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Book review: The Mad Crush an intriguing glimpse into winemaking 

By Margaux Sky

Author Christopher Weir.

Author Christopher Weir.

–If you’re a wine lover, even if you aren’t, you’ll find Sean Christopher Weir’s The Mad Crush of 1995 one of remarkable perception and detailed knowledge of wine industry procedure at the hands of ancient machinery and unstoppable people. His ability to reveal the inner working of winemaking flourishes in gifted writing style, which makes the book an awesome read. Weir’s personal account of the engineering of wine is both subtle and gripping. He explains intricacies, kinks, and dangers of producing an outstanding vintage wine, and as well introduces us to comical substance via some characters with whom he worked.

As you and I sit at a party or in a restaurant sipping and savoring the bouquets and flavors of desired zinfandels, we don’t think of the fertile environment and structured background from which these beverages were born and nurtured. We have slight clue of the work, architect, genius, manipulation, and truly unbelievable physical work hours that ruggedly go into wine making – for our pleasure. But is it for our pleasure? According to Weir, the pleasure is actually had by the creators of these fascinating potions as well as those whose days and nights are filled with bringing the wine inventor’s wishes to fruition. We lucky ducks, the recipients of such godly swill, are so only because the prime movers had creative backbone enough to construct (because according to Weir, that’s what winemaking is – construction) original, outstanding, much desired wines.

Sean Christopher Weir takes us behind the scenes in The Mad Crush. He takes us away from the party atmosphere and into the down and dirty of winemaking. He lets us in on the intense, difficult, oftentimes dangerous, and sometimes very humorous work in calculating creating a memorable wine – in this case, Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel. You and I, we drink and enjoy, but there is scientific equation and mathematical formulation that cannot be ignored when considering a crop of grapes for wine consumption. We appreciate and love the external rewards, but we are catatonic to the internal systems that must add up before it is deemed acceptable for public feasting. That is, we were catatonic. Weir deftly offers a season’s work in The Mad Crush that gives insight into the mechanisms needed to obtain the liquid of the fruit of the vine we casually take for granted.

Here is a minor peek into this story. In the year 1995, Sean Weir accepted a job as a grape crusher at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard under the employ of Bill Greenough who had purchased the dried out, dusty Saucelito property in 1974 from the Ditmas granddaughters, Margaret and Barbara. Henry Ditmas, grandfather to Margaret and Barbara, was the owner of the Saucelito Canyon land previous to Bill Greenough. He had purchased it in 1880 and planted three acres of zinfandel grape vines in a pocket of the vast acreage. Life for Ditmas and his wife Rosa was going along swimmingly until those evils of all evils intruded, a bitter divorce and ill health. In 1886, Henry Ditmas was forced to abandon the Zinfandel vineyard he’d hand-planted on the beautiful Central Coast of California and a double whammy forced him to leave the area altogether. He moved to San Francisco and then to Boston. Making matters worse, poor guy, his hope of returning to the land he loved near the Arroyo Grande Mesa and Hi Mountain was never again realized. Henry Ditmas died of pneumonia in 1892 leaving behind his dream of producing an unforgettable Zinfandel wine from the three-acres of grapes he’d planted. Upon the death of Ditmas was the forsaking of the desolate property. With no one to care and tend the raw land, Mother Nature took over and for several decades she quietly, carefully nurtured a select few of the planted vines in the brambles and thickets of the golden hills.

Nearly one-hundred-years later in 1974, enters Bill Greenough, a young hippie entrepreneur (though at the time it seems he did not know this unique entrepreneurial trait about himself) with a keen sense of business and an even keener sense of artistic flair and an even sharper work ethic, one he expected –graciously– his employees such as Sean Weir to equal, of which Weir dutifully stepped up to the plate and performed as needed, when needed, however needed.

The story’s roots take hold here and begin to flourish upon Greenough’s 1974 purchase of the abandoned property. Walking around his newly purchased acreage Greenough discovers, uncovers, and recovers the old Ditmas Zinfandel vines that had lain hidden for nearly one-hundred years on the neglected ranch, vines lying protected beneath a shroud Mother Nature encouraged for safeguarding so perfect a fruit. Greenough sees more than grape vines, however. With land he’d purchased and really wasn’t sure with what to do, he suddenly envisions a perfect purple vineyard that will result in a stellar Zinfandel wine.

The mad crushLet me digress to Weir’s introduction of Greenough before the 1974 purchase of the Saucelito Canyon acreage. Weir informs us that Greenough had been on a grape crush himself in the 1960s in Montecito, California, a presumed beginning of his fascination with grapes and wine. His first grape crush was had at a neighbor’s ranch demanding one important requirement, the only requirement – he must strip down to nakedness to join the foot-stomping crush. No naked, no crush. Greenough strips and stomps. One can easily imagine a circle of young hippies naked body to naked body in a kind of circular conga line laughing uproariously while stomping grapes to The Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia or Jefferson Airplane’s The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.

