The last 20 years of Whetstone would not have been possible without all of you. Many of you have been with us from day one, tracking us down in a vineyard, in our kitchen, or anywhere we could pop some bottles in the early years. Sharing a glass over stories, friendship, laughs or tears have been the greatest gift to us from you. Now for a trip down memory lane...
Charleston, South Carolina is a magical place; integral to me becoming me. Less James Dewitt Whetstone Jr., more Jamey Whetstone. One of the spots that indelibly imprinted the Low Country ideals of drink hard, play hard, work hard on my soul was Magnolias... Uptown Down South Southern Cuisine. (continue reading)
After spending two years at Mustards raking in $28K/year pre tax, I had two job offers to choose from: Front of House Tasting Room Manager for a handsome raise and solid hours or $10 bucks an hour driving a tractor and working in a wine cellar. Be very careful what you wish for... (continue reading)
I knew I wanted to quit my restaurant job the day I got to spend a few hours with Larry Turley, Ehren Jordan, Bob Nicolayson, and Thomas Brown up at a spot called the Whitney Tennessee Vineyard. Bright, cool, and windy day of pruning vines with the Turley crew in February 1998. Larry had his candy apple red Suburban backed up against the vineyard, cooler on the tailgate provisioned with pork chops, veggies, and a couple bottles of Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage. (continue reading)
Larry is a fantastic listener. Not verbose. Poignant. Speaks in parables applicable to the sitch:
Larry: "Do we have to do this now?" deadpan, heavy air, eye contact. He's a very big dude, btw.
Me: "I would like to, yes."
Larry: "Ok. (loooong pause) Then I need your business plan. We'll go over it otgether, put some parameters in place, discuss it further, decide."
Me: "That's it?!"
Larry: "Get out." (continue reading)
This is the time where everything is under control and my morning treat of nature at its finest ensues. I haul ass on the 4-wheeler away from the vineyard up to a small rocky knoll, 3400 ft ASL, that looks due south down the Valley. Being July, the blanket of fog looks like a sea of cotton stretched all the way to San Pablo Bay. Pinheads of colored balloons magically pop through and above the white blanket of fog at Yountville, sun fully up and over the Stag's Leap district. Insane the simple pleasure of a vineyard. (continue reading)
The cellar is a refuge to realize your finest hour or as is the case sometimes, "WTF am I a gonna tell Michelle happened here?!" Personally I like a long cold belt of Anisette at Angèle prior to having that conversation. SO many things to expound upon but attention spans being what they are, I'll sign off for now. (continue reading)
You know, looking back at my journal entries from 2020 I am amazed at how many of us thrived through it all. I lost my Pop, Covid hit, fires... If frogs had started bouncing off my windshield I may've grabbed my longboard, jumped in the Pacific and headed for the horizon.
The 2020 Walala Vineyard Pinot Noir was spared the fires by luck of geography, high atop Annapolis, unscathed from the carnage all around it and below. The day I made the picking call I left our house in Napa around 4:30am and rolled into the vineyard around 10:00am after being rerouted due to fires. The entire journey out there was starless; solid dark brown rust in color, and thick with the smell of smoke. Orange tinted sky shone through only at the vineyard's elevation. I got tickled sampling that morning thinking on our good fortune and walked face first into a giant Orb spider's web eliciting a different octave from my throat than normal. Ahhh the romance of the wine industry...
Winemaker’s Tasting Notes:
Stainless steel fermented, aged 16 months sur lees in 35% new French oak. Voluminous nose full of rose petal, violets, orange pekoe tea, and crème brulee. Secondary aromas of chamomile and mint, with hints of cassis. Medium-bodied flavors of ripe raspberry, cherry cola, and boysenberry pie. Long finish with bright plum, baker's chocolate, and a hint of tobacco.
Jamey has some tricks up his sleeve and some new wines coming in 2023!
In the meantime, we are keeping in line with diving into Whetstone's past and are sharing the last few delicious cases of our beloved Syrah with you! Cellar aged for your drinking pleasure.
