In 1880, an Englishman named Henry Ditmas planted three acres of zinfandel grapes in the remote Saucelito Canyon east of Arroyo Grande. Nearly a century later, Bill Greenough, who’d been raised amid the hippie hedonism of Santa Barbara Mountain Drive community, purchased the property in 1974 and unearthed the forgotten vines. Then in 1995, Greenough hired a young, somewhat aimless, aspiring writer named Sean Christopher Weir to work the harvest, and Weir wound up reaping much-needed direction in his life.
Those elements are blended together in Weir’s new memoir, The Mad Crush. The 160-page romp through Central Coast history and the process of winemaking is a quick and lively read, perfect for anyone with any shred of interest in wine. The Sonoma-raised, Cal Poly-educated Weir, who’s run the San Luis Obispo County media relations firm Mooncatcher for 12 years now, spoke to me on the phone last month. What follows is a streamlined version of our conversation.
What made you write about this experience now? Even at the time, I had the sense that there were weird and wonderful things happening during that harvest season, so I did take some notes. Bill is a man of few words, but he would tell these stories that were almost hard to believe, like stomping grapes in the nude on Mountain Drive, how some Englishman went to the middle of nowhere to plant a vineyard in 1880, and how Bill, a hundred years later, fished these old vines out of the scrub brush with a pick and shovel. The stories seemed larger than life to me.
Then about five years ago, I went to a retrospective tasting to celebrate Bill’s 35th year in the canyon. When the ’95 vintage came out of the cave, it was crusted in dirt and dust, and I was like, “Wow, this is the wine I helped make.” Zinfandel is not known as the most age-worthy variety, but it still had structure, and, to me, it still told the story.
How’s Bill doing now? Great. He’s handing the reins off to his son, Tom, and his daughter, Margaret, has returned and is also becoming deeply involved; but Bill and Nancy are still fairly involved, and it’s a true family business.
How much did that harvest affect the rest of your life? I don’t want to overstate it, but it was very pivotal, and in many ways steered me to where I am today, including getting me back on the Central Coast. There’s an almost spiritual aspect to the story for me, in that I was on the verge of becoming a slacker — I was just spinning my wheels and kinda aimless. Without knowing it, I was looking for some direction. The harvest was a form of boot camp for me. It was a big kick in the ass at the right time.
It also gave me a little bit of a nest egg, working a harvest with nowhere to spend the overtime. It bought me a little time to explore the craft of writing and try my hand at freelance journalism, and the rest is history.
And it wasn’t just me. Mike Sinor found his way to the canyon in 1993, and it changed his life, too. Bill found his way to the canyon in 1974, and Henry Ditmas did in 1880. This simple act of planting these vines 135 years ago is still changing lives today, right up to Bill’s son, who is the winemaker.
To me it is a story of endurance and entrepreneurship as much as it’s about wine.
The book also explains the grape-growing and winemaking process in a very easy-to-understand way. That was very intentional. I feel like wine can be cool and inclusive, which I don’t think everyone realizes. That’s been a passion for me for a long time. I’ve heard from family and friends who’ve read the book that it’s opened their eyes to how wine is made in a manner that’s very unvarnished but informative. That was one of the most gratifying things to hear. Someone told me it’s a wine book for those who don’t know they’re into wine. I really hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think that’s what I was after.
Wine if often wrapped in so much marketing mystery, but you seem to cut through that. There seems to be a line between the initiated and the uninitiated when it comes to wine. I hope this book can blur that line for some people and make wine intriguing and relatable. That’s a driving force behind what I was trying to do. There’s my personal story, which was interesting enough, but this is also an opportunity to tell the story of wine in maybe a way that it has rarely been told.
Had you ever heard of Mountain Drive? I had no idea. Sinor and I would just go, “There’s no way.” Again, Bill was a man of few words, so he wasn’t telling these grand stories. He’d just let these things drop. After that tasting, when I got the initial inspiration, I circled back to Bill, and he started filling in the blanks and enlarging the stories. He also had the books by Lee Chiacos and Wild Bill Neely. I found out that, not only are these stories true, but they’re more magnificent than I could have ever imagined. These people were larger than life. It’s a story of mentors and inspiration. Those people shaped who Bill was and his trajectory as much as he shaped mine.
How does Bill like the book? He seems very appreciative to have his story told. For me, it’s really an honor to tell his story. He was a father figure to me at a time in my life that proved to be very helpful, and I was mentored in a lot of ways, from the way he approaches life to the way he approaches work.
Would you do a harvest now? Ohh. It’s one of those things I like to think I’d do, but shoveling grapes at 10 o’clock at night under the full moon? I don’t know if I have the balls to do it.
But I hope someday for my son to read this book. All he knows of me is that I’m the person behind the computer a lot, so now he can know that his dad was out there at some point busting ass and working hard with his hands. The lessons of hard work and endurance that are in the book will resonate with him one day.
Sean Christopher Weir will sign copies of The Mad Crush on Friday, May 1, 4:30-6 p.m., at Oreana Winery (205 Anacapa St.), where there will also be live music and a food truck. The book is also for sale at Chaucer’s Books, Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito, and the Book Loft in Solvang. See themadcrush.com.