For centuries, winemakers assumed that a good till reanimated the soil. To start afresh, they believed, you just needed to turn all the soil upside down. They dutifully hoed their vineyards twice a year: once at the end of the growing season and again just before spring. Plowing peaked during the 1980s as interest in wine boomed worldwide. If the traditional light turnover twice a year was good, the enthusiastic hoers believed, a deep cleansing every few months with a five-hundred-horsepower Disk Ripper tiller was better.
In recent years, partly as a result of the advent of natural winemaking, plowing has become more thoughtful. Some conscientious growers have turned away from machines, which can chop up the roots along with the weeds, and toward horse-drawn plows. Old-fashioned tilling, they believe, gives you more control, preventing damage while breaking up undesirable plants and encouraging the vines to grow deeper by gently loosening the surrounding earth. “Go slow,” they intone. “Be careful.”
Other winemakers favor planting over plowing. During the off-season, they grow cover crops such as peas, oats, and clover between the rows of vines to minimize soil erosion. “Don’t churn up dust,” the nurturers aver. “Sprinkle some seed.”
Some die-hard naturalists eschew both sowing and digging. The less they touch the soil, the better.
The fish guy vanished. My wife, Becky, and I had barely managed to scrape together the down payment on our waterfront wreck of a five-story industrial building in Lower Manhattan’s old Fulton Fish Market. But without the rent from the fish guy we weren’t going to be able to live there, much less make any improvements (windows would be nice), unless we found a new tenant to replace him on the ground floor. Months passed until we finally found the perfect one: an enthusiastic would-be wineshop owner willing to take over the space. The only problem was that he was me.
I can’t say that I was actively unhappy with my career in design—just a little stuck. I had recently finished doing the interiors of the Maritime, a trendy boutique hotel in Chelsea, and a penthouse triplex in the Hotel des Artistes, a labor of love. I had written a decorating how-to book, Living in Style Without Losing Your Mind. I had designed and curated an exhibition on the next wave of product designers for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. I had taught at Parsons the New School for Design for more than a decade. I was still writing my column for the New York Times occasionally. But I started to have rumblings.
“It has to be the blue granite,” proclaimed my client with the closetful of Manolo Blahniks and the kitchen lined with empty teak cabinets. “But you already had them cut the Calacatta,” I reminded the woman who was already on the third renovation in just as many years. “We finalized that six weeks ago,” I added, trying to mask my impatience.
“I know,” the put-together blonde admitted sheepishly, and then cooed, “Darling, just tell them to take it back. They can sell it to someone else.”
“And please,” she added offhandedly, “make sure I get full credit. Thanks, love.”
I looked at the two-foot stack of stone samples for the countertops at my feet, the piles of fabric swatches arrayed on my desk, the bulletin board with the inspirational magazine clippings. I surveyed it all and realized that I had had enough.
This type of design wasn’t making lives better. It wasn’t even making anyone’s life prettier. This was going in circles.
I needed to break the cycle.
So I opened up the fifty-year-old Laubade armagnac that my mom had given me. I doused the desk, set it on fire, closed the door, and never looked back.
In reality, I did what people of my background do: I reached into the wine rack and whipped out the best bottle Becky and I had, a brunello riserva we had been given as a wedding present. The tannic red needed another five years before it would be ready to drink. “Screw it,” I told myself, “I’m taking action.” As I strained to sip my big glass of bitter red wine, I pondered. After a half an hour, the glass was empty. My mouth felt dry. Still no epiphany. But I knew I had to find a way off my upholstered hamster wheel.
Tibor Kalman, the late graphic designer and a friend, once told me that he tried never to do anything more than twice. The first time, he reasoned, you panicked, made mistakes, but also had the freshness and the passion to do it well. The second time, you could reduce the anxiety and the screwups but still be excited about the product. By the third time, however, Tibor contended, it all became too rote. The bumps were smoothed out, but so was the passion. Tibor, I should point out, was a little nuts. But his worldview resonated with me. I could design another hotel or more fancy apartments. But was more the answer?
