Quickly now... What famous winemaker got into the wine business by accident? What famous winemaker was also tutored by André Tchelistcheff? What famous winemaker has also been dubbed "The Diva of Pinot"? And what famous winemaker has posed nude in a vat of grapes amidst the swirling mist of dry ice?
The answer to each question is the same - Lane Tanner. Today's blog entry is from a recent 45-minute interview with this colorful persona, as interesting as the wine she makes...
Q: Lane there are a growing number of talented female winemakers, and many of them are in the Central Coast area, but among all of them you have been dubbed the Diva of Pinot. This is a far cry from your humble origins in the business - can you tell us a bit about your auspicious beginning?
A: I didn't have any knowledge of or interest in wine when I graduated from college with a degree in chemisty. From the age of 21 - 26 I worked in the air and water industry – eventually opening my own lab. I was a "Remote Field Operator" building and equiping towers. It was pretty fun, actually, but was getting tired of the travel and the lack of a personal life. The final straw was the winter I spent in Montana, literally sitting all day in a cowfield to take air cleanliness measurements. I even went to a single night but, let’s just say it didn’t go so well, the local talent wasn't quite what I was after.
So I quit my job and returned to spend some time with my family in Lake County. While waiting for school to start again, I goofed off at mom’s, who was working at a number of part-time jobs. One day a local winery (Konocti) called mom to work on the bottling line, and I happened to answer the phone. I told them my mom was busy, but that I could work if they wanted, and I ended up going in. I worked the bottling line (very slow and quiet, so we could talk a lot!) and stood next to their winemaker and in the conversation it came out that I was a chemist. He asked if I could do some work for him and even though I'd never worked in the business I knew it was similar to cooking - if you know how you can follow any recipe.
That was the attitude I took into the lab the next day, and was just sitting there waiting for some direction when suddenly the winemaker walks in with consultant, some old wrinkled guy about my height who had a monobrow. I didn't know who it was, but it turned out to be André. The winemaker introduced me as their new Enologist. "What the hell is that!!??" I thought. After talking for a while, André kept saying "have Lane test this" and "have Lane test that", and I had a list of tests to run and thought my work was over. But then André invited me to taste with them, much to the chagrin of the winemaker, and so I just rolled with it, acting as confident and relaxed as I could.
I wasn’t even a wine drinker! I just watched and tried to swirl (a joke!), sniff, and spit (I dribbled on my shirt!). It was pretty comical, but André just kept asking "Lane can you taste such-and-such" or "Lane can you smell so-and-so?" and it became evident that I had a great palate and sense of smell. I'd always known I had these, but never realized they might be useful! In the past they'd just been a curse - I was the first to smell the cat box, and the one who got too sick to eat from the smell at Fisherman’s Wharf - that sort of thing. And André just kept saying "be sure to have Lane test this every week..."
By the end of the tasting I was pretty tanked, and André went to lunch with the winemaker while I just waited in the lab. After he returned the winemaker begrudgingly invited me to join them as their Enologist "André likes you" he said. I took the job with the agreement I would be laid off once they found a real Enologist. I stayed on through harvest, (which was NOT fun – that part of the state is cold and wet!) and then André found out I was being let go and asked if I wanted to stay in the industry and I simply could not say no, he had such a powerful way about him.
So by 1980 I found myself on the coattails of Andre, working as the Enologist at Firestone, another client of his.
Q: Lane, I think I hear about a hundred hard-working Winemaker Wannabes groaning with Envy!
In our affilated wine bar, Tastes of the Valleys, there is a small amount of your wine from several mid 1980's vintages (click on photo for larger view), wine you made for the Hitching Post - the famous Buellton restaurant that became even more famous in the movie "Sideways". How did that come about?
A: The Santa Ynez vally, and the whole Central Coast, had almost no wineries at that point, literally just a handful. So I worked with a lot of home winemakers and did tests for them. I got to know Frank Ostini, one of the Hitching Post partners, in a wine tasting group that included many early wine pioneers - Jim Clendenen, Rick Longoria, Ken Brown... I had moved from Firestone to Zaca Mesa to work under Ken Brown as Enologist, and Frank asked me to produce a restaurant program that was designed to go with his food – something to compliment everything from hearty steaks to fish.
