Bastille Day With Ken Burnap, pt 1

Ξ July 13th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

For Bastille Day last year I offered an interview with Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac. This year I thought I would honor an American winegrower of the first order, francophile to the core, Ken Burnap, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, one of the most compelling individuals one might hope to meet. Bon vivant, sailor of international waters, winegrower, it is difficult to make clear the the importance of this gentleman, but through his own words. As I said to him at one point “I can’t interview Martin Ray so you’ll have to do”. The laughter!
The cross references Mr. Burnap introduces left my head spinning, as has the Tarlant Zero, Brut Nature Champagne I’ve poured in recent minutes as my tribute to the man. So it has to be that this is but the first of a minimum of a three part interview. We spoke for three hours. We met at the Scotts Valley Hilton owing to a disastrous water break in his second home here on the Central Coast. He spends most of his year in Mexico, more about which later.
Special thanks to Jeff Emery, Ken Burnap’s right-hand man for many years, and current winemaker for Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, for making this interview possible. Without his help none of this would have been possible.
Admin I had a conversation recently, an interview with Neal Rosenthal…
Ken Burnap Oh, Neal! I absolutely adore Neal.
He told me this wonderful story of coming out to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the early part of his career, that he came to your winery and spent quite a bit of time there.
KB Yeah, he actually made several trips up. He’s such a wonderful, sweet guy. I’m sorry, I can’t think of the lady he was with at that time, but she also was very nice and considerate, so much so that the wife and I were going to France, I’m a bit of a francophile, I used to go a lot, almost on a yearly basis for a couple of months, and we had a three hour layover in New York. And Neal, he knows my fondness for a hot pastrami sandwich, he actually went to the Stage Door Deli and got a couple of pastrami sandwiches and brought them out to the airport for us! (laughs) He’s just a really great guy.
I am so pleased to hear that he is still doing what he loves to do. That was a long time ago.
Yes. He’s also farming now. He’s got a little organic farm in Up State New York…
KB Is he?
And he has quite an extensive cellar. He says he may still have some of your early wine, early bottlings from the 70s.
KB Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised.
One thing Jeff Emery made very clear is that you kept an extensive wine library.
KB Yeah. Way back at the beginning of time, David Bruce and I were very close friends. This would be, maybe, in the mid-seventies, I was out there in his winery, which is like a big, expanded metal building, talking to him. We got to talking about his ‘69 Chardonnay which had gotten incredible rave reviews. It was a very different wine. He said “Ah, yeah! I’m sorry we can’t try it. I sold it all.” I asked him didn’t he keep any for himself? He said “No, no. Ken, that’s your problem; when you start your own winery you’re going to have to learn to sell wine. You just want to hand on to them, never sell them.” He didn’t keep hardly anything at all.
But I think maybe times have changed, maybe he started to keeping a little reference library later on. But in the early days there was nothing. My first Pinot Noir was the ‘75. And it got great reviews, I mean, really, they looked like they were written by my mother. I think I kept a third of the entire vintage…
And how much was that? How many cases?
KB 200 cases!
You kept a third of 200 cases?
KB Yeah. And I still have some ‘75 Pinot in my library now.
Extraordinary! It’s quite sad they don’t often do that in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They have no idea how their wines develop. They don’t completely understand themselves as winemakers; that only comes out in the long term.
KB You know, I’ve got so many issues with the way the wine business is today it drives me nuts. But one of the things that made it easy for me was that I was a wine collector, a wine nut, forever, ever since I was 18 or 17 years old. I had been saving wines for a long time. So, when I built the winery I deliberately built a fairly large space to store bottles in a very damp and cold environment (laughs) that were meant to be there forever. It was easy for me to save wines. It’s not that easy for some people.
In building the winery, being a contractor, you did the work.
KB Yeah. Well, no. Yes, I was a contractor but not a worker. My next door neighbor was a general contractor. I was in mechanical construction. I built things like breweries and chemical plants, that sort of thing. But my next door neighbor, Charlie Fair, up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was an honest, legitimate general building contractor for houses and that sort of thing. So, I asked Charlie to build it for me. I designed it. He built it.
How was it you came up with the design? Did you study winery construction? Or were you working principally with gravity?
