John Thoreen

John Thoreen


Interviewer: Claire Scalzo
Date of interview: 9/12/2016

Claire Scalzo: This is Claire Scalzo. I’m pleased to welcome John Thoreen, who I am interviewing on behalf of the St. Helena Historical Society’s Oral History Program. We are conducting this interview at 10:20 on September 12, 2016, at 497 Crane Avenue, St. Helena, California. Welcome, John. Can you begin by telling us where you were born and when you first came to the St. Helena area?

John Thoreen: Sure. Claire, it’s a pleasure to chat with you about that. Though I’m qualified, but I’m historically not deep, because I’ve only lived here for 40 years, but I think through a pretty interesting time in the development of the Napa Valley from one thing, which let’s say the old timers like and sort of worship and want to preserve still, and then sort of the global growth of the wine business here, which leads in California not quantitatively. In fact, the Napa Valley only makes four or five percent of the wine in California, but in image wise and familiarity globally, Napa is the cat’s meow. Even our friends in Sonoma don’t get the same prices for their grapes, but they’re friends. In any case, that part I think I can shed some light on.

I started off in Minnesota, born in a little town called Albert Lea and went through a series of little towns in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin, actually two in Wisconsin, so I’m a solid Midwesterner, and if you know the historian and the comedian, both, Garrison Keillor, like him I was born in Lake Wobegon, a generic, small, midwestern town, and people often say in Napa Valley, “What? You were born in Minnesota? How could you get interested in wine? You can’t grow grapes in frigid weather.” Well, I just remind them that people like Robert Mondavi was born in Minnesota, and if Robert can do it, so can I. Of course, he was Italian.

After education in the Midwest and up in the University of Washington, I went to work teaching humanities at art institutes. Last teaching job was at the San Francisco Art Institute, where we had moved in the late ‘60s. Loved San Francisco, but once we had our first child, we stopped using San Francisco for what San Francisco offers and decided, well, we should probably move to the country. Happened to take a bike ride for five days, one leg of which came through the Napa Valley, and that sort of long story made short was how we first got a tug and a pull, but we had also spent some time in France and learned the pleasures of simple plain wine with lunch and dinner, and when we saw the beauties of Napa and the almost French approach to drinking wine, it was not a big decision to try to find a place here, and so after some false starts we did, and we moved here in 1973.

In any case, in a roundabout way but by good luck I got a job in the Napa Valley at Sterling Vineyards, and it happened to be working in the tasting room on the day it opened to the public, which was in 1973, and that was sort of a landmark time pointing to what I mentioned earlier about the globalization, because Sterling Vineyard was guarded by two men, Peter Newton, a Brit, and Michael Stone, an American, who had an international paper trading company with offices in Hong Kong and London, and they simply were people who thought globally. Michael was I think secretary — under Secretary of Defense, and he and Newton partnered in that business paper, looked around, both loved wine.

Newton in particular loved Bordeaux and in particular chateaus in Bordeaux, very Oxfordian. He decided to build a winery in the Napa Valley and did so as people know who has been here, and people can find out quickly when they get here, built a sort of Grecian castle, sort of like they have in Crete, a white building on top of a hill, a fortress almost, and he came up with the novel idea of getting people, visitors, up to the winery by using a tramway, and so it was built as a kind of tourist attraction aimed at selling wine. That was pretty new then, but now it’s kind of the way everybody does it.

Claire Scalzo: I think it was startling at that time.

John Thoreen: Well, yes, startling. In fact, at dinner parties when I would be introducing myself to, you know, people around the table, and I mentioned I happened to work at Sterling Vineyards. “Oh, what’s it like to work at Disneyland North?” Well, I think it didn’t take too long to get past the Disneyland North thing, because both of my sons had their high school proms up at Sterling Vineyards, and for them it’s not Disneyland North, it’s prom night, you know. Let’s sneak some beer up on the hillside, and it’s amazing how America generally is adaptive of new things, although there are always conservatives and resistors, and still a strong contingent of people who, I don’t know if they resent Sterling anymore, but there are plenty of newer places to resent.

The fact is though that it started a trade of Napa wine in a global way, even though — and some people don’t know, many people don’t know, you know, we make a big deal of winning the prize at Paris in 1986, I think it was, where Napa wines beat French wines in a competition with French judges, while Inglenook had one competition in Paris in I think 1875, so it wasn’t the first time the Napa Valley looked good in a global and particularly French situation.