Even then I preferred feminine, elegant wines, and produced several vintages of pinot noir for the Hitching Post. Of these, my 1986 was probably the prettiest wine I've ever made until my 2005 vintage, which is the best in 20 years! My 1987 was so acidic I didn't release them originally, but it is drinking beautifully now - that's the advantage of making wine in the style I prefer. In fact, the respected wine connoiseur, Jim McMillan, held a tasting of pinots from the 80’s and my 1986 was given top honors. I love hearing things like that.
Q: What is it like to sell the last of these wines? Do you say goodby to them with the regret of a mom sending her kid off to college?
A: To some degree, yes, because they are so much a part of my history. But fundamentally, wine is meant to be consumed, that's what it is born for. So it was nice to keep them for 20 years then return them to their original owners – completing the circle (The remainder of these 1980 vintages were sold to the Hitching Post in Casmalia - Ed).
Q: Your current husband is the Aussie Winemaker Rick Hill, who is as talented as he is jovial. How did you meet? Was it love at first site?
A: No it wasn’t (laughs). Ricky was visiting the U.S. on a student visa to learn industry. He already had a good job in the fruit industry but wanted to get into winemaking. He had been working at wineries "down under" and needed to work another harvest, so he came to the U.S. during our harvest season and hired on as a cellar rat at the facility where I make my wine. That first year, he earned a reputation as a good worker, one with curiousity and attention to detail. Then he returned the next year to track the progress of the wines he helped make - nobody had done that before, so I had noticed him and in 1999 when my knees gave out (punchdowns are really hard on the knees!) I hired him full-time to work for me.
When he returned to the U.S. the following year (2000) there were a number of winemakers who wanted to hire him. I won the bidding war by offering him 2 tons of premium pinot to begin the U.S. version of his existing Aussie label, Labyrinth. This gave him the neded motivation to move to the U.S. permanently, where he roomed with my husband and me.
By 2001 my husband and I had spit up and I became uncomfortable having Rick as a renter. But he begged me not to send him back to "the projects” - where the rest of the wine interns live in what resembles a poorly maintained fraternity house. So we talked about the importance of "no hanky panky" between roomates and employer-employee and were in agreement about that. We grew to be good friends, confidants, and roomates, and things progressed naturally, shall we say?
Then we took a post-harvest trip to Europe and one morning at breakfast I realized we worked together, lived together, had sex together, and vacationed together... we were a couple. After six years Ricki was really pressing to get married and eventually the question just became one of when to do it. Finally I decided to get married on my 50th birthday because we couldn't afford a big party to celebrate both events!
Q: How has it worked out celebrating your birthday and anniversary on the same day?
A: I'm not sure I like it! I absolutely love celebrating my birthday, and I want the focus on me!
Q: I know you well enough to know that you are both a lover of fine wine and fine food and gathering friends around your table to enjoy them both. So let me end our conversation with this question - If you could invite any three people to your dinner table, who would it be?
A: Wow, let me think a minute...
- Well, Ricki is a given, as he's still the person I prefer to spend most of my time with!
- The second would have to be Andre, although if I invited him to dinner there wouldn't be time for two other people! He is SUCH an interesting man, he lived in castles where they kept snakes in the milk to keep it from curdling - there are just so many great stories. He is such a powerful and intense individual he intimidated me as a young woman, and now that I'm more sure of myself I'd enjoy another chance to spend time together.
- And the third would be Isadora Duncan, whom I've always admired for her free spirit, and, of course her outfits!
Q: What would you serve?
A: That depends on the season. Beef stroganoff if it was winter or barbecue if it was summer. We'd start with a high end champagne, progress to one of my newer pinots, and then for the main course I'd serve my older pinots including the ’87 - I would love to show Andre how well some California pinots can age!
Lane, many thanks for your time today. It was a real pleasure.