Don’t Gamble Where Your Life is the Prize

Mistakes This weekend a new friend asked me a question I can't recall anyone ever asking me before:

"What's the biggest mistake you ever made, Tom?"

At first blush, I sort of wish this gentleman had asked a much easier question, like, "What's the biggest mistake the California Wine Industry has ever made?"

Earlier in the evening, as we spoke over a lovely dinner at Estate in Sonoma, we did talk about my thoughts on wine. It gave me the opportunity to recommend a few things, not the least of which was recommending he find his way to "Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel", the wine that is made from a Sonoma Valley vineyard that surely should be designated an historical landmark.

Had we stayed on that topic and had the question been about the California wine industry's biggest mistakes it would have given me the opportunity to expound on the notion of planting loads of Cabernet Sauvignon in Monterey county in the 1970s and 1980s that produced uniquely vegetal and tomatoey wines. Or I could have discussed the rush to plant Merlot everywhere in the 1990s.

But as it was, the topic turned toward my "biggest mistake".

What a brilliant and courageous question to ask someone you've just met and want to know. The next time I hire an intern or a contractor, this is exactly the question I'll pose. You see, it's not a direct question insofar as the real question underneath is really "what have you learned?" And what's interesting about the initial question is not so much the the character of the mistake, but rather the  lesson one describes by detailing their "biggest mistake".

Here in California we learned that even homers who think all things California must be good, were not so taken with their State to accept wines that tasted of salted tomatoes and hints of dried cranberry. We learned that there is a limit to the amount of simple, soft, insignificant Merlot that can be drunk by America's indiscriminate wine drinkers.

Important lesson's both.

My biggest mistake will remain private to you, dear readers. However, I will tell you this. I'll never make it again. Were I to make it again, that would announce me as a fool for possessing no powers of self reflection, for having no powers of self scrutiny.

I admire folks that ask tough questions. I admire the California wine industry for possessing the ability to learn from its mistakes. And I like this new friend.

I returned home after our dinner and began to think about the question more. I recalled that their response to my confession was that it wasn't so much a mistake as it was a misstep and a chance to learn an important lesson. And so it was. And it was also an opportunity to recall a simple and perfect set of principles:

1. Don't plant Cabernet in regions where it is too cold to get ripe, no matter how much Cabernet you think will sell.

2. Don't gamble where your life is the prize.

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5 Responses

  1. Glen F - October 4, 2009

    Hi, I’ve been reading Fermentation for a few years and I think this is one of my favorite posts.

  2. Buy Wine Online - October 4, 2009

    1. Don’t plant Cabernet in regions where it is too cold to get ripe, no matter how much Cabernet you think will sell…….
    Couldn’t agree with this more. Too many people are looking for Cabs from specific areas that do not show well but continue to think they do.

  3. Gary "Iron" Chevsky - October 4, 2009

    I love philosophical posts! Great job, Tom!
    Not sure what my biggest mistake has been thus far… Each day I am afraid that I haven’t made it yet… But I sure am glad I made the glory of wine a part of my happiness. Not having found that could have been one of those “biggest” mistakes.

  4. Samantha - October 4, 2009

    Biggest mistakes are intangible, you can always screw up worse. See how I float through my days without guilt or shame…

  5. Dylan - October 5, 2009

    My biggest life lesson has always been to never get involved in a land war in Asia.

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