Winter 2012 Food and Wine - Boxing Wine
John Saunders’ backstory makes him a Carmel Valley icon – and this icon makes good wine.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
John Saunders, 61, didn’t get the Stirrup Cup bartending gig at 21 because of his food-and-beverage degree. He was hired because the owner wanted a fighter, and Saunders happened to be a Vietnam-tested Marine and a veteran of the boxing ring whose dad had him sparring by 10.
Such was Carmel Valley – and the Stirrup Cup, now the Running Iron – at the time. Saloons were more of a menace than a memory, drinks more whiskey rocks than Chock Rock Pinot, bartenders more bouncers than mixologists.
“Oh, we had some scraps,” Saunders says.
Later he would help his dad manage a slew of properties that include some Saunders now owns, like the Valley Hills Center (where Saunders once ran Woolly Goldfields in today’s Baja Cantina). Last week, in fact, he was in the Baja’s parking lot tending a huge trailer grill and two bubbling commercial-sized pots of “butt-burner” chili as part of a benefit for an old friend battling cancer.
Today he tends to a glorious patch of grapes just past the Running Iron, where he grows Cab, Merlot and a very rare Monterey County Cab Franc for a Boete label named after his grandma. He’s a small-batch winemaker doing about 1,000 to 1,200 cases a year on a plot he shares with his wife, one of four sons, a dog named Cabernet and seven cats, mostly adopted ferals, who keep the wood rats from wrecking havoc in the wine cellar.
There might be no better representative of Carmel Valley’s character – past, present and even future – than Saunders, and fewer with more stories.
But as much as he embodies the Carmel Valley, it was in Salinas Valley that his wine hopes took root.
Any farmer worth his fertilizer will tell you it’s all about the dirt. The right soils mean everything.
But for this born-and-raised Monterey native – “My dad said he loaned money to everyone in town at some point or another” – it’s not so much about the chalky Carmel Valley rock at his 6.5-acre vineyard. Even though it helps produce Cabernet Sauvignon that sells out annually, and leads sought-after local wine consultant David Coventry to say, “He has one of the nicest vineyards I’ve seen in my life.”
It’s about the dirt on the boots of Salinas’ farmers.
Built-like-a-wine-barrel Saunders ran the legendary – notorious, some might say – Brass Rail Bar & Grill in what’s now First Awakenings of Oldtown Salinas. On the front of the place, one of his dad’s that Saunders’ brother Frank now owns, a sign said, “Don’t worry about the mud on your shoes. That dirt is what made this city.”
There were also phones installed in permanent private booths for big-ag regulars with T&A and Royal Packing, plenty of storied ’70s-style partying and a chef almost as uncommon for her gender (female) as her ingredients (pine nuts and pheasant breast). But it was the farmland dirt that matters most to this wine story.
Saunders served, cleaned, cooked and did one other crucial thing, particularly when talk turned to dirt: “I listened,” he says.
One of those farmers asked for a ride home from The King’s Den, then showed Saunders a dirt-floor cellar stocked with first-growth Bordeaux. The night poured out in front of them. When Saunders woke, the guy pretty much demanded they make wine.
“It was late in the year,” Gary Pisoni says. “I had already harvested some from [friends] at Smith & Hook [now Hahn], and I told him he should go and get some. We got two or three tons that day.”
Saunders fell into bootleg winemaking a la Pisoni – who now defines a region with his incredible Pinots – and learned quickly.
“He’s a good student,” Pisoni says. “We made homemade wine, entered it in fairs, and won all sorts of blue ribbons and gold medals.”
Back at the Brass Rail, aggies in the know would place a $10 bill on the table and servers would retrieve unmarked bottles of Zin from the basement below.
Saunders would alternate between running restaurants which upped the attractiveness of the family’s commercial properties – including East of Eden, Blind Pig Tavern and Goldfields – and retreating to a Soledad ranch to plant limes, lemons and oranges.
“I have always loved to farm the most,” he says.
His greatest farming success sits on the acreage in Carmel Valley, where neighbor (and fellow boutique winemaker) Bill Parsons of Parsonage Winery originally tracked down the best clones and rootstock he could find to match the climate, and Saunders dug the vineyard with his tractor.
Enter local vine whisperer and chemistry ace Coventry, who has worked with everyone from Ray Franscioni to Cliff Cruzan. Saunders listened some more. Coventry discovered what he calls a “gentle giant” who snapped a bear-trap brain onto most everything.
“He has been my best student,” Coventry says. “He can repeat everything I’ve told him. He’s also an excellent chef. I mean, he makes his own fireworks. He does things that are very, very detail-oriented.”
“That guy,” Pisoni says, “he can do just about anything.”
The result today is a small portfolio of wine – including an increasingly popular Bourdeaux blend called Cheval Rouge – that people like Hall-of-Fame-quarterback-turned-wine-authority Fran Tarkenton love to talk about.
“We like to seek out little boutique wineries,” he told Wine Spectator in a piece that would set off a small Boete selling spree. “We found one we like a lot in Carmel called Boete. They make a Cabernet Franc that is just outstanding.”
The valley hills provide the foothold for the knockout wine.
“It is such a challenging site for the vines,” Coventry says. “With their self-limiting vigor, they throw a small crop naturally, one that has super intense flavors, without any outside manipulation.”
In other words, the wine reflects the personality of both the Carmel Valley land and the winemaker himself.
“Absolutely so,” Coventry says. “They show a rustic edge with an underlying refinement. Spend time to get to know them, and they give great rewards.”
Even as Saunders bemoans being one of the old guys at the Running Iron now, he’s keeping up a vigorous existence hunting, farming and winemaking behind 1,000-pound doors in his ranch’s barn cellar. The grape-eating Cabernet accompanies him most everywhere he goes.
The difference now: He’s doing the teaching.
There’s something familiar about the style of his primary student. His son, Jesse Saunders, has tough-guy credibility as a successful rodeo bull-rider. He has wine sensibility after making his own for the first time this year.
“His wine is like a son to the father,” Coventry says. “You can see all the pieces are there; he just needs time to grow as a winemaker, a little more practice.”
Jesse’s also got Carmel Valley in his DNA, and even a Baja Cantina steak-and-eggs special named after him. And, like his dad, he can bounce back from a beating: Jesse is just reaching full recovery after having his cheekbone, jaw and much of the orbitals around his left eye smashed when he flipped an ATV on a fierce vineyard uphill.
“He took a good hit,” Saunders says.
Saunders says boxing men like gold medalist and eventual world champion George Foreman taught him something about resilience that applies in the vineyard, particularly during a mildew-cursed, low-output year like 2011. (“Our lightest ever,” Saunders grunts.) You learn to hang in there.
“Making wine is actually a lot like boxing,” he says. “Things might not go your way, so you do what you can to stay in the fight.”
Take some punches, drop some fruit.
“You might win the fight, you might come out with a better wine,” he says. “Tough years make better winemakers.”
They also make winemakers who are down to earth – and, in this case, winemakers who are down with dirt.
The Boete tasting room is located in Valley Hills Center in Carmel Valley (see sidebar, this page). Bottles range $30-$60. 625-5040, www.boetewinery.com
Stuart Thornton contributed to this story.