A conversation with bill mayer ~ poet, educator, distributor…


“Off in the distance, there are trees, and then nothing.
The tall, lean winemaker and I are walking towards those trees, beyond which the world drops away.
When I first met him, his hair was black, the small beard dark; now both are stone white.
He has exchanged houses with his son, moving up to the top of the mountain above the vineyards,
his son now the master. We are walking towards the edge, this old man and I,
to see the great view of the canyon beyond.” ~ Bill Mayer

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Above ~ Salon dinner #25. May 25th 2013. Winemaker Steve Edmunds reading “Above the Mosel Valley.” Our dead soldiers from the evening. Bill speaking about his work, and then whipping the cream for dessert. Around the table ~ Kristen Brown Talley, Steve Edmunds, Lloyd Bernberg, Laura Peisl, Chad Arnold, Ted Talley, Andrew Browne, Susanne Kauer, Jane McKinne-Mayer, Bill, Paul Costigan, Tony Keppelman, Ellie Tappe.


The world of wine is simultaneously overwhelmingly complex, and strangely simple. It’s large and multi-faceted ~ in that it spreads much of the globe and the varietals and vintages seem endless; but for many people wine is fairly straight-forward and comes as a white, red or rose, with not too much variation, with preferences based on past experiences and exposure. The wine community is also made up of layers ~ people who drink it, appreciate it and buy it retail, those who import, distribute and create the wine lists, and the winemakers themselves. My interest in wine is two-fold ~ as Proustian madeleine and as an object around which people gather. The simplicity of the ritual around the act of drinking a glass of wine is fascinating to me. And the other morning I asked my husband Lloyd (who worked in the wine industry but has also been tasting wine for a couple decades) a pretty basic question, but one that I had never thought to ask before ~ what was it that intrigued him about wine when he was younger? Lloyd told me about a particular moment in his life when he studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence France. They would eat outside, and the food, as provincial as it was, was delicious and always accompanied by wine. It totally transformed his perspective on eating and drinking and that ritual of sitting and enjoying a long meal together. He also told me about a coffee table book his parents had on wine when he was in high school. He suddenly became aware of this whole culture of wine-making and consumption that was so rich and had a whole social history that he wanted to learn about. It was like comic books or records and music ~ the curiosity ~ “it was all about the discovery”.. every month he would get a box of comics and it was a box of new discoveries, and with wine it was the same thing, but in bottles ~ an unknown. He continued, “With records you’d look at the cover and say this looks interesting and buy it. You weren’t steered by advertising. There was no guidance, and it was great! But nowadays, with the hyper seriousness that wine and the profession has become it’s not as alluring or special. It’s more like a sport.”…For me however, the wine itself and how it circulates and gains meaning, is still a world of discovery.


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Above ~ Salon Dinner #12, September 23rd 2013. Left ~ Ian, Chad Arnold, myself and Susanne Kauer. Around the table ~ Jennifer Jones,                              Stan Sobolewski, Chad, Tracy Tingle, Jerome Waag, Lloyd Bernberg, Ian, Paul Costigan, Sue, Anthony Sueuga, Suzanne Drexhage.


My friend Bill Mayer has taught me a lot about wine, especially Riesling. I remember meeting him at Chez Panisse a couple years ago and within minutes of meeting him we spoke of Rilke, one of my favorite poets. That was our connection ~ Rilke and Riesling (and my attempt at understanding it). What’s remarkable about Bill is the way he thinks about wine ~ how it’s integral to where and who makes it. He has taken a couple of my friends, including Ian Burrows (above) to Germany and Austria and introduced them to winemakers he has worked with for the past couple decades as an importer and distributor, now working with Winemonger. Wine, like art, is about education ~ about provenance, origin, context and getting such first hand insight meeting the winemakers themselves on their vineyards can illuminate its significance in our lives, and in the people’s worlds who make it. I asked Ian, a sommelier at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, to talk to me about his views on wine, his role as educator and middle person at the two-Michelin starred restaurant and about wine’s overall importance in the dining experience ~