Winemaker’s Tasting Notes:
Stainless steel fermented, aged for 28 months sur lees in neutral French oak barrels. Freakishly expressive nose of white pepper and olive tapenade, massive amounts of cassis, and spicy bacon fat. Secondary aromas of violets, blackberry cobbler, and vanilla. Intense flavors of cassis, peppery bacon, and ripe plum. Finishes long with chalky tannins, baker's chocolate, tobacco, and lively acidity.
Vigneron: noun. Person who cultivates grapes for winemaking. It’s a French term that gets to the heart of my chosen profession. IMO you must have a base knowledge in all facets of farming grapes in order to make good wine. In my experience it takes a lifetime.
Because of the way I came up in this business I learned how not to off myself on a tractor before I stepped foot into a barrel chais. Two semesters of night school entry-level Spanish are key to working land anywhere in California. The “school” of winemaking I attended espoused a gospel of do your homework in the vineyard and the rest is gravy.
You’ve all read/heard my anecdotes about Catie’s Corner, Pleasant Hill, Bella Vigna, Walala and Phoenix Ranch. Willing to bet few of you knew me when I was working with Hirsch, Savoy and Guidici. All three spots challenged me and molded me in ways that shaped my winemaking immeasurably.
Hirsch is way (way!) the fuck out there. True Sonoma Coast OG. Until you come through the eastern edge of the property and over the first rise where the old Mt Eden clone is planted…confirmed by Jasmine or her Pop, David Hirsch on site…you’re basically lost and a bit over your skis. Close to 1000 acres, 70 under vine. Hop skip & a jump from the Pacific with dozens of microclimates scattered about the property. Ditto the soils. David takes a wildly meticulous approach to cultivating each vine. Get this…he has to sign off on your finished wine from his place before you can put Hirsch Vineyard on your label. No foolin!! I loved that shit because he owns and farms the greatest Pinot Noir vineyard in the history of our beloved state, coupled with a handful of like-minded vignerons, couple of which happen to be my heroes.
I’ll address Savoy and Guidici at another time. Main thing I need to point out is that my winemaking is 75% driven by what happens in the vineyards. What I do with the fruit once it hits the barn is influenced by my 7 years of daily interactions working with and for Ehren Jordan, and to a much smaller degree with Jacques Seysses, and Christophe Morin (RIP). All three had/have old world European ideals when it comes to the cellar.
I like the idea of a clean pick, further manicured on the “magic” sorting table and into open top stainless containers for primary fermentation. Once primary is mostly complete and the free run juice has been separated from the skins, stems, & seeds I’ll press it off ever so gently and see what comes out. These days if I like what I am tasting I’ll go ahead and marry it with the free run before barreling down. I love, love, love French oak on 99.9% of all the wines I make. My preferred vessel of choice is the 225L barrel.
The cellar is a refuge to realize your finest hour or as is the case sometimes, “WTF am I gonna tell Michelle happened here?!” Personally I like a long cold belt of Anisette at Angele prior to having that conversation. So many things to expound upon but attention spans being what they are I’ll sign off for now...
"Here's the thing about the vineyard, it's where the magic happens..."
Special places. I find solitude in them. Wonderful opportunity to leave the phone in the pickup.
Setting: Tippy top of Howell Mountain.
Scene: Planting 47 acres of Zinfandel, Rousanne and Petite Syrah.
Folks in the mix: Me and the lovely men and women from Michoacán.
Chronology: As follows…
3:30 am - Arrive in pitch dark. Thinking on big rattlesnake I saw yesterday at dusk. Begin watering the myriad trays of green growing plants, thousands of them. Place 4 trays in rickety wooden, one-axel trailer hitched to 4-wheeler. I’ll repeat this process all day long.
3:45 am - Distribute the trays in the vine rows where left off yesterday. Trying to get way ahead of folks doing the planting so I can focus on cleaning up behind them, watering the blocks we’ve planted along with today’s unplanted positions. Watering ahead of the shovel makes the dirt easier to penetrate & speeds up the process.
5:00 am - Clanks of the chain link on the gate entry and faint Mariachi music below signal arrival of the gang. Several van loads and a few cars. Smells of asada and carnitas waft out of vehicles with little sound other than boots on dirt and gravel. The orange band on the horizon to the east is the morning sun.