Then in 1974, despite having not personally fashioned his own vineyard before, Greenough’s certain he can do it. He decides to bring back to life those forgotten grapevines planted by Henry Ditmas a hundred years earlier. He does so with tremendous gusto for two decades, season after season, vineyard after vineyard, expanding and producing, crush after crush. In 1995, the season’s crush must begin, however, he inwardly senses potential difficulties He needs reliable, creative people on board. He remembers hard-working Sean Christopher Weir, a part-time student hired for a previous crush three years earlier. Knowing this crush will be particularly rough, Greenough calls Weir on a hot day in July 1995.

“I need your help,” Bill tells Sean. “I’m wondering if you would come down and work the crush for me.”

This call to Sean comes from out of the blue. He needs to think about it, but he’s in a rut in life. A real change is needed or he feels he’ll explode. Life had become boring and predictable. Should he do another crush? He recalls the hard work, demanding hours, and scant pay. He accepts, more to extinguish the brain-sucking boredom that had become his life than anything else. Little did he realize this crush would change his life dramatically and completely.

Weir’s relationship with Greenough during the crush of ‘95 was a quiet but forceful one, one of tremendous respect. Weir’s personal relationship with wine is also one of awe and admiration. His adaptation to strong work ethics enduring seemingly never-ending hours to meet deadlines not inflicted by man, but by fruit and Mother Nature – well, and Bill Greenough – had helped mold a man destined to quit nothing and endure everything. With an edge of determination, regardless of the trickiness or the simplicity of the task, Weir steeped himself into assisting Greenough in winemaking like a wino does to drinking the results.

Greenough had a love affair with grapes, one would imagine he still does, and was beholden to them, not them to him, and Christopher Weir fell headlong into that same love affair. The succumbing to the fruit of the vine was unabridged desire. Much to our benefit Weir went on to script that season of crushing grapes in The Mad Crush, and the madness in meeting seasonal time limits as well as overcoming obstructions and restrictions nature set – nature, not man – and to accomplish the mission under the pressing thumb of nature and near ancient machinery. We all know Mother Nature cannot be controlled. It’s her game, not ours. It’s her way, not ours. Not ever. Especially on a crush. Ancient machinery chugging along at half pace on bits and pieces that sputter and spit when time restrictions must be met – or else contend with the misery of a failed crop, a fruitless season – cannot be easy on stress levels. Especially on a crush.

Weir subconsciously sucked up every bit of animated being in body and soul while working intensely to bring about an exquisite wine. Fifteen years on, upon tasting the 1995 Zinfandel vintage that he’d helped create, he realized that the intensity of emotions of the ‘95 crush had been so impacting, so influencing, they must be brought to the present. Did he realize that’s what he was doing? Preparing to script an outstanding book while working the mad crush? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, as the years went on, his memory dripped the fruits of labor from that 1995 harvest season and in 2015 a wonderful book is the upshot. The Mad Crush. Lucky for us.

This story is rich, informative, and at times intense. Wonderful black and white photographs reveal history that instills an ache to go back to a time now long gone, not to be had again.

Weir offers a simplistic play-by-play formula for making wine but warns that the scant technique of that play-by-play is but a procedural peek into the recipe of winemaking. Don’t expect the minimalistic recipe to produce an outstanding wine. Still, to explore the process is strong temptation, even if failing to produce a wholly edible wine. Curiosity is good, right? It leads to experimentation which leads to eventual accomplishment. Where would Greenough and Weir be without such ambition that was undoubtedly prompted by curiosity?

As the story progresses a kind of friendship evolves between reader and storyteller. Then, a kind of homesickness renders the reader almost dejected upon realizing the crush is over. The air has chilled, the yellow-jackets have flown, the sun is setting earlier, the workers gather their belongings. It seems a gypsy world where one never knows whom one will meet or at which crush. Will I see you again? Maybe. Maybe not. Nostalgia in the making can be harsh, unforgiving. It’s as though Weir poetically reveals the time has come to move on and wasn’t it understood from the beginning that we voyeurs were but an effortless whisper in the flurry of the season? Weir’s writing evokes affecting passion upon completion.

Though having a ringside seat witnessing the seasonal crush via this book, it doesn’t take away the strong fantasy of having been there for the harvest and winemaking.

Weir’s writing is expressive and undeniably direct. It’s easy to feel the hours of intensity on the job. He clearly has a good sense of humor as the book is laced throughout with smirks and cackles. The Mad Crush is a great book by a great writer. Sean Christopher Weir should be proud of his work. Let’s hope for continual access to his world by way of his writing.

Now, I’m going to pop open a bottle of wine. Here’s to feeling good!

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Local writers with published books can contact book reviewer Margaux Sky at An audio and Q and A with Christopher Weir will be published in the near future. Listen for Sky on her radio show, The Margaux Sky Radio Show, on Saturday mornings on KVEC.