It’s painful to lose a good friend, doubly so when the person is wonderful, warm, and charming. So the loss of two such wine men in the last several weeks has been especially agonizing for so many.
That both would be memorialized on the same day, last Saturday, had me recalling a line from the English poet John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”: “No man is an island.” It also includes, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Winemaker and Sonoma County pioneer Davis Bynum passed away at age 92 in December. His memorial was at Rodney Strong Winery, where Davis Bynum wines are now produced by Klein Family Vintners.
Winemaker and wine consultant David Stevens, 57, died three weeks ago at his Napa home.
Attending both memorials was extremely sad, but both men were widely loved. Stevens’ memorial was in the morning in Napa; Bynum’s in the afternoon south of Healdsburg.
The striking thing was that both men left such a lasting impression on the wine business they both loved so much that the gatherings for them were filled to overflowing.
The parallels between the two men were striking. Both had a delightful sense of humor, both loved their families deeply, and both had a huge coterie of friends in wine from whom they both learned and eventually taught.
Bynum was the first to vineyard-designate a Russian River Valley Pinot. Bynum was one of the first Sonoma County wineries to grow all of its grapes organically. He also established a permaculture garden to support ecological diversity on his ranch.
Stevens worked at numerous wineries both in California and overseas, and established the style for several iconic brands including Domaine Chandon’s Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine.
Along with a colleague, Christian Miller, Stevens also ran a multi-week symposium on U.S. wine marketing for the International Organization for Vine and Wine (OIV), a European-based wine marketing group that has staged the event annually for several years at UC Davis.
I recall a meeting I had with Davis Bynum in the mid-1990s after a 1991 “60 Minutes” report, “The French Paradox,” said that despite a profligate lifestyle of eating fatty foods and smoking, the French had a very low rate of heart disease because of regular red wine consumption.
That quickly led to a shortage of Merlot in the state, and soon everyone was planting Merlot – most of it in the wrong (hot climate) places. As a result, Merlot quality declined rapidly. By the mid-1990s quality was so bad that everyone disparaged it.
Sales of all Merlot declined, including Bynum’s, despite it being superb.
“So why isn’t it selling?” he asked at lunch one day.
I replied, “There are too many poor ones from grapes planted in the wrong places.”
He teased me, “I think it’s your fault for not telling people how good ours is!”
I promptly wrote about it.
Stevens was a sensational and sensitive wine judge, and he often participated at my wine competitions, always as a panel chairman. As such, his panel always was assigned younger judges for him to tutor. His kind and humorous approach was always appreciated.
Alex Weil, a Los Angeles sommelier and beverage director, said, “I remember a lot about [my first wine competition] in 2014. One of the most enduring memories was David.
“His warmth, welcoming spirit, and desire to help was immediately felt. He patiently and without any pretension explained to me” many technical aspects of wine.
“I learned a tremendous amount about the wine world at your competitions from people like David.”
Wine of the Week: 2016 Cline Syrah, Sonoma Coast ($14) – The aroma here is plum, blueberry jam, and a slight peppery note, and the wine’s greatest feature is its mid-palate richness with balanced tannins. The fruit is from the newly approved AVA Petaluma Gap and will be better with an hour or two of aeration. A nice job by winemaker Charlie Tsegeletos.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.