I wanted a change but was not going to shave my head and move to Tibet. Instead, in the year I turned forty, I finally got married and bought a house. But I was still restless. I’ve never really had a career track as much as a career web, albeit always rooted in design. I’ve made furniture, licensed housewares, designed apartments, and written about architecture, though I never really felt as if I had left any of those jobs behind forever.
In Italy, where I spent summers and holidays growing up, this kind of vocational variation seemed to be no big deal. Carlo Mollino was as well-known for his chairs as for his buildings—as well as for his pornography. Massimo Vignelli (“If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”) created the iconic 1972 New York City subway map, equally iconic dishes, and, no less important to me, the wine label for one of my favorite producers, Feudi San Gregorio. And I’ve always identified with multidisciplinary types. Not so much with the big geniuses such as Leonardo, but with Renaissance men writ small, such as David Byrne: art rock plus Latin music plus biking (an interest we share). Or my friend Douglas Riccardi, half hip Brooklynite, half Italian grandma: he makes his own pasta as well as his own driftwood furniture (and weaves the rush seats).
As a wine lover with many interests, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson, president/architect/botanist/inventor/writer/oenophile, is my god. But I was more wowed to learn through his diaries that as ambassador to France, Jefferson took several solo monthlong wine excursions to savor, learn, and experience. If I couldn’t hope to match his many talents, at least I could aspire to his level of curiosity.
Wine, I soon discovered, is perfect for people who like to explore: history, biology, anthropology, geology, geography, even philosophy. The deeper you dig, the more you find. My friend Jan D’Amore discovered why grapes are so easy to grow at the resuscitated Odoardi winery in Calabria despite the locals’ pessimism. Two thousand years ago, the Romans had tended vines on the very same site and had described a felicitous microclimate.
Chalky soil explains why that Sancerre is so minerally. Vines trimmed in a double-Guyot (flat-topped) probably are growing in Bordeaux.
No wonder wine attracts so many geeks—it’s easy to get drawn in by the minutia. There are legions of statisticians and numbers-obsessed oenophiles who attempt to quantify an essentially unquantifiable experience by assigning it some standard measures and rational explanations. I see the temptation.
But I love the mysticism even more. How can, for example, the well-educated consulting winemaker to a number of Italy’s top producers honestly tell me that one gram (1⁄28 of an ounce!) of ground-up cow horn spread over twenty-two acres of vineyard led to worldwide recognition of his fledgling vineyard? Is he crazy? Or am I?
Wine, I also realized early on, appeals to people who like secrets. Whether it’s hedge funders determined to be more inside than their peers or the people who like The Da Vinci Code, wine aficionados tend to like mystery. And wine seems to demand a special knowledge. But the truly devoted seek more: they want to be clued in to the stories behind the labels, like that illustrious Burgundy producer now being eclipsed by his wife’s much younger lover whose rescue of a once-hallowed vineyard that had fallen into disrepair makes him the next superstar. Think Thomas Pynchon with a little Umberto Eco thrown in. It’s a seductive brew of fact, legend, and gossip.
I started to dream that maybe I’d get to wander the countryside, inspecting old cellars and chatting with vignerons. I’d definitely get to taste a lot of wine. I’m so there. I think.
In San Francisco, there’s a beautiful and eclectic store that sells motorcycle jackets and cheese, among an array of other perfectly selected merchandise. But I just can’t get myself to buy dairy products from a clothing store. If I were really serious about opening a shop, and the idea was slowly dawning upon me, I’d have to make it special because of its approach, not because I also sold wheels of Brie and very attractive pots.
When the fish guy left in 2004, we renovated the second floor while we debated what to put on the first. The vision remained nebulous until one night in January 2005 at what seemed like an unremarkable press dinner promoting the new Conran store under the Fifty-ninth Street bridge, I was seated next to Julie Lasky, then editor in chief of I.D. magazine. Smart, a good listener, and a heavy pourer, Julie coaxed me to confess my vague idea for a store downstairs from my new home. She then promptly exacted a promise from me to write a story for I.D. about its development. Nursing a walloping headache the next day, I cursed my lack of discretion and thought, “Now what?”