Mike Brunson hasn't missed a single California wine grape harvest since 1987. I'm sure he'd like me to point out that he started in the biz when he was only 17. Still, after all of those years of hard work, there still isn't anything else he'd rather be doing. Except hanging with his family or banging the drums in one of the two bands he plays with (he recently played for Bill and Hillary).
At his most recent gig, Christopher Creek Winery in Healdsburg, CA he's part of a team that produces award-winning Petite Syrah (or one of my favorites, the Catie's Corner Viognier). Prior to that he spent 16 years at Michel-Schlumberger in the Dry Creek Valley, where he was the head winemaker. He also is one half of the team that founded Verge Wine Cellars, a boutique winery that specializes in Syrah. He skateboards, he fishes and he's an awful lot of fun to barbeque with. If you ever find yourself in California wine country and you are lucky enough to spend some time with Mike at his place of work, you won't regret it.
First things first. How did you get started in the wine business?
Long story short: I bumped into an owner/winemaker of a local vineyard when I was 17 year old. I asked if they ever needed any help and It turns out they did. I would go up and assist with whatever part of wine-growing/winemaking that they needed help with. They would serve me breakfast, lunch and dinner and pay me with a case of wine. It was a perfect. I became obsessed with wine and the process of making it. I moved down to Santa Cruz and put myself through college working at wineries in the area.
I would imagine that the 17-year-old was given the "grunt work" type tasks. What exactly was it that hooked you?
I was drawn to the hard work with a very clear objective. In a lot of ways it's like building a house in that you know where you want to get to and have to respect every step to make certain that it turns out the way you are envisioning it. Also, when people openly enjoy (and praise) your work, that certainly doesn't hurt either.
Got it. A beginning a middle and an end. With the end being very rewarding, versus, say finishing up a tough Powerpoint presentation.
You live and work in one of the most beautiful areas in the country, if not the world. This means lots of tourists. What is your attitude or philosophy toward coexisting with them?
I actually enjoy meeting new people. Yeah, sometimes they have had too much to drink and can be a bit silly, but so am I when I'm on vacation. We happen to live in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. So, I treat them the way I would want to be treated when I go on vacation.
You're a pretty laid back guy, so I can’t see you preaching any type of “rules” regarding wine…that being said, there must be some guidelines to follow that can enhance one’s enjoyment of wine?
Here are the guidelines that I use: Try new wines. Try new wineries. Try new appellations. Have fun. If you don't like a wine, move on to another. The more experience you have with tasting wines, the more you will realize what kind of wines you enjoy.
Us east coasters are more---I won't say uptight--but...really? No rules?
The only rule is that there are no rules. Drink what tastes good to you. Don't let others tell you that it's not right. You will figure it out for yourself and the wine will taste that much better because of it.
So then, that whole "tasting note" lingo, the terms tossed around by wine connoisseurs like "grassy" or "buttery" or "hints of chocolate" or "cigars"--can you demystify that process?
There are really only three wine phrases. "I like it. I don't like. It's ok." That's it. All the other stuff is fluff. Some of us are very good at creating “wine speak”. I like to laugh a lot, so I like to speak in terms of the absurd. "This wine reminds me of the river in August (or) I pick up hints of report cards and weeklong restrictions...Smells like a bingo parlor." If I'm not entertaining myself, what's the point?!
California is known for producing Sonoma Chardonnays and Napa Cabernets. When you chose to make and bottle your own wine, Verge Wine Cellars, you chose syrah. Why syrah? Was it a rebellion or sorts?
I love Syrah. It's a tough one in the marketplace, but it's a versatile varietal that can be made in so many different styles. It can be low alcohol, austere and sublime (like some wines from the northern Rhone) or it can be totally fun and jammy with oak and alcohol (like some wines from Australia and California). Plus, every winery I've ever worked at, has made syrah. I like keeping tradition alive.
Traditional, yet rebellious in some ways.
One thing I learned from watching you and our other friends in the wine business is that wine is about the earth---it’s farming. What are the biggest challenges the industry is facing in order to be as responsible as possible? How can consumers support and encourage positive changes?
Support organic farming practices and buy as locally as you can. Purchase your wine in large containers (even boxes) to conserve materials. If you can find dry farmed wines (where the vines were not irrigated), support their efforts. More often than not you will be rewarded with concentrated wines that reflect where they were grown more so than irrigated versions.
I get your point regarding local. BUT, right or wrong, it’s hard to buy local wine. Connecticut and New York wines just don't yet have the romantic allure of a Northern California or French or Australian wine right now...
I think wines from the east coast ARE good. You can't compare them to California wines. Just as you can't compare California wines to European wines. Different regions. Different soils. Different climates. Different traditions. Different. Try the wines from your area and embrace them for what they are. There is greatness to be found everywhere, you just have to look for it. What about biodynamic wine? A trend? Or is it a practice worth supporting and paying attention to?
What about Biodynamic Wine? A trend or worth supporting?
Wines made from BioD vines are cool. There is no proof that they are better (or worse) than conventionally farmed vineyards. With that said, some of the most interesting wines I've ever tried come from BioD farmed vineyards in Europe. I would most definitely support them. If for no other reason than to support their clean approach to farming. It's always nice to know that the beverage that you are putting in your body is "clean."
Ok. Last question. Describe your perfect meal. Who. Where. What?
Summertime BBQ hamburgers, green garden salad, fresh sliced tomatoes from the backyard with my beautiful wife, two lovely kids and the two family dogs. That's a perfect match for any wine.