Robert Mayberry Remembrance - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Robert Mayberry Remembrance

photo courtesy of John Buechsenstein

Robert Mayberry, one of the great scholars of Rhône Valley wines in the English language, and a facilitator to American Rhône producers in California and elsewhere, died at his home in Michigan. He was 79.

Robert Mayberry with Jean-Luc Colombo Robert Mayberry with Jean-Luc Colombo
Mayberry may not have learned to love wine without having lived across from a wine shop in college. Later, after earning his degree from Cornell, he was hired as a instructor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, in the William James College of Letters. It was there that he was asked to follow the tenets of Jamesian pragmatism. “He believed,” Mayberry explained during a visit in 2009, “that to really learn something, you had to learn to do something.” For instructors at the college, that meant selecting a single course of study to which they would devote their professional lives—for Mayberry that course would be to write about winegrowing in the Rhône Valley.

Over nearly two decades Mayberry and his wife, Rosalind, spent summers and sabbatical years in the southern Rhône, tasting, taking notes, deciphering a logic and architecture for blended red wines there that few had discerned and articulated in English. At the time, France was still fiercely provincial, especially in the south, and the winegrowers in Rhône Valley, the southern Rhône in particular, were still protective of place and of tradition. Mayberry acquired a few critical allies: Pierre Ligier, of the Rhône Syndicat of growers, and the Curé of Vacqueyras, a monk named Père Michel, to help pour wines blind for him and make introductions. Mayberry described Père Michel as “a very Rabelaisian figure; very jolly, very chubby.” 

At first, producers were wary of this American interloper. But Mayberry was studious in his approach, conscientious in describing their methods and practices; he tasted their wines not once but over and over again. “They really appreciated his sticktuitiveness,” says Rosalind, “the fact that he was serieux. Eventually they started opening up, and telling him their secrets. In the end they loved and respected him tremendously.” He became known, through his long period of reporting, as Le Prof.

Mayberry’s findings were published in a single slender volume called “Wines of the Rhône Valley: A Guide to Origins,” in 1987. Rowman and Littlefield, the publishers, enforced a strict page limit on the finished book, obliging Mayberry to employ a somewhat bewildering strategy of concatenations, shorthand and abbreviations to squeeze all of his findings between two covers. An example:

75 ha, one group of parcels in qrt St.-Jean and Pied Redun (E), the rest S and NW. About ¼ of the vines are more than 50 years old. Red cepages, eastern portion: 80% GR, 10-12% SY, around 5% MV. Remainder: 70% GR, 10% CS, 10% SY, 10% diverse, 5 ha of white: BR, CT, CR, with RS and PL. 12 ha of CDV at Caromb (Vaucluse), 90% GR, plus CR (was to plant SY 1985).

But within its pages Mayberry codified hundreds of years of tradition into practical rationales and methodologies, and articulated one of the fundamentals of Rhône varietal winemaking, specifically with respect to blending and élevage, which he believed were at the heart of great wines of the Rhône.

In Bordeaux, he reasoned, the major factor in the character of wine was tannins. In Burgundy, it was acid. In the southern Rhône, he argued, that character-defining factor was alcohol—from grenache, as the fulcrum, and organizing component of any blend.

When American Rhône producers went looking for winemaking strategies to help with their Rhône-inspired blends, they found this obscure pink book and its abstruse contents. It was like a godsend: “This book had the detail I felt I needed to know,” says winemaker John Buechsenstein. “Robert went into production methodology, he picked the brains of everybody, why they did what they did, why their grandfathers did what they did, the little things we couldn’t know anything about. He captured the traditions of the region, he recognized them as important details. It became a boon to us winemakers.”

In the decade that followed the publication of Mayberry’s book, Buechsenstein organized a number of classes and visits for Mayberry and several of his producers at UC-Davis. Mayberry served as the principal lecturer and organizer. The list of students who attended these lectures includes many American Rhône adherents as well as others, including Heidi Barrett, Kevin Hamel, Robert Craig, Lou Preston, Zelma Long, Clark Smith, Andrew Rich, Douglas Nalle, David Ramey, Craig Williams, Paul Hobbs and Rudy von Strasser. Until the late nineties Mayberry made frequent trips to California cellars to advise and consult with American Rhône producers, until multiple sclerosis limited his movement, and confined him to his home for much of the last decade and a half of his life.

He remained an agile mind and a marvelous conversationalist, an enthusiastic wine taster with a photographic memory and a gift for storytelling. In a second-story office in his home, up stairs he could no longer navigate, lay boxes of additional research which he’d hoped to fashion into another volume on the Rhône Valley, a place he’d known more intimately than nearly any other Anglophone writer and journalist.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.
photo courtesy of John Buechsenstein

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.

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