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Where are the Faces?

SteveHeimoff.com, Steve Heimoff
10/10/2013

In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.

“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]

“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.” 

It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.

Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.

I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.

Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.

Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.

Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.

But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.

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