That’s much older history and plenty of good sources for that, including probably the best is a book by a friend of mine, Charles Sullivan. He’s written two editions of Napa Wine, and it’s available in public libraries. It’s a thick real textbook, and there are other more casual histories written by local people, so you can find plenty of history in writing, and these archives that the library will have, like the one we’re doing, are also available by request.

In any case, Sterling was an interesting place, because it had a lot of interesting visitors, including Prince Charles came once upon a time, and Peter was obviously in great shapes that day. And, for me, it was a stepping stone, because coming out of being an educator and humanities professor at art schools, it was natural to talk about wine as an art form, although I did that very carefully, because, you know, everybody who does anything like a craft could say, oh, you know, I’m an artist at changing tires or I’m an artist at baking bread or I’m an artist at — and it goes on and on, so while there are aspects of wine making that are as demanding as being a fine artist, most of wine making, internationally, globally, millions and millions of gallons are just food processing. They’re not art at all. Some of the wine is made and not even smelled before it’s put in the bottle, so there’s a wide range of product, but Napa happily is sort of home to real artful winemaking, and a lot of expense.

The vineyards across the street that we’re looking at getting ready for the harvest are gone through probably 10 to 12 times a season by hand laborers, and what we can see from here are nettings, shade cloth actually tied by hand on all the rows in order to protect the grapes from excessive sun. If we have a problem as almost too much sun, and it takes a huge amount of labor to do all of this hand work. That’s part of the artistry. In some places, Australia, they do pruning mechanically. Most pruning is done here by hand.

Claire Scalzo: I assume that’s one of the things that makes Napa wine so exceptional, the attention to detail.

John Thoreen: The attention to detail, absolutely, Claire. And when the grapes are picked, they’re picked selectively and when they’re brought to the winery. They used to be brought in great three and four- and five-ton gondolas and dumped sloshing juice and everything else into the fermenter. These days they’re in individual boxes, and the boxes are put on a conveyor and then sorted by hand, maybe twice before they go into the first machine that breaks them open, and the level of detailing is incredible, which the bulk producers could never afford to do, so while the wines of Napa and the coastal counties generally are careful like this are expensive, it’s because the costs are real, and nicely enough, the demand is there. The wine sales are growing nicely now.

Claire Scalzo: John, what were your beginning and fondest memories of working at Sterling?

John Thoreen: Well, for me, it’s pretty clearly the involvement with visitors. You know, for better or for worse, this incorrigible teacher, you know, before I got out of high school, I was a teaching assistant in chemistry, and then I was a crazy nerd in chemistry in college before I became a philosophy student, and I was a teaching assistant in philosophy. Then I went to graduate school in medieval and renaissance literature, and I taught freshman English at the University of Washington, and so being a teacher, it was just great to basically give tours, but giving tours at Sterling was sort of a special — well, San Francisco Artist Institute where I last taught sits up on Russian Hill, and Sterling sitting up on its hill was a little bit of that feeling. You’re taking people around a winery, but not just another winery, so that’s a very fond memory.

And then getting involved with the food business. These days one of the big phrases, and there are seminars devoted to what’s called DTC, direct to consumer, which now a huge amount of Napa Valley wine is sold that way. Peter Newton had the crazy idea that he could make 100,000 cases of wine, which is not a large production winery, medium-sized, but sell it all direct from the winery cutting out the middlemen, and therefore, with low production being very profitable. Well, he was laughed at and he was wrong, because people would come to Sterling and maybe buy a bottle or two, and so some of his frustrations we worked out a little bit by starting a program — in fact, Peter Newton and I did some of the first DTC in the Napa Valley, because we would get a chef to come, and we would look at — these days it’s all done by computer, but we looked at sales records, and anytime we found someone who actually purchased a whole case, their name went on a list, and they got an invitation to come to these special programs that we would do all day long on a Saturday or a Sunday or both, where we’d start in the morning with a tour of maybe the library, the wine library, and taste all the wines, and then go up and have a cooking class with the chef, and then the chef and I would do a dog and pony show over lunch, and you know, have six or eight or ten wines with lunch, and lo and behold, these one case buyers turned into five case buyers, and sometimes ten case buyers, so we were doing that and as that obviously became more intense than the regular tour of 20 people or 30 people, the pleasures for me working with smaller groups, almost like graduate seminars, increased, and they got more out of it.

Claire Scalzo: It sounds like it was one of the first wine clubs.