5:30 am - Planting “music” begins with shovels hitting the dirt and rock. Plastic containers crumple while plants are being coaxed out and into the soil. Slowly the banter between friends & workers picks up. Morning progresses into day.
**Super Cool Note: this is the time where everything is under control and my morning treat of nature at its finest ensues. I haul ass on the 4-wheeler away from the vineyard up to a small rocky knoll, 3400 ft ASL, that looks due south down the Valley. Being July the blanket of fog looks like a sea of cotton stretched all the way to San Pablo Bay. Pinheads of colored balloons magically pop through and above the white blanket of fog at Yountville, sun fully up and over the Stag’s Leap district. Insane the simple pleasures of a vineyard.
3:30 pm - The planting day is done. Its close to triple digits on the thermometer. My cleanup of the entire area begins along with prep for the next morning.
5:30pm or so - My final reward/gigantic boost of stoke arrives. Larry’s pool on property is mid 60s temp in dead of summer due to some shade of older blue oaks. (Pre-insurance diving board;). After fully disrobing with no one around, the exhilaration of airborne launch before I hit the water with 180-degree views of the Valley below is FUCKING MONEY!!
The start of Whetstone...
I went into Larry’s office end of the working day. He knew I had something to get off my chest. Turley was a juggernaut; expansion & renovation of the Paso property in full swing. Howell Mountain vineyards coming on line. Failla was small but ramping and taking up whatever space was left in St Helena. Heady times with so much to do every minute of every day. And it was SO. MUCH. FUN.
Larry is a fantastic listener. Not verbose. Poignant. Speaks in parables applicable to the sitch:
Larry: “Do we have to do this now?” deadpan, heavy air, eye contact. He’s a very big dude, btw.
Me: “I would like to, yes.”
Larry: “Ok. (looooong pause) then I need your business plan. We’ll go over it together, put some parameters in place, discuss it further, decide.”
Me: “That’s it?!”
Larry: “Get out.”
Note the word “we” he used twice in our conversation. That’s how you knew you were inner circle with Larry. I had already run it by Ehren and had his blessing. After the dismantling and restructure of said plan…
Larry: ”Don’t ask me for a raise. You can make a maximum of 1000 cases here. And Jamey…this is important…Turley first, Failla a wildly distant second, and Whetstone not even on the radar. Got it?!”
Me: “Got it!”
Larry: “Get out.”
Crazy the paths we go down when we don’t know any better. Hattie was barely 15 months old and I would be divorced from her mother two years later.
Whetstone was off and running. I garnered fruit from David Hirsch, Rich Savoy and Sara Lee Kunde. Couple tons from each. Pinot Noir from the guys, Viognier from Sara Lee. Bought a few new barrels and borrowed everything else. Making the wines at Turley was the only way I could’ve done it financially. Tricky parts were tank space at harvest, trying to fit in sampling my own fruit, getting bins to the vineyard for a pick, borrowing a flatbed truck from Turley for all things involving fruit.
Savoy Vineyard is in Philo above Booneville, Hirsch is out Bohan-Dillon Road, back side of Cazadero, and Catie’s (owned by Sara Lee) north of the Windsor airport. You can go to your Maps app and figure out the driving time between those spots and Turley in St Helena. I would leave the house at 2 in the morning, strap a miner’s light on, and sample my grapes until my hands were numb. Back to Turley before sunup or other vineyards attached to my day job(s). GPS wasn’t very efficient in 2002. We used Nextel Walkie Talkie Radio phones back then so we had the newest technology, but it didn’t play out well at many spots where vineyards tended to thrive. I come outta the deep woods into walkie talkie range and would here the familiar “chirp” of my Nextel followed by a stern, non-loving voice in a low grumble/growl asking for immediate updates on my location and ETA to wherever the fuck I was supposed to be soon.
Precarious, maddening, wonderful, adventurous. Money sucking, dangerous, humbling, unfamiliar, challenging. Wouldn’t trade the early days for anything. Even now the earnest feeling I get from driving my ’94 Chevy with 333,000 miles on it to a vineyard meeting, the bank, grocery store, dinner fills me with pride and sense of well-being.
