Among the most entertaining and stimulating publications that have come my way in recent years is Loam Baby, a wine culture zine published under the nom de plume of R. H. Drexel, a wine industry insider. Each issue (there have been three so far) is devoted to exploring an American wine region, with feature articles, highly personal and offbeat winemaker interviews, music playlists, the author’s sometimes-blurry photos and hand-drawn cartoons. By providing an intimate look at the local talent, Drexel has managed to capture the essence of each region in a way that “professional” journalists rarely do.
I caught up with the elusive Drexel for an interview recently and posed some questions that had been on my mind since I read the first issue of Loam Baby in the spring of 2012. Part two of the interview will appear on Winophilia next week. Incidentally, hard copies of Loam Baby are available for purchase, and free PDFs can be downloaded at www.loambaby.com.
What’s the point of the title? And should it be read Loam Baby or Loam, Baby?
RHD: At first, I was going to call it Holy Schist. Ultimately I decided on Loam Baby because it’s more reflective of my intentions. I grew up on a farm, constantly around nature and animals. I’m most comfortable near the earth, near loam, so hence Loam Baby.
What made you decide to undertake this project?
RHD: The things I love: interesting people, nature, beautiful wines, storytelling. I’ve been in the business for more than half my life now . . . over 25 years, and though I love it, bullshit is rampant in this business. Some people don’t seem to mind it and just let it roll off, but bullshit confuses me because I’m kind of built to believe what people tell me, so when some winemakers bullshit when the media and somms come around, I tend to spin out a little. It gets under my skin, so Loam Baby is a way for me to spotlight people who don’t bullshit. These people encourage and inspire me to remain focused on the stuff that matters.
What kinds of BS are you referring to?
RHD: Well, you know the guys and gals, the ones who talk all about terroir and farming but are hardly ever in the vineyard. The ones who devote more time to their Twitter feed than to walking their vineyard sources. And my major peeve is winemakers who spend all of their time talking about what their colleagues are doing wrong rather than focusing on their own work. I find these guys to be huge pussies. They’re worse than the old ladies at my aunt’s assisted living community who gossip all day because they don’t have anything else to do. To me, these kinds of folks are amateurs. I steer clear of them and their insecurities.
How important is the cult of celebrity to the marketing of wine? Conversely, are shy winemakers who are ineffective self-promoters at a huge disadvantage?
RHD: The short answer is, no, shy winemakers are not at a disadvantage. The cult of celebrity is very off-putting to me. I was raised by two artists; my mother is a poet. My father is a musician. Growing up, we were constantly surrounded by an extremely diverse group of family friends. Maintenance workers, dairy men, fishermen, school teachers, other artists, celebrities, heads of state even. To this day, when my parents entertain, they bring a broad range of people together. Their only criterion is that people be interesting and kind. Neither one of my parents can abide gossip or the tearing down of others just to build oneself up, so I’m kind of like that, too.
I thrive around people who are the real deal. And I love diversity because it keeps thing fresh and interesting. “Cool kid” cliques that are exclusive and self-promoting, and which are, again, rampant in this business, bore me silly. It’s easy for me to remove them from my radar because their behavior is anathema to the real and beautiful world of wine appreciation. Some folks in the business are afraid to ignore these kinds of cliques or want to somehow be a part of them because they feel they’ll get more attention that way. I advise these folks to just keep doing what they’re doing; keep growing and making lovely wines and ignore all the noise. I tell them they’ll find an audience for their wines if they remain focused and work hard.
The folks in the wine business that I naturally gravitate toward are the real vignerons. They’re just out there quietly doing what they love without a thought to being famous. These people have my deepest admiration and respect.
I also dig on folks like Manfred and Elaine Krankl and Greg Brewer—highly creative folks who don’t pay attention to trends and who just keep doing what they’re doing in a quiet yet rebellious manner. They’re famous because of the quality of their work, not because they’re self-promoting. They know what they’re about and I respect that. FULL DISCLOSURE: Melville Winery, for which Greg Brewer is the winemaker, is a barter-based client of mine.
Of the winemakers you have interviewed, who was the biggest surprise in terms of public perception vs. the real person you discovered?
RHD: I’d have to say Jayson Woodbridge. He’s a bit of a bull in a china shop—let’s say he sticks out like a sore middle finger in the relatively sedate community of St. Helena. I was pretty intimidated going into the interview with him as I’d heard that he’s rather unpleasant and causes scenes at major events, etc. I wondered if he was posturing to get attention. Anyway, what I found instead is a guy who just doesn’t suffer fools. My sense is that he’s trying to hold onto something real in a rather buttoned-up community. Essentially, he has a good heart and generous spirit. He likes to see others happy if he perceives that they’re enjoying themselves and not just fronting. He seems to act out when he senses that folks aren’t being real, which I get. Anyway, it’s probably not fashionable to say so among the wine industry elite, but I like him. I’d like to tie one on with him some day. I think that would be fun.
Have you ever had winemakers turn down your request for an interview? What were the reasons they gave?
RHD: Not yet. I’ve been very fortunate. Of the four people that I really wish I could interview now, three have already passed: the great Henri Jayer, the Maestro Bepi Quintarelli and Julia Child. The fourth is living and working still: Bill Cunningham of the New York Times. I’d flip if I could ever interview him. He’s not in the world of wine, but the way he has comported himself throughout his lengthy career has inspired me endlessly. He’s my hero, and I think I would have left the wine business a while ago had it not been for his example. He is a keeper of the flame. He’s humane and he works hard.
Could you ever be an objective critic of a winemaker’s wines after getting to know him or her so intimately?
RHD: No. I don’t know how that would be possible for me, to tell you the truth. That’s just not how I’m built. I’m sure it can be done, but I’m an emotional person and I’m not a journalist. This little zine is a labor of love; I pay for it myself without any advertising and I don’t offer editorial guidelines as that’s not what this is really all about. It’s just about storytelling, not really reviewing wines.
[Part two to follow next week on Winophilia.]