On wine ~ “I see wine as a key that can be used to unlock flavors and aromas in dishes that are not always obvious to the diner. Just as some wines are best enjoyed with food to tame textures or enhance the flavors, the opposite may also apply. In short, fine wine & beautifully prepared food are best enjoyed in each other’s company. My role at Atelier Crenn is fairly straightforward.  It is to design, build and maintain a profitable wine selection which offers a broad range of options to the discerning diner, whatever mood they might be in. I do not believe in the romantic notion of Terroir, although I do believe that fine wines have the ability to express a distinct sense of place.  I believe that there are many aspects to take into consideration when pairing wines to food, and that more savory styles of wine like Sherry, Madeira, mature bottles of white, red and sparkling wines tend to have an affinity at the table. Fresher, fruitier, more primary styles of wines often enhance savoriness in a dish, which is not always needed at Crenn. Textures such as astringency, petillance or viscosity in wine can be very useful when highlighting specific aspects of a dish, aspects that would remain hidden without such accompaniments. I also take numerical significance into consideration when guiding a guest to a wine choice.  Anniversary vintages, birth years or historically significant bottlings can often evoke strong positive emotions as can the geographic origins of a wine….. Ive lost count of how many guests have requested a certain wine from a specific vintage which would coincide with a marriage proposal or other significant moment in their lives. My memories of the trip to Austria and Germany with Bill are entirely built around the transition of knowledge. He was sharing, with me, all of his knowledge accumulated over 30 years of traveling and tasting. It was as if I were sitting in on a family reunion with Bill & his friends at the wine estates.”


Bill Mayer, Interview #4, February 20th 2014

s_v11ah3llqfg0151“I’m in the wine world but I’m an outsider because I’m a poet and a photographer. I don’t go to tastings, or the big conventions. I only go to the wineries. I want to learn about the winemaker and go out into the vineyards. I started going to Germany in 1990 and to Austria in 1991, and go there for about a month to cover both countries.”

On Terroir ~ “One of the big problems in the US is the loss of faith. It’s been destroyed, and what it’s being replaced by is uber scientific. People don’t want to talk about terroir unless you define it in a very scientific way. I have a wine maker friend who doesn’t believe there is any such thing as terroir. Since minerals are not in it, you can’t taste it. But last night I tasted wines from adjacent vineyards and they tasted totally different. One was a village wine and another from another vineyard.. Vosne Romanee, both by Emmanuel Rouget. I don’t know what else you would call it…except “terroir.”

On your wine group CRACHEURS ~ “It means the spitters. It was started 30 years ago, but i came in a few years after, around 1993. Hiram Simon, David Netzer and Oliver McCrumb (imports Italian), Drake McCarthy, Chad Arnold, Brian Greenwood, and Davoe Price. We meet every 2 months. The host provides the wines and cooks the meal. The 8 wines we serve blind. 2 white and 6 reds and once I did the opposite and it was shocking. Everybody has to guess what they are. We open the two first wines and people write their answers and give them to me and we read them out loud. The winner wins the bottle ~ empty of course; it’s symbolic. Last night I served a 1991 Gruner and a 1966 Rheingau, and Hiram guessed 1966. we pause and then the reds come out. and the host cooks. I roasted two chickens and had basmati rice with ginger and cumin, haricot verts and brussel sprouts. and of course a cheese course. its a fine feast and it usually lasts until midnight.”

On storytelling through wine ~ “The purpose of wine is to stimulate good conversation,” a quote from one of my favorite writers Lawrence Durrell ~ I was in Austria with Terry Theise and we were at the winery Salomon and he was pouring older wines and said you know, something my father told me.. and he said it in German, but when we translated it it was something like ~ “wine is one of the great minor pleasures in the world.”