I was lucky to have Larry but I worked my ass off for that privilege, 7 days a week for many years. Blue collar is wonderful work when you want to be there and have a profitable stake in it. But man is it deafening on the molding of the body and mind. I could keep going here but feel like taking a martini break. Will pick up soon with the next installment.
Mentors throughout the years...
I knew I wanted to quit my restaurant job the day I got to go spend a few hours with Larry, Ehren Jordan, Bob Nicolayson, and Thomas Brown up at a spot called the Whitney Tennessee Vineyard. Bright, cool, windy day of pruning vines with the Turley crew in February 1998. Larry had his candy apple red Suburban backed up against the vineyard, cooler on the tailgate provisioned with pork chops, veggies and couple bottles of Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage.
They gave me a pair of old pruning shears, a handful of vines-worth of how to prune, & sage advice telling me not to “ruin the vintage ahead.” An old oil barrel had been sliced in half, one end cut out, a flat top welded on top, bicycle handles at one end to help steer, an old bicycle tire attached to an original fork for rolling. We’d fill the open end with the cuttings, a sprinkle of diesel and lite that puppy. Half hour later Larry is cooking chops and veggies on the flat top. Solo cups filled with Rhone Syrah, sitting in folding chairs enjoying a meal with new friends in a box canyon accented by a vineyard of old vine zinfandel in the northern end of Napa Valley. Are you fucking kidding me?!?! I gave my notice that summer and never looked back.
Larry, having a long career as a successful ER Doc, founded and sold his interest in Frog’s Leap Winery, and created one of the first world-renowned “cult wineries” Turley Wine Cellars….was also there to look at my business plans and give hard-earned advice as to what was silly and/or sound. Larry taught me fiscal responsibility when I had none. He also taught me to be good for my word no matter what. I have been through some extraordinarily lean years of my own making and he was always there to encourage/help me along within reason. I honestly don’t know how things would’ve turned out for the Napa Whetstones sans Larry.
Ehren was my boss at Turley Wine Cellars for the 7 vintages I worked there; A true vigneron and wildly rare in California. A vigneron directs all things vineyard and winemaking. He/she can diagram the vineyard layout, dial in a spray rig, adjust the spader depth, lead a pruning seminar on all things spur, cordon, or guyot, set up vineyard irrigation complete with fertigator, direct a vineyard crew from bud break to harvest, oversee all nuances of winemaking from when the grapes hit the barn, to fermentation temps, to pressing, to barrel down, to lees aging and all the specific oak influences in precise percentages, bottling predilections…all the while dictating pace of sales both wholesale and DTC.
I always thought Ehren should’ve been CEO of IBM, etc. An art history major, he just had a knack of knowing the right thing to do for any occasion involving the business of wine, vineyard or dinner parties. I was his assistant winemaker for Turley and a few years for Failla, his own winery. Ehren and I raised our first children a block away from each other, used the same contractor to remodel our first homes, got our pilots licenses in similar time frames, traveled to France & Steeler playoff games at Hines Fiend together, and drank a boat load of Kermit Lynch imports after long days on the crush pad.
The only person who pushed me more throughout my life was my high school football coach. But no matter the workday (realizing I absolutely earned his ire on most occasions), we’d retire down the ship’s ladder into his home subterranean cellar and choose a bottle of 20 year old Chave Hermitage Blanc and, maybe, a magnum of Thierry Allemand Cornas for dinner. His collection was ridiculous and Ehren was overflowing with generosity when you’d earned it.
I was fortunate enough to have worked with him developing his estate property out on the edge of civilization atop the Mohrhardt Ridge in Western Sonoma County. No electricity, a phone line, water from a “creek” we ran a 2 horse pump out of that ended up some hundreds of feet uphill by solar power into two 500 gallon tanks that funded the vineyard irrigation; Awesomely nuts and challenging and life affirming. My wife will tell you I am not a very reliable handyman so Ehren had his work cut out with me. I’d spend half dozen weeks out there most summers doing vineyard work, driving a tractor, killing rattlesnakes, running from wild boar, cooking meals by gaslight and fireside, sleeping like the dead. I owe EJ so much.