KB Yes. I started out with the fact that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It’s so funny. When you’re that age you’re so sure you know absolutely everything, no one knows how to do it but you! (laughs) So I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I had been in love with wine for probably ten years before I ever actually discovered great wines.
The ones you stocked The Hobbit with, for example?
KB Yeah! That was an incredible wine list. I’ll bounce around here and say that I started the Hobbit with a friend of mine who was a chef. We built that restaurant because we were both really disgusted with the way the restaurant business was going, especially fine restaurants, was going at that time. Everything was becoming portioned controlled, the hollandaise was coming out of a Rycoff #10 can, that sort of thing.
There were three couples that were all food and wine oriented, and we did a lot of traveling together. We went to places to try restaurants and wine. One of us owned a restaurant. Ron and Dani. They were a very sweet couple. He had learned the restaurant business working for and in Chuck’s of Hawaii Steakhouse. They had the original salad bar thing out front with a big grill where people could watch. The waiters wore Hawaiian shirts and very tight, cut-off shorts. It was a very popular concept; the steakhouse was sort of born there and came to the [continental] U.S. And Ron and Dani had a steakhouse. Howard was the cook, chef, and I was the wine guy.
Most of our little trips we’d take together, and we go to some great restaurant in San Francisco or Napa Valley or wherever we were. And we spent a couple of hours telling Ron what was wrong with his restaurant, why he wasn’t doing it the way it should be done. He was a pretty sweet guy; he just kept taking it and taking it. Finally, one night we were in San Francisco setting at a bar in the Fairmont Hotel at about two o’clock in the morning, drinking Cognac. He said “I’m sick and tired of hearing you two guys tell me how I should run my restaurant. If you know so goddamn much just start your own restaurant!” We both said “Well, we’re going to do that!” The next morning we woke up both expecting the other one to say that was a silly thing to say last night. But we didn’t. We got goaded into starting it.
The restaurant [The Hobbit] is going today, very successful. Howard and I had the restaurant for about a year and a half. I decided I wanted to grow grapes and make wine, and to do that in California you have to have something called a Winegrower’s License, and the Tied House restrictions written into the law, California law in the late 30s. A winegrower’s license will not be issued to the holder of any other beverage license. And I had a wine license in the restaurant. Incidentally, I just quoted you the entire law. It was one very short paragraph; now it takes about 6 pages because of all the exceptions. Domaine Chandon got the first exception. If you had enough money and a good attorney you could eventually get an exception.
Anyway, to do what I wanted to do with the grapes and the wine I had to sell my interest in the restaurant. I did. That’s why I’m no longer with the restaurant. But we would go to restaurants, really good restaurants that had maybe 10 wines. They’d have a bubbly wine, a rosé, a couple of whites and a couple of reds. They had bin numbers, you know, bin #76, bin #123; right at the bottom of the list there’d be a little thing that said “Please order the wine by bin number”. The waitstaff couldn’t even cope with you saying ‘Chablis’. So when we opened The Hobbit we had 250 wines on the list. We had about 25 sparkling wines, about 25 fortified wines, Ports, and the rest of them were still table wines.
The other thing that irritated me was that anybody can have a great wine list, a lot of restaurants did back in those days. So you’d ask “Well, we’d like to have the ‘66 this or that.” “Oh! We’re sold out of that. I really recommend our house red.” They’d just make up these wine lists with all these great wines on it, none of which they’d ever owned. But they were so expensive they didn’t think anybody would ever ask for them. They just wanted people to say “Oh, look at the great wines they’ve got!”
Anyway, we had a deal at The Hobbit. I bought a xerox machine, it was in the cellar, we had a full cellar, one corner of it was the office; down in the office was some master sheets for the wine list. If we ran out of a wine nobody went home until they changed the master sheet. We never, ever told a customer “I’m sorry, we don’t have that wine.” In fact, we had a standing rule that if someone ordered a wine that we couldn’t bring up out of the cellar the next wine they ordered was free. It came out of the tip jar of the waitstaff. They were the ones who were supposed to maintain the wine list. (laughs) We had it up to date!
We loved the restaurant, we loved doing what we were doing. We were in Orange County. We’d actually close the restaurant at night, go the Chez Cary, which was the only restaurant that served drinks after mid-night in Orange County (laughs), and drink until 2 o’clock, and then get in a van and drive to the produce market for the produce. Because we were doing it as a labor of love, right? I mean, obviously, you can’t do that now. About a year later, o.k., the produce was being delivered to the restaurant. (laughs) But that’s the way it was when we started.