John Thoreen: I’d say that’s a good possibility. I know that across the road Diamond Creek had a kind of very casual wine club, but yeah, I guess you could say it was perhaps the beginning of something like that, and now most wineries have four or five clubs, a white wine club, a red wine club, a Zinfandel club, a sparkling wine club, and it’s a whole new avenue for selling these high end wines, but after a little while I got a little tired of giving tours because, you know, no matter how hard you try, you tend to get a set speech, and if you’ve ever had the experience of going with a tour guide who has been doing it for 20 years, it’s like a tape recorder, and as soon as that started happening, if I didn’t come up with some new phrase or new joke on every tour, I would really be disappointed.

Well, I finally said I should be doing something else, and I’d been making wine with the instruction of Rick Foreman who was Sterling’s first winemaker. He taught me how to make wine and very good wine. I worked with some grapes from a special vineyard called Three Palms Vineyard. When they had leftover grapes, what’s called second crop, I would get second crop from the owners, Sloan and John Upton, and make two or three barrels in the basement of our house. So that’s like 150 gallons of wine, which is quite a bit for one family or even three families.

Claire Scalzo: And very good wine.

John Thoreen: Finally, we said tasting it with winemakers, maybe we could do it commercially, so I became a little bit of a commercial winemaker, and I invented a name for the wine called Solaterra: sun, sol, terra, earth, because Three Palms Vineyard is an unusual combination of heat to the north, the warm end of the Napa Valley, but there is no soil. It’s all rocks. I mean, 60 feet deep, rocks, tremendous drainage, so it’s like the Rhone Valley in France more than it is like any other corner of Napa Valley, and so we did make a commercial wine, about 1500 cases, and it got good reviews, but by that time Sterling had been sold to first Coca Cola. Get that, Coca Cola gets into the wine business in the late 80’s, mid to late 80’s, and they didn’t last very long in the wine business, even though I consulted for their advertising agency, and one time went to New York to see a preview of a commercial for canned wine. It had a young stud walking down a dock in a marina with a six pack of wine in cans, and he was throwing it out to beautiful girls on the ship.

Claire Scalzo: How did that —

John Thoreen: That product never made it to the marketplace. Now there are new wines being canned all the time. There was an article in the paper last week about, hey, canned wine is coming along. It came along a long time ago, but it didn’t last very long. And then it was sold to Seagram, and they loved the grapes from Three Palms Vineyard. I was making Pinot Noir, which never should have been planted up there anyway, and they said, “Would you just please cut the heads off those vines and convert them to Merlot?” which they did.

Claire Scalzo: At Three Palms?

John Thoreen: At Three Palms, and so Sloan and John and I were out of the wine business in one afternoon. The lines were chopped off and butted, grafted you could say over to another variety. So I had a stint for a few years as a winemaker, and where I made the wine I met a guy named Bill Harlan, who was making his first wines for the winery he would call Merryvale next to my barrels, and we literally got to know one another over the barrels, and he also owned, not to innocently owned a resort, Meadowood, and he asked me, since he heard I was a teacher, “We were thinking about doing wine education at Meadowood. Would you like to come and do wine education for us?”

So, after a few months I ended up creating Meadowood’s Wine Center, and that’s what I did then for essentially 20 years. 1986 to 2005, I was the Director of Meadowood’s Wine Center doing dinners and tastings and tours and inventing programs for corporations, law firms, doctors, retreats, high end people who wanted to get quickly into the real heart of Napa Valley wine, so the teacher in me had a 20-year challenge, and I was a happy person.

Claire Scalzo: And did you do special tours to wineries and vineyards, as well as dinners and tastings?

John Thoreen: Special tours to wineries, yeah, and usually wineries off the beaten track. In those days, to do what I did, because I also bought the wines from Meadowood, it was impossible not to know almost all the wine makers. In fact, if I’d met a person who said he was a winemaker, I said, “Why don’t I know you?” Now it’s impossible to know all the winemakers, absolutely impossible. Last guess I heard was that there were 800 wineries in the Napa Valley. When we came up here there were about 30, and wow, what a change, but yeah, I would buy wine from people and then say, “Do you mind if I bring some guests over?” And so usually our tour guide was the owner, and we would get into tasting out of the barrels, or a cluster of owners would come down to Meadowood and do a dinner that I would MC so to speak and introduce them and let them talk about their wines and talk about their wines with the guests, and no matter what kind of tasting I did, it was important for me to engage the people.

My job was not to tell the people what these wines were supposed to taste like. I would force them to tell me what they tasted in the wine, and then I would promote arguments between and among — it was real fun with law firms, because you can get some real shit disturbing going on between different people for who — what? You thought that wine tasted like cherries? I thought it tasted like horseradish. You have no palate at all.

Claire Scalzo: Especially after a couple glasses of wine.

