WHOSE BREW IS THIS, ANYWAY?
As the Fabulous Honey Parker and I continued our trip through the Napa Valley and up into St. Helena, we continued making grand discoveries.
One of these discoveries involved a Michelin-star restaurant, a lovely and generous wine-making couple, and a brand of beer you will probably never know unless you are extraordinarily lucky.
This all happened as part of the CoupleCo tour, in which Honey and I are interviewing couple entrepreneurs of Napa for the CoupleCo podcast (launching in January). In this case, we sat down with a dynamic duo who have deep roots in California winemaking. She was even born into a winery. It's in her blood.
WE MET THE TWO OF THEM IN A ST. HELENA RESTAURANT THAT WAS A REVELATION
It's called The Charter Oak.
They bill themselves as "a celebratory, family-style dining experience, with simple, approachable, and seasonal food," including produce from their own farm.
Talk about simple and approachable. We had a Michelin-star cheeseburger there. It was good.
We talked to this couple, Nile and Whitney, about life, the universe and everything as it pertains to being a couple who've branched off from winemaking to open a nano-brewery.
YES, THEY OWN A NANO BREWERY
What is a nano brewery?
It is a commercial brewery that is so small, it can barely be seen with the naked eye.
It's a commercial brewery that is so small, it can reasonably be run by one guy.
In this case, the brewery is run by Nile and Whitney, and an assortment of guys who seem to pop in as they can.
But being a nano brewery isn't all Nile and Whitney are doing. They have gone further down the rabbit hole of craft brewing.
They are treating brewing as one would treat small-batch winemaking, and are even producing single-origin beer.
And if you're a devotee of the buy-local movement?
THIS MIGHT INTRIGUE YOU
Nile, who is obviously a beer geek's beer geek, is the brewmaster (among other things). And he makes a really good point about so-called "local beer."
Most of it is not at all local.
Yes, it might be made locally.
But most of the ingredients came from someplace far away.
The grains, the hops, any of the ingredients that go into that brew, probably came from someplace else. Someplace not local.
So, typically, "local" refers only to the act of actually brewing and fermenting the beer.
SINGLE-ORIGIN BEER IS SOMETHING ELSE
Nile has not been merely brewing locally, but sourcing all of his ingredients locally.
And sometimes, if not necessarily locally, all from the same, single locale.
This is all part of what Mad Fritz calls their Terroir Series.
If you're a wine fancier, you know about terroir. It's all of the environmental factors that contribute to the character of a grape crop, and by extension, to the character of the wine. In wine, terroir is everything. In beer, Mad Fritz is doing the same thing.
For instance, Mad Fritz is in Napa. But for the Terroir Series, they've made a single-origin Sonoma Ale. It took three years of growing, sourcing, malting and brewing--but at the end of those three years came an ale 100% "of" Sonoma County. The hops, the barley, even the water, they all came from there. It's even aged in wine barrels instead of tanks.
And the result?
A "pale ale of sorts," it's a stunning beverage that has balance, veracity and complexity and (dare I say it?) joy.
"EEGAD, MAN! HOW ON EARTH DOES ONE TASTE JOY?"
I can understand how you might ask that.
And here's the thing: this is an artisanal product.
It's not a commodity that gets sold by the case in supermarkets across the country.
It has been crafted as a labor of love.
And it is sensational--IF you are open to new experiences and ideas that transcend mere commodity thinking.
THIS BEER MAY NOT BE FOR YOU
We have a friend who is adamantly and firmly committed to Budweiser In Cans only. No bottles! No other beer!
He will drink nothing else.
This beer would be an insult to his palate.
None of it is fizzy and yellow and made with rice.
If you are a voracious hop head, you might be confused by these brews. None of them are savaged with hops in the way that makes you wince.
In fact, here's how non-aggressive Mad Fritz brews are.
Honey is not a fan of overtly hopped brews. Double IPAs, which are typically muscular and bitter in their hopped-up flavor, do nothing for her palate.
We drank a Mad Fritz double IPA, and Honey found it a joyful experience.
THESE BREWS ARE ON SOME OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE MENUS IN THE NATION
We already talked about having lunch with Nile and Whitney at Michelin-starred Charter Oak.