I believe Alice Waters does something similar to that now. At Chez Panisse, In Berkeley. They grow vegetables on their grounds. Funnily enough, it’s an old model that’s suddenly new again. Not a model so much as a way of life, now seen as cutting edge.
KB Alice… I can’t remember the guy’s name, the consummate chocolate freak, and his house was at the top of the Berkeley Hills, directly up from Chez Panisse. You could look out the other side of his house and see everything. It was an incredible location. He had a fairly steep property, but with a little bit of terracing. And Alice was a friend of his. She grew vegetables on his property. An incredible chocolate freak, this guy.
I was introduced to him by Joe Swan. Do you know Joe?
KB Do you know his wines?
Uh, no I don’t.
KB Oh, god. Well, o.k. (laughs) Anyway, Joe had a winery, he made wine under his house in Sonoma County, along the Russian River. He was absolutely brilliant. He made fabulous wines. He loved Pinot Noir. We were at his house one day talking about chocolate. He said “You gotta meet this guy in Berkeley.” Alice Waters was very close to Joe. “If we’re going to Berkeley we’ll have dinner with Alice.” Joe made a few phone calls. “We’re going to spend the night with the chocolate guy.” He didn’t say ‘the chocolate guy’, I just can’t remember his name right now. So we got there about 3 in the afternoon. We moved into our little spare rooms, and he said he’d like to make something special to have after we come back from the restaurant. We said that’d be great. He asked “Do have any particular type of chocolate you like?” I say it’s all good. A pretty stupid thing to say to him! So we went down his hallway. He opened up a vault door. I thought we were going into a wine cellar. Inside was this room that was completely temperature and humidity controlled. It had bins, 20 to 40, about 14 inch square. And each bin had a clear plastic bag, a big one, and in those bags were huge chunks of chocolate that had been broken off of a block that obviously had been one foot square. And the bins were labeled by the country of origin and the year! If you think that the Sumatra dark chocolate from ‘96 was better than the one from ‘74, you could get into an argument with this guy, and he’d make you a delicious chocolate mousse of both of them. Can you believe that? (laughs) It blew my mind. To me, it all tasted good.
It was like my first wife. She never met a bottle of bad wine. When we first started getting involved with wines, I was, like, about 18. We were in San Antonio, Texas. You could go to our big local liquor store and they had barrels of bottles of wine, any bottle in this barrel you could buy for 65 cents; it was a long time ago. I bought Chateau Latour for a buck eighty-five. I’ve got some in my cellar today that still have the price on it! (laughs) It was a different time.
Texas, I didn’t realize this until many years later when I was actually in the wine business, and I’m talking to some big distributor, they say that Texas was a ‘dump state’. I said what’s a ‘dump state’? They said they import these wines to the Eastern Seaboard. The market was in Boston, New York, Washington D.C. Sometimes they didn’t all sell. After about three vintages people won’t touch them. If the ‘67 is still there, and the ‘68 and the ‘69 have sold out, they won’t buy the ‘67. So they had to sell them at any price, but they have to sell them in a market that the people on the Eastern Seaboard that bought most of these wines, back in those days the stuff never got to California, they have to sell them in a market that they don’t realize the bottle they paid $30 for is selling in Texas for $5. So they called it a ‘dump state’. You’d take the expensive wines you couldn’t sell and dump them into Texas and sell them. Here I was, fat, dumb and happy, buying off-years of Chateau Latour for a buck seventy!
I had a conversation with Jack Keller, one of America’s premier home-winemaking authorities, a great guy. He moved to Texas where he currently lives. He said that when he began drinking wine, when he was a young man, it was pretty much frowned upon. No one there could draw the distinction between good wine and bad wine, and that he would have to sneak his empty bottles into his garbage bin late in the evening so that people wouldn’t see him putting wine bottles into the trash.
KB It was a real stigma in the neighborhood. You could have a can full of Jack Daniels bottles or Early Times bourbon whiskey, but wine bottles were a real stigma. It’s interesting you said that because that’s exactly what my wife would do. She’d put them [wine bottles] in sacks with other things, and we’d put them kind of in the middle of the [trash] can and put stuff on top of them. That was only in Texas. We moved from Texas to California, here it was perfectly acceptable to have a lot of empty wine bottles in your trash! (laughs) That’s odd.
End of part 1 Please read Part 2 and Part 3.


One Response to ' Bastille Day With Ken Burnap, pt 1 '

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  1. on July 12th, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Ken, you and I did a lot of work in the hills of Santa Susanna, good old Rocketdyne. Do you remember those days?

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