1996 - Moving to Napa
Landing in Napa August 1996 was abrupt. My first wife and I had left behind pretty idyllic life in Charleston, SC on promise of a small bungalow in a vineyard near Mustards Grill and a job waiting tables there. About half way across the US and two weeks into our sojourn I was faxed an offer to be an Assistant Manager paying roughly half of what I would’ve made as a Waiter. Upon arrival the address we were given for said bungalow was riddled with human-sized holes in the exterior walls and a lack of indoor plumbing. I’ll spare you the next few months’ worth of lodging shenanigans.
One of my duties at Mustards was to assist the wine buyer, meaning stocking, inventorying, costing, etc. It also gave me direct access to all Napa Valley wineries we did business with. You have to remember, the Valley was way small back then… Don Weaver would come down and deliver my allocation of Harlan himself. Gil Nickel, Rob Sinskey, Jason Pahlmeyer, Helen Turley, Barbara Eisley, Bill & Barney Rhodes, Al & Boots Brounstein, Bart & Daphne Araujo, Chuck Wagnoner, Bob & Margrit Mondavi, Tim Mondavi, Michael Mondavi, Jim Barber, David Abreu, Dan & Nancy Duckhorn, Christian Moueix, Larry Turley (remember this name!), Jamie Davies, the Chappellet's… not to mention so much of Hollywood. It was nuts the folks I’d meet and get to know in a few short years.
So was it the Mongolian pork chop over mashers with pickled cabbage and finished with Chinese mustard that packed the place day and night? It was, but it was also one of the greatest wine lists of all time to pair with that upscale “truck stop deluxe” fare. Michael Oullette was the wine buyer and managing partner and he was a F&B savant. He bought all the obligatory Napa and Sonoma wines, but to lure the winemakers themselves he knew that wasn’t enough. (I mean, who wants wants to drink the juice they make for a living while alternatively choosing between Chave and Rayas to go with a burger?!) So he cherry picked from the greatest wine houses the world over in the greatest vintage years; Chave, Vega Sicilia, DRC, Jayer, Comtes Lafon, Lafite Rothschild, Ducroux Beaucaillou, Guigal, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Latour, VT, Rayas, La Nerthe, Rudy Weiss, Pichler, Prager, Nigl… you get the idea.
Anyway, after spending two years at Mustards raking in $28K/year pre tax I had two job offers to choose from:
1 - Front of House Tasting Room Manager for a handsome raise and solid hours
2 - $10 bucks an hour driving a tractor and working in a wine cellar.
Be very careful what you wish for …
Charleston, South Carolina is a magical place, integral to me becoming me. Less James Dewitt Whetstone Jr, more Jamey Whetstone. One of the spots that indelibly imprinted the Low Country ideals of drink hard, play hard, work hard on my soul was Magnolias… Uptown Down South Southern Cuisine.
The year was 1994. Two hour wait any-night-of-the-week with reservations booked for months in advance. No other front/back team like it ANYWHERE in the Carolinas at that time. I’d grab a case of Budweiser and a 5th of Jack Black on my way into work and give it to the kitchen pre-shift when I arrived to set up my station; I did this knowing I’d f@ck something up at some point during service and need a re-fire on the fly without any explanation. Fast forward to heat of battle at 8:30pm Saturday - order 2 rickshaws to cobblestone Lodge Alley side of the building, call Carolinas down the street and set up tequila shots with beer backs for 4 at the bar, confirm your station was handled by the Server Assistants for next 8 minutes, jump in rickshaws and have them ride like hell to Carolinas, jump out and cruise into their packed restaurant in full Magnolias uniforms (slick advertising right?!), guzzle said booze, hop back into rickshaws, re-enter your station with enough adrenaline and (smug) stoke to push through the rest of the shift.
Donald Barickman was the founding chef/owner of Magnolias and a good friend of mine. To say he set the bar for fine dining in CHS from the day they opened in July 1990 would be a gross understatement. He was the first I knew of to establish relationships with local purveyors of all things - rice, flour, seasonal vegetables and fruits, seafood, beef, poultry, dairy.
What follows are a few of my favorite recipes of his paired up with our wines:
Warm Cream Cheese Brownies with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Chocolate and Caramel Sauce + just cause you should ;)