Twenty years ago, Rod Smith wrote a story for our August issue, “Purple Gold Rush.” It focused on the pioneer winegrowers of the far Sonoma Coast. To help Rod research the story, I rented a car and a couple of cabins at the mouth of the Russian River, in Jenner, where we set up base camp. During the day, we’d drive into the hills to visit the zinfandel vines at Wild Hog, the chardonnay at Flowers and the early planting of riesling vines, now long-since replaced by pinot noir, at Hirsch.
We would return in the evening to Jenner, open a bottle of wine from one of the vineyards and watch the hawks circling over the river in the fading light. One night, we wandered up the hill past the River’s End Inn and down a dirt road to a fire pit, where a crowd of locals were sharing stories of the day. Another night, we headed farther out on the spit of sand that forms at the edge of the Pacific. One morning, we drove up Route 1 to a cutout on the west side, then climbed down the cli to a beach far below. Rod was always insistent that a place needed to be explored. Rod earned a James Beard Journalism Award for that story, though he should have received much more acknowledgement for a career of remarkable writing. His work helped growers on the North Coast understand the place where they tended their vines, a place with no long history of winemaking. Rod chronicled their work and helped guide their exploration. He was, scrupulously, not a wine critic. He refused to write tasting notes. Instead, he wrote about the land and what it might bear.
It was a loss to me, to readers of this magazine and to all of Rod Smith’s readers at the San Francisco Chronicle and the LA Times when he left journalism to grow grapes in Forestville, in Sonoma’s Green Valley. That was back in 2006. When news broke that Rod had died this past May, at 65, it was a great loss for his family, and a sad day for those of us who had worked with him, who had known him as a friend and a great talent.
I thought of Rod recently when I met Roberto Santana and his assistant, whom he introduced as Ulises, in the Canary Islands. Santana is a partner in Envínate—which roughly translates as “wine yourself”—a group of four Spanish winemakers exploring their land in thoroughly distinctive ways. Santana is from Tenerife, where he is resuscitating ancient vines on the south side of the island, up-mountain from his winery. Ulises led us through the high stone walls and stands of cactus to scattered bush vines trailing along the ground, interspersed with fig trees and flowering herbs that had grown into small shrubs. Ulises remained silent, serious about his work.
I composed several ways to ask his last name, and attempted to coax it out of him several times, but he just kept responding, “Guanche, Guanche,” as if to dismiss my request. So I later asked Santana if the indigenous Guanche people did not have family names, and he laughed. “They do,” he said. “He just didn’t understand you. His name is Ulises Doniz.” Rod talked to the people growing the grapes. His genius was to ask questions of winegrowers and not to be satisfied with an explanation that isn’t tied to the land. He showed growers and vineyard workers respect, and often started by asking people’s names.
This story appears in the print issue of .
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