John Thoreen: Yeah, after a couple glasses or more. Actually, usually that eased the pain. It was the first couple tastes maybe that hurt the most. So, it was a lot of fun. If I didn’t come home feeling like I’d had fun — it was a little bit like those tours — I did something wrong. I still keep in touch with a lot of those people, but I also eventually — 20 years of doing something like that is enough.

Claire Scalzo: But very memorable.

John Thoreen: Yeah. No — it’s interesting to go back as I did a couple weeks ago for a friend’s 80th birthday. It was held on the lawn at Meadowood. It happened to be the same lawn on which I had conducted probably 400 tastings over the years, and it was like, you know, going back in history. It was strange, but pretty much fun.

And now I sort of enjoy watching the wine business develop from the sideline, because it’s become global as I’ve said several times, and with 800 wineries, if that’s the right number — nobody knows for sure, because there are physical wineries that you can drive up to and visit and say hello to somebody who owns the place or at least is willing to show you around, and then there are paper wineries that have no winery, that have no vineyard. It’s totally legal to buy some grapes from a grower and hire a winemaker and rent some tanks at another winery, and there are wineries that — it’s called custom crushing, and there are wineries that have 85 clients under one roof, that’s 85 wineries under one roof.

Those are the kind that are impossible to track down, and a lot of them are vanity projects. People don’t care if they make money. In fact, a lot of them couldn’t. A classic example of an early custom crush was done by my dentist, who will not be named, but he started because he loved the red wines of the Lovall Valley, which are made from Cabernet Franc. He planted Cabernet Franc around his house, maybe an acre, and made some —

(Phone Rings)

Claire Scalzo: This is Claire Scalzo, and I am continuing my interview with John Thoreen on behalf of the St. Helena Historical Society’s Oral History Program, and today is September 15, 2016, and John will be reflecting on the scope of the wine industry today in the Napa Valley.

John Thoreen: Hello again, Claire. Yeah, the scope of the Napa Valley is sort of amazing, and it’s not simple. They’re not straightforward in that just talk production. The Napa Valley Appellation wines, those that are in the limits of land declared to be Napa Valley from a wine growing point of view, is a drop in the bucket in California wine production. Three, maybe four percent of all the wine made in California is in that little area, but we have, and no one seems to know for sure, something like 800 wineries. We talked about this a little bit before, and it boils down to thinking about this section of the interview, how does one make sense of that, and I’m not sure that you really can.

One interesting thing is we talked last time about the trend in selling wine has been to sell more — to sell as much as you can directly to consumer. Therefore, you save two profit margins. The normal distribution is three tiers. The winery sells to a distributor, the distributor sells to a retailer or a restaurant, but that doesn’t bring you back much money, and so the small wineries have worked hard to develop the direct to consumer programs, and they’ve done so quite successfully. How much real money profit return percentagewise I couldn’t guess.

I know it varies from place to place, and no small number have gone broke. I’d like to sort of put things in a nutshell you might say by talking about the Napa Valley Vintners, a trade organization that is based here in St. Helena, but is full for global trade organization playing the game in international promotion I think probably as rough as anybody, but none of the roughness pops up locally. They do some tremendous things. They have a Napa Valley Wine Auction that’s now 30+ years old, raises millions of dollars for local charity, and their membership, I think, has gone over 500 wineries that are members, and some wineries just don’t want to join. They don’t think they need a trade organization, so that’s why there could still be 800 wineries in the Napa Valley.

One thing, Napa Valley Vintners started much simpler. It was going when I came up here in the early 70’s, but a friend of mine who was the general manager of Sterling Vineyards where I was working used to go to the monthly meetings, the Napa Valley Vintners. His name was Fritz  Schneider, and they would get together about 20 people. The total membership was maybe 30 or 40, but they were winery owners and they were busy and they didn’t make all the meetings, and he would disappear for three or four hours, and he’d come back with a big smile on his face, and oh, you know, what’d you talk about today? Oh, a lot of things, and we tasted a bunch of wine, and it was not exactly a tightly woven business organization at that time, but the plan was there.

We have to do something to protect the value, the market value of the name Napa Valley, so this was a rough start of it 40 years ago let’s say, and then it grew and became, you know, a little more serious, and in one part of their promotional ventures, probably for about that time ago, 40, maybe 30 years ago, they put up signs, big signs, crafted out of wood looking sort of rustic like parts of a barrel that say essentially “Welcome to Napa Valley, where the wine is bottled poetry,” and they quote Robert Louis Stevenson as having said that, and he did use those words in his writing, a little book about the Napa Valley, but unfortunately he wasn’t talking about the Napa Valley in that phrase in that part of his book. He came here for health reasons. He had tuberculosis. He was told to come up, and he found a crazy place up in Mount St. Helena where he and his wife and child, her child from another marriage lived for just two months. You sometimes get the idea that Robert Louis Stevenson was born here. No. He lived two months in the Napa Valley, but we claim him sort of as our own, and here is what he said in a — it’s a beautiful little book called Silverado Squatters, and he says knowing wine quite well, because he was Scottish, schooled in England, high end universities, he, black sheep of the family actually lived in France quite a bit, and in fact, in a village south of Paris. I forget the name of it, which was sort of an artist colony. He was a writer from the get-go and a great writer he became and, you know, like anyone living in France got to know wine. So, his view of the wine in California is I think especially interesting from the French perspective and not from a non-wine drinking perspective, and so here’s what he says.

“Wine in California is still in the experimental stage, and when you taste a vintage grave economic questions are involved. The beginning of vine planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals. The wine grower also prospects. One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure that is better, the third best, so bit by bit they grope around for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those loads and pockets of earth more precious than the precious ores that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire, those virtuous bonanzas where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry. These still lie undiscovered. Chaparral conceals them. Thickets embower them. The miner chips the rocks and wanders further, and the grisly muses undisturbed, but there they bide their hour awaiting their Columbus, and nature nurtures and prepares them. The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson. Meanwhile, the wine in California is merely good wine, the best I have tasted, better than a Beaujolais, but not unlike, but the trade is poor. It lives from hand to mouth, but it’s all into experiments and forced to sell vintages. To find one properly matured and bearing its own name is to be fortune’s favorite.”

Well, you can see that what he was talking about, the places who make the bottled poetry were Lafite and Clos Vougeot, a Burgundy and a Bordeaux winery. That’s the bottled poetry he was talking about, and here are these miners shooing off the grizzlies looking for the right soil to plant Cabernet or Merlot or whatever, but back in those days there was in fact — Stevenson didn’t learn the history of Napa much by – but he wrote these in the 1880’s. There were a lot of Cabernet already planted in the Napa Valley, but he didn’t know about it, and he obviously didn’t taste any of those wines, like the Inglenook wines we mentioned that won prizes at the same time he was putting the California wine down, so it gets a little complicated, but the idea that a trade organization would snatch a phrase, take it out of context, plop it up on a bulletin on a great massive billboard in the Napa Valley and claim that Stevenson was talking about the grapes right next to the billboard, well that’s advertising I guess. So much for advertising.

And maybe someday people will learn, but not that it really matters, because remember the phrase someday the flavor will linger? The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson. Well now that’s happened. The great wines are being made and tasted by the grandsons of the people who were around when Stevenson was here, so ironically he was kind of right, but not in any realistic way, and I think that that business about being aware of the quality of the wines now vis-a-vis the others around the world, the comparisons are done all the time, and wines of Napa and in fact Sonoma and Central Coast are popping up right at the top of the wines around the world, but it’s still just this tiny slice like Bordeaux and Burgundy are tiny, tiny slices of French wines. Here we are being as he would like to believe in the 1880’s like Burgundy and Bordeaux and a little bit we were, so there’s a lot of irony, truth, and misrepresentation both play a role.

Looking back at the pros and the cons of the way Napa has developed in the time I’ve been here; one thing comes to mind that actually has to do with occasionally being out of Napa. We had done some travel before in London and Paris for summers and things like that and a little trip to China, but in the last decade in particular our trips have had the extra bonus of like when we took to Turkey two years ago for a couple weeks a small, small group, very intensive historical, cultural tour visiting places like a tiny village looking across to the Greek island of Lesbos, and noticing some, in fact, refugees parked along the road or sitting along the road, because they were trying to get from Syria to Lesbos when we were doing what? We were walking into an amphitheater where Aristotle lectured fourth century BC, and Aristotle is my favorite philosopher, so if you can imagine of our complicated experience.

In fact, the canyons there had several thousand refugees in them, and I was thinking 4000 BC, and we continued that way for the two weeks through ruins, but again and again were reminded with simple Turkish wines and Turkish hospitality and Turkish food of things back here, and what struck us as we drove into Napa coming back from the airport was even some of the geography, the hills around Napa were reminiscent of the hills in Turkey, and we were a little bit muddled. Well, where are we? Are we home or are we in Turkey? And it didn’t really make any difference. It was great to be back, and will always be that way. Even if we don’t travel much, we can do that sort of portably from where we sit in Napa. Thank you, Claire, for the interview.

Claire Scalzo: Thank you, John.