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On visiting his winemaker friends/clients in germany and austria ~ “I like a lot of those people because they have whole lives. It’s a life and it’s a life connected to the soil and the outdoors ~ a farmers’ sensibility; and many are doctors. The one kind of family i enjoy visiting is the “european family” because they know how to do it. Willi Schaefer ~ son just took over. they want to spend time in the cellar, working the wines and papa wants to be outside in the vineyard. Reductive winemaking is in the air ~ little as possible in the cellar and as much as possible in the vineyard.” On J.J PRUM ~ “It is one of the most famous estates in Germany. I’ve never imported it. Manfred (his daughter Caterina has now taken over) ~ it’s one of those estates that I’ve never had a bad wine from, because it’s the classic old fashioned Mosel, and that vineyard is very famous because of PRUM. The gold capsule is especially wonderful Auslesse (it’s what you bought from me for Lloyd for xmas). On poetry ~ for me it’s always been a bit of a problem uniting commerce and art. So how does poetry fit into that? It doesn’t. To me it’s the romance of being able to go to another country and learn what they’re doing from their point of view. A few of my poems have to do with wine… “Mosel Valley” is poignant because I’ve known Will since 1990 and he’s an innocent. Everyone loves him and his son Christophe, who I got a job at Saintsbury, is just like him. I started that poem there ~ it was my love song to Germany…I went to a private boys military episcopalian school in North Hollywood, and it wasn’t until 11th grade that I was beginning to form myself. There was a young teacher who wanted to start a literary magazine and music appreciation class. He was responsible, for better or worse, for what I became.”

Jack Gilbert and meOn meeting the poet Jack Gilbert ~ “I went to SF State (after Whittier). My parents weren’t happy although they saved a lot of money. I took a poetry class and didn’t know about the teachers and thought “what’s the difference” but I don’t think these things are accidental. I took a second class called the “Craft of Poetry “ and the teacher said ~ “Poetry is not a game. It’s about your life and it’s important” which was scary but what I needed to hear and he invited me to his private workshop, and it continued from there…”

On his Proustian “madeleine” ~ 1976 Lafite Rothschild and a 1971 PRUM we had in 1989 when we got married on Aug 9th…. but when I was 34-35, the retsinas I drank when I was living in Greece, in Paros. We would walk to Paroikia and pick up groceries. My girlfriend and I were living in a small Venetian style villa, out in Butterfly Valley. We would get stuff at the farm and we also had a cistern. So often it’s the place, the time and the people you’re with and the wine is important but it’s not exactly great wine that will do that. Now one of my favorite things to do is having wine when you’re camping out miles and miles from anybody, like Death Valley. It’s pretty amazing, and we camp in style with tables, a stove, an icebox and we have everything we need.”

On his favorite culture-makers ~ William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. It was the language. Graham Green, Ezra Pound, Walt s_v11ah3llqfg0507Whitman, Dylan Thomas. Ingmar Bergman. The Lord of the Rings ~ it’s a masterpiece. The English Patient, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Pauline Kael ~ who’s wonderful but such a smart ass. TV’s Sherlock series and its interesting use of deconstruction. Downtown Abbey. And the singer ~ Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.


When I was just about to leave Bill told me a story about sommelier Paul Grieco who had eaten at Chez Panisse, and commented on the dessert ~  that is was “just” a bowl with oranges and dates on a fig leaf; and Bill asked “well, were they good?” and he responded “ya, they were the best I ever had.” ~ exactly… It’s about the search for such experiences through the senses, and those moments that peak our curiosity ~ whether it’s through music, wine, film, food, other people. It’s about living and experiencing the new, and chasing those moments that already happened, in search of both transcendence and remembrance over and over again…

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Above, left ~ Salon Dinner #11 “My grandmother’s ricotta gnocchi” ~ August 4th 2012 ~ Raj Parr, Bill, Josh Jensen and Andrew Browne.
Right ~ Andrew, Bill, Chad Arnold, Susanne Kauer and Lloyd Bernberg.

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Above ~ A recent “Pinot Noir” dinner in the Oakland Hills ~ July 12th 2014. Co-hosted with Alexandra Foote, for Juniper Ridge’s Hall Newbegin.
Left ~ Bill with Lloyd Bernberg, winemaker Sean Thackrey and Hall Newbegin. Right ~ our table…


“I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it.
I want to have lived the width of it as well.” – Diane Ackerman


Other “wine world” interviews ~
Rajat Parr (Sandhi/winemaker/sommelier), Paul Draper (Ridge/winemaker),
Josh Jensen (Calera/winemaker), Chad Arnold (wine buyer, Paul Marcus Wines)


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