Thirty years ago as I began my wine career, I could not imagine the amazing experiences and friends that awaited. But I was soon compelled to make the pilgrimage to Napa Valley, so with a cheap air ticket and sleeping bag I made Bothe National Park near St. Helena my base to explore the most acclaimed wine region in the Western Hemisphere.
That first morning, while waiting for a famous Rutherford winemaker, I struck a conversation with an older gentleman preparing for a day of pruning. His straw hat and long checkered sleeves had not kept years of sun from darkening his skin, which with deep creases in his face, gave the appearance of something like an aboriginal wise man. My impression of this man radically changed as we spoke. His knowledge of Napa’s best wines, viticulture, geology and the elements required to create extraordinary wine rivaled the Davis trained oenologists I would meet that week.
With dark, wrinkled hands, he produced a hooked pruning knife, known in days past as a billhook. Except for a gleaming edge, the patinaed steel blade was as black as the worn wood handle, stained with the oil of hands through generations of use. The knife had been his grandfather’s who worked Napa Valley vineyards in the previous century.
All he knew about vines was taught by his father, who had learned from his father before. I understood that practices passed down in this special place were different than areas where expectations were lower. What this man had learned from his father and grandfather was vision, commitment, sacrifice and a passion to create wines that could stand among the best in the world.
I don’t remember his name and I never saw him again. But each winter, as I watch workers move through the gray smoke of burning cuttings, I wonder if that knife is in one of their hands.
Billhook Cabernet Sauvignon is dedicated to this man who, years ago, made an indelible impression on me and to the others like him whose role is essential in making Napa Valley a world class source of great wine.
- Crawford Malone