had been the General Manager of Bonny Doon for a dozen years, years during which the winery was to grow from a modest 8,000 case production to well over 40,000 in the early years of her tenure. I didn’t know that she and her former husband use to own a well-regarded winery, one of the early ones, in Paso Robles, back when it was a sleepy cow town. The things you learn with but a simple question…
As with my earlier interview with J-P Correa of VinoCruz I learned much from her. Moreover, I couldn’t help but reflect how startling it is that a few short years ago Santa Cruz had neither establishment available. The spectrum of fine wines now available within blocks of one another is a marvel. And there is virtually no overlap in inventory between the two. Each shop has its specific specialities and strengths the other would not be able to match. For the consumer the benefits are sublime.
Admin Hi. Could you tell us your name and tell us about your wine background? What do you think of that?!
Patrice Boyle Well, that’s one way of starting! My name is Patrice Boyle. My wine background? I’m pretty old so it’s very long, quite in depth. I really became interested in wine just after graduating high school, which is fairly common for a lot of Americans.
When the drinking age was 18…
PB No this was pre-prohibition (laughs). The drinking age was 21 but I went away to college, I went to Santa Clara University. While I was there the president of the university was Tom Terry [1968-1976], a Jesuit, who was also the winemaker at Novitiate Winery, the Jesuit’s winery. For some reason that sort of sparked some interest.
I was also living on my own and I started cooking a lot more. I’ve always liked to cook. I just became interested in wine. When other people were more interested in drinking gallons of red mountain wine or whatever, I was interested in Spanish wines, different things. There was a liquor store or a wine shop between the campus and my apartment and I used to stop there, of course I was under age, but they still sold wine to me, (laughs) maybe because I wasn’t buying vodka or something like that. But I really like to cook and the opportunity to include wine with the meal was great.
Of my background, my parents did not drink at all. I didn’t have any exposure to any kind of alcohol growing up. So it was kind of a remake of the taste world, if you will, for me, just after graduating high school.
Did you also learn about winemaking itself?
PB No, not at all. Just wine drinking. I graduated from college with a degree in 20th century Music Theory which has everything to do with wine! I got married and my ex-husband and I moved to Davis. He was enrolled in the Viticulture program and I was getting a Masters degree in Music History at Sacramento State.
PB More World music, although there was a big emphasis on Western. I gradually became more interested in the wine scene. I was auditing classes at Davis in viticulture and oenology. When he graduated we moved to Healdsburg, California. I effectively quit school. I hadn’t finished my Masters program and there was no way of completing it. So I started working. Then, in 1980, we moved to Paso Robles and started our own winery, Martin Brothers Winery. Then Paso Robles had a population of about 5,000. We bought an old dairy, a defunct, old dairy, planted 40 acres of vineyard, and rebuilt the barn into a winery.
PB It was on the Eastside of town. We had Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc… some others. It was really great. It was learning about wine from the ground up. I put in irrigation pipe, I planted vines, trained vines and pruned vines, I picked grapes and I punched down, shoveled out tanks, and then I sold wine after we had some wine to sell. It was really fun. Even at that point I was interested in Italian wines. We started making Nebbiolo probably in 1982. We were buying fruit from the Sierra Foothills, not the best place to buy Nebbiolo, but it was a fun experiment. Gary Gott had been making Nebbiolo 10 or 15 years earlier than that, and had quit trying. The Nebbiolo was never, in my opinion, what it should be. But it was a lot of fun.
Then we split up in 1987.
I notice you have a lot of organic and biodynamic wines in the shop. How were you farming?
PB We were farming at that point very conventionally. I didn’t know very much about organic farming, or anything, really. But I have to admit that I was dismayed with what would get sprayed around the place, partly because I lived there! I could see what was going on. And it wasn’t particularly nice. We were fortunate, though, in having a fairly clean vineyard anyway. We didn’t need to use all that much.
Nick Martin and I split up in ‘87 and I went to Italy. The night before I left, Randall Grahm, whom I had known from UC Davis, called me and asked if I would like a job up in Bonny Doon. He needed a General Manager and was I interested in coming up. Ironically, I had more experience than Randall at that point because I had a 10,000 case winery and he only had an 8,000 case winery! (laughs) So I told him I was leaving the next morning. And he said that if I really wanted to work at Bonny Doon I should go to France. But I was going to Italy. I told him we would talk.
What did the name Randall Grahm mean in those days?
PB He was just a friend. I remember reading his first newsletter, my favorite still, it’s called ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’. It’s really a wonderful newsletter. He took text from reviews that Robert Parker had given him and morphed it into Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. And it was hysterical. It was great. I love Joyce, I love Ulysses, so I really liked it.
So he said when I came back I could work there. I returned about four months later and started working at Bonny Doon.
Had you fallen in love with someone in Italy? (laughs)
PB Well, actually, yes. (laughs) It was in Italy that I met Marc De Grazia. I had talked to Gerald Weisal of Weimax Wines and Spirits in Burlingame. Great, great shop. Gerald has a huge knowledge of all sorts of wines, certainly the wines of Italy. Alexia Moore had introduced him to me, or me to him. I’d known Alexia since the late 70s. She was selling wine for Lambert Bridge which is where Nick Martin had worked, he was the winemaker there. So when I left Paso Robles and went to Italy, she said I had to meet Gerald, and Gerald said I had to look up Marc De Grazia. And I did when I went to Florence. I became friends with him and his wife. He introduced me to a lot of the Barolo producers. It was a very nice way of getting to know some of those people.
But when I came back to Santa Cruz, and to Bonny Doon, Randall was still more interested in Rhone varieties. He was right in the middle of the Cigare, the Sophist, the Clos de Gilroy, all those wines which were terrific as well. I love those grapes. I love Southern Rhone, I love Gamay.
So you never set foot in France on your trip?
PB I went to France for a weekend to see my brother-in-law. (laughs) We were up in the Loire, which I love. I’m a slooow traveler. I was in Italy for four months and never got south of Sienna. Since then I’ve been in Italy almost every year, to see friends, vacation.
And so began the work at Bonny Doon.
PB And so began the work at Bonny Doon. It was a great adventure. One of the nice things about Bonny Doon was that there was no script. Randall didn’t know what he was doing next. It was very spontaneous. For a person who has a fairly large capacity for responsibility, to make sure things got done, and also very curious, like I am, it was great. It was a chance to learn a lot. It was a lot of work, crazy hours!
And it got bigger and bigger…
PB When I was there, the 12, 13 years I was there, we grew on average 23% every year on average. Psycho! Just keeping a staff when you’re growing at that rate is difficult. And making sure everyone is talking to each other for all the stuff that has to happen, the legal issues, distribution issues, production issues, all of it… it was crazy. I didn’t have any kind of background for that. I had plenty of experience for a 10,000 case winery but in two years we were at 20,000 cases, in three years we were at 40,000 cases… it’s nuts!
How do you account for his success?
PB I think it was at a time when the wine business was really exploding. The market conditions in some ways couldn’t have been better. The early 90s were tough for alot of people from a business standpoint. There was certainly a downturn in the economy, but generally speaking, the wine business was just getting better and better. Randall was getting more and more press. People were so enamored of his ideas about wine. He was discovering, sort of discovering, bringing to the popular market, all of these different varieties. People were just set to discover stuff, and he was the person who did it.
Someone said to me, “Oh, Randall’s just a marketer.” I would agree with that but in the best of all possible ways. He is very adept at getting people to understand where he’s coming from, and joining him in this great discovery. If that’s marketing then fine, that’s great. He’s really, really good at that. It translated into notoriety, good sales, all those sorts of things. That’s not a bad thing. He advanced the level of wine knowledge in the United States tremendously, certainly of the consuming public. Discovery is great.
After Bonny Doon did you immediately go into retail?
PB No. I was at Bonny Doon until about 2000, maybe the Spring of ‘99. I decided to leave because I wanted to do something else. The winery was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and Randall wanted the winery to get bigger and bigger. I didn’t want to be part of that. I wanted to have something that was small. I thought we could make more money and do a better job with fewer cases of wine and fewer wines. At one point we had 36 to 42 different labels. It was crazy. And, for me, the discovery and excitement was great but it was also crazy-making because nothing was ever as good as I thought it could be. Nothing. I wanted things to be better, to be more manageable. I didn’t want to be on this track of getting bigger and bigger. I wanted ’small’.
So I decided to leave. And it was really wrenching for about 5 days. (laughs) I then took a great trip to India. Then to France where I drove all over the place. Andrew Rich is a dear friend and had been one of the winemakers at Bonny Doon. He has Andrew Rich Wines, which is a great winery, a great label. I’ve been trying to talk him into making a Chenin Blanc because he could make great Chenin Blanc. Nobody in Oregon is growing great Chenin Blanc, as far as I can tell or he’s just decided that it would never sell, one of the two. We spent time in Loire. We visited with Didier Dagueneau. We ended up in Bordeaux for VinExpo. Bonny Doon used to rent this beautiful manor house. It had a swimming pool, a pool table, a piano, it was really fun.
Then I started to look for different things to do. I had been thinking for a long time about opening a wine bar. I decided to open a wine bar mostly from a selfish standpoint because I wanted the wines that I wanted to have be in Santa Cruz. And they weren’t in Santa Cruz. Having been in Bonny Doon there is a great deal of curiosity about every other wine. There is no such thing as ‘cellar palate’ there, I don’t think so.
I was really interested in tasting lots and lots of different things, finding different things, that’s exciting.
And the financing? Did you present a business plan to a bank?
PB No. It’s self-financed.
From the proceeds of your musical books and records?
PB Yeah, right. (laughs) From all the money I made at Bonny Doon…. Woo-hoo! I’m sort of conservative financially. I managed to eek it out.
When we opened it was very well received, and is kind of a success, much to our surprise. Certainly to me. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never been in the restaurant business; it’s crazy, psycho opening something like this.
Six weeks before we opened I said “Hey, we had better get a cook.” (laughs) So we hired this fellow named Michael Knowles who had worked up at Postrio He was really great. Then Chris Avila came along. He’d been working at Manresa and Theo’s. Our food aesthetic is very in sync. There’s no foam, no deconstructed food, the food is simple but the flavors are very intense. And we don’t make architectural food so high you’d need a building permit.
If we are successful I think it’s partly because there is a holistic approach to eating and drinking. There is a very specific aesthetic. There is a certain synergy that happens between the food and wine. We want food that goes with wine not wine that goes with food.
Can you tell me about how you select the wines?
PB Oh, gosh! I am constantly apologizing to people when I don’t know all the wines in the shop. I tell them I’m drinking as much as I can. (laughs) What I wanted here are the wines that I liked, that I wanted to drink. Generally, these are wines that have to be sought out, they’re wines that are not everyday wines, though they are certainly great for drinking everyday. But they’re not your standard Cabernet, Chardonnay, Zinfandel or even Pinot Noir. We have all of those wines, but we’re really interested in wines that have provenance.
I really think that if you look at the Old World, Italy, France, Spain, Austria and Germany, even Switzerland, the winemaking areas there, people have maintained the old varieties. These are varieties that have evolved in very particular geographic settings to make very particular wines. Wines there are really integrated with the whole way of living in that specific area. So the wines here have great provenance. They are very particular wines. Idiosyncratic. They are not like every other Chardonnay or every other Sauvignon. And they are made by particular people with a strong concept of what they are doing in a particular place for a long time.
In the United States the history of wine is much shorter. Wines are much newer. But even so there are people with a deep understanding of their particular place and of what they’re doing. They are real pioneers. There is so much space in California, Oregon and Washington that it will be centuries before everything is worked out. People are nevertheless making great wines here. Certainly here in Santa Cruz.
There is a huge spectrum of Old World/New World expressions here in the shop.
I noticed a large number of biodynamic wines here. What is it about biodynamic that attracts you?
PB The whole idea of being able to produce wine in a way that is sustainable is great. I think biodynamic methods and organic methods both are really important for winemaking. Winegrowing can be terrifically degrading to the environment. It’s a distinct pleasure for me that we can be representing wines and drinking wines that are not environmentally degrading. We do the same thing with the food here. It’s all local. The seafood we serve is all Seafood Watch approved, and our customers appreciate it.
Before I started Soif I traveled around California, and looked in Oregon as well, thinking I would like to start a vineyard, get back into the business. I looked at these beautiful places and I thought, we don’t need another vineyard. There are so many out there. Do we really want to terrace this beautiful hillside? Do we really want to take out all of this wildlife habitat? Maybe not. Having biodynamic and organic wines here gives back to these growers who are growing wine in such a respectful, natural way.
A final thought?
PB Yes. Americans don’t usually save wine, they don’t buy wines by the case and save it for years and years. By finding unusual wines and old wines especially, we are giving people a chance to look at these old wines and see what they are like after 10 or 15 years. That is a huge pleasure for me.
Thank you, Patrice. It’s been a pleasure.
PB Thank you.