The Mad Crush: New Book Explores Central California Vineyard’s Effects on the Men Who Tamed It

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/1/15


In viticulture, winemakers hang their hat on terroir.  The French word refers to the relevance of place and to the way that the unique aspects of a vineyard – soil, climate, elevation – affect the fruit that grows there.  Terroir is what defines the pedigree of wine grapes.

In his inaugural tome, author Sean Christopher Weir explores the notion that terroir can affect people, too, and that it can be transformative.

The Mad Crush, which Mr. Weir self-published in March, is a memoir.  The actual timeline is narrow: a couple of months in 1995 when a serendipitous phone call puts the author to work on a rugged vineyard on California’s Central Coast.  The grape growing season of 1995 will lead to a balmy Indian summer and then, quickly, to one nail biter of a harvest season.

But the journey through which Mr. Weir leads the reader lasts far longer than a few weeks – it spans some 130 years, in fact – and is powerful.

Today, Saucelito Canyon is one of the great vineyards in San Luis Obispo County; the 10 acres of zinfandel grapes it grows create complex wines that earn consistent critical acclaim.  Remarkably, the vines on the property date back to 1880, when a British sheepherder tried his luck at growing grapes and making wine.  Early on, the vines planted by Henry Ditmas thrived.  But Mr. Ditmas’ eventual unhappy departure from the area, and the years of lackluster upkeep that followed, saw the luster of their appeal fade.  “The vineyard became a mirage of its once vibrant self,” the author writes.

Of the 10 acres of wine grapes at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard, three acres are zinfandel planted in 1880
Nearly a century later, the same harsh terrain that had drawn a shepherd with a whim lured a Santa Barbara adventurer with an itch for a change.  In 1974, Bill Greenough, fresh off life on Santa Barbara’s storied Mountain Drive, was looking to buy a vineyard.  The land he discovered turned others away: the landscape was rough and remote, and the old vines had been choked by decades of wild overgrowth.  But to Mr. Greenough, blessed, as the author writer, with “viticutural intuition,” Saucelito Canyon was an inspiration.

“To Bill, the vineyard wasn’t a plot of land,” Mr. Weir writes.  “It was a jigsaw puzzle, a mosaic of little pieces, each with its own bevels and quirks.  He approached these pieces with respect and discernment.”

Two decades later, by the time the author is called to help with the grape harvest of 1995, grit and hard work had brought the promise of Saucelito Canyon back to life.

Mr. Weir’s exploration of the parallels between these two men – Ditmas and Greenough – is fascinating; although apparently different, they are directly linked by what they bring to Saucelito Canyon.  And when the author joins their ranks – playing the lead in a wacky but charming cast of characters striving to harvest grapes amidst a slew of obstacles – he leaves his own mark on the vineyard.  And the vineyard changes him, too.

Vintner Bill Greenough, left, and author Sean Christopher Weir at Saucelito Canyon VIneyard
“What I do, where I am, what my family is like – it’s all rooted in that strange and unlikely season that I didn’t see coming,” Mr. Weir told me during a phone interview from his home in Paso Robles.  Mr. Weir, 47, runs the marketing and branding firm Mooncatcher with his wife, Malei, and has a 9-year-old son named Easton.  “It all came from a random phone call and, looking back, it’s fascinating to see how things played out.”  Mr. Weir had worked briefly for Mr. Greenough in 1992, three years before the chance phone call that brought him back for the harvest of 1995.

Mr. Weir’s catharsis was born as much from the raw experience of taming any wine grape crush as it does from his relationship with Mr. Greenough.  The vintner, 71, who recently passed winemaking duties over to his son Tom, is a man of few words. But his ethos is rooted in an attitude of no-holds-barred perseverance.

“Attempt not, but achieve,” was the motto of Tony Dunn, the man who founded the Dunn School in Los Olivos, which Mr. Greenough attended.  And this, the author asserts, is what helped fuel Mr. Greenough’s own drive.  “Bill had proven that he could make remarkable wine in the canyon – not in spite of the circumstances, but rather because of them,” Mr. Weir writes.

The 1995 Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel that Mr. Weir and Mr. Greenough worked on together went on to garner 92 points from Wine Spectator, an industry coup.

This book will easily appeal to the wine curious.  In accessible language woven throughout his story, Mr. Weir does a wonderful job of explaining the semantics of winemaking and defining basic terms -- filtration, fermentation, punchdowns – that any budding aficionado will appreciate learning.

The Mad Crush is also infused with plenty of Central Coast flavor.  For example, the reader’s peek into life along Santa Barbara’s Mountain Drive – the eclectic Bohemian community of the mid-20th century where inhibitions went to die – is fascinating.  Winemaking was part and parcel to the lifestyle when Mr. Greenough moved there in 1968.  “The first time Bill made wine, he was buck naked,” Mr. Weir writes.  “Clothing wasn’t optional at the communal grape stompings… It was forbidden.”

The 1880 zinfandel block at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard
During his interview, Mr. Weir said that life on Mountain Drive, before his move to Saucelito Canyon, was “a pivotal part” of the man Mr. Greenough became.  “It was a privilege to layer in one more aspect of the oral history of that experience up there,” he continues.  “I didn’t set out to tell the whole story but to lay down just one more chapter before it’s all forgotten.”

But, beyond wine and beyond the charm of regional lore, The Mad Crush appeals for its multilayered story about the human experience.  Success is often rooted in perseverance. But submission to serendipity – the willingness to be moved by time and place – can be powerful, too.

The Mad Crush ($11.95, 151 pages) is available at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito and The Book Loft in Solvang.  For more information, go to www.TheMadCrush.com.


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