You know simply by the Michelin star that the place is not cheap.
Mad Fritz is on the beer list at Charter Oak. They even have a custom brew, available on draft only for them, that is made with acorns.
It is delightful.
Mad Fritz is also on the beer list at the world-famous French Laundry. Thomas Keller's fabled Yountville eatery has three Michelin stars. No less an iconoclast than Anthony Bourdain (whose personal brand has been discussed here in the screed) has called the place, "The best restaurant in the world, period."
French Laundry came to Mad Fritz and asked to have a brew produced exclusively for them.
You can't buy this brew unless you're already buying dinner at over $300 a head. How's that for rare and hard-to-get?
MAD FRITZ IS NOTHING IF NOT A LABOR OF LOVE
It's an effort by two people who clearly love each other, and who produce a product born of a love for the land, the soil, the earth and the air, a love for balance, brewing, farming, sourcing, a love of finding and then finessing what nature provides into a finely crafted product that delights and inspires.
As the CoupleCo tagline says, "It's business...and it's personal."
And Mad Fritz may be the most intensely personal coupleco we've ever seen.
The business is even named for their children, Madeline and Fritz.
(Apparently Fritz, who is in elementary school, thinks having a brewery named for himself is really cool. That might sound like a recipe for having family services knocking at the door. But you also have to realize that in Napa Valley, people eat, breathe and sleep fruit and fermentation. It's all part of a life in harmony you will experience no place else. I've been to several other wine producing regions around the world. Napa is uniquely glorious.)
IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, THE BALANCE HERE IS ALSO ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE
It's about having a vision and remaining faithful without compromise.
Mad Fritz has a dynamite name and an excellent product.
It's a killer brand.
They could compromise on their mission, produce more beer, become more widely available, and make more money.
And they would end up on the slippery slope towards a commoditized product.
One of the fathers of craft brewing in the United States is Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, whose Samuel Adams Boston Lager changed the face of US brewing.
But they've become so big that the beer hounds regard them as a commodity product--despite the fact that, in many ways, they remain faithful to their craft roots.
BUT SAM ADAMS BEER IS NO LONGER PERCEIVED AS SPECIAL
Which is unfortunate.
Because it is a brand with integrity and legacy and heritage and commitment.
Samuel Adams is presently spending a whole bunch of money trying to make themselves desirable to the craft-beer devotee.
Their TV commercials showing hopster hipsters blind-tasting their beer and remarking how good it is are almost sad.
Social proof, yes.
But one can infer a hint of desperation.
MAD FRITZ REMAINS SPECIAL
It is scarce, and rare, and unusual, and it has caché.
Those are the kinds of things that get your brand on the list at a foodie Mecca like French Laundry.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that Mad Fritz, while they may get bigger than their current nano size, will never get so big that the specialness evaporates.
Being special and being scarce have their place.
So does forging ahead without compromise.
And, especially in light of those things, you're going to require something else that keeps the fire going, and that's a relationship with the most important person in your equation: your core customer.
Maintain that relationship of specialness, and you can become legendary.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
DOES THE NEWS MEDIA REALLY MEAN TO UNDERMINE A BRAND?
Yes, you heard the news.
The biggest brands in U.S. wine country, Napa and Sonoma, have been destroyed by wildfires.
Wineries, gone! Hotels, gone! Vineyards, gone! All gone, gone, gone!
Up there in California, it's like the dark side of the moon.
Maybe you've seen the news photo of the Malaysian gentleman who'd been visiting Santa Rosa.
He was staying at the Hilton Sonoma. In the photo, he's walking past a pile of charred rubble that used to be his hotel.
Gone! The Hilton is gone!
Who ever heard of losing a Hilton?
DEVASTATION, MAYHEM AND DEATH!
Yes, there are problems in Napa and Sonoma. Businesses have been destroyed. People have died. It has indeed been tragic.
And that's exactly why the Fabulous Honey Parker and I were planning on staying away.
We had business up there. We were planning on driving the CoupleCoach to Napa to interview couple entrepreneurs. We were gonna go all Charles Kerault on 'em.
We had delayed our plans in order to avoid hitting everyone during the harvest.
Then the fires hit. We saw the news. Oh, boy. We thought, Wow, let's just leave everybody alone. We'll go next year after they've cleaned up.
THEN, WE RECEIVED WORD THROUGH FRIENDS WHO ARE DEEPLY CONNECTED IN WINE COUNTRY
We were told in no uncertain terms, "Get up here!"
The person saying this has a business that supports tourists visiting wine country.
This person has lost all of her business. Visitors have cancelled their plans from now through February.
Because the news media in this country is vast and busy and immersive.
The 24-hour news cycle saturates the populous with ongoing stories and endless images of unimaginable devastation.
So what do you do?
You cancel your vacation to Devastation Land!
EXCEPT THAT, LIKE SANTA CLAUS, DEVASTATION LAND DOESN'T EXIST
"Despite the fires, the majority of businesses in both Napa and Sonoma remain open."
That quote is courtesy of the award-winning experiential travel magazine, AFAR.
It comes from an article they published online about two weeks ago. It's called, "What You Can Do to Help Wine Country Now--and Later."
Among their six tips, "Plan a visit."
And it made Honey and I say, "Of course. What were we thinking?"
It reminded us of the year that we changed our spring travel plans.
We are regular visitors to Jazz Fest, that immense and sonorous party on the New Orleans fairgrounds during the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May.
IN 2005, WE HAD DECIDED TO TAKE A HIATUS
We had an immediate about-face.
What better way to support a town we love, whose major industry is tourism, than to come back as a tourist and bring tourist dollars?
The welcome we received was extraordinary.
Never have we been any place where people were so happy to see us.
We were even exhorted to take a Devastation Tour in order to understand intimately what had happened there.
SO, WHAT IS THE NEWS MEDIA BRAND IN THE INFO-SATURATION AGE?
It seems that the one way we're supposed to feel about it is we're getting the absolute horrifying truth at any minute of any day.
Here's the problem: it's like a microscope.
The news focuses narrowly on minute details without the context of the larger picture.
Hilton Sonoma destroyed!
Man visiting from Malaysia loses everything!
You know what else?
Seven wineries in Sonoma destroyed!
You know that that means?
Approximately 418 more wineries in Sonoma are still standing.
THINK THERE'S STILL A PLACE TO TASTE WINE?
Two hotels in Santa Rosa were destroyed, one of them the Hilton.
Cursory research shows at least three more in the area are closed.
Trip Advisor lists 75 more hotel options in Sonoma.
Think maybe there are a few other places to sleep off a day's wine tasting?
The 24-hour news cycle is largely about spectacle.
The spectacle of flames, destruction and death play to the old journalism adage, "If it bleeds, it leads."
Ironically, there are plenty of stories about how California wine country needs to lure tourists back to Napa and Sonoma.
WOULD THESE SUBSEQUENT STORIES BE NECESSARY IF NOT FOR THE FIRST ONES?
And those stories don't bleed.
They certainly aren't going to lead.
There just isn't much news value in, "Most everything's OK! Whoo!"
It seems that one of the best things we can do for our sanity is to avoid 99% of the news.
It just isn't worthy.
I have preferred news sources, they are time-honored and reliable. They go in-depth and tell you all of the what, where, when, how and why.
There are details and context.
When the superficial news media are reporting things that leave me scratching my head, my preferred news sources fill in the blanks so the stories make sense.
IN THE MEANTIME, WE'RE GOING TO WINE COUNTRY
Honey and I will be on location for Hot Shots and for CoupleCo, and we will return with stories.
With any luck, you'll enjoy them.
They will be about the brands and the people behind them.
There will be no devastation, mayhem and death unless it's relevant.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with a teaser for CoupleCo.
It's fun, and the risky subtext of mayhem and devastation is certainly part of the allure. The stories these people tell are about how a business and a brand can survive--along with the marriage that launched it.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker helps people sell their stuff. An advertising Creative Director and Copywriter at Slow Burn Marketing, he specializes in big-brand thinking for small-business marketing. He has the voice of a much taller man.