By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 7, 2013)
Adam Firestone admits that “jarhead” is a double-edged term. “It’s a complicated name, because it’s pejorative on the one hand,” the well-known Central Coast vintner and brewer says. But because it’s also used as a friendly nickname among U.S. Marines, “it’s also a term of endearment.”
So, he had no qualms about using “Jarhead” to title a wine project that’s personal in more ways than one.
Adam Firestone’s claim to fame today is clearly in the role his plays in the family businesses. Firestone Winery, which the Firestones founded but sold to mogul Bill Foley a few years ago, and Curtis Winery, which the family continues to run, have always been popular brands. And Firestone-Walker Brewing Company, which Adam Firestone founded with brother-in-law David Walker, has a steadfast following around the globe. But Firestone, 51, preceded his entrepreneurial efforts with a spell as an American Marine, joining in 1984 and becoming promoted to Captain in 1988, ahead of his deployment to the Persian Gulf.
His service ended in 1991, but the Marines would come calling again about a decade later, when his former recruiter asked for a donation of wine for a Marine Corps fundraiser. Firestone agreed, and he bottled wine that was already aging in barrel at the winery while his wife, Kate, helped design a label that they’d affectionately call “Jarhead.” The 20 cases of donated wine were a huge hit. So much so, that “the Marines walked away from the event with the empty bottles,” Firestone says.
That speedy success would lead to a line of wines that is now going on its 12th vintage. The drive to keep the Jarhead project going stemmed from the very group it supports: the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides education assistance to children of Marines, with special emphasis on families of fallen Marines. “In the charity world, there are a lot of transitory causes,” says Firestone. “But I wanted to back something that, at its core, was really pure and where the whole thing was completely authentic. I had really studied these guys – they started in 1962, they’re really lean and all dollars go to the target. And the fact it’s education-based – that funding is for a specific purpose – it sets a continuum.”
Firestone runs Jarhead with fellow former Marine Ruben Dominguez, a Texas native who served five years and who started his wine industry career at Firestone Vineyard in the mid-90s; today, he’s the lead foreman for grape maintenance experts, Coastal Vineyard Care. The wines, themselves, are made by Ernst Storm and Chuck Carlson, the winemaking team at Curtis Winery. And the fruit comes mainly from vineyards owned by the Firestones, including Curtis, Kingsley, Rocky Hollow and the portion of the original Firestone Vineyard that they still own.
The current releases include the zesty 2012 Jarhead Chardonnay ($15), the supple 2010 Jarhead Red ($15), a blend of Rhone and Bordeaux grapes, and the concentrated 2010 Jarhead Reserve ($24), a limited-edition bottling of primarily cabernet franc.
The wines are fruit-forward and approachable by design. “We didn’t want to go hot or too lightweight,” Firestone says. “We want them to shoot right through the middle of the target.”
|Adam's son, Nick Firestone, 25, right, strapped into a Chinook CH-46|
This project is personal for Firestone, no doubt, but at a level that’s deeper still. “We’re three generations into this now,” he says. His father-in-law, it turns out, was a Marine, too; Montecito resident Harry Colmery was a pilot during World War II and the Korean War, and part of the Greatest Generation. And now Firestone’s oldest son, Nick, is readying for his own second deployment as a Marine next month; the 25-year-old artillery officer, who’s been back six months from a tour in the South Pacific, is headed for Afghanistan for at least a year. “Their deployment schedule these days is ferocious, so his mom’s not real happy,” Firestone admits. “For me, it’s half excitement and anticipation, and the other side is parental nerves. But I understand the tradition.”
Jarhead is not alone in the battlefield that is the marketplace, as a handful of other recent California wine projects also salute America’s armed forces.
Saarloos & Sons, a family-run operation based in Los Olivos, produces a blend in honor of a late family member, Sergeant John Saarloos, who died in June of 1944 on a European tour during World War II. The wine, an estate-grown cabernet sauvignon, is dubbed “Courage.” The 2009 edition, which was bottled last year and recently released, retails for $50, with the 1.5-liter magnum bottle discounted to $75.
And Sonoma County-based Murphy-Goode Winery introduced its Hometown Red earlier this year. Sales of the red blend of syrah, merlot, petite sirah and zinfandel – a remarkable value at $15 – benefit Operation Homefront, a national non-profit that provides programs like food assistance, eye care and moving help for veterans, their wives and their families. Murphy-Goode, a part of Jackson Family Wines, aims to raise $300,000 for the charity.
As for Jarhead, net proceeds from wine sales have led to donations that surpass half a million dollars, according to Firestone. More funds have been raised through annual auctions. “This is true grassroots,” he adds, “from out of the jungles of Vietnam and the muds of the Santa Ynez Valley.”
Jarhead wines sell through a membership club (which ships out twice a year, around Veteran’s Day and around Memorial Day), a special display at Curtis